The Metaphysics of Goodness in Plato and Aristotle

Course Information:

PHIL 420

  • Professor Shields
  • Class Meetings: F 3.00-5.30, Main Library, Seminar Room 4670    


Already in antiquity philosophers divided over the question of whether goodness—to use Aristotle's phrase—is 'something universal, common to all good things, and single' (EN 1096a28). Plato thought so; Aristotle thought not, and issued a series of stinging objections intended to register his dissatisfaction with Plato's approach. The division inaugurated in their exchange has never really left philosophy. In virtually every era, employing a variety of different idioms, philosophers have debated this question, together with a series of consequential issues in axiology and practical reason, concerning: the comparability and commensurability of value; preference and choice in a pluralistic value world; the connection between intellectual value assessment and the will; the additivity of value; organic goodness; and the character of intrinsic and final goods. In this seminar, we will investigate these issues in their original dialectical context.

We will address these and like question through a careful study of the relevant works of Plato and Aristotle, focussing on the middle books of Plato’s Republic, together with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Eudemian Ethics.  We will also range more widely through the complete works of each, as topics recommend. 

No knowledge of Greek is required, though I will gladly arrange an informal reading group associated with the seminar for those participants  interested in working through key passages in the original.  

Office Hours and Contact Information:

  • Office:  Kresge Hall 3429   
  • Office hours: By appointment
  • e-mail: 
  • N.b. I prefer e-mail to telephone as a manner of student contact.  I make an effort to answer student e-mails promptly, but please be aware that I measure promptness in this domain in days rather than hours or minutes. 

Required Texts:

  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics trans. with notes, 2nd ed.. by T. Irwin (Hackett: 2000)
  • Throughout the term, I will make recommendations to suitable secondary literature.  There will also be additional readings developed in consultation with registered graduates, in connection with their seminar presentations.

Recommended Texts:

  • The Complete Works of Aristotle: the Revised Oxford Translation vols. 1 and 2, ed. J. Barnes (Princeton University Press: 1984).  
    • This work is also available in a searchable electronic form from various e-book sellers. 
  • Aristotle: Selections, trans. G. Fine and T. Irwin (Hackett: 1995)
    • This work is also available in a searchable electronic form from various e-book sellers. Note too that this text has an outstanding glossary which will orient Aristotle’s newer readers to his technical terminology.  
  • Plato: Complete Works, ed. J. Cooper (Hackett: 1997)
  • Chang, Ruth, ed., Incommensurability, Incomparability and Practical Reason (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997)

Requirements and Protocol:

Students write one essay in the neighbourhood of 5,000 words.  In addition,  will offer a seminar presentation, presumably but not necessarily in conjunction with their  essay. 

The due dates are:   

  • Essay: 5 June 
  • Presentation: TBD on an individual basis

Papers are to be submitted electronically in a main-stream word-processing format or (if you use something non-standard) as .pdf documents to:  Papers will be accepted until 17.00 on their due date.

Attendance is expected at all seminar meetings.

Topics and Reading Schedule:

Please adhere to this reading schedule.  Note, however, that while some readings will be discussed directly in class, others will merely be assumed as background for lectures.  In either case, you are welcome—indeed, encouraged— to discuss with me readings which you find difficult or especially stimulating, either in class, when our schedule permits, or in my office hours, when not.  

Course Lecture Slides:

© Christopher Shields 2014