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Privatissimum: Current Issues in Ancient Philosophy

Course 2012-2013

Admission requirements

This course is open to MA and research MA students in Classics and Ancient Civilizations (specialization Classics), and to (research) MA students in Philosophy.


This privatissimum explores the importance of Aristotle’s biological views about character for his theory of moral development in the ethical treatises with the aim of positioning him in the contemporary person-situation debate.

Studies of Aristotle’s conception of character traditionally focus on his ethical works, where character is discussed mainly in its role as the bearer of morality: it is a virtuous state of character that disposes one to perform actions that hit the mean and that are therefore praiseworthy. Aristotle emphasizes that these states of character – and not just our actions – are ‘up to us and voluntary’. Provided that we receive the appropriate moral education from childhood and are raised in a properly organized city, we can habituate our character by performing right and just actions.

However, Aristotle’s – mostly neglected – discussions of the physiology of character in the natural treatises offer a very different picture. In biology, the character-profile animals have (as one of its differentia) is determined ‘by nature’ and is influenced mostly by external causes, such as climate, diet, and disease, which are not always ‘up to us’.

In this privatissimum, we will attend to (a) Aristotle’s physiological conceptualizations of natural character and the process of habituation; (b) the scientific methods and theories he employs in his investigations (e.g. physiognomy, theory of inheritance); and © the cultural and scientific context in which Aristotle worked (e.g. ideas about character in the Hippocratics, Plato, Herodotus, and Theophrastus).

Course objectives

At the end of the course the students will:

• Possess good working knowledge of Aristotle’s views on character in both the ethical and the biological treatises, as well as of the cultural and scientific context in which these views were developed, based on a broad selection of readings from primary and secondary sources.
• Advanced research skills: independent formulation of complex research question, collecting materials (both primary texts and results of earlier research). Analyzing results, constructing arguments, formulating conclusions;
• Oral presentation skills: presenting clearly and on the basis of arguments the results of the student’s research. Effective use of hand-out, illustrations or multi-media techniques;
• Written presentation: setting out research results effectively, clearly and in a well-structured manner. The student will be capable to demonstrate in writing (and through one case study) their grasp of critical issues in recent scholarship, and to test and assess recent scholarly contributions by confronting them with the original source material.


See timetables Classics and Ancient Civilizations.

Mode of instruction

Seminar and independent research

Assessment method

1) Participation: students are expected to actively participate in discussions. In order to be able to accomplish this, students should come to class having carefully read the primary and secondary literature recommended. (20%)

2) Two seminar presentations: students are expected to give two presentations during the semester. Each presentation will involve additional research on a narrowly focused issue addressed in the readings for the assigned session. This presentation should: (a) provide an introduction to the chosen issue from the assigned reading (incl. any reconstruction of the main argument, an identification of the main problem in the assigned reading, and a broader assessment of the issue as gleaned from additional research) and (b) guide the discussion in class for about 20 minutes. Please let the course instructor know at least two days ahead of your presentation what issue you will focus on from the readings assigned for your session. (40% total, 20% per presentation)

(3) Concise research paper (5000 words max.): students are expected to write a research paper of maximally 5000 words on a topic of his or her choice related to the course material. A research paper should develop a genuine argument, while both giving a thorough analysis of primary texts and taking account of the relevant secondary literature on the issues discussed (more detailed instructions will be provided in class). Final paper topics are to be cleared with the course instructor. (40%)


No (instructor will provide a link to an online course site, which will provide electronics versions of the readings)

Reading list

Primary sources will include (selections from):

Aristotle: De Anima II 2-4; Eudemian Ethics VII; Generation of Animals I 17-19 and IV 1-4; History of Animals I 1-11 and VIII-IX; Nicomachean Ethics I-II, VI 13, X 9; Parts of Animals II 2-4; Physics VII 3; Politics VII-VIII; Prior Analytics II 27; Rhetoric II 9-17; fragment 94R3 on Good Birth.
Ps.-Aristotle: Problems XIV and Physiognomics
Plato: Menexenus; Laws 747b-e; Republic 434e-436a; Timaeus 24c-d; 86e-87a; Critias 108e-111e
Hippocrates: Airs Waters Places 12-24; Nature of Man; Aphorisms III
Herodotus: Histories I 1; I 71-73; I 88-89; I 142(-151); II 15-17; II 35-36; II 45; II 77; III 106(-116); IV 41-45; IV 111; VI 63-69; VII 101-105; IX 122.
Theophrastus: Characters

Secondary sources will be announced in class.


Via uSis

Contact information

Please contact the Co-ordinator of Studies if you have any questions about this course.