“Aristotle transition”: from moral psychology to political critique

Lately I’ve thought about a collection of vaguely related things which I’m now trying to put together in my thoughts in this post. My favourite stories include the three great Epics that look at the heroes of the Trojan war. Homer’s Iliad is a catalogue of the destruction and violence in the conflict shown mainly from the Greek side, it was (so apochypha says) one of the first times that Hellenes came together for an alliance. I’m reminded of the line from the intro script of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith which says ‘there are heroes on both sides’ (which in the case of the Clone Wars, wasn’t really the case, its more that there were villains on both sides and it was the same person).

The Odyssey is slightly more a human story about the after effects of war. Particularly including the female plight of Penelope, and the pathos of Odysseus who wishes simply to return home. Many stories tell of those who still face a battle of other sorts after their war has finished. The Aeneid takes an interesting Roman take on the legend; where the perspective of the losers of the war gives a greater understanding of the human condition. Compare Achilleus who is a man at his best in the winning side of a war, against say Aeneas (or even Odysseus), the latter of which are men although great, show fatigue and signs of wear. The world for them is far from perfect but they must show eminence in some way. I’ve always romanticised of the Greek way of thinking (in philosophy, culture, history) to have reflected this kind of masculinity. Perhaps it is the philosophers Plato (himself a wrestler) and Aristotle (by an unrelated coincidence a tutor to one of the greatest real-life military leaders) who try to capture that Homeric heroism. In putting Homeric heroes into this philosophic context, I pose a general question: is a person great in spite of their situation, or because of it?

Aristotle’s ethics of excellence

Aristotle writes his ethical works in a wider systematic context that from moral psychology, we then transition to a discussion of politics. That is to say, from the individual’s constitution and his nature, we may then go on to understand the behaviour of individuals in a community. This is the nature of politics and the state for Aristotle. Let’s start off with considering some aspects of Aristotle’s normative notions about ethics, Aristotle considers what thing there is as an intention or an object of endeavour that is to be pursued not for any reason but itself, this would be happiness. It seems that for Aristotle, there are many different ways for people to pursue that happiness and many people would not have the same route to it. As part of Aristotle’s wider teleological view of the world, a person is best when they perform the function that they are best at. Excellence (arete) is associated with happiness. To be the best you can be is to fulfill your highest good. For Achilleus that means being the greatest of warriors and for Odysseus it means to have great cunning to see you through many dangers.

Aristotle differs from Plato in that the latter places a high emphasis on knowledge, and basing virtue as knowledge. To be a virtuous person is to know what virtue is, and to know what virtue is seems sufficient for virtue as a person’s state of being. This sound very intellectual and invites its own sorts of issues (and it’s probably an overstatement of an early Plato). Aristotle bases his notion of human well being on action. In the vein of numerous 80s movies: money walks and bullshit talks; you can talk the talk but can you walk the walk? The practical ethic of my life is that words mean nothing (sorry readers), words mean nothing without real action. My personal ethic is that the great measures of a person involve the things not said.

Aristotle perhaps even more than Kant, chimes into my everyday sensibility about living. For Aristotle there are different kinds of skilled persons, there is the intellectual whose aim is knowledge, the communal person whose aim is the wellbeing of the communion of people in the state, and there are those who aim for eminence in a specific skill or craft (and I’d add anachronistically, their ‘art’). These people strive for the good in their own ways it seems. Although I cannot speak much more for my understanding of how Aristotle understands the intellectual type specifically, it seems that he has a general statement about how wellbeing is achieved for all three of these kinds of individuals.

Virtue is achieved by being great at whatever lot your life is in; whether a good politician, a good scientist or a good carpenter. Skills in these domains involve a degree of action as well as theoretical knowledge. Aristotle says how theoretical knowledge of virtue is a comfort in one sense, and a hindrance in another. It’s like when you give someone encouragement and the words alone make them feel better, but if you tell them to follow that encouragement through (or perhaps more colloquially put: get off your arse and get on with it), motivation seems a bit less. Words are comforting exactly because they are not action, it is not enough to know what is good or virtuous but to act on it. I think this is the essence of the common phrase: ‘easier said than done’. I’m reminded of this Aesop fable:


A pair of Oxen were drawing a heavily loaded wagon along a miry country road. They had to use all their strength to pull the wagon, but they did not complain.

