Ancient Ethics Assignments

For 4/25. the Stoics on fate and freedom, and Pyrrhonian skepticism. Papers by Reisman, Sapkota, and Sullivan.



  • From Hellenistic Philosophy: Part II (Stoics): readings 21, 22, 23: (sections 3-4, 42- 84, 147-153) 25, 26, 27, and the sections from "On Fate" (pp. 179-190). Concentrate esp. on the selections II-84, II-89, and II-90. If you want to look into some Stoic action-theory, also look at II-72 and 73. Paper:
    1. Lazy argument: Explain, in your own words, the Lazy Argument and Chrysippus' response to it (both in selection II-84). Do you think that this response works? Why, or why not?
    2. Fate and freedom: Explain and evaluate Chrysippus' arguments concerning at least one of the following two areas: (1) How does Chrysippus try to maintain that every event is fated while still rejecting 'necessity' and allowing that certain things are still in our power? (Hint: his distinction between different types of causes is important here.) (2) Why does causal determinism and fate not undermine the appropriateness of praise, blame, punishment, and the like?

    Pyrrhonian skepticism:


    Possible papers:
    1. Sextus raises and tries to answer several "self-refutation" objections against the skeptic. Explain and evaluate one of these arguments and Sextus' response to it. (Note: sometimes this is merely implicit.) Alternatively, discuss and evaluate what Burnyeat has to say about this sort of self-refutation.
    2. How can one consistently live as a skeptic, according to Sextus, and why is a person better off as a skeptic? Do you agree with him? Why, or why not?
    3. Burnyeat criticizes the Pyrrhonian sceptic as being pathologically detached from his own mental states. Explain and evaluate some part of Burnyeat's critique.

    For 4/18. Reading: Book 4 of Cicero's On Moral Ends, Striker's article on Antipater on the Art of Living, and The Handbook of Epictetus.

    Papers topics:

    1. Book 4: Set out and evaluate one of Cicero's objections to the Stoics. (For his main one, about preferred indifferents and their value, bringing in Striker would be very helpful.)
    2. Striker: Do you think that the description of the Stoic 'Art of Living,' as described by Striker, is convincing? (That's pretty broad. You can also set out and evaluate some particular aspect of the art of living (and the value of indifferents) as she describes it.)
    3. Explain and comment either on one of the themes or concepts common in the Handbook (such as how to use impressions, what is in our power, the role of God in ethics, living in accordance with nature, how to deal with the death of family members, etc.) or one of the entries in particular.

    4/11. Readings: We'll concentrate on the earlier parts of the Cicero. You may also find helpful the following summary of Stoic ethics.

    Paper (Sullivan, Daigle, Jacques): Set out and evaluate one of the claims and/or arguments in the readings. For instance:

    For 4/4. Continue discussion of justice, move on to death. Re-read the papers by Thrasher and Nussbaum, plus Porphyry. New readings: Epicurus Ep. Men. 124-5 (text I-4); Principal Doctrines 19-21 (text I-5 19-21; Vatican Saying 14 (in text I-6); DRN III 630-1094 (posted to Desire2Learn); Plut. A Pleasant Life 1101a-b (text I-40); Thomas Nagel, "Death." Papers (Reisman, Sapkota): Any of the paper topics from last week on justice, or:
    For 3/28. The types of desires, the virtues, and justice. Readings: The rest of Cicero "On Moral Ends" books I and II. From Hellenistic Philosophy, text I-5, #31-40, and texts I- 151 through I-156. On Desire2Learn: Porphyry's report on the Epicureans on justice and animals ("porphyry-animals"), Lucretius on early humans ("lucretius-justice"). Also, Matha Nussbaum's article on therapeutic arguments in Aristotle and Epicurus, and John Thrasher's paper, "Reconciling Justice and Pleasure in Epicurean Contractarianism." (Optional reading: chapters 13 and 14 of my book.)

    Paper topics (Jacques and Mejia):

    1. Set out in your own words and briefly evaluate one the arguments the Epicurean spokesman Torqautus gives. This can be any of them, excluding the material on friendship and the material already covered, but here are some of the topics that are especially central:
      • The types of desires and the recommendations about which to cultivate and which to extirpate.
      • The relationship between pleasure and the virtues.
      • The relationship between mental pleasures and pains and physical ones.
    2. Nussbaum expresses some objections to the Epicurean conception of philosophy as therapy. Explain and evaluate one of her objections.
    3. Cicero objects to the role of the virtues in Epicurean ethics--explain and evaluate one of his criticisms.
    4. What is justice, according to the Epicureans, and why does it arise? Do you think this account is plausible? Why, or why not?
    5. What reason does the wise person have to be just? What about the foolish person? Are the reasons the Epicureans give for the wise person to be just compelling?
    6. Why is there no justice with regard to non-human animals? Explain and evaluate the Epicurean arguments in favor of this thesis.
    7. Explain and evaluate something else from the readings.

