Applying A Dictum To Aristotles Philosophy Philosophy Essay

"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." – Aristotle, (384-322 BC)

To apply this dictum to Aristotle’s philosophy itself, one should aim to reflect critically upon his thought, without necessarily accepting or applying them in our lives. In that vein, this paper argues that there are practical difficulties in taking Aristotle’s philosophy per se as a guide for our contemporary social and political life. However, Aristotelian precepts serve to both inspire and provide an ageless investigative framework for critical self-reflection in modern society – specifically, his conception of political man, eudaimonia, and the symbiosis between citizen and polis.

We can say that Aristotle’s thought can be taken as a relevant guide to contemporary social and political life, if its application increases the likelihood of living a better life – achieving eudaimonia, in Aristotelian terminology. The scope of this essay also limits its overview of Aristotle’s philosophy to his views on human ends and human nature, vis-a-vis social and political life – thus I will draw mainly from the first half of the Politics but also selectively from his two Ethics in order to explicate his view on these issues.

Human Ends

Aristotle observes keenly in the Nicomachean Ethics that: "Every craft and every inquiry, and similarly every action and choice, seems to aim at some good." This statement baldly asserts what seems good to us. However, this is merely a starting point for further reflection – one needs to comprehend why things that seem good in fact are good. He believes that out of that investigation, we will derive a good that is sought in and of itself – the ultimate end of man, which is eudaimon, a kind of happiness or human flourishing.

This is also a uniquely human trait, as humans alone possess phronesis – the faculty of reasoning. The link between eudaimon and phronesis proceeds via his function argument – the ergon (function) of human beings is to engage in deliberation and reasoning with his contemporaries in a functioning community.

How does Aristotle suggest we attain eudaimonia? We have to engage in the various forms of excellence (arête) or virtue belonging to the rational soul. Aristotle conceives of virtue – it is "a state of the sort which issues decisions... determined by reasoning of the right sort... in terms of which a wise person would determine it. It is a mean between two vices, one of excess and one of deficiency". In other words, there is an ethical dimension to Aristotelian virtue – and it is precisely in thinking with this ethical framework that we are able to engage in the many virtues – intelligence, courage, patience, fairness, and such – in our everyday lives. It is this sort of thinking that is a hallmark of the best sort of life – theoretikos or contemplative life. This dictum, ex hypothesi, sets the basis for critical self-reflection even in modern life today.

Human Nature

However, articulating human ends merely sets the stage for a further exploration of human nature. At the start of the Nicomachean Ethics he proclaims that the science of studying the ultimate end of human beings is politike – the science of politics. Understanding human ends are merely a prelude to promoting the ideas of human goodness within one’s community. Every other pursuit or craft – military, medicinal, etc – should thus be supervised by those who understand politike and make decisions regarding them that aim to improve public life. This definition and the authority that its practitioners qua government officials hold is fundamental to our conception of politics as a practical science. Aristotle provides the standard by which power-holders should make public decisions – that of human well-being. Just as these decisions affect the governance of a city, its organization, legal system, its norms of conduct and governing institutions are to condition and shape the interactions of its citizens in a way that allows them to pursue eudaimonia.

Only in the Aristotelian polis, then, can one become fully realized. Crucially for Aristotle, both human and polis possess similar teleological underpinnings. Just as we innately possess a strong impulse towards the good of a political life, the city evolves naturally and rationally from households and villages. Just as we are political animals due to our political nature, the city exists by nature. However, the growth from households to a polis cannot proceed independently of human agency; he relates it to other human crafts that proceed via human action. There is thus a parallel between the manner that cities arise and the way humans "grow" towards their teleological end. The invariant nature of both processes counts them both as natural.

Reconceptualizing State and Citizen

There is a duality in the Aristotelian conception of politikos. Curiously in the Nicomachean Ethics, he states that "human beings are by nature couple-forming – more so than political, inasmuch as the household is prior to and more necessary than the city". Another passage in the Eudemian Ethics states likewise: "human beings are not merely political animals but also householding animals". Ergo, there are two related but distinct desires in his conception of man as a political animal. The first is a general desire to be sociable or gregarious. Aristotle baldly states that no human being can abide isolation for long, and out of a sense of social necessity one seeks company. The second is a more specific desire for participation in a political community – and it is this impulse that, while not as strong as the first, makes us genuinely political creatures.

This idea is instrumental in reflecting upon the conceptualization of citizenship: one can be considered but a "half-baked" citizen, if one merely utilizes the physical, social and material provisions of a city, such as security, food and shelter, and the like. Conversely, a true Aristotelian citizen, seeks active participation in politics – using his rational faculties of deliberation, judgement and such to contribute to and enrich the governance of the polis, instead of merely benefiting of living in it! This differs from our conventional understanding of citizenship from social contract theorists like Hobbes and Rousseau. There is thus a divergence between Aristotle’s conception of the state as a political community and the modern Weberian conception of the state as a conventional construct composed of interlocking agreements – a contract between human beings made out of self-interest. One may claim of such an approach that "the state’s laws are only as natural as the rules of cricket".

