Connections Between The Politics And The Ethics
In the preface of Politics, Books VII and VIII, Richard Kraut acknowledges the importance of connecting the Ethics and the Politics when he writes that “[Aristotle’s] political thought will be poorly understood if it is broken into pieces that are studied in isolation from each other […]
It is only when one reads the work as a whole, and integrates it with Aristotle’s ethical writings, that one can appreciate the power and the scope of his project” (Kraut, Preface). In other words, a person cannot fully understand the Ethics without reading the Politics and vice versa because these are texts whose major themes depend on each other. In this chapter, I highlight important similarities between the Ethics and the Politics and explain how each text supports the other.
One major theme that connects both texts is virtue. In the Ethics, Aristotle sees virtue as a fundamental pillar in attaining happiness. People who pursue virtue aim for the best life possible. In the Politics, Aristotle maintains that “the association which aims in the highest degree and at the supreme good is the one which is the most authoritative and includes all the others. Now this is called a ‘state’ [polis], and it is a political association”.
The idea that the polis aims at the highest good parallels the highest good that people seek in the Ethics; both ideas are also connected to the idea of virtue. Another important connection in the Ethics and the Politics hinges on the roles that slaves, women, farmers, and artisans fulfill. They are not considered part of the polis and are thus left out of pursuing the ideal life. Yet these groups help the polis become a better one, an idea that is expounded upon in the Politics. Although in the Ethics Aristotle posits three types of friendships, I will focus only on one type of friendship. This type of friendship relates to farmers and artisans.
There are other unlabeled types of friendships that I discuss in this chapter which relate to slaves and women, as stated in the Ethics. Friendships based on these themes best pertain to the relationship between slaves, women, farmers and artisans because in an ideal polis, these people are regarded as inferiors to the adult male citizens of the polis. Finally, I want to focus on the importance of ruling, as the rulers will lead the polis to living the best life and they must also decide the criteria for citizenship. In the Ethics, Aristotle argues that the statesman has an obligation to make the citizens of the polis better and to ensure that they follow the law.
In the Politics, a citizen ought to possess the ability to rule as a statesperson and to be ruled as a citizen so that the polis will prosper. Arguably these are the most important connections between the Ethics and the Politics because the connection shows the aim of the polis and its citizens, distinguishes between a citizen and a non-citizen, and these connections show the influence of those who run the polis – the rulers.
In the Ethics, Aristotle sees virtues as essential to attaining happiness. People must pursue virtue in order to attain happiness, and once that lifestyle is set, the person “will be such a man throughout his life; for he will be engaged always or most of all in actions and studies of things done according to virtue, and he will bear the fortunes of life most nobly and with propriety in every way like a man who is truly good”.
The key to living a good life does not consist only in virtuous actions in a polis throughout an entire life, but it includes happiness as well. After all, happiness “is the highest good, and the most noble, and the most pleasant”, and since happiness “requires […] both complete virtue and a complete life”, happiness must be an element that results in continuously pursuing a virtuous life. Recall that this kind of happiness is not an ephemeral type of happiness – it is the Greek concept eudemonia that I spoke of in chapter 1. That is why Aristotle argues that “happiness [is] the most worthy of choice and not capable of being increased by the addition of some other good”.
How does the idea of a virtuous life connect to the idea of a citizen living in a polis as the Politics says? Aristotle believes that people who listen “effectively to lectures concerning noble and just things and, in general, to subjects dealt with by politics should be brought up well in ethical habits”.
To pursue politics in the right manner, an individual needs to have an understanding of the ethical virtues. To strengthen his point, Aristotle quotes Hesiod to warn those who do not acquire ethical habits: “the man who neither for himself can think nor, listening, takes what he hears to heart, this man is useless”. Ethical virtue is certainly tied to the previous quotation, for those who do not posses ethical virtues are considered useless. Therefore in order to be a good citizen and be able to promote the well-being of the polis, a citizen needs to be brought up in ethical virtue.
Since virtue is an essential part of a happy life, let us look again at the ethical virtue bravery, but in the context of living in a polis. As mentioned before, Aristotle defines a brave person as one who “faces and fears things which he should, and for the right cause and in the right manner and at the right time, and who shows bravery in a similar manner”.
Stating it this way demonstrates that Aristotle does not intend bravery to mean self-sacrifice in spite of positing that military bravery in the face of death is the highest and noblest virtue of bravery in that “the perils” of war “are the greatest”. Aristotle argues that virtues are relative to people and to different circumstances. But what types of circumstances? Here is where the Politics fills in some of that gap because it gives us potential situations to consider. Politically, we may fear “a bad reputation, poverty, disease, friendlessness, death, etc., but a brave man is not thought to be concerned with all of them”. In this sense, Aristotle provides us with subjects that we are right to fear, but these alone do not create bravery.