    For 3/14. Reading: Cicero, "On Moral Ends" book 1 through section 41, plus sections 55-57, book II through section 47, plus, from Hellenistic Philosophy texts I-4 (Letter to Menoeceus), text I-5 (Principle Doctrines), sayings 3, 4, 8, 18, 20, 22, 25, text I-6 (Vatican Sayings), sayings 33, 73, texts I-20, I-36, I-37. Plus, Gisela Striker, "Epicurean Hedonism." Please also read chapter 1 of my book Epicureanism. If you wish, it might also help to look at chapters 11-12 of my book (starting on p. 111), but I won't require or expect that everyone has done so.

    We'll concentrate on the Cicero material.

    Paper (Daigle, Gilbert): Set out in your own words and briefly evaluate one the arguments the Epicurean spokesman gives. These can be any of them, but here are some of the topics that are especially central:

    For 3/7. Re-read 2/28 readings, plus the selection from Julia Annas on Aristotle on Phronesis (from her book The morality of Happiness plus Amelie Rorty's paper "The Place of Contemplation in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics."

    Papers (Sapkota and Sullivan). Any of the paper topics from 2/28, or:

    1. Explain and evaluate one of Julia Annas' arguments about the nature of phronesis.
    2. Explain and evaluate one of Annas' arguments for why Aristotle was rigth to maintain the unity of the virtues of character.
    3. Explain and evaluate one of Amelie Rorty's claims about the place of contemplation within the good life for Aristotle.
    4. Explain and evaluate one of Rorty's attempts to reconcile the roles of contemplative and practical excellence within the good life. Does she succeed?

    2/28. Readings: NE books 6 and 9, plus the paper by Nagel.


    1. Explain and evaluate one of Aristotle's claims about the intellectual virtues. For instance:
      • The nature of any one of the intellectual virtues
      • The differences between intellectual virtues and virtues of character
      • The value of the intellectual virtues
      • Why one can have the intellectual virtues and not have the virtues of character and vice-versa
      • The relationship between prudence/practical wisdom and the virtues of character
    2. Explain and evaluate one of Aristotle's arguments in favor of happiness being contemplation.
    3. Is the sketch of happiness given here consistent, or inconsistent, with the picture of happiness given in the rest of the NE? If inconsistent, which do you find preferable, and why?
    4. Explain and evaluate one of Nagel's arguments in favor of the conception of happiness he attributes to Aristotle. (Alternatively, evaluate whether Nagel's reading of Aristotle is correct.)
    5. Anything else from the readings.

    For 2/21. Reading Nicomachean Ethics Books 8 and 9, and Julia Annas' paper, "Self-Love in Aristotle."


    1. Aristotle make the following claims: there are three types of friendship, the friendships of utility, pleasure, and virtue. The first two types are unstable. The friendship of virtue is the only stable type of friendship; it is complete, and it can only occur between virtuous people. Explain what these three types of friendship are, and his arguments for the claims above. If you disagree with any of them, say which ones, and why. (Reading, NE Bk 8 chapter 3)
    2. Aristotle claims that the virtuous person loves himself and is a friend to himself (or at least takes the same attitude toward himself as toward his friend), whereas the base person is not a friend to himself. Why does Aristotle think these things? Do you agree with him? Why or why not? (Reading NE Bk 9 chapter 4).
    3. Aristotle claims that the person who 'sacrifices' something for the sake of his friend actually benefoits himself more than he benefits his friend. Explain and evaluate his reasons for this claim. (NE IX 8)
    4. Annas identifies a tension between Aristotle's doctrine that the virtuous person wishes good things for his friend for the friend's own sake and his doctrine about 'virtuous self-love.' Discuss either why she thinks there is this tension, how she proposes to resolve it, or some other aspect of Annas' article. Do you think that there is really a problem here for Aristotle?
    5. If something else in the readings catches your attention, feel free to write on that.

    For 2/14. Read Nicomachean Ethics books II-IV, excluding book III chapters 1-5, plus Jonathan Sanford's paper, "Are You Man Enough? Aristotle and Courage."

