Friday, August 12, 2011

Virtue and Aristotle's Republic

In Search of the Republic--6


With all of Aristotle's attention to the origins of the state, the different kinds of constitutions, how they are preserved and how they are overthrown, the nature of citizenship, and the education of citizens, one theme runs throughout his exposition: the concept of virtue.


The state's concern with the virtue of its citizens is not merely of antiquarian or religious interest. Over the last three decades, a revolution in the understanding of our nation's founding has unfolded within the academic world. Historians J.G.A. Pocock, Gordon Wood, and Lance Banning resurrected this ancient idea and argued that the classical idea of virtue, rather than liberty, best serves as the organizing principle of our understanding of the American founding. And should the state inculcate virtue in its citizens today. If so, how? A future post will weigh those propositions.

The state's role in cultivating virtue in its citizens makes explicit the connection between Aristotle's The Politics and its “prequel,” Ethics. In this book, Aristotle defined happiness as the “rational activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” Men are to use reason to cultivate specific intellectual and moral  excellencies identified by Aristotle. Most translations of Aristotle's work utilize the word virtue instead of excellencies.

These virtues, however, can only be acquired, developed, and practices within organized society.

“For as man is the best of all animals when he has reached his full development, so he is the worst of all when divorced from law and justice. Injustice armed is hardest to deal with; and though man is born with weapons which he can use in the service of practical wisdom and virtue, it is all too easy for him to use them for he opposite purposes. Hence, man without virtue is the most savage, the most unrighteous, and the worst in regard to sexual license and gluttony. The virtue of justice is a feature of a state; for justice is the arrangement of the political association and a sense of justice decides what is just.”

The concern with virtue, in fact, defines a state. According to Aristotle, “that which is genuinely and not just nominally called a state must concern itself with virtue.” He rejects the modern conceptions of the state. He contends that “the state is not an association of people dwelling in the same place, established to prevent its member from committing injustice against each other, and to promote transactions. Certainly all these features must be present,” but more is needed. In his view, the purpose is “a perfect and self-sufficient life” in which the citizen live together “happily and nobly.” The associate of the state exists “for the sake of noble actions.”



The reference to “noble actions” suggests a caveat concerning Aristotle's views on virtue. They are decidedly elitist. One purpose of the virtues is the acquisition of wealth. In his words, “It is not by means of external goods that men acquire and keep the virtues, but the other way round.” Possession of the intellectual and moral virtues lead to the possession of adequate material goods.The intellectual virtues included knowledge, intution, skill, prudence, and wisdom. The moral virtues include courage, temperance, generousity, and amiability. And only a person with adequate material goods possesses the leisure time required to participate meaningfully in public life.  One function of the state is to provide the means to develop virtues in its elite  citizens. Then a properly organzed state will permit the exercise of virtue by those elites in political life.


 Consequently, in an aristocratic constitution, mechanics and day laborers cannot participate and therefore are not full citizens.

"Citizens must not live a mechanical or commercial life. jSuch a life is not noble, and it militates against virtue.Nor must those who are to be citizen be agricultural workers, for they must have leisure to develop their virtue, and for the activities of a citizen."

The only virtue Aristotle found in the lower orders was martial virtues: the excellence of the hoplite soldier in defence of the city-state.


Aristotle's ideal constitution, then, is an aristotcracy.

But in his best obtainable constitution, Aristotle's mixed regime allows both the noble and the common persons to participate fully as citizens.

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