I Get a Rise out of Aristotle
Is the political life the highest life?
Michael Gilleland, the Laudator Temporis Acti, in his part-time capacity as 'channel' of Aristotle, submits this delightful missive:
Dear Dr. Vallicella:
"Society and its various coercive and non-coercive arrangements exist for the sake of the individual and not the other way around. Given that the individual is the locus of value and the reason for the being of state and society, the latter cannot be ends in themselves, whence it follows that the political life, useful as it is, cannot be the highest life."
I once argued otherwise, in my Nicomachaean Ethics 1.2.8 (tr. H. Rackham):
"For even though it be the case that the Good is the same for the individual and for the state, nevertheless, the good of the state is manifestly a greater and more perfect good, both to attain and to preserve. To secure the good of one person only is better than nothing; but to secure the good of a nation or a state is a nobler and more divine achievement."
Aristotle the Stagirite
I will begin by thanking your for your interest in my humble weblog. If it were not for you and your teacher Plato — to whom, if I may say so, you do not accord sufficient respect in your otherwise outstanding writings — none of us epigoni would be so much as thinkable. But now to the matter at hand.
You do indeed argue that politics is the master science of the good in Book I, Chapter 2 of your excellent Nicomachean Ethics, and you do indeed state at 1094b8 that the good of the state is nobler than the good of the individual. But I must remind you of what you say in the tenth and last Book of Eth. Nic. beginning in Chapter 6 and continuing until the concluding Chapter Nine. May I be so bold as to summarize the immortal thought of these inspiring chapters?
Chapter Six: Happiness and Activity. Happiness is a an active state, not one of passivity or amusement. Happiness, as the ultimate goal of human striving, cannot be identified with pleasure as certain 19th century