The Republic and the Nicomachean Ethics

PHI 420. Writing Assignments.

Each assignment has two questions (which may themselves have multiple parts). In the file you submit, clearly separate your answers to each of the two questions. One good way do this is to copy and paste the question before each answer. Your answers should demonstrate your understanding of the historical and philosophical issues. They should be written in a way that someone who does not know the answer can learn it from what you have written.

Remember you can discuss the assignments and post questions about them before you submit your answers. It is hard to write coherently about material you do not understand.

Assignment #1

One way to begin to understand the Republic is to think of it as a conversation in which, at various points, Socrates tries to get someone to admit that something is true. If he gets someone to admit something in a part of the conversation, we can begin to understand what he is thinking if we understand the argument he uses to secure the admission.

To begin to understand an argument Socrates uses, we need to be clear on just what the argument is.

Arguments have premises and a conclusion. The function of the premises is to support the truth of the conclusion.

In the context of logic (but not necessarily in ordinary language), an argument is different from a proof. Premises and a conclusion constitute an argument. A proof shows that an argument is valid. It does so by exhibiting the reasoning from the premises that establishes the conclusion.

To get clear on an argument Socrates uses, we need to identify the premises and conclusion that constitute the argument. Further, since in most cases not every part of the argument appears in just this way in the text, we need justification for attributing the argument to Socrates. To provide this justification, we rely on the passages in which we think the premises and conclusion occur.

Now that we are clear on what the argument is, we need to understand why this argument seems persuasive in the context. To begin to understand this, we need to identify and explain the key terms in the argument and present the evidence for the truth of its premises.

There are two sorts of evidence for the premises. The first is evidence Socrates presents. The second is the evidence he does not present explicitly but seems to assume.

Once we think we understand why the argument seems persuasive in the context, we can ask ourselves what we think about the argument. We can ask whether its premises are true and whether someone who believes the premises are true should also believe the conclusion is true.

This general way of trying to understand the Republic works for the Nicomachean Ethics too. Aristotle does not put the arguments in the context of a dialogue, but his focus is on the arguments. He is trying work out the truth, and his discussion sets out the steps in his progress.
• In Republic I, as part of an argument for the conclusion that "injustice is never more profitable than justice," Socrates gets Thrasymachus to admit that the soul has a function and that justice is the virtue of the soul. Explain what Socrates has in mind so that it is plausible for him to think and suggest to Thrasymachus that the soul has a function, that the soul performs its function well if and only if it is just, and that therefore justice is the virtue of the soul.

• In Republic II, Glaucon sets out a view he thinks many hold about the origin and nature of justice. Explain this understanding of the origin and nature of justice. Explain the conception of human beings Glaucon seems to presuppose in the understanding of justice he sets out.

Assignment #2

• Socrates argues that a certain way of organizing human beings into a city constitutes justice in the city. Explain what this organization is and why he thinks it is justice in the city.

• Once Socrates and his interlocutors have found what they think is justice in a city, they search for what justice is in an individual human being. On the basis of a principle about the use of words, they conclude that the human soul must have parts like the city. This leads them to take up the question of what the parts of the soul are and how these parts work together to produce action. In answer, Socrates argues that the soul is tripartite. Explain how, in this argument, Socrates conceives of desire and how this conception leads him to think the soul has parts.

Assignment #3

• Socrates says that "[e]ach ruler will spend much of his time in the love of wisdom (φιλοσοφίᾳ), but, when his turn comes, he labors in politics and for city's sake, not as if he were doing something fine, but as a necessity..." (Republic VII.540b).

Explain why Socrates thinks the necessity for lovers of wisdom to rule in turns is just.

(So explain why justice in the city requires them to rule at all, given that contemplation rather than ruling is the activity in which their happiness consists. Further, given that justice in the city does require them to rule, explain why it requires them to rule in turns.)

• To meet the challenge Glaucon and Adeimantus set out in Book II, Socrates argues (in Books IV, V, VIII, and IX) that the just life is happier than the unjust life. At the conclusion of this argument, Glaucon agrees that the "the best and most just and happiest" is "the most kingly, the one who most rules like a king over himself" and that "the worst, most unjust and most unhappy" is "the most tyrannical, the one who is most a tyrant over himself" (Republic IX.580b).

