PHIL 41150: Political Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Wednesday February 12, 2003

[6.] The Good Life.[1]


Aris has already argued (in Politics III) in favor of Polity ("constitutional government," politeia in the normative sense = rule by the many for the common interest) as the best type of political system (although he hedges this by saying that ultimate political authorityN resides in the laws of the polis and that the Polity is only the best practicable form of constitution -- a monarchy would be best were there one man so superior to others as to give him complete authorityN).


At this point, he wants to explore in more detail what such a polis will be like, and in particular how it can bring it about that everyone in the polis can live a good life (that is, after all, the function of the polis). So here Aris turns to the question:


What is the most desirable "mode of lie"? I.e., what is the best way to live? what is the life of happiness?


In the Nichomachean Ethics, a work that proceeds the Politics, Aris has a lot to say on the question of eudaimonia (the good life, human flourishing, well-being, happiness). Before we look at the account of eudaimonia given in the Politics, we need first to go back to that earlier work.



[6.1.] Background from Nichomachean Ethics: Eudaimonia.


Aris claims that human beings have a unique function. Just as various artifacts and natural objects have unique functions (ax - cutting; eyes - vision; etc.), so humans also have a unique function: rational activity ("an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle" Nich Ethics I:7, p.186)


Just as a good ax is one that cuts well, and a good eye is one that sees well, a good human being is one who:

·         exhibits excellence in rational activity... "human good turns out to be activity of the soul exhibiting excellence, and if there are more than one excellence, in accordance with the best and most complete."

·         ...not just on occasion, but over the course of a lifetime: "But we must add 'in a complete life'. For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day, and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy."


Note the emphasis on activity: the happy / good life is necessarily an active one, one of doing and doing well.


So for Aris, happiness is not an emotion or a feeling. It is a state one achieves, a life of activities performed in accordance with fully realized rational capacities.[2]



[6.2.] Three Types of Goods (VII-which-is-fourth:1).


The person with eudaimonia (i.e., he who is eudaimon) possesses three types of goods…

·         external goods (food, clothing, wealth, power, property, reputation)

·         goods of the body (physical health)

·         goods of the soul (the intellectual and moral virtues, like courage, wisdom, temperance, justice)

…and the goods of the soul are the most important:


…the goods of the soul are not gained or maintained by external goods. It is the other way round. You can see for yourselves that the happy life--no matter whether it consists in pleasure, or goodness, or both--belongs more to those who have cultivated their character and mind to the uttermost, and kept acquisition of external goods within moderate limits, than it does to those who have managed to acquire more external goods than they can use, and are lacking in the goods of the soul. (1323a, p.261)


Aris gives three arguments for thinking that goods of the soul are more important than external goods:


·         there is a limit to the amount of external goods that will benefit you -- sooner or later, adding more and more external goods will begin to harm you, or at least stop doing you any good; but there is no point at which an increasing good of the soul will begin to harm you or stop benefiting you.

·         If x is more valuable than y, then the best state of x is superior to the best state of y. The soul is more valuable than the body and more valuable than external things. So the best state of the soul (and thus the goods of the soul) is more valuable than the best state of the body (and thus the goods of the body) and more valuable than the best state of external things (and thus external goods).

·         "…it is for the sake of the soul that these other things are desirable, and should accordingly be desired by everyone of good sense--not the soul for the sake of them." (1323b, p.261) DISCUSSION: WHAT DOES HE MEAN BY THIS?


So Aris' conception of the good life seems to be a life characterized by all three types of goods (for no one can be happy without some amount of external and bodily goods), with the most important being goods of the soul: "…the amount of happiness which falls to each individual man is equal to the amount of his goodness and his wisdom, and of the good and wise acts that he does." (1323b, p.261)


Now Aristotle makes a move that's the opposite of Plato's strategy; rather than beginning with moral claims about the polis and arguing from there to moral claims about the individual, Aris argues in the opposite direction: he says that the account of the good life for an individual is also true for a city:


…the best city is the one which is happy and 'does well'. To do well is impossible unless you also do fine deeds; and there can be no doing fine deeds for a city, any more than there can be for an individual, in the absence of goodness and wisdom. The courage of a city, and the justice and wisdom of a city, have the same force, and the same character, as the qualities which cause individuals who have them to be called just, wise and temperate. (1323b, p.261)


So a city, like an individual, has a good life if it has certain virtues and engages in activity that reflects those virtues.




