Ethics and Politics
Aristotle's Ethics and Politics remain two of his most relevant works. It has been said that the Ethics is still the best springboard for the consideration of ethical problems and dilemmas. While Aristotle's answers are objectionable to many, the questions he presents are as pertinent to modern times as they ever were.
The purpose of ethics for Aristotle is simply to find the ultimate purpose of human life, once again demonstrating his emphasis on teleology. Ethics falls under the category of practical sciences, since its concern is not knowledge for its own sake but rather for the purpose of application. Aristotle first recognizes that happiness is the ultimate good, since all other goods are intermediate while happiness is final. We pursue other goods to achieve happiness, but happiness is valuable in itself.
The problem then becomes the question of how to achieve happiness. Pleasure is undeniably the motivation behind many actions, but it puts humans on the level of animals. Honor is another possibility, but it places too much emphasis on the praise of others. Aristotle concludes that the means of happiness–and hence the purpose of human existence–is virtue. Virtue involves habit and choice. By making the proper decisions, we eventually develop a virtuous habit or disposition, so that we need not run through the catalogue of options every time a moral dilemma presents itself. Rather, we act according to our disposition, which has been cultivated by past choices. The question then arises: how do we make the right choices? For Aristotle, the virtuous choice was the mean between two extremes: excess and defect. For example, between profligacy and insensibility there lies self-discipline; between obsequiousness and coldness there lies friendliness.
Aristotle goes on to discuss the concept of justice, of which he recognized two forms: first, the general sense of moral virtue and second, a particular instance of a virtue being exercised. Particular justice is further divided into distributive and remedial: the former is concerned with the distribution of resources in proportion to merit, while the latter is concerned with the rectification of wrongs.
Another central tension in the book is the issue of continence and incontinence–that is, the strength or weakness of the will. While Socrates believed that all wrongdoing arose from ignorance, Aristotle took the more intuitive view: that we recognize the right but nevertheless fail to do it. To show how an incontinent person does know the good, Aristotle allows that the person possesses the knowledge potentially but not actually. In an incontinent person, desire prevents the potential knowledge from becoming actualized during the critical moment.
Aristotle concludes the Ethics with a discussion of the highest form of happiness: a life of intellectual contemplation. Since reason is what separates humanity from animals, its exercise leads man to the highest virtue. As he closes the argument, he notes that such a contemplative life is impossible without the appropriate social environment, and such an environment is impossible without the appropriate government. Thus the end of Ethics provides the perfect segue into the Politics.
The Politics is broken into three sections: the first three books offer an introduction to political science, the next three discuss practical politics, and the last two consider the ideal state. The work as a whole has been criticized for being disorganized and disjointed, but other scholars have questioned whether the traditional ordering of the books is how Aristotle would have intended it (since it is based loosely on a lecture series).
Aristotle begins with a discussion of the city-state. He prefers this smaller unit to a national state because his ideal government must allow all citizens to meet in a single assembly. The most basic unit is actually the family, and households join together to form villages. Villages join together to form a city-state, which is the ultimate form of association because it can be self-sufficient. The development of the city-state is natural, and moreover this kind of association is the natural end for the individual. Thus the argument becomes teleological again: the city-state precedes the family and individual as a whole is to its parts. An individual who does not participate in such a community, who can flourish in solicitude, must either be an animal or a god. Participation in a community is the natural end of the human because it is the only way to exercise his or her faculties and thus find fulfillment.
Since he viewed non-Greeks, and in particular Persians, as barbarians fit to be ruled, Aristotle's support of slavery as an institution is not surprising. Keeping in line with his teleological reasoning, he believes that slaves are simply meant to be ruled and used as tools or property. On the other hand, he shows signs of ambivalence in his reasoning: he believes the slave to be capable of reason and even grants him the right to look forward to freedom. Moreover, he recognizes that there are practical difficulties in determining who is naturally meant for slavery–in particular the problem of enslavement as the result of war. Since only citizens are to participate in the city-state, this excludes not only slaves, but also resident aliens (as Aristotle had been in Athens), children, women, and sometimes the working class, which did not have the leisure time for continuous and full participation.
Aristotle offers his opinion of the various government systems and constitutions. Since the individual is meant to participate in the city-state, the government in turn must promote the good life in its citizens. This immediately rules out such forms as oligarchy (government by a few), since in practice such a system would inevitably be based on wealth and its promotion. Aristotle instead advocates some form of democracy, though he is careful to emphasize the protections that must accompany it. The state that he suggests for the practical world indeed has elements of oligarchy, or at least aristocracy, for Aristotle thought it necessary to make distinctions among the citizenry for competence. The remainder of the books continues this discussion of oligarchy and democracy, while also touching on such issues as revolutions and education. Since virtue requires the development of habit and the cultivation of reason, education is the fundamental element for the success of citizens and, in turn, of the city-state.
The direct relevance of the Politics is difficult to judge. In some senses it is outdated, as the age of the city-state is long past. On the other hand, Aristotle's picture of the relationship between individual and community continues to inspire the visions of modern political philosophers and provides a rough blueprint even if it fails to bear relevance for practical politics.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!