The Wheels of the wagon were of a different sort. Though the task they had to do was very light compared with that of the Oxen, they creaked and groaned at every turn. The poor Oxen, pulling with all their might to draw the wagon through the deep mud, had their ears filled with the loud complaining of the Wheels. And this, you may well know, made their work so much the harder to endure.

“Silence!” the Oxen cried at last, out of patience. “What have you Wheels to complain about so loudly? We are drawing all the weight, not you, and we are keeping still about it besides.”

They complain most who suffer least.

From Ethics to Politics

Aristotle makes a systematic shift from human psychology to political (or social) thinking. This is a shift that is replicated in many philosophers and thinkers after him, the Social Contract theoriest make this shift from an account of human nature to an (implicit) judgment of how best to deal with human nature in the political community and rule of law. Kant makes this shift and it seems in a sense very obvious to judge politics, or even economics on what our presumption of Human nature is. Perhaps the most obvious candidate of this is Karl Marx. Marx wrote about the value of labour and the value that work gives in people’s lives, that is to say, in his earlier works. Work and activity can indeed make one fulfilled in life, but where Marx gets critical is in identifying conditions of working where oppression and exploitation subvert the value of work as fulfillment to work as misery. In this light, we may see Marx as following a long tradition of philosophical reasoning as following political thinking from human nature. I remember Alain de Botton stating in an interview not long ago that he believed governments should be more ‘paternalistic’ and tell people more how to behave, or better stated, encourage people to achieve wellbeing. There are some of initiatives to encourage policy to integrate with the aim of encouraging wellbeing today in various thinktanks such as the New Economics Foundation or the Transition Town movement.

Aristotle did something amazing in his time for a philosopher, he commented on his contemporary political situation. In the Politics, Aristotle compares the different contemporamous and historical forms of governance and weighed up their advantages and disadvantages. Keeping wellbeing in his mind, Aristotle critically considered the citystates of Carthage and Sparta in relation to how wellbeing is achieved among their people. Aristotle also had considerations about the structure of society in relation to how it fulfilled the ‘telos’ of collective wellbeing. The state had a role as the institutions of family and commerce in the life of the fulfilled (or unfulfilled) person, it almost reminds me of Althusser. George McCarthy’s ‘Dreams in Exile’ (which I’m still reading) makes a point that we should consider Aristotle as a sociological thinker, and indeed he is. Consider especially one of his surviving works, the ‘Athenian Constitution’ (well it’s probably not actually his writings but it would have had his blessing), which is seen now as a work of history, an understanding of the political history of Athens also involves an understanding of the implications of the changes, civil instabilities and policies which affected the life of the Athenian. Aristotle compares favourably to a sociologist today, but perhaps sociologists should be more philosophical.

The Case of Priam

“I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before. I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.”

Consider the importance of human wellbeing. Can we achieve wellbeing on our own, or can some situations make wellbeing impossible? This very question invites social critique and critique of the political economy of today. There are many historical contingencies that form our present, but beneath the contingent and changeable conditions, is a general human nature. Aristotle gives the example of how Priam, the Trojan King who loses everything, yet remains a great man, is robbed of wellbeing. Great men and women are blighted by many situations outside of their control, from war, economy, to natural disasters; experience perhaps shows contrary to that old adege of Plato that ‘the good man cannot be harmed’.

Wellbeing is far more than simply egoism and the individualistic search for happiness. Wellbeing involves a social and economic system. Wellbeing involves the dynamics of inequalities and social injustices. As a methodological point, Aristotle starts from his notion of human nature to create the critique of politics that he makes. Aristotle made the point of how the profit motive is not conducive to happiness and we should not suppose that profit and gain is unlimited, much like our resources.

It is also fair to say that the economic system in 3rdC Athens is much different today, how different exactly I’m not fine grained enough to say, but I suppose we can consider how industries such as technology and manufacturing, energy and entertainment take such predominance and influence today in a way I am not sure is comparable to the ancient world. However is the world so different that Aristotle’s ‘transition’ from ethics to political critique is not relevant? I should rather change it to another question: is it possible that famine, social inequalities and war are able to be a light on people’s happiness, irrespective of how virtuous they are as people? If the answer is yes, then Aristotle’s methodological transition has a lot of potential for sociological method.


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