    Papers (Sullivan, Daigle):

    1. Aristotle says that, to be virtuous, it isn't enough to do the right thing; one must also take pleasure (or at least not feel pain) in doing the right thing. Why does he think this? Consider to the following two cases: Two people have borrowed a great deal of money from a friend, who now needs it back, but both are poor, and returning it would be a hardship. The first returns it easily, and is happy to have the opportunity to pay his friend back. The second really doesn't want to return it, and has to struggle with himself, but with a great effort of will he manages to overcome his reluctance and return the money, because he knows that is what he ought to do. Which person is better? Which person is more praiseworthy? What would Aristotle say, and do you agree with him? Why or why not?
    2. "The golden mean." Aristotle says that virtue is a mean between extremes. What does he mean by this, and why does he think it? In what sense is virtue a mean, and in what sense isn't it? Do you agree with Aristotle? (See NE II.5 and II.6. in particular, and NE II 7 to see the application of this doctrine to particular virtues.)
    3. Pretty wide open: Either explain and evaluate one of Aristotle's arguments regarding the virtues of character (e.g., courage), or a stated related to a virtue of character (e.g., shame). Or, if you wish, write about what Aristotle's discussions of particular virtues reveals about the more general claims he makes regarding the virtues (in book II) or happiness (in book I).
    4. Sanford argues that a (suitably modified) version of Aristotle's account of courage is correct. Explain and evaluate one of Sanford's arguments on behalf of the virtues of Aristotle's account.

    For 2/7. Read book I of the Nicomachean Ethics plus Deborah Achtenberg's paper "The role of the ergon argument in Aristotle's nicomachean ethics"

    Papers (Jacob Reisman, Gagan Sapkota)

    1. Why isn't having virtue sufficient for happiness, according to Aristotle? (Look at chapter 5 in particular.) What *is* the relationship between virtue and happiness? (See chapters 7 and 13 in particular.) What do you think of Aristotle's arguments?

    2. Why does Aristotle think that happiness can't be the same as pleasure, or a life of pleasure? Do you agree with him? Why or why not? See chapters 5 and 7 in particular.

    3. Explain and comment on Aristotle's own conception of what eudaimonia is (based upon the notion of there being a human 'function'). (Possibly as part of this paper, or as a separate paper, talk about Achtenberg's paper and how she thinks the function argument is supposed to proceed, and why she thinks it's plausible.)
    4. Why does Aristotle think that one's happiness can be effected by events that occur after one's death (like misfortune befalling one's children)? Is he right?

    For 1/31. Reading: the Symposium, Vlastos' article on uLearn, "The Individual as an Object of Love in Plato," and Donald Levy's replies to Vlastos.

    Reading response paper (Jacques, Mejia): pretty wide open. We'll be concentrating on Diotima's speech (as reported by Socrates). Write on one of the following general areas:

    For 1/24. Reading: the rest of the Gorgias, plus Gregory Vlastos' book chapter on Desire2Learn, "Happiness and Virtue in Socrates' Moral Theory."

    Possible paper topics (Jennifer Daigle, Mark Gilbert)

    1. Explain and evaluate one or more of Socrates' objections to hedonism. If you wish, you also may explore the question of whether these objections refute Callicles position.
    2. In the Gorgias, Socrates gives his positive views on what the good life is and how to achieve it. Explain and evaluate some part of his position and/or his arguments for it.
    3. Why does Socrates say that he is one of the few Athenians who takes up the 'true political craft' and practices the 'true' politics? Explain and evaluate what he says.
    4. Explain what you think the afterlife myth at the end of the Gorgias adds (or subtracts) to Socrates' case in favor of justice.
    5. Go ahead and explain and evaluate any part of the Vlastos reading. You can approach this from one of two angles: either look at whether Vlastos gets Socrates' moral theory right (as an interpretation of the texts), or look at the independent strengths and/or weaknesses of the resulting position that Vlastos ascribes to Socrates.

    For 1/17.

    Please read Gorgias from the beginning through 486e (the end of Callicles' long speech).

    Paper topics (if we had one):

    1. Explain the distinction between a 'knack' and a 'craft.' Why does Socrates say that oratory is only a knack and not a craft, and why is it shameful? Explain and evaluate what assumptions about human flourishing you think are behind what Socrates says about oratory here.
    2. Why does Polus think that a tyrant like Archelaus is happy? How does Socrates object to Polus' position (and eventually get Polus to recant his position)? Evaluate.
    3. On what grounds does Socrates argue that it's better to be caught and punished if one does wrong rather than getting away scott-free? Evaluate.
    4. Callicles distinguishes between 'natural' and 'conventional' justice. Explain the distinction in your own words and give your own evaluation of some part of what Callicles says.

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