Additionally, Aristotle maintains that “a man should not fear poverty or disease or whatever arises not from vice or is caused not by himself. Still a brave man is not a man who is fearless of these things”. Garver remarks on this point by saying that “courage concerns those fears connected with situations we are responsible for creating. Unless there is a hidden political premise, that criterion would not eliminate poverty or disease”.
Garver appears to echo Aristotle, but then Garver introduces scenarios that distinguish our moral world from Aristotle’s ideal conception. One question that Garver posits is, “am I courageous if I quit a degrading job and try to earn a living by myself?”. This scenario could play out many different ways depending on the person, and as Aristotle states, virtues are relative to each individual. Regarding Garver, one scenario in which the act could be considered courageous is if a woman left her degrading job and began an entrepreneurship with little startup money. She intends to benefit other people even with her lack of finances, so it would be a risky decision. She must have enough courage to look past poverty in order to pursue her dream.
Examining the same scenario through the Ethics and the Politics, we arrive at a question that the person must ask: does this action aim toward happiness not only for this woman but for the improvement of the polis as well? If this is a possibility, then she should go through with her decision. In an ideal polis, she will be supported by fellow citizens who want to see the polis prosper because the citizens cooperate with one another. This displays the connection between the Ethics and the Politics: people working together in the same polis who aim for both the good of the polis, and aim for the good of a person’s life by pursuing virtue.
However, there are people who live in the polis whom Aristotle does not consider as part of the polis, a fact which he makes clear in the Politics. These groups include slaves, women, farmers and artisans. In chapter 2 of this thesis, I quoted that slaves cannot be citizens because “a slave by nature is a man who can belong to another […] and who can participate in reason […] but [who cannot possess] it”. In other words, slaves are able to use reason to a certain degree, but they are unable to exercise it to its fullest extent like the adult male citizens.
Thus slaves cannot be full citizens in a polis, but what about women? After all, they do possess reason. However, Aristotle states that “the woman has [the deliberative part of the soul] but it has no authority”, and women’s lack of authority distinguishes men and women with regards to citizenship. Aristotle talks about the deliberative part of the soul as the ability to use good reason in determining what is good and expedient for the person to pursue, a quality that is essential for pursuing a virtuous life. One of the larger points found in chapter 2 is that women lack the ability to deliberate. If a person cannot deliberate what is good for the self, then the person cannot achieve a virtuous life; hence women as a whole cannot realize the virtuous life and cannot be considered citizens.
But the farmer and the artisan both possess reason equivalent to the adult male citizens; what prevents these groups of people from becoming citizens? Aristotle does not see the life of the farmer or the artisan as desirable because “a citizen should not lead the life of a [vulgar] artisan or a tradesman; for such life is degrading and inconsistent with virtue. Nor should a citizen who is to be [happy] lead the life of a farmer; for he should have the leisure to acquire virtue and to perform [good] political actions”. The farmer and the artisan spend too much time pursuing their craft that it leaves little time for them to pursue the virtuous life. In this sense, they too fail to be recognized as citizens in an ideal polis.
How does the Ethics strengthen Aristotle’s treatment of these groups as stated in the Politics? In the Ethics, Aristotle does not focus on how these groups of people do not fit into the polis; rather, their status is already assumed and Aristotle displays how these groups ought to be treated. Aristotle employs the idea of friendship and he discusses three kinds, but I will only focus on usefulness and pleasure because these types of friendship are pertinent to my argument. Aristotle describes the friendship of usefulness as those “who like each other because of their usefulness to each other do so not for the sake of the person liked but insofar as some good may be obtained from each other”. This type of friendship hinges on a kind of reciprocal relationship: it exists only because both parties receive something out of it. Aristotle warns that this type of relationship “does not last long but changes from time to time. So when the cause of men’s friendship is broken, their friendship too is dissolved”.
Arguably this type of friendship somewhat resembles a similar relationship between farmers and artisans, and adult male citizens. The adult male citizens need the products that the farmers and the artisans make; likewise, the farmers and the artisans depend on the money that the adult male citizens have. Thus this could be one type of relationship within a polis. A similar case can certainly be made for the friendship between a slave and the slave’s master.
