Aristotle's Practical Philosophy on Ethics and Politics

Hasan A. Yahya, professor of philosophy

Twenty-three hundred years after his death, Aristotle remains one of the most influential people who ever lived. He was the founder of formal logic, pioneered the study of zoology, and left every future scientist and philosopher in his debt through his contributions to the scientific method. Despite these accolades, many of Aristotle’s errors held back science considerably. Bernard Russell notes that “almost every serious intellectual advance has had to begin with an attack on some Aristotelian doctrine”. Russell also refers to Aristotle’s ethics as “repulsive”, and calls his logic “as definitely antiquated as Ptolemaic astronomy”. Russell notes that these errors make it difficult to do historical justice to Aristotle, until one remembers how large of an advance he made upon all of his predecessors especially his practical philosophy, logic, ethics and politics. This article covers two topics under practical philosophy: ethics and politics.

In terms of ethics, Aristotle considered it to be a practical rather than theoretical study, for example,  one aimed at doing good rather than knowing for its own sake. He wrote several treatises on ethics, including most notably, the Ethica Nicomachea. The work, which plays a pre-eminent role in defining Aristotlian ethics, consists of ten books, originally separate scrolls, and is understood to be based on notes from his lectures at the lyceum, which were either edited by or dedicated to Aristotle’s son, Nicomachus..

The theme of the work is the Socratic question which had previously been explored in Plato’s works, of how men should best live. In his  Metaphysics, Aristotle described how Socrates turned philosophy to human questions, whereas before him,  philosophy had only been theoretical. Ethics, a subject separated out for discussion by Aristotle, is practical rather than theoretical, in the original Aristotelian senses of these terms. It is partly intended to help people become good, and is not only a contemplation about good living. It is therefore connected to Aristotle’s other practical writings, on Politics, which also aim at people becoming good, though from the perspective of a law-giver, looking at the good of a whole community.

According to Aristotle, virtue has to do with the proper function (ergon) of a thing. An eye is only a good eye in so much as it can see, because the proper function of an eye is sight. Aristotle reasoned that humans must have a function specific to humans, and that this function must be an activity of the psyche (normally translated as soul) in accordance with reason (logos). Aristotle identified such an optimum activity of the soul as the aim of all human deliberate action, eudaimonia, generally translated as “happiness” or sometimes “well being”. To have the potential of ever being happy in this way necessarily requires a good character (ethics orete), often translated as moral (or ethical) virtue (or excellence).

Aristotle also believes that to achieve a virtuous and potentially happy character requires a first stage of having the fortune to be habituated not deliberately, but by teachers, and experience, leading to a later stage in which one consciously chooses to do the best things. When the best people come to live life this way their practical wisdom (phroesis) and their intellect (nous) can develop with each other towards the highest possible ethical virtue, that of wisdom

In addition to his works on ethics, which address the individual, Aristotle addressed the city in his work titled Politics. Aristotle considered the city to be a natural community. Moreover, he considered the city to be prior in importance to the family which in turn is prior to the individual, “for the whole must of necessity be prior to the part”. He is also famous for his statement that “man is by nature a political animal.” Aristotle conceived of politics as being like an organism rather than like a machine, and as a collection of parts none of which can exist without the others. Aristotle’s conception of the city is organic, and he is considered one of the first to conceive of the city in this manner.

The common modern understanding of a political community as a modern state is quite different to Aristotle’s understanding. Although he was aware of the existence and potential of larger empires, the natural community according to Aristotle was the city (polis) which functions as a political “community” or “partnership” (koinōnia). The aim of the city is not just to avoid injustice or for economic stability, but rather to allow at least some citizens the possibility to live a good life, and to perform beautiful acts: “The political partnership must be regarded, therefore, as being for the sake of noble actions, not for the sake of living together.” This is distinguished from modern approaches, beginning with social contract theory, according to which individuals leave the state of nature because of “fear of violent death” or its “inconveniences.” .(946 words) www.askdryahya.com

References:

  • Aristotle,  Nicomachean EthicsBook I. See for example chapter 7  

  • Ebenstein, Alan; William Ebenstein (2002). Introduction to Political Thinkers. Wadsworth Group

  • Barnes,  Jonathan, “Life and Work” in The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle (1995),

  • Polanyi, K. (1957) “Aristotle Discovers the Economy” in Primitive, Archaic and Modern Economies: Essays of Karl Polanyi ed. G. Dalton, Boston 1971.

  • Lord, Carnes (1984). Introduction to the Politics, by Aristotle. Chicago: Chicago University Press 

  • Russell,  Bertrand, “A History of Western Philosophy”, Simon & Schuster, 1972

  • W. K. C. Guthrie (1990). ” A History of Greek philosophy: Aristotle : an encounter“.  Cambridge University Press

  • “Aristotle (Greek philosopher) Britannica Online Encyclopedia. www.britannica.com  

  • Durant, Will, (1926 (2006)).  The Story of Philosophy. United States: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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