Explain the argument or arguments Socrates gives to show that the just life is the happiest.

Assignment #4

• In Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle gives an argument on the basis of the function of human beings to show that the good life and life of happiness for a human being consists in some sort of life of reason. One of the premises in this argument, it seems, is that "the life of a good human being is the life in which the human being performs the human function well." Explain why Aristotle thinksthis premise is true. Cite passages to support your explanation.

"Now the goodness that we have to consider is clearly human virtue, since what we seek is the human good and human happiness. But human virtue means in our view excellence of soul, not excellence of body; since we also say happiness is an activity of the soul (εὐδαιμονίαν δὲ ψυχῆς ἐνέργειαν). Now if this is so, clearly it behoves the statesman to have some acquaintance with psychology..." (Nicomachean Ethics I.13.1102a). • In Nicomachean Ethics I.13.1102a and VI.2.1139a, Aristotle divides the soul into parts. Compare this division of the soul to the one Socrates gives in the tripartite theory in the Republic.

Assignment #5

• Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, identifies the second part of the part of the soul with reason as the part of the soul capable of "calculating." He calls this part the λογιστικόν. Explain how he understands the cognition that belongs to this part of the soul with and without the virtue of thought he calls "practical wisdom" (φρόνησις).

"But even virtue proves on examination to be too incomplete to be the end; since it appears possible to possess it while you are asleep, or without putting it into practice throughout the whole of your life; and also for the virtuous man to suffer the greatest misery and misfortune—though no one would pronounce a man living a life of misery to be happy, unless for the sake of maintaining a paradox" (Nicomachean Ethics I.5.1905b).

"But no doubt it makes a great difference whether we conceive the best good to depend on possessing virtue or on displaying it—on disposition, or on the manifestation of a disposition in action. For a man may possess the disposition without its producing any good result, as for instance when he is asleep, or has ceased to function from some other cause; but virtue in active exercise cannot be inoperative—it will of necessity act, and act well. And just as at the Olympic games the wreaths of victory are not bestowed upon the handsomest and strongest persons present, but on men who enter for the competitions—since it is among these that the winners are found,—so it is those who act rightly who carry off the prizes and good things of life" (Nicomachean Ethics I.8.1098b).
• Aristotle argues, in several passages, that happiness is an activity. Formulate his argument in the form of premises and a conclusion. Explain and evaluate the argument.

"Now we stated that happiness is not a certain disposition of character; since if it were it might be possessed by a man who passed the whole of his chosen life asleep, living the life of a vegetable, or by one who was plunged in the deepest misfortune. If then we reject this as unsatisfactory, and feel bound to class happiness rather as some form of activity, as has been said in the earlier part of this treatise..." (Nicomachean Ethics X.6.1176a).


The bibliography project is a summary of five journal articles or book chapters from the scholarly literature on issues related to the Republic or the Nicomachean Ethics. In your summary, you should outline the main argument in the paper and make a judgment about its plausibility.

In this way, the bibliography project is a set of notes about what you have read and to which you can return in the future. Here is an example of what an entry might look like.

• "A Fallacy in Plato's Republic," David Sachs.
The Philosophical Review, Vol. 72, No. 2. (Apr., 1963), pp. 141-158.

In this paper, David Sachs argues that Socrates commits a fallacy that Sachs himself calls the "fallacy of irrelevance" (141). Glaucon asks Socrates to prove that the just life is better. In this request, according to Sachs, Glaucon has in mind what Sachs calls the "vulgar" conception of justice (141). Socrates agrees to Glaucon's request and thus argues that the just life is better. The problem, however, according to Sachs, is that Socrates' argument is not about the "vulgar" conception of justice. It is about what Sachs calls the "Platonic" conception of justice (142). Sachs maintains that this equivocation "wrecks the Republic's main argument" (141).

It seems to me that this difference in the conceptions of justice is present in the Republic, just as Sachs claims, but it is unclear to me that this "wrecks" the argument. From Socrates' point of view, the vulgar conception of justice is a misunderstanding of what justice is.

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