Aristotle's Dialogue with Socrates: On the ''Nicomachean Ethics''


What is the good life for a human being? Aristotle’s exploration of this question in the Nicomachean Ethics has established it as a founding work of Western philosophy, though its teachings have long puzzled readers and provoked spirited discussion. Adopting a radically new point of view, Ronna Burger deciphers some of the most perplexing conundrums of this influential treatise by approaching it as Aristotle’s dialogue with the Platonic Socrates.

Tracing the argument of the ...

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What is the good life for a human being? Aristotle’s exploration of this question in the Nicomachean Ethics has established it as a founding work of Western philosophy, though its teachings have long puzzled readers and provoked spirited discussion. Adopting a radically new point of view, Ronna Burger deciphers some of the most perplexing conundrums of this influential treatise by approaching it as Aristotle’s dialogue with the Platonic Socrates.

Tracing the argument of the Ethics as it emerges through that approach, Burger’s careful reading shows how Aristotle represents ethical virtue from the perspective of those devoted to it while standing back to examine its assumptions and implications. 

“This is the best book I have read on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. It is so well crafted that reading it is like reading the Ethics itself, in that it provides an education in ethical matters that does justice to all sides of the issues.”—Mary P. Nichols, Baylor University

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Editorial Reviews

Bryn Mawr Classical Review

"On the whole I found Burger's volume to be one of the most philosophically thought-provoking contemporary treatments of the Ethics. . . . The volume has been in the works for over a decade and it is clearly the mature reflection of a scholar equally conversant in philosophy and classics."—Thornton C. Lockwood, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

— Thornton C. Lockwood

Claremont Review of Books

"[Burger] invites her readers to reflect on the deepest ethical and theoretical questions. . . . Her impressive work is clearly the fruit of much solitary labor as well as friendly conversation, and it demonstrates Burger's grasp not only of Aristotle's thought but of the many Platonic dialogues she places in conversation with it."—Susan D. Collins, Claremont Review of Books

— Susan D. Collins


"Aristotle’s Dialogue with Socrates seems above all to aim to provoke its reader to do the hard work of studying the Nicomachean Ethics as carefully as possible, and as a whole. Doing so, [Burger] believes—and believes rightly—will actually help such a reader become someone ‘who thinks out everything for himself.’ Judged by this standard, her book is an extraordinary achievement."—David Roochnik, Epoche

— David Roochnik


"In Aristotle’s Dialogue with Socrates, Ronna Burger invites the reader to examine the Nicomachean Ethics with a fresh eye, and to consider that it is perhaps not the treatise that it appears to be but rather the dialogue that Plato never wrote: a dialogue between two philosophers. . . . As she discovers and discloses the evidence in the text for Aristotle’s dialogue with Socrates, she herself practices and illustrates how we, the readers, may enter into and engage in a philosophic dialogue with Aristotle."—Evanthia Speliotis, Interpretation

— Evanthia Speliotis

Journal of the History of Philosophy

“Burger has written a book brimming with stimulating puzzles and insights covering, almost in the style of a commentary, every part of the Ethics. . . . Her book’s ability to inspire and foster inquiry into the subject matter of the Ethics is quite possibly the most beneficial result her mode of interpretation yields.”—Larry Bloom, Journal of the History of Philosophy

— Larry Bloom

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

"The reader will be filled with a genuine sense of anticipation as this work moves to its culminating conclusion. Moreover—and this is an aspect of the work that deserves special praise—the entire monograph is brimming with interesting observations about the connections between passages in the Nicomachean Ethics and specific exchanges within various Platonic dialogues. Burger is an author who has a tremendous number of ideas about a wide variety of passages in both authors, and I think scholars of Plato will find this work just as insightful as those who focus upon Aristotle."

— Steven Skultety

Philosophy in Review

"A remarkable dialectical journey through the Nicomachean Ethics, placing us on the inside track of thinking through the mind of Aristotle."

