You and I were born into a particular society, organized by constitutions, laws, and customs. We probably take for granted most of what happens in our lives as the accepted or even natural way of being. Some of us think our system of government is fundamentally good, but not working well. Some of us think it’s irretrievably broken. Cynicism, frustration, resentment, disappointment, and helplessness are common. In short, politics * is a dirty word.

At the very least, these attitudes are unfortunate. At worst, they are corrosive. But why? One reason is that they reflect the unfulfilled expectation that those who make laws are “good” people who, as such, will make equally good laws. A system, after all, is only as good as the individuals who constitute it.

The Purpose of a Polis

Aristotle, like other important thinkers, reminds us that we have good reasons for this expectation. One is that the purpose of a polis, or city-state, is to establish and sustain the good life. (See Politics, Book III and Book VII.) According to Aristotle, the virtues are necessary to the good life. Consequently, anyone engaged in political life is engaged in promoting the virtues.

Why should Aristotle think this? Why shouldn’t he think, for example, that societies should be collections of people ruled by the most powerful person or group of people? Why not subjugate the members of a society for one’s own benefit? Who cares if anyone else has a good life?

The answer involves Aristotle’s conception of human nature, which is part of a larger teleological conception of the universe. In short, nature is purposeful; it has an end, function, characteristic activity, or telos.

Moreover, all things aim or strive toward their end, the realization of which is a good. After all, such actualization satisfies or fulfils what it is to be that thing. As such, it is good. For example, the purpose of the eye is to see; a good one sees well. The purpose of the eye, however, is not the end or goal of the sighted individual. The eye’s good, in this sense, is instrumental; it is a means to that which is intrinsically good, or good in itself, rather than as a means to some other end.

The Final End of Man — Happiness

For human beings, that which is pursued for its own sake — i.e., that which is the final end of man — is happiness. As Aristotle explains in Book I of his Nicomachean Ethics, “the function of man [is] a certain kind of life”. More specifically, that function “is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue,” which results in a flourishing, well-lived, or happy life.** For Aristotle, arête, or virtue, is an excellence. Consequently, living well includes engaging in activities directed by virtue or excellence.

“The function of man [is] a certain kind of life”. – Aristotle

Moreover to be virtuous or excellent requires reason, which Aristotle takes to be man’s distinguishing feature.*** Another way to put it is that human beings are specifically rational animals — when we act, we do so for a reason. So, eudaimonia — typically translated as “happiness,” or “human flourishing,” involves using reason in the cultivation of the sort of character that ultimately marks a life well lived.

Good reasons for acting are part of the virtuous person’s character, and though there are other ingredients to the goal of living well — ingredients that preclude certain people from the robust life Aristotle claims to be best — it is arguably the case that our own society would not require them. Reasoning well is itself a virtue — an intellectual one — and actions guided by reason are morally virtuous.


One Becomes Good by Doing Good

As Aristotle points out in Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics, such excellence is quite a feat. While one can teach intellectual virtues, the moral virtues must be cultivated through habit-forming activities. One becomes good by doing good things. It is not always easy to know what is good to do, and so we often “miss the mark.” Hence, the community is crucial to the development of such habits.

“Legislators make the citizens good by forming habits in them.” – Aristotle

Here, too, Aristotle makes a connection to politics: “legislators make the citizens good by forming habits in them, and this is the wish of every legislator, and those who do not effect it miss their mark”. The goal of the individual is also the goal of the state: to live well. For Aristotle, the nature of the virtues essential to do so consists of moderating desires, so as to avoid excess and deficit. For example, someone who feels afraid but exhibits courage is someone who has found the mean between the excess, recklessness, and the deficit, cowardice.****

For Aristotle, one who engages in political life must exercise those virtues essential to promoting the good life for the community. There is reciprocity here, too, as political activity, Aristotle thinks, is required for a citizen to be happy — and remember that happiness entails virtue. So, a non-virtuous person will never be happy, and will also contribute to the erosion of the community.

Eligible to Participate in Politics

On Aristotle’s view, one who studies ethics and politics develops practical knowledge. In other words, their benefits emerge through their use. It is worth pointing out that Aristotle thinks only a small percentage of an already small population can be citizens, that is, should be eligible to participate in politics. While you and I likely take exception to his leaving out certain groups, his general point is significant to today’s attitudes about political life.

Well before Aristotle developed his ethical and political theories, Socrates, via Plato, expressed concern that Athenian politicians did not know “anything really beautiful and good.” Those whose job was to create laws to benefit the community, and to raise up the youth to be fine citizens, were, in fact, ill-equipped to do so. Socrates, himself on trial for corrupting the youth,***** believes that the politicians are not actually interested in the right sorts of things — they don’t really care about the wellbeing of the city or its members.

A read across a number of Plato’s dialogues will reveal that Socrates equates knowledge and virtue, holding that one who knows what is right will act accordingly. At best, the politician who lacks knowledge will only accidentally do what is right — he certainly won’t be virtuous.

Socrates’s Fate

Aristotle, well aware of Socrates’s fate at the hands of the Athenian democracy, doubtless agrees with his predecessor that knowledge and the good life are connected. Unlike Socrates, however, Aristotle explicitly develops a view of the good life realized in the community. As he points out in Book I of his Politics, “man is by nature a political animal.” From families to villages to cities, society is natural to us.

“Man is by nature a political animal.” – Aristotle

Even if we disagree with Aristotle over the details of what sort of community and constitution are best, for example, we can certainly appreciate his systematic contribution to the view that politics and ethics are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, for us, a central point is that politics, according to Aristotle, is not a selfish or corrupt activity. It is not about individuals seeking to secure their own interests at the expense of others. Rather, it is an activity that aims at the good of the whole. At stake is no small thing: securing the existence and happiness of future generations.

* “Politics,” from the Greek, politokos, is that which pertains to the polis.

** It is important to note that “soul” for Aristotle is not equivalent to the notion of soul in the Abrahamic traditions. It is, rather, that animating capacity of a living thing, and as such, is bound up with the body. This articulation is an oversimplification. Aristotle’s treatise devoted to the soul, De Anima, is worth reading.

*** I have set aside the gradations of rationality that Aristotle uses to, for example, discount children, women, and slaves as full human beings. Suffice it to say, one can arguably preserve much of the core of Aristotle’s thinking about ethics and politics without committing oneself to his more repulsive views.

**** Aristotle’s theory of virtue as a mean (Book II of Nicomachean Ethics) is worth reading, but, as it is not directly relevant to my purpose here, I have made only a passing reference.

***** The charges against him were atheism, creating new divinities, and corrupting the youth. In a sense, the first two are largely responsible for the third. See Plato’s Euthyphro and Apology.

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