Aristotle: “Hence the necessity that he should have been well trained in habits, who is to study, with any tolerable chance of profit, the principles of nobleness and justice and political matters generally.”, Nichomachean Ethics, 1095b

Introduction

Habits are a recurring motif in Aristotle’s work, probably made most famous through the quote “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” By analysing this quotation, it is very easy to come to a conclusion that living through habits causes one to become a virtuous human being, as because when virtuous acts are done by habit, they grow into the individual’s life like an action repeated every day — like brushing one’s teeth. Repeating the virtuous actions from day to day makes one become a virtuous person. But does that help them in becoming a profitable politician?

The foundational claim of my criticism is that Aristotle’s statement does not, and indeed cannot, apply to the standards of contemporary public life, as one does not need to be “well trained in habits,” particularly not in virtuous ones, to “profit” from “political matters”

I perceive my critique as rather important because this passage from Nichomachean Ethics is no longer relevant to modern society, and the belief in this statement may lead to a distorted view of politics and the idealisation of politicians, as the 99% (the average voters) may wrongfully perceive some successful politicians as people worthy of their success — as people following “the principles of nobleness and justice,” when actually it is just a facade meant to lure in potential supporters.

I will illustrate those harms with the example of the 2016 United States’ Presidential Elections, as a representative case of how following Aristotle’s thesis may have tragic consequences for society.

Criticism

In his 1972 book titled Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, Roald Dahl writes:

“(…)

It soon began to dawn on me

He wasn’t very bright,

Because when he was twenty-three

He couldn’t read or write.

“What shall we do?” his parents sob.

“The boy has got the vapors!

He couldn’t even get a job

Delivering the papers!”

“Ah-ha,” I said, “this little clot

Could be a politician.”

“Nanny,” he cried, “Oh Nanny, what

A super proposition!”

“Okay,” I said, “let’s learn and note

The art of politics.

Let’s teach you how to miss the boat

And how to drop some bricks,

And how to win the people’s vote

And lots of other tricks.

Let’s learn to make a speech a day

Upon the T.V. screen,

In which you never never say

Exactly what you mean.

And most important, by the way,

Is not to let your teeth decay,

And keep your fingers clean.”

And now that I am eighty nine,

It’s too late to repent.

The fault was mine the little swine

Became the President.”

The poem is titled Nanny’s Song and is written from the perspective of the nanny of the President of The United States. Even as a writer for children, Roald Dahl is known for touching upon subjects that are close to adults’ hearts. Although six-year-olds think of Nanny’s Song as simply amusing, the literary piece is iconic mostly because of its versatility — nowadays, it can be easily interpreted as a prediction for the Trump presidency win in November 2016, while only ten years ago, people would think of Nanny’s Song as symbolic to the Bush years (2000–2008).

The point is, Nanny’s Song will always be relevant, as long as politics are aimed at personal gain — the Aristotelian “profit,” one may say. However, that does not bother most people today. We, as a society, have become accustomed to the politicians being a mix of the good and the bad, the right and the wrong. An example of this may be Hillary Clinton, who during the 2016 presidential elections, was described as “(…) awesome. Is she in bed with Wall Street? Goddammit, I should hope so! You’ve got to dance with the devil.” And that is the exact problem. Although this is a direct quotation of an interview with American celebrity RuPaul, it reflects the majority of Clinton’s supporters attitude. People claim that “if you’re a politician — not just in Washington but in business and industry, you have to be a politician — there are a lot of things that you have to do that you’re not proud of.” And that does not apply only to Hillary Clinton, but was also mirrored in the attitude of the then-Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump. His supporters, the suburban, mid-state, white America, would often be quoted as saying that yes, his policies are rather delusional; no, we don’t have anything against the Mexicans, unless they are stealing our jobs; but what is most attractive is that “Donald is funny, playful, and colourful, but most of all he is honest. (…) He is the only one who can do it. No frills, no fuss, only candid truths.” Different from the Washington politicians, and more similar to us, the average Americans. Despite all his wealth — hotels, casinos, golfing courses — he is one of us. Because he speaks what’s on his mind. The tragedy of all that is that the average Trump-supporters also thought that he was speaking the truth.

As an example of a polar opposite, one can mention Bernie Sanders, who failed to secure the Democratic Party’s nomination in the same presidential elections of 2016. The Senator may be the closest to fit the description of a presidential candidate the Aristotle would have voted for, if only he were alive today. Sanders seemingly checks all the boxes, as he is well-acquainted with “the principles of nobleness and justice and political matters generally,” being an activist for civil rights in the 1960s, having decades-long experience in political issues, and always advocating for equality, free education, healthcare, and justice. Of course, one can argue that those are just catchphrases which we can link to any of the presidential candidates in the history of presidential elections — but in Bernie Sanders’ case, those are not just empty words. “He has made voters more class conscious, dispelling the myth of equal opportunity in an inequitable age. He has challenged the party to return to its roots as an advocate for the middle class, labor and the poor. He has separated the fear of globalisation from xenophobia, denouncing trade deals while embracing immigration.”