The master needs the slave to complete tasks that associate with manual labor so that the master can pursue the virtuous life, and the slave needs to learn a limited kind of virtue from the master. Aristotle deepens this idea in highlighting the unequal relationship between the slave and the master. Since the master is superior and the slave is inferior, the relationship must be “proportional, e.g., the better party should be liked more than he likes, and so should the party which bestows greater benefits”. The slave should display greater appreciation for his master because the master has more to offer the slave than the slave has to offer the master.
One type of friendship that Aristotle does not specifically label is between a husband and wife. Aristotle describes the friendship in this way: “there is another kind of friendship in which one of the parties is superior, e.g., […] that of a husband to his wife”. In this sense, the husband rules over the wife and not vice versa. Aristotle makes this clear further in the same passage, for the friendship that runs from “a husband toward his wife is [not] the same as that of a wife towards her husband”. As mentioned in the Politics, Aristotle sees the husband as the ruler of the household, including his children and his wife. Again, the role of the woman assumes a subordinate position within the household. Further, “the better party should be liked more than he likes, and so should the party which bestows greater benefits”. Not only should the wife submit to the husband, but the wife should like and appreciate the husband more than the husband should appreciate the wife.
Not only are virtue and friendships important in both the Ethics and the Politics, but ruling is as well. In Aristotle’s conception of the ideal polis, citizens possess the capability to be ruled and to rule. Rulers of the polis must possess a higher degree of virtue because “then the best way of life for every state as well as for every citizen would be the practical life [i.e., a life of action]” the ruler would impose this kind of life on the citizens. In the Politics, Aristotle mentions two specific types of ruling: despotic and political.
Despotic rule is “concerned with the performance of necessities [only], and the ruler need know not how to perform these but rather how to make [good] use of them”. In other words, the despotic ruler does not have to know how to perform the task, as that burden is upon the artisans, slaves, and those who work in manual labor. Instead, the despotic ruler knows how to use the products or services that come out of those tasks. An endnote found at the back of the Ethics gives more insight into the idea of the despotic ruler, where it is noted that “the distinction here is that between actions as ends in themselves and services or productions as necessities or instruments for the sake of those actions”. In other words, the manual laborers, slaves, and artisans work to make necessities that the polis will use, and it is the role of the despotic ruler to make use of these services in relation to the rest of the polis.
On the other hand, political rule differs from despotic rule because the political ruler “should learn by first learning how to be ruled”. Aristotle offers examples to show what kinds of people ought to follow this format, such as “a commander of a cavalry or of an army or of a squadron or of a company”. To be an effective political ruler, a person must work underneath that position in order to see how the occupation works. Then, when the person steps into the position, the person understands their role in what the person needs to accomplish.
Although Aristotle distinguishes between the virtue of a ruler from one a ruled citizen, he maintains that a good citizen ought to understand how to rule and to rule both from a citizen’s perspective, because in an ideal polis, citizens take turns ruling. Remember from chapter 1 of this thesis that Aristotle regards a virtuous person as one who performs virtues with right reason at the proper times. The virtues of a ruler differ from a virtuous person because a virtuous ruler knows how to run a city effectively. Like a virtuous citizen, the virtues of rulers differ among the political systems. Contrastingly, virtuous people remain constant no matter what polity the person belongs to, meaning that their virtues do not change from polity to polity. According to the commentary at the back of the Politics, “the definitions of ruling and of being ruled are different, and so are those of knowing how to rule and knowing how to be ruled”. Thus it is important for a ruler to possess both attributes in order to aim for the best polis possible, which in turn allows the citizens to pursue the best possible life, one full of virtue and happiness.
How is the ruler seen in the Ethics? Aristotle argues that the “statesman […] should be investigating attributes of the soul, both for the sake of these and as much as is adequate to what is sought, for greater precision is perhaps rather burdensome in view of what he is aiming at”. The “attributes of the soul” that the statesman investigates relate to “human virtue,” an idea that was mentioned earlier about the association between virtue and the soul. “The sake of these” refers to the idea that the statesman investigates “the soul for its own sake” and to “seek knowledge for its own sake”.
Aristotle wants the statesperson to pursue virtue for its own sake and in doing so, the statesperson will attain happiness. The statesman should not only aim for the good of the self, but for the good of the polis as well. Therefore “what [the statesperson] is aiming at” is to “make the citizens good and obedient to the laws”. In sum, the role of the statesman is to pursue virtue for its own sake and understand it well enough to help all of the citizens of the polis to pursue the same lifestyle. In this sense, the statesman must push the citizens to become better people, which in turn will make the polis as a whole even better.