What is happiness? What is moral excellence? How can you attain them? Can either be taught? For more than 2,000 years, thoughtful people have been turning to Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) to help them find answers to questions like these. In this meditation on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, an award-winning teacher shows you the clarity and ethical wisdom of one of humanity's greatest minds.
Professor Joseph W. Koterski directs the M.A. program in Philosophical Resources at Fordham University. He is a recipient of both the Dean's Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching and the Graduate Teacher of the Year Award.
In these lectures, Professor Koterski shows how and why this great philosopher can help you deepen and improve your own thinking on questions of morality and the best life.
Moral Philosophy from a Master of Intelligent Inquiry
Often called "the philosopher of common sense," Aristotle offers an exquisitely balanced account of many ethical questions.
Professor Koterski's aim is to provide you with a clear and thoughtful introduction to Aristotle as a moral philosopher. And he suggests ways in which this thinker from so long ago still speaks to the deep concerns of our own or any age.
After absorbing some important background information designed to introduce you to Aristotle's career and general approach to the various fields of knowledge, you turn to the 10 books (today we would call them chapters) of this brief but towering work.
Probe Key Ideas in Ethics
The rewards of studying Aristotle come not only from mastering the substance of what he teaches but from learning to analyze, apply, and even criticize his very method of reasoning itself.
It's not just about what to think; it's about how to think.
Aristotle, as Professor Koterski emphasizes, was not only a philosopher but a pioneering biologist.
Most of his surviving writings, in fact, actually deal with the life sciences. And in light of the method he used in philosophy, that comes as much less of a surprise than might otherwise be the case.
Professor Koterski's enthusiasm is infectious as he explains the Aristotelian method of tackling a topic by observing and classifying exemplary cases and then seeking to work from those toward an intelligent account of general principles (the famous "inductive method").
Prompted by Aristotle's own commitment to case study, Professor Koterski analyzes examples from literature, history, and his own or common experience to clarify what this most practical of philosophers is driving at in his lucid but densely coiled treatise.
Some Topics You Will Cover
These six hours of carefully organized lectures invite you to join Professor Koterski in considering:
Aristotle's account of the four main virtues of courage, moderation, justice, and prudence
his claims that happiness (eudaimonia)— not pleasure, honor, or wealth— is the real goal of life, and that virtue is a mean between extremes
why he thinks that only moral excellence can make you happy
his explanations of how and why people attain— or fall short of— ethical excellence
his differences with his teachers Plato and Socrates over the hard question of what knowing rightly has to do with acting rightly
where Aristotle's thought fits into the long history of ethical reflection
what distinguishes his view of ethics from such other influential schools as utilitarianism or Kant's ethics of the categorical imperative.
Given his concentration on virtue, Aristotle devotes much of the earlier part of his treatise to defining moral virtue, then illustrating it by example.
In the effort to be wisely commonsensical, he stresses that virtue consists of a steady disposition to choose the golden mean between responses that would be excessive or deficient.
But, he insists, this mean should be understood not as the average or the mediocre but as the very peak of excellence. And this holds true whether in regard to our actions or our feelings.
His case studies of virtue feature the traditional set of four cardinal virtues: courage, temperance, justice, and prudence.
Pleasure, Intellectual Virtue, Reason, and True Friendship
In the second half of the Ethics, Aristotle takes up several issues that are crucial to the moral life.
Most significantly, perhaps, he explores the contradictions that are involved in taking pleasure rather than happiness to be the goal of life.
He also compares the notions of well-ordered and badly ordered pleasures to show that while pleasure may not equal happiness, handling pleasure well is a key test of moral excellence.
In Books VI and VII, you find Aristotle's account of the rational component of ethics. He offers a catalogue of the intellectual virtues to match his earlier list of specifically moral virtues. And he address two important issues:
the common phenomena of moral weakness and failure
the problem, raised by Socrates, of how someone can deliberately do what he or she knows to be wrong.
Since virtue has an irreducibly social dimension, it is important to understand what kinds of friendship there are and how each relates to moral excellence.
A Charming Look at Friendship
Aristotle's account of friendship in Books VIII and IX may, perhaps, be the most charming part of his entire text.
Using a threefold distinction based on the precise object of affection prominent in various relationships, Aristotle distinguishes the best sort of friendship (friendship of character) from friendships of pleasure and friendships of utility.
You learn Aristotle's method for sorting out and evaluating the different kinds of friendships, as well as his practical advice for this part of the well-lived life.
In his final books, Aristotle brings you back full circle to the argument about happiness with which he began. He states his reasons for thinking that a knowledge and practice of ethics is not self-sufficient, but points beyond itself to at least one fuller project essential to human flourishing.
Aristotle wrote a book on that fuller project. It is called The Politics. But that must await another course.