📰 Aristotle: Politics | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Full Title: Aristotle: Politics | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) describes the happy life intended for man by nature as one lived in accordance with virtue, and, in his Politics, he describes the role that politics and the political community must play in bringing about the virtuous life in the citizenry.
For example, in order to understand political phenomena, he had his students collect information on the political organization and history of 158 different cities.
Ethics and politics, which are the practical sciences, deal with human beings as moral agents. Ethics is primarily about the actions of human beings as individuals, and politics is about the actions of human beings in communities, although it is important to remember that for Aristotle the two are closely linked and each influences the other.
“A young man is not equipped to be a student of politics; for he has no experience in the actions which life demands of him, and these actions form the basis and subject matter of the discussion”
Aristotle does not and in fact cannot give us a fixed set of rules to be followed when ethical and political decisions must be made. Instead he tries to make his students the kind of men who, when confronted with any particular ethical or political decision, will know the correct thing to do, will understand why it is the correct choice, and will choose to do it for that reason. Such a man will know the general rules to be followed, but will also know when and why to deviate from those rules.
I have already noted the connection between ethics and politics in Aristotle’s thought. The concept that most clearly links the two is that which Aristotle called telos.
The word telos means something like purpose, or goal, or final end. According to Aristotle, everything has a purpose or final end. If we want to understand what something is, it must be understood in terms of that end, which we can discover through careful study.
Consider a knife. If you wanted to describe a knife, you would talk about its size, and its shape, and what it is made out of, among other things. But Aristotle believes that you would also, as part of your description, have to say that it is made to cut things. And when you did, you would be describing its telos.
If you were to fully describe an acorn, you would include in your description that it will become an oak tree in the natural course of things – so acorns too have a telos.
Just like everything else that is alive, human beings have a telos. What is it that human beings are meant by nature to become in the way that knives are meant to cut, acorns are meant to become oak trees, and thoroughbred ponies are meant to become race horses? According to Aristotle, we are meant to become happy.
Someone who does live according to virtue, who chooses to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, is living a life that flourishes; to borrow a phrase, they are being all that they can be by using all of their human capacities to their fullest. The most important of these capacities is logos – a word that means “speech” and also means “reason” (it gives us the English word “logic”).
Human beings alone have the ability to speak, and Aristotle says that we have been given that ability by nature so that we can speak and reason with each other to discover what is right and wrong, what is good and bad, and what is just and unjust.
Just as an acorn can only fulfill its telos if there is sufficient light, the right kind of soil, and enough water (among other things), and a horse can only fulfill its telos if there is sufficient food and room to run (again, among other things), an individual can only fulfill their telos and be a moral and happy human being within a well constructed political community.
The citizens of a political community are partners, and as with any other partnership they pursue a common good. In the case of the city it is the most authoritative or highest good. The most authoritative and highest good of all, for Aristotle, is the virtue and happiness of the citizens, and the purpose of the city is to make it possible for the citizens to achieve this virtue and happiness.
Life in the city, in Aristotle’s view, is therefore necessary for anyone who wishes to be completely human.
“One who is incapable of participating or who is in need of nothing through being self-sufficient is no part of a city, and so is either a beast or a god” (1253a27). Humans are not capable of becoming gods, but they are capable of becoming beasts, and in fact the worst kind of beasts: “For just as man is the best of the animals when completed, when separated from law and adjudication he is the worst of all” (1253a30). Outside of the context of life in a properly constructed city, human happiness and well-being is impossible.