— Monica Prabhakar


"In her dialectical reflection on Aristotle’s reflection on thinking as a species of action, Ronna Burger discovers the saving grace of our incompleteness—what she calls in her Acknowledgments ‘the unintended consequences of unwished for circumstances’. By tracing the salutary consequences of the unwished for, she has brought to fruition a remarkable interpretation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, for she has not forced a Platonic reading on Aristotle but has rather uncovered, in the ground of their friendship, the deep sameness that is revealed in their apparent difference, the dialogic nature of the rational activity of soul."

— Michael Davis

Review of Metaphysics

"This remarkable and wonderful book on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics exhibits a profound understanding of both the contents and complex intention of that amazing work. This interpretation cannot be ignored by anyone who intends to write on the Ethics in the foreseeable future. The reviewer cannot do justice to Professor Burger's detailed and subtle analysis of almost every chapter of the Ethics in this brief account of her book, but hopefully enough is intimated to lead those who are interested in Aristotle, the problem of Socrates, ancient philosophy, and the nature of ethical virtue to read this magisterial study."—Donald C. Lindenmuth, Review of Metaphysics

— Donald C. Lindenmuth

Review of Politics

"A treatment of the Ethics that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking, one that requires, and rewards, careful rereading."

— Kevin M. Cherry

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781459618596
  • Publisher:, Limited
  • Publication date: 5/14/2011
  • Pages: 592

Meet the Author

Ronna Burger is professor of philosophy at Tulane University.

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By Ronna Burger


Copyright © 2008 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-08052-9

Chapter One

The Final End and the Way to It

SOCRATES: Well, then, let's make beforehand a still further agreement on some small points.

PROTARCHUS: What kind?

SOCRATES: Whether it's a necessity that the lot and portion of the good be complete and perfect or not complete and perfect.

PROTARCHUS: Surely, Socrates, the most complete and perfect of all.

SOCRATES: What of this? Is the good adequate and sufficient?

PROTARCHUS: Of course, and it differs in this respect from all the things that are.

SOCRATES: And it's most necessary, moreover, to make this further point about it, I suspect: everything that knows it pursues and desires it ...

PROTARCHUS: It's impossible to contradict this.

SOCRATES: So let's examine and judge the life of pleasure and the life of thought by looking at them separately.

PROTARCHUS: How do you mean it?

SOCRATES: Let there be neither thought in the life of pleasure nor pleasure in the life of thought, for if either of them is good, it must not have any additional need of anything; but if either comes to light as needy, this is surely no longer the really and truly good for us. -Plato Philebus20c-21a, translated by Seth Benardete

From the Good to the Human Good Politike as Architectonic

Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics begins with a seemingly preposterous contention:

Every art [techne] and every way of proceeding [methodos], and likewise action [praxis] and choice [prohairesis], are thought to aim at some good; hence the good has been beautifully declared to be that at which all things aim. (1094a1-3)

Now, this might be acceptable, though it would not be saying much, if it were merely a formal generalization: the end at which anything purposive aims is "the good," whatever it might be in any particular case. But in light of the direction the argument is about to follow, the reference to that at which all things aim appears to be a more grand claim about a single end: from the opinion that there is some particular good for particular types of human endeavors, 1 a conclusion is drawn about the good as a comprehensive end. Of course, Aristotle observes only that this inference is "beautifully declared" (kalos apephenanto): the good as the unifying principle of the whole is a product of the beautiful as it operates through speech. The beautiful certainly seems to be the right measure of a teleological cosmology, in which all parts are ordered in a whole by reference to a single highest end. The ambitious goal the Ethics sets for itself, if it is seeking knowledge of this ultimate principle, seems to erode in stages as the defining aim of the project slips from the good (1094a22) to the human good (1094b7), then to the practical good (1095a16-17), and finally to the sought-for good (1097a15). The good implies a cosmos within which the human has its natural place; the human good abandons that comprehensive whole; the practical good seems to impose even narrower restrictions by limiting itself to the sphere of action; and the sought-for good, in tying the end to our activity of seeking, makes us wonder whether the good, like being, not only was and is but will always be a question.

