Theses Attributable to Aristotle: introduction

Theses Attributable to Aristotle:  introduction

Lawgivers make the citizens good by inculcating good (habits) in them, and this is the aim of every lawgiver; if he does not succeed in doing that, his legislation is a failure.

—–Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, book II, chapter i, 1103b

            From the end of the 20th Century until now, I have seen a lot of division and confusion regarding our politics.  As a child I was largely oblivious to the existence or the end of legal segregation.  As a schoolchild I was part of the struggle over desegregation, and while I could observe the poverty of Black schools and desired that adults would fund all schools better, I was still a child and had little sense of involvement.  As I got older, I began to think more consciously about the relationship between myself and the nation I lived in, between the citizen and the state, the meanings of these terms and the mutual obligations entailed.  Without my quite being aware of it, these social questions that were affecting me, such as court-ordered bussing or draft registration, were parts of one larger question:  the relationship between the individual and the state. 

            Unknown to me at the time, the political parties were defining their different views on this question.  Race and the draft were the two issues that got people out in the streets when I was a child watching television.  We didn’t have as much discussion of things like “wealth gap” in those days, partly because it wasn’t nearly as big an issue; the wealth gap was a fraction of what it is now, and the middle class was strong and growing.  Both liberals and conservatives agreed that a citizen had a duty to vote, and devoted energy to train children to become citizens—-thought it is sadly ironic that there was still a lot of conflict and even violence over whether this citizens’ right and duty to vote should apply to nonwhites.

            My first introduction to philosophy was Walden, and I was particularly influenced by Thoreau’s essay “Economy.”  Thoreau presents his vision of human nature:  the ideal life is one close to Nature, eschewing luxuries, working enough to sustain life but little more, so as to allow ample leisure time for thought, writing and other pursuits to feed the mind and soul.  I don’t remember if I read his essay on civil disobedience at this time, but I still have the book I used and it includes that famous essay so I think I did.  Either way, I was already reading political philosophy at the age of thirteen, including critiques of consumerism and capitalism, representative versus radical democracy, and the general relationship of the individual to society.  Metaphysically and epistemologically, Thoreau is something of a mystic; the believed that God was literally in Nature and could be experienced directly by experiencing Nature, getting away from crowds and civilization.  In the woods, by his beloved pond, Truth gave itself directly to Thoreau.  In the bustle of society, in the ambition of politicians and the pressures to conform and in the strivings of empires, he found only falsehood and sin.

            I think the next major piece of political philosophy I picked up was Plato’s Republic.  Plato too is a mystic; Truth and The Good are transcendent reality, known directly by the mind open to receive them.  And also like Thoreau, Plato was something of an ascetic; he too thought luxuries and the pursuit of profit lead one into greater unhappiness and ignorance, while embracing simplicity in life allowed greater devotion to fullness of thought and spirit.  But whereas Thoreau politically was a cynic and almost an anarchist, Plato was anti-democratic, yearning for a Philosopher-King who would combine the philosophical insights of Athens with the rigid class distinctions and social discipline of Sparta.  In high school I didn’t really notice the disagreement, as I saw Plato’s republic as merely a thought-experiment expressing how reason should rule in the life of the individual; but as time has gone by I have come to see that Plato took this idea of enlightened monarchy seriously.  Plato is not an individualist; he yearned for a society with a wise division of labor, where those who were good thinkers did all the thinking and policy-making while those whose hearts turned towards business devoted themselves to producing and making money and left the running of society to the intellectual elite.  So while Thoreau is heir to Plato in many ways, politically he follows the example of Diogenes the Cynic, the fierce individualist, who rejected political partisanship and creature comforts alike in his pursuit of complete personal freedom. 

            Plato and Diogenes were both students of Socrates, but took different lessons from the teacher’s words and fate.  Which is best:  a well-ordered, stable society where everyone knows his or her place and strives to benefit the whole, or a society which is an aggregate of individuals, each striving to live out their own ideals and pursue their own happiness?  It seems to me that this is a conflict that occurs repeatedly in the history of thought, since it is intrinsic to the project of human social life in general.  China had Confucius and Chuang-Tzu; the Hellenistic Age had the Stoics and the Cynics; the Enlightenment had Hobbes and Locke; nineteenth-century America had the Capitalists and the Transcendentalists.  As societies grow beyond family-groups and clans, we’ve had to turn our brains to intentionally work out the relationship between the individual and the group, with some placing the emphasis on one and some on the other.  Does the individual exist to serve the group, and is the nature of the individual defined primarily as part of the group?  Or does the group exist to serve the individual’s needs, so that anything that does not nurture the individual is to be discarded?

            There’s been something of a resurgence of Aristotle in recent decades.  Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum have been arguing for a return to virtue ethics, and a view of ethics as aiming for some sort of “good life,” some fulfillment of human nature.  On the other hand, political conservatives in the USA have promoted Aquinas and other Aristotelians, as well as Plato’s anti-democratic republicanism, not so much from any intellectual consideration as because they see both Plato and Aristotle as useful cudgels in their ideological war against “liberals.”  I’ve taught Aristotle as part of my Ethics classes for years, but only recently have I become interested in his political philosophy.  I believe he has much to say, and much that would defy the easy liberal-versus-conservative polarities we seem to love so much today.

            Aristotle’s Politics picks up about where Nicomachean Ethics leaves off. Aristotle’s ethics rests on his view that humans are rational animals, and thus not only have needs for basic essentials for life and desires for pleasant sensations while avoiding misery, but more essentially they need to live lives “guided by reason, or not apart from reason.”[1]  To attain this sort of life, one must cultivate habits that contribute to it; these are the virtues.  By contrast, habits that lead away from true human fulfillment (or “eudaimonia,” often translated “happiness”) are termed “vices.”  For Aristotle, the ethical life is a matter of cultivating virtues by acting virtuously, reinforcing those beneficial habits while avoiding acts that would tend towards vices.[2]  And in support of his linkage between morality, character and habit, Aristotle mentions that states themselves often employ legal codes that will shape the character of their citizens by using rewards and punishments to encourage good habits while discouraging bad ones.  For instance, we ourselves seek to be properly brave, neither too reckless nor cowardly, because if we are wise we know that hitting the virtue defined as the proper midpoint between these extreme vices will lead to our own true happiness; and societies seek to encourage bravery, industriousness and other virtues in citizens as a whole for the wellbeing of the community, so they use laws and other social pressures to encourage each individual to become a better person.  Aristotle would say that in doing so, the society is pushing the individual to become not just more socially useful, but also more personally happy.

            So even in his exploration of personal ethics and personal happiness, Aristotle sees an important role for the State.  This certainly distinguishes him from some ethical schools which have been important in American history, such as Transcendentalism; and it distinguishes him from some successors to Socrates, such as the Cynics and the Epicureans.  Today’s successors to Aristotle will likewise be less individualistic, but also concerned about the ultimate fulfillment of the individual; Aristotelians will not sacrifice the individual to the State as a Hobbesian would, since the individual’s happiness is the goal of the individual’s own activity.  Also unlike Hobbes, an Aristotelian will stress the character development of the individual, and stress the importance of cultivating the virtues.  Because of Aristotle’s view of the importance of both the individual and the group, it was natural that he would write both personal ethics and political philosophy, and base the second on the first. 

To be continued…..


[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, book I, 1097b22–1098a20

[2] Nicomachean Ethics, book II

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