As I noted last time, Aristotle begins his political thinking by viewing human beings as members of the animal kingdom.
Observation reveals that humans have a nature. Among other things, that nature makes human beings social. As a result, they live in groups or communities (koinonia) comprising overlapping subsidiary communities (the most basic being the family or household itself). At some point, these overlapping, subsidiary communities together comprise the formal political community of a polis (for example, the city-state of Athens). Because it is in the nature of man to form, and live and thrive in, such communities, he calls man zoon politikon—a political (and social) animal.
For Aristotle, reason does play—and absolutely should play—a role at every stage of human life, and of shaping society. But in its essence, human society derives from instincts sewn into the nature of man, and is therefore organic and natural. It is not the product, say, of naturally solitary creatures who only form a society after a rational calculation of self-interest.
We also covered Aristotle's view that human beings have a natural telos (purpose or end). That telos, he says, is to live a life of eudaimonia—that is, of shared well-being, virtue, contentment, proper contemplation and action, flourishing, fulfillment, and good-spiritedness. Due to his social nature, man can only achieve this as a member of a properly-ordered community.
So, moving on:
Because communities (including the state) emerge from human nature, and the telos of man is to achieve eudaimonia, Aristotle says that the telos of communities themselves—again, including the state—is to help their constituent human beings live lives of eudaimonia. The whole point of politics, he implies, is to realize that quality of life for as many people as possible.
So, for example, on Aristotle's view, one thing that living a life of eudaimonia requires is living a life of moral soundness. The problem is, we are not born paragons of moral soundness. We are born with a moral sense, but it requires cultivation and guidance. We need moral education and training and continuous support. Family is one important source of this. But family alone can't do everything. Moral education must also come from other forms of community, including the state itself.
And so, he says, the state can, and should, help in the inculcation of virtues necessary for a fulfilling life. Among other things, the state should include moral instruction in its education of the young (which for Aristotle, would be something like classes combining civics and ethics). It should maintain sensible, well-enforced laws, and apply them equally. It also should play some role in maintaining the polis's proper relationship to the gods. That is, it should support healthy religious activity.
In Aristotle's telling, human nature makes this strategic state support necessary. You can't have any sort of healthy, functional, telos-fulfilling political community—people can't experience any sort of eudaimonia—without that community being rooted in some shared, basic (and ultimately enforced) conception of morality. Any regime which abdicates its duty to support that shared moral conception is, at best, derelict and reckless: without strategic state support, the population will begin to degenerate and fracture.
To be clear, for Aristotle, efforts to inculcate civic virtue are not efforts to cure people of a fallible nature. They are simply efforts to help human beings flourish. These efforts, he implies, are akin to the proper training of horses or dogs. Good horse trainers don't try to replace or destroy equine nature. They conform their training to that equine nature, and then help the horse become the best horse it could be. This is what proper efforts at moral education are like.
Reading all this, modern liberals will ask how any regime might know what a proper ethics might look like. For Aristotle, this isn't a difficult question. The answer is, again, an ethics which leads to a life of eudaimonia. What else, he implies, could a proper ethics possibly look like? And how difficult is it, really, to form a conception of what ethical virtues are?
Modern liberals might then respond that even if we all agree on the virtues necessary to a life of eudaimonia, asking the state to help inculcate them is tantamount to setting government on the road to tyranny.
But Aristotle would respond that modern liberals have it backwards. A virtuous population is a prerequisite for what Burke would later call "ordered liberty". Even Lockean liberals, as we will see, admit that. But Aristotle would press the point further and argue that some level of state support is a prerequisite for maintaining a virtuous population in the first place. There is, he suggests, no way around that.
As a result, he would argue that tyranny is far more likely to occur where a state has attempted to avoid helping inculcate habits of civic virtue. A licentious, morally unmoored, population—in addition to becoming slave to its own lusts—will eventually become slave to some tyrant, for only harsh external discipline will suffice to keep the population from tearing itself apart.
Put another way, Aristotle would say that some amount of wise state sponsorship of civic virtue (including piety) is actually a prophylactic against tyrannical government.
A few final questions a modern liberal might pose are:
What, exactly, would constitute "wise" state sponsorship of civic virtue? Who would get to decide that? Where is the dividing line between respect for individual disagreement about proper behavior versus the needs of the larger community?
All good questions, Aristotle would say. Working out the answers, and a hundred others, in any particular time and place, is what the study of politics is. But to assume these questions per se constitute a refutation of his prescriptions would be foolish. After all, a fusillade of questions could be rationally launched against any political observation or prescription. Many would no doubt be difficult to answer. Or their answers would entail difficult trade-offs. But, Aristotle would say, working through these questions is just part of the art of arranging and perpetuating healthy human communities. In the end, he would suggest, his own prescriptions present a more sensible approach than the alternatives, and that's the best we can hope for.
At any rate, to summarize, for Aristotle, a healthy community, among other things, is one rooted in an accurate conception of human nature—particularly its social inclination. It is one rooted in a shared moral conception of the good life. It is one entailing a robust communitarianism (which rejects communism). It is one in which the regime participates in the effort toward general eudaimonia by way of, inter alia, moral education, proper legislation, and strategic support for religious activity. (We didn't have space to explore this, but it's also a community with a broad middle class; a moderate, mixed constitution combining the best of aristocracy and democracy; and a conception of rights as attaching to citizenship).
All in all, Aristotle has focused on what he believes is the ultimate purpose of all political activity—rich, socially embedded lives of meaning, contentment, and flourishing for as many people as possible—and then worked backward from there to figure out how to achieve that, given the constraints inherent in human nature. And it is clear he believes his way of thinking about political things is sensible, obvious, and empirically grounded.
And so, it is easy to imagine him recoiling in shock at some of the political ideas which would emerge a millennium and a half later, and which led directly to the kind of political world we live in now. We'll get into that next time.
Tal will be back here next week to continue the conversation. Mark Steyn Club members can weigh in on this column in the comment section below, one of many perks of club membership, which you can check out here.
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