[6.3.] External Action vs. Internal Development (VII-which-is-fourth:2). Which type of action is more important to the good/happy life of the city?


external action

internal development

imperialistic expansion, capturing more and more territory

the city concerns itself with developing its own culture and resources


Aris notes a popular view: that conquering and ruling over foreign cities (i.e., imperialism) constitutes a good life for a city:


…there are cities where the exercise of despotic authority over neighbouring cities is made the standard to which both constitution and laws must conform. (1324b, p.263)


On this pro-imperialism view, the fact that conquering other cities is unjust is irrelevant; most people care about justice only insofar as they and their own city are concerned. When it comes to treatment of foreigners, they no longer care about justice:


…when it comes to politics most people appear to believe that mastery is the true statesmanship; and they are not ashamed of behaving to others in ways which they would refuse to acknowledge as just, or even expedient, among themselves. For their own affairs, and among themselves, they want an authority based on justice; but when other people are in question, their interest in justice stops. (1324b, p.263)


Aris responds to this pro-imperialism view by asserting that war and conquest are, at most, means to the chief end of the city (happiness / the good life) -- they are not ends in themselves.


...if military pursuits are one and all to be counted good [they are good in a qualified sense]. They are not the chief end of man, transcending all other ends; they are means to his chief end. (1325a, p.263)[3]


Although he doesn't say so explicitly, Aris seems to be suggesting that the conquest of other cities is justified only when it is necessary to secure the happiness of one's own city.




[6.4.] Activity vs. Inactivity (Politics VII-which-is-fourth:3).  Aris considers the relative merits for an individual of the life of activity (including political engagement) and the solitary life of contemplation. He is continuing the reverse-Platonic strategy he began earlier: whereas Plato made moral claims about the polis and then used them to argue for moral claims about the individual, Aris begins with the individual and argues from there to the polis.


Aris agrees with the view that the life of activity is better for an individual than the life of inactivity: "Happiness is a state of activity." (1325a, p.264)


But he rejects an assumption that usually accompanies that view, viz. that the intellectual life, one of reflection and of pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, is a life of inactivity. Thinking is an activity, so the life of the mind is an active life:


...the life of action need not be, as is sometimes thought, a life which involves relations to others. Nor should our thoughts be held to be active only when they are directed to objects which have to be achieved by action. Thoughts with no objects beyond themselves, and speculations and trains of reflection followed purely for their own sake, are far more deserving of the name of active. (1325b, pp.264-5)


In other words, the life of inward-activity (of intellectual work and contemplation) is even better for an individual than the life of outward activity.


So (following his reverse-Platonic, from-the-individual-to-the-polis strategy), he concludes that the life of internal-development is better for the polis than the life of external-activity.


[1] Peter Simpson argues persuasively that the book of the Politics that begins with 1323a14, and which is in most translations given as Book VII, was actually intended by Aristotle to be Book IV. See Simpson, "Introduction," The Politics of Aristotle pp.xvi ff.

[2] Also in the Nich Ethics (and again in Politics VII-which-is-fourth:13, p.268) Aris describes happiness as: "the complete actualization and practice of goodness, in an absolute rather than a conditional sense." So the good life (a life of activity in accord with reason) is good, not in a "conditional" sense (like punishment of the unjust is good -- to punish someone who deserves it is a good thing, but things would be better had the person never acted so as to deserve punishment) but in an "absolute" sense (like charity -- giving of oneself to increase the "honours and wealth" of others -- the good life is intrinsically valuable).


[3] Simpson's translation is similar: "...while all the care taken about war must be considered something noble, it cannot be considered the highest of all ends but rather as for the sake of that end."

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