Before addressing the question of the good, a preliminary analysis of kinds of ends (tele) is proposed-in what may well be the most abstract and obscure statement in the Ethics:

Some are activities [energeiai], some are works [erga] beyond them, and of those in which there are ends beyond the actions [praxeis], the works [erga] are by nature better than the activities [energeiai]. (1094a4-6)

Terms that are the subjects of lengthy examination in the Metaphysics and elsewhere appear here with no preparation or clarification, though they will play a central role in the argument of the Ethics. What exactly is an energeia, what kind of ergon can be an end beyond it, and why, in such a case, should the energeia be understood as a praxis? Book I will return, in Chapter 7, to the notion of the ergon as the basis of an argument meant to establish what the good is that constitutes the final end in human life. The ergon of the sculptor, which is called upon there to illustrate the notion, is both the function of sculpting and the work produced by it; but only the work, his statue, would fit the present description of an ergon as an end beyond, and hence superior to, the action. Of course, that raises a question of why the activity exemplified by sculpting would be designated an "action" (praxis) and not, as one would expect, a "production" (poiesis). The ergon, in any case, that Chapter 7 postulates as distinctive of the human being is itself an energeia of the soul, not a product to which an energeia would be subordinate (1098a13). How the ergon and energeia together determine the good for a human being will be suggested by their application to the relation of ethical virtue and intellectual virtue; but that will not be made explicit until the discussion of virtue as a whole is completed, at the end of Book VI (see 1144a5-7).

Leaving us for the moment in the dark about the point of the formal division of ends into erga and energeiai, the argument turns abruptly to a different basis for the division of ends and the problem of their unification. The plurality of "actions, arts, and sciences" entails a corresponding plurality of ends-health for medicine, ships for shipbuilding, victory for the military art, wealth for economics (1094a6-9); how, then, could there be a single unifying end? There is some ordered whole, Aristotle proposes, whenever several arts fall under a single "capacity," so that the ends of the architectonic arts are more choiceworthy than those of the subordinate arts. But the example offered-bridle making subordinated to horsemanship and that, in turn, to military strategy-might make us suspicious about the principle it is supposed to illustrate. While bridle making can be understood to be in itself for the sake of horseback riding, horseback riding is not necessarily subservient to military strategy. Doesn't the general's use of cavalry simply impose an end on an activity that by its nature could just as well be practiced for farming or racing, or just enjoyed for its own sake?

A hierarchy has been proposed, however problematic, on the basis of an ordering of the arts and their ends, but it is without any explicit connection to the good. What brings us back to that final end is the consideration, in Chapter 2 of Book I, of the structure of desire: if there is some end among actions that we want for its own sake and everything else because of this, and we don't choose everything because of something else, it is clear that this end would be "the good and the best" (1094a18-22). Aristotle does not confirm the existence of such a final end, only the consequences that would follow from its absence: the chain of one choice for the sake of another would proceed to the infinite (eis apeiron), leaving all desire empty and in vain (mataian) (1094a20-21). There is, apparently, no possibility of partial satisfaction in the fulfillment of any individual links in this chain; the restlessness of desire after desire without the closure of a final end supposedly makes every step meaningless. Aristotle still has not confirmed the existence of such a final end when he continues, hypothetically, with a question: wouldn't recognition (gnosis) of it be the decisive thing in life, like a target at which archers could aim?

If knowledge of the good is so decisive-the question of whether it exists has been bracketed-an effort should be made to grasp what it is in outline (1094a25-26): it is still only in outline at the end of the last book of the Ethics (1171a31). But the "what it is" question quickly turns into another, which ties the hypothesized structure of desire back to the hierarchical division of knowledge: to what science (episteme) or capacity (dunamis) does the good belong? Presumably, it is the object of the most sovereign and architectonic, Aristotle reasons, and that appears to be politike-either political science or a capacity for politics or both. Politike, after all, lays down laws about what sciences are to exist in cities and what citizens are to study them. Besides that, it commands such honorable capacities as military strategy, economics, and rhetoric; hence, its end should encompass those of the others (1094a26-b6). Of course, it may do so only in the way the general's end contains that of horseback riding when he commands his cavalry for the purpose of achieving victory. Politike, in its sovereign role, puts to use all the other arts in the city for its own purposes, without necessarily fulfilling the ends that might belong to those arts on their own. While determining the uses of all the subordinate arts, politike at the same time imposes boundaries on them. It looks, as a result, like the political counterpart to Socrates' discovery of the partial character of every art, which no artisan could recognize from within the horizon of his art and which, consequently, led Socrates to realize the superiority of his own knowledge of ignorance. Politike, in supervising a division of labor that regards every art as partial and binds them into a whole, is the city's replacement for philosophy.

