Aristotle on the Good Life

How does the state secure the good life for man?


It is fascinating to study Aristotle. How many individuals centuries after they passed still carry so much influence? Throughout history Aristotle’s work has influenced political philosophers and policy makers. His Politics, his work on political philosophy is still widely read. Along with his teacher Plato, he is generally seen as the most influential ancient thinker, especially within political philosophy.

To this date we as a society debate questions of whether or not government can provide the “good life” to its citizens. Having studied political philosophy at LSE under Prof. Paul Kelly, I want to share some of Aristotle’s insights, especially to the question of how Aristotle thinks the state can secure the good life.

His political thought was not perfect and had flaws. Some of his theories withstood the test of time, while others did not. For example, Hobbes challenged his principles of perfectionism and teleology. And liberal thinkers today would find Aristotle’s constitution probably too authoritative. One can only be human if one engages in political life, according to Aristotle.

First, let’s have a bit of background.

In his Politics, he explains how the polis derived naturally from earlier associations of human interactions. His interest in biology contributed to his belief that the state existed by nature. Aristotle engages in teleological reasoning, in which things have to be reasoned from the end or purpose. This teleology stands as the foundation of his philosophy.

The key question for Aristotle is the nature of the polis and how it relates to human virtue. The polis grew naturally out of simpler communities such as the family, the household and the village. The first natural association to serve everyday needs was the household. The village naturally emerged when several households came together. The natural impulse of male and female to unite serves the purpose of reproduction. Finally, he writes:

The complete community, formed from several villages, is a city-state, which at once attains the limit of self-sufficiency, roughly speaking. It comes to be for the sake of life, and exists for the sake of the good life. (Aristotle, Politics, 1252b27-30)

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that the end is only good when pursued in moderation. The city-state, therefore, is the end and perfection of natural associations.

Aristotle reveals what distinguishes man from animal and why man is a polis-living animal. Unlike animals, men possess reason and speech. As a result, they can communicate and declare what is just and unjust.

The polis comes prior to the individual because individuals are not self-sufficient when not living in a polis. In Aristotle’s words:

Further, the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand, except in an equivocal sense, as we might speak of a stone hand; for when destroyed the hand will be no better than that. But things are defined by their working and power; and we ought not to say that they are the same when they no longer have their proper quality, but only that they have the same name. The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole. (Aristotle, Politics, 1253b18)

From this one could infer though that the individual has little value beyond contributing to the common good.

According to Aristotle, there exists a natural impulse towards an association of a city-state. He signals that man is the best of animal when perfected and can exercise his excellence best when in a polis. The polis is the agent of cultivating talent and exists for the good life. The good life for man results therefore from making full use of his natural function and the polis exists for the sake of the good life. It is achieved by education and moral habituation.

The good life is either contemplative or practical. While the first is achieved in solitude, the second is achieved by actively engaging in the polis. Plato shares the sentiment of the contemplative part. Aristotle is very adamant that only by actively contributing to the common good can one achieve one’s potential as a human being.

Aristotle makes it very clear that man is the worst of all if he isolates himself from law and justice. He suggests a mixed regime of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. The system should favor the middle class, which then ensures the good life. Aristotle’s travels and his observance of different forms of political systems encouraged him to look for better ways to govern human society.

Unlike Plato, Aristotle believed that there is not necessarily just one way to rule the polis, but instead many. A mixed republic, which neither seeks the maximization of wealth, nor the promotion of liberty and equality. This also explains his resentment against usury. Happiness is an end in itself, he writes, but wealth is a means to that end. While happiness is intrinsically good, wealth is way to achieve happiness.

Aristotle compares his polis to a ship:

The preservation of the ship is the task of them all. Likewise among citizens, though all are unlike, the preservation of the association is their task, and the state is an association. Therefore, the virtue of the citizen must exist relative to the state. (Aristotle, Politics, 1276b26-3)

There are different citizens that perform different tasks for a common end. That is why the good life can only be achieved by living in a polis. The state provides the opportunity to exercise virtue, which for Aristotle is important to ensure the good life.

Something that is a bit more controversial is Aristotle’s idea that the ruling element is necessary to secure the good life. In his words:

Whenever a thing is established out of a number of things and becomes a single common thing, there always appears in it a ruler and ruled. (Aristotle, Politics, 1254a17)

Aristotle believes that human society can only flourish if there is a ruling element that can exercise authority. He recognizes that it is the non-citizens that secure the good life by providing conditions for citizens to exercise it.

There is a distinction between those that can achieve the good life, and those that cannot. Many people in the polis lack the capacities and rationality to lead a good life, but nevertheless need to contribute to the existence of the polis.

According to Aristotle’s conception of the good life, not everyone is able to achieve it and those who cannot achieve it must serve those who can. This makes the conception of citizenship elitist and hierarchical.

Manual laborers, for example, are not worthy of being a citizen. Why would a non-citizen support this kind of arrangement? In those days they didn’t have much of a choice. Aristotle would argue that they do not “deserve” it because they lack rationality.

A good citizen deliberates and makes decisions. He preserves the constitution by holding office and being ruled in turn. The status is not a birthright, nor is it open to foreigners. The constitution determines who is eligible to be a citizen and the good citizen must have the cultivation of judging wisely.

The typical features of a good citizen are a male of thirty to forty years of age, of good health, having many friends, many good children, enjoy beauty, strength, and stature. And be fortunate enough not to experience illness, bereavement or isolation.

Women are excluded from being a good citizen.

They are confined to the household and reproduction. They lack in intellect, and are passive and recipients of male activity. They therefore do not have an entitlement in the public realm. They are distinct from slaves insofar as they are morally equal although they are practically inferior, with the distinction that they can cultivate virtues.

Slaves are not good citizens. Their work is necessary for creating enough leisure time for the citizens to enjoy happiness, but they themselves do not merit a share of this happiness. It has to be the case that there some people for whom slavery fits, Aristotle argues.

Generally the non-citizens have an absence of rationality, and an absence of rationality will make some people a natural slave. Those citizens require the external imposition of direction, which is the basis of natural slavery. There are those who need to be directed by others. Those people are not really people, Aristotle writes. Natural slaves, if they exist, exist in the household. The master exercises control over the slave as if it were an instrument. Slaves are tools that can carry out menial duties, whereas the master possesses rational, commanding powers.

The distribution of how the good life is shared within society does not seem fair. A person cannot lead the good life “unless they are a male of thirty to forty years of age, of good health, of many friends, have many good children, enjoy beauty, strength, stature; and be fortunate enough not to experience illness, bereavement or isolation.” (Haslip, Susan. Aristotle’s Theory of the Good Life, 2003)

The good life is based on externalities. During his lifetime it was a social norm to exclude women and less rational people from being a “good” citizen. Harvard’s Michael Sandel argues that “in many ways Aristotle’s idea about justice is intuitively powerful, in some it’s strange.” (Michael Sandel, What’s the Right Thing to Do?)

Concerning Aristotle’s notion about the good life and how it should be secured by the state, it is indeed powerful and strange at the same time.