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The Core Curriculum

Aristotle

384 BCE – 322 BCE

Like his teacher Plato, Aristotle (384–322 BCE) made an important, far-reaching, and lasting mark on philosophy. Born in the Macedeonian region, Aristotle left for Athens in his teens to study with Plato. After marrying and having a daughter, Aristotle was called to the Macedonian capital to tutor the king’s teenage son, the future Alexander the Great. After some years, Aristotle returned to Athens to set up his Lyceum, where his students became known as the Peripatetic school of philosophy. The widower also had more children, including Nicomachus, for whom the Nicomachean Ethics is presumably named. Probably due to rising anti-Macedonian sentiment, Aristotle ultimately retired to the island of Euboea shortly before his death.

Unlike the philosophical work of his teacher Plato, Aristotle’s writings are not neatly organized into dialogues. To the consternation of historians and philosophers, his surviving writings take the form of apparent lecture notes or drafts that often lack adequate internal organization. These works set the fundamental framework for debate in many areas of philosophy and the natural sciences, including logic, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, ethics, political theory, physics, cosmology, and aesthetics up though the seventeenth century and beyond.

Historical Contexts

Nicomachean Ethics

The Nicomachean Ethics is, by many accounts, the first systematic treatise on ethics ever written. While Plato takes up a variety of ethical themes and topics throughout the dialogues, nowhere does he treat them as explicitly and deliberately as Aristotle. While Aristotle agrees with Plato that morality involves achieving harmony between reason and the emotions and appetites, and that good moral development begins in childhood, he largely rejects Plato’s metaphysics and replaces it with his own distinctively and thoroughly naturalistic method for engaging in ethical inquiry. A good human being, like all good things, fulfills its function or purpose well. What sets humans apart from plants and animals is their rational capacities; as such, the human function must consist in the proper development and exercise of these rational capacities. Intellectual and moral virtues represent different aspects of theoretical and practical rationality; we should cultivate them in accordance with the “Doctrine of the Mean.” For instance, courage lies at a wisdom-governed middle between a deficiency of courage, cowardice, and an excess of courage, rashness.

Sources:
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle/

Pamela Stubbart, Program in Philosophy and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University

Politics

Aristotle produced the Politics as a guide for political actors, reflecting the author’s relatively high status in society. He sees politics as a practical science, concerned with the project of directing city-states and household in such a way as to promote the virtue and flourishing of its citizens, to allow them to live well, not simply to live. Aristotle’s naturalism extends to the political realm as well; city-states are the highest form of community that naturally arise to the mutual benefit of participants (following the formation of master/slave pairs, households, families, and villages). Politicians are craftsmen of a sort, charged with the all-important task of crafting constitutions for their jurisdictions that will give order and structure to group and individual life. Constitutions establish and maintain both universal justice (what we might call today “rights”) and particular justice (what we might call “distributive justice” or the allocation of societal resources according to some principle of merit).

 

Sources:
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, at  http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle/

Pamela Stubbart, Program in Philosophy and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University