Therefore, as we can safely assume that Senator Bernie Sanders could be seen as the figure who Aristotle is describing (it is “he [who] should have been well trained in habits, who is to study, with any tolerable chance of profit, the principles of nobleness and justice and political matters generally”). “But where is the profit?” one may ask, and that is a good question. There is none. Presidential candidate had no “tolerable chance of profit” while competing against Hillary Clinton (who was described as “the lesser evil” — not great but still better than Trump). Despite being all the things that Aristotle writes about with praise, Bernie Sanders lost, and in a big way indeed. Perhaps Aristotle’s statement could be considered meaningful in Ancient Greece, but in contemporary democratic states, it is just not relevant anymore.

The real harm presented here is that society may choose to accept that the democratically-elected President is indeed the synonym of virtue and is the expert he claims to be in “the principles of nobleness and justice and political matters generally.” Society may choose not challenge this claim, since the President has won for a reason — and that reason is that he is qualified. This way of reasoning is not only very simplistic, but also wrong and harmful: to future generations and democracy overall, as it undermines its basic ideas of collective decision based on individual’s morality, and not over-simplistic assumptions made because of society’s proneness to glorify heads of state.

Objection to Criticism

A possible objection to my argument is focused on the wording of Aristotle’s thesis, the “any tolerable chance of profit.” One could argue that it is the “tolerable” part which is the condition for the profit to be taken under consideration, and the profit in the forms of money and fame are not one of them. This is based on the Aristotelian view that the biggest goal in life is happiness (eudaimonia), and that could be seen as the highest reward — the earlier-mentioned profit. After all, it is Aristotle who describes happiness as “the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” Surely the “profit” that comes from being President — the power, the wealth — is not a legitimate “tolerable chance of profit.” Aristotle claims that it is the “ordinary people [who] identify it [happiness] with some obvious and visible good, such as pleasure or wealth or honour.” What does he mean by “ordinary people”? Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre points out that “according to Aristotle, certain virtues are only available to those of great riches and of high social status; there are virtues which are unavailable to the poor man, even if he is a free man.” What are the virtues that he is talking about? Frankena states that “Plato and other Greeks thought there were four cardinal virtues in this sense: wisdom, courage, temperance and justice.” Therefore, one can come to a conclusion that Aristotle is elitist enough to claim not only the lower working class (slaves, in Ancient Greece) are incapable of associating happiness with other things than material goods, but also lack “courage, temperance and justice.” One can easily disagree with this opinion by stating that those negative traits are not trademarked by the lower classes. Throughout centuries, individuals often sought a political career because of promises of personal profit (wealth and power) and not out of their inner need of creating progressive and beneficial change in the society. Of course, politicians who run for the Presidential office are often already wealthy enough (example: Donald Trump), that is why the idea of seemingly unlimited power over a vast country is so easy to crave — from a perspective of a person who already has anything they can wish for.

Thus, it is wrong to assume that even the most educated, upper-class individuals, are virtuous enough to gain spiritual “profit” from their success in “political matters.” It is easy to stare at the screen on Inauguration Day and tell oneself and one’s children that the newly-elected president worked hard for his success (by studying “the principles of nobleness and justice,” even) and that his success is completely justified. However, not challenging this problem is a sign of the glorification of persons in power — and is much closer to the authoritarian politics than democracy. Therefore, just like Frankena, one can also “parody Alfred Lord Tennyson: Theirs not (only) to do or die, Theirs (also) to reason why.

The second possible objection to my criticism is that Aristotle’s statement cannot be labeled as “irrelevant” — because it was never relevant in the first place.

Aristotle is writing from the perspective of the year 350 BC, when democracy was completely different from what we know today — “in Athens in the middle of the 4th century there were about 100,000 citizens (Athenian citizenship was limited to men and women whose parents had also been Athenian citizens), about 10,000 (…) resident foreigners and 150,000 slaves. Out of all those people, only male citizens who were older than 18 were a part of the demos, meaning only about 40,000 people could participate in the democratic process.” Therefore, applying the Athenian democratic standard to contemporary society is inadequate, as the reality was so different back then, that we are not be able call that “democracy” today.

Nevertheless, this counterargument is very idealised, as people still do that, whether they want to or not — by simply studying Aristotle and learning about his ideas. If Aristotle was so inapplicable to today’s standards, then why is he still taught at schools? Moreover, the problem of irrelevance is exactly what I want to highlight in my criticism. However, I do not state that all of Aristotle’s statements are wrong and irrelevant. For example, his focus on eudaemonia as the Greatest Good in life is still very pertinent, and one could argue that contemporary Western societies and could benefit greatly from adopting this stance. What I am trying to say, is that while some of Aristotle’s ideas continue to be relevant, this one statement from Nichomachean Ethics does not.

Conclusion

Therefore we, as the contemporary society, should ask ourselves the question: how did we end up becoming so cynical? Not only towards relationships, house prices, and the education system, but first and foremost — in politics? One could even say that in the 21st century, there is no place for Aristotelian “habits,” just like there is not for “the principles of nobleness and justice.”

In this essay, I proved that Aristotle’s statement from Nicomachean Ethics “Hence the necessity that he should have been well trained in habits, who is to study, with any tolerable chance of profit, the principles of nobleness and justice and political matters generally.” is irrelevant and harmful to contemporary democratic politics, and how society should challenge this claim in order to not only progress as individuals, but also to maintain their democratic values. My argument can be challenged by two objections (about the definition of “profit” and the idea of “relevance”) which I discussed in my essay, yet it is strong enough to refute them both.

Bibliography

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  4. Frankena, William. A Critique of Virtue-Based Ethics.
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