Of course, neither Aristotle, Hobbes, nor we dispute the fact that life outside of a state, regardless of what citizenship is or isn’t, is poor, nasty, brutish and short. Rather, Aristotle urges us to question the notion of the city as being purely an instrumental construct. It is not man’s lack of self-sufficiency but also the need for human flourishing that compels the formation of the polis. Instructive is a metaphor that suggests - just as the citizen is to the polis, a foot or hand is to the body – the former is definitionally dependent on the latter, just as the latter is operationally dependent on the former. Thus the good of the polis is the good of the citizen, while the good of the citizen is the good of the polis qua its flourishing.

What implication does the exegetical reading above have for contemporary conduct? One may take the Aristotelian thesis to argue that the civic good is prior to the individual good, mirroring the polis being prior to the individual. Here we speak not of temporal priority, but of logical priority. To reuse the body metaphor, we can proclaim that the good of the body is of higher importance than the good of any one part – we should rather lose an eye than the body. Contra western political discourse, which puts individuality qua various freedoms and liberties above community, Aristotelian political philosophy underlies opposing currents of thought such as communitarianism, which puts the interests of the community above the individual. This view has found some purchase in the "Asian values" discourse, which has been the legitimating narrative for governance in countries like China and Singapore, as well as ideological movements extant in western circles. Aristotle’s thoughts on the nature and ends of man and polis, his more holistic conceptualization of citizenship, all serve as an excellent starting point for our own reflections to challenge existing political discourse.

Practical difficulties, patent contradictions

Piety, according to Aristotle, bids us to honour the truth before our friends. So while there are many truisms within the Aristotelian political corpus, we must reject certain aspects of his thought that are no longer relevant or applicable and recognize some as contradictory to his own dictums. I will attempt a brief overview of a few outstanding contentions.

A distinctive feature of Aristotle’s political philosophy is his misguided and malapropos attempt to justify the institution of slavery. Defending slavery today is a ethically an scientifically bankrupt enterprise, but Aristotle’s arguments in its defence expose a contradictory line of reasoning that undermines the applicability of his thought. Throughout the Politics, Aristotle systematically excludes groups from his earlier conception of eudaimonia. Natural slaves – men who, lacking any rational faculty, are innately unable to engage in the various forms of virtue available to rational souls, are first to be singled out. This category is eventually fallaciously conflated to include all non-greeks. Unlike natural slaves, women possess deliberative faculties but "in a form which lacks authority", thus excluding them from being achieving eudaimonia as a genuinely political animal qua Greek men. Lastly, even within Greek society, the banausoi (mechanical or vulgar)are also to be excluded – while they do not possess any deficit in their rational faculties, their occupation makes it impossible for them to practice Aristotelian virtue. These craftsmen, farmers, labourers and the like pursue their craft instrumentally for survival, failing to set aside time for the exercise of one’s rational and political faculties as an end in itself. As a result, only Greek men are admitted full citizenship in the polis.

Just as science has proven such views unsound, there is also no a priori reason for this arbitrary exclusion. If we accept the Aristotelian axiom that eudaimonia is a teleological pursuit unique to humans, we either reject his argument for excluding most humans from the axiom, or are forced to conclude that by definition, women, slaves and the politically apathetic are not human beings! The Aristotelian exclusion contradicts logically and in spirit his earlier conceptualization of the polis as fundamental to human flourishing. While a more successful moral philosopher might have endeavoured to see past the prejudices of their own time and place, Aristotle here failed to do so. We ought to learn from his mistake and reaffirm citizenship as an inclusive rather than exclusive concept, as seen in the multicultural citizenship policies of countries like Canada and New Zealand, which in the case of the former, "affirm[s] the value and dignity of all... regardless of their racial or ethnic origins, their language, or their religious affiliation".

A less glaring flaw lies in an assumption that Aristotle makes in conceiving of his polis. As stated earlier, a central tenet of his political thought lies in his postulation that both state and citizen share the same teleological rubric; ergo, because the end is sought successfully only though their symbiosis, the interests of citizen and state necessarily concur. However, this logic cannot account for any divergence in the many individual interests qua virtues that compose eudaimonia; concordantly it does not acknowledge that there is always bound to be conflict between individual rights and freedoms with the laws of the state. The social contract approach makes the distinction, in that state interests are necessarily an agglomeration of myriad, conflicting individual interests – and such a view can thus at least conceive of the basis of such conflict. While the Aristotelian conception of the city-citizen relationship provides an interesting counterpoint and a novel theoretical lens by which to reflect on modern politics, the assumption limits its relevance to contemporary pluralistic societies in North America and Europe.

Final Thoughts

There is still much to commend Aristotle despite the obvious flaws in his political thought. The ideal city as conceptualized by Aristotle really serves to reveal what our own political communities lack. By postulating to us our inherently political nature, he reminds us to exercise our own deliberative faculties. By launching his inquiry into ultimate ends, he urges us towards our own critical self-reflection. By linking human nature and human ends inextricably with the polis, he establishes the dictum that politics, both in practice and as science, should be led by a conception of human well-being. With regard to the many conundrums of social and political life today, we should seek not to apply Aristotle’s answers, but rather his questions instead.

Essay Length: 2058 Words