In its implicit claim to completeness, the city has made the structure of ends into a whole with its own end as the final and comprehensive one; it is in the course of this development that the good is replaced by the human good (1094b7). As soon as it emerges as the defining end of politike, however, the human good undergoes a split: while it may be the same for the individual and the city, its attainment and preservation for the city appears greater and more complete-acceptable even for a single person but more beautiful and divine for peoples and cities (1094b7-10). Aristotle does not defend the truth of this appearance. If the human good is a single end and if the good for the individual, as the conclusion of the Ethics will argue, lies in the activity of theoria, one must wonder how that activity could be "writ large" in the city, except perhaps as a metaphor.

The establishment of the human good as its end determines the identity of the inquiry as a particular way of proceeding: "The methodos, then, aims at these, being some sort of political art (politike tis)" (1094b10-11). The qualification-only "some sort," not politike strictly-might seem intended to characterize the Ethics, in its concern with the good for the individual, over against the Politics, in its concern with the good for the city; but if the methodos aims at "these," that should mean the human good in its double form. Politike without qualification, then, looks like it must be political practice or statesmanship, and "some sort of politike" the art or science that comprehends the Ethics and the Politics: the one work, after all, is not engaged in laying down laws for the city any more than the other is in morally habituating individuals. Yet the purpose of the inquiry, Aristotle is about to insist, is not knowledge but action-or, at least, knowledge rendered useful because of its connection to action. "Some sort of politike" cannot fulfill its aim through mere speeches any more than political practice can, even if the deeds required for each are not the same.

Methodos and Audience

Once the aim of the inquiry has been established, the path (methodos) it follows must meet the fitting degree of precision. Now, that aim is the human good, but the subject matter to be investigated is "the beautiful and the just things," about which opinions are at great variance (1094b14-16). Even if those opinions were consistent among one people in one epoch, they differ vastly from one place and time to another: one tribe deems it beautiful to bury their dead, another to burn them; different regimes might agree that justice requires unequal distributions to those who are unequal, but they disagree vehemently about what sort of inequality counts. This "wandering," as Aristotle puts it, leads to the thought that the beautiful and the just things are such only by convention and not at all by nature (1094b14-16). The good things, too, are wandering, but in a very different way. Something may be good only for a particular subject in particular circumstances, and something good in itself can on occasion prove harmful; but though relative to a subject, the good things under certain conditions are indeed beneficial, and not just as a matter of opinion. It is not said of the good things, as it is of the beautiful and the just things, that they are so only by convention.

What should be expected from this inquiry, given its wandering subject matter, is nothing more than the truth in outline (tupo): to demand more would lead to disappointment, which could threaten confidence in the power of reason altogether. The proper expectation, in turn, determines the appropriate audience for this investigation. This is the first indication-it will not be the last-that the Ethics is not a treatise that can or must say the same thing to whoever takes it up. Aristotle's identification of his intended audience begins with a rather surprising restriction: young people are unfit for the study of the political things. Now, we might readily agree that politics, unlike mathematics, for example, is rarely if ever a field for child prodigies; but if the project is motivated by conflicting notions of the beautiful and just things, with the aim of discovering the good that should be our end in life, isn't it the young, above all, who stand in most urgent need of such an investigation? That is certainly what almost every Socratic conversation indicates; of course, it was, as Aristotle knows, the charge of corrupting the youth that brought Socrates to his trial and death.

Aristotle justifies his exclusion of the youth on two grounds, both concerning the relation between speeches and deeds. The inquiry in "outline" amounts to mere speeches until it is filled in by "actions in accordance with life," but that is something the young are lacking. The participant in this project must have experienced enough of life to have put into question the fixity of the moral education with which he was brought up; but again, it would seem to be not children, admittedly, but young people who are most passionately undergoing just that kind of experience. It is, however, not just the experience in action one brings to these speeches that is required but a readiness to apply them in turn to action; hence, the young, who tend be led by their feelings, would listen in vain to speeches intended to guide action (1095a2-6).

With this end in mind, Aristotle acknowledges finally that it is not merely, or not essentially, those young in years who pose the problem but any who live in accordance with passion rather than logos. The paradigm case would be the individual lacking self-restraint, whose actions are not guided by the logos he in some way possesses. The psychological problem that will bring Aristotle's debate with Socrates to a head in Book VII is thus present from the outset, in the question of the audience of the inquiry. Its fitting participants are determined by the purpose of the inquiry, which is not the acquisition of knowledge (gnosis) but action (praxis); or, rather-(Aristotle restates the point with an almost unnoticeable but important change)-the knowledge this inquiry does indeed furnish is unprofitable apart from action (cf. 1095a5-6, 8-11). This apparently sensible claim begins to look more problematic as the Ethics unfolds and one realizes how little discussion there is of actions in any ordinary sense: it could hardly have a title like Making Moral Decisions. What exactly are the actions, we have to wonder, that would keep its speeches from being in vain?

The appropriate audience has been laid down sufficiently, Aristotle announces, although he is about to return to it with a supplement or revision, but only after the argument begins once again: since all knowledge (gnosis) and choice (prohairesis) strive for some good, one should consider what the end is in the case of politike. That end, which we thought was settled on as the human good, now becomes "the peak of all practical goods," which nearly everyone calls "happiness" (eudaimonia) (1095a14-19). They mean by that "doing well and faring well"-the convenient Greek euprattein has both senses at once; but there is the greatest dispute about what it consists in, especially between the many and the wise. The many-we hear nothing about the wise-take happiness to be something obvious, like pleasure or wealth or honor, though they disagree not only with each other but even with themselves at different times, always imagining the end relative to some perceived deficiency: for the sick, it seems to be health; for the poor, wealth; and for those who recognize their own ignorance, it is anything that sounds grand. Aristotle mentions the idea of some good by itself that is the cause of all good things being such (1095a25-28). Of course, this sort of grand-sounding idea might impress someone trying to hide, even from himself, the ignorance he senses in himself; but it would presumably be a question, not a doctrine to be admired, for someone whose knowledge of ignorance motivated a desire to know.


Excerpted from ARISTOTLE'S DIALOGUE WITH SOCRATES by Ronna Burger Copyright © 2008 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction The Socratic Question of the Ethics 1

Part I The Human Good

1 The Final End and the Way to It 13

From the Good to the Human Good 13

Opinions about Happiness 21

The Human Good and the Human Ergon 30

Happiness in a Complete Life 36

The Nonrational Psych&ebar; 41

Part II The Beautiful and the Just

2 Excellence of Character 47

A Non-Socratic Account 48

Habituation 51

Ethical Virtue and the Measure of the Mean 56

Responsibility and Nature 62

3 Virtues and Vices 68

The Beautiful as Telos of the Virtues 69

Justice in the City and Justice in the Soul 92

Part III The Return to the Good

4 Excellence of Thought 109

The Pivot of the Argument of the Ethics 109

The Rational Psych&ebar; 112

Intellectual Virtues 115

Phron&ebar;sis, Sophia, and the Claim to Happiness 123

5 Pleasure and the Discovery of Nature 131

A New Beginning: From the Bestial to the Divine 132

The Faction of Passion and Reason 135

Pleasure by Nature and the Good 153

6 Friendship and the Discovery of the Self 159

Rational and Political Nature 159

Perfect Friendship and Other Species 161

Justice in Friendship 166

The Friend as an Other Self 171

Friendship, Eros, and Philosophy 183

7 Happiness 190

Pleasure Revisited 190

The Theoretical Life 198

The Legislative Art 207

A Socratic Answer to a Socratic Question? 212

Appendix 1 Socrates, Plato, Philosophy 218

Appendix 2 Virtues and Vices 221

Appendix 3 Categories of Justice 223

Appendix 4 Classifications of Pleasure 225

Notes 227

Bibliography 289

Index 299

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