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Aristotle

Study Questions and Suggested Essay Topics

Death and Legacy

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Study Questions

What role did teleology play in Aristotle's corpus?

Aristotle took a teleological approach to nearly all his studies, as he thought that determining natural purposes was the path to the most fundamental principles governing the world. Thus, in biology, he sought to understand the purposes of various organs and characterized species in light of these purposes. Regarding ethics and politics, he tried to establish that man's purpose was to participate in the political community, since what separates him from the animals is reason and language (which allows man to debate). With this natural purpose established, he went on to argue that man is complete only as a member of a community and that the ultimate form of association was the city-state.

Teleology also played a role in his famous theory of the Four Causes. He argued that natural science must not only take into account causes such as origin or form, but also the final aim. Thus health could be called one of the causes of exercise, even while the reverse was also true.

For Aristotle, what is virtue and how do we acquire it?

Virtue, for Aristotle, is the developed ability to recognize the right or good thing to do. In many situations, no rulebook can tell us exactly how to act. Thus a virtuous person must possess the appropriate disposition that can recognize–as if by instinct–the correct course of action. This skill is not, however, simply innate. Rather, we acquire virtue by the development of good habits, and in turn, habit is developed by the appropriate exercise of reason in past choices.

In practice, virtue generally meant the appropriate medium between the two extremes of excess and defect. For example, brashness is an excess of courage, while cowardice is a result of the lack of courage. Courage itself, in this case, is the term used for the proper medium. Finally we might also ask, what is the purpose of virtue? Aristotle believed it was the means to happiness. He considers and dismisses alternatives like pleasure and honor: only a life of virtue can bring about happiness for human beings.

In what way does Aristotle's treatment of poetics reflect his scientific background?

Aristotle's strong scientific background reveals itself as he takes on subjects that are less based on objective fact. In the Poetics he attempts to establish a guideline for tragedy, and to do so he did not simply theorize on his own predilections. Rather, he studied a significant number of Greek plays and focused on their most successful examples. And only with these observations did he begin to generalize, as he would have done in any other science. The result is a very specific and concrete definition of tragedy. For example, he divides it into six elements–plot, character, diction, thought, song, and spectacle–and proceeds to break them down and analyze them systematically.

The objective manner in which he attempts to analyze a subject like creative writing might seem surprising to us. A topic that is creative in nature cannot be fully understood within such confining bounds. In what way, then, is Aristotle's work still relevant to literary criticism? We certainly don't use his Poetics as a guidebook, and it is unlikely that he ever intended it as such. Rather, this kind of critical work helps to give some structure to and make clearer distinctions within the genre of tragedy. We can find in his system guiding principles rather than absolute dictates.

Suggested Essay Topics

How does Aristotle's response to Plato's Theory of Forms reflect his more general departure from his former master?

How does the concept of the Unmoved Mover play into both natural philosophy and theology?

What kind of attitude did Aristotle bear toward Plato as his own career flourished?

What is wisdom for Aristotle and how does one acquire it?

To what extent does Aristotle and his body of work remain relevant in modern learning?

How did Aristotle make the transition from his Ethics to his Politics?

Characterize Aristotle's contributions to biology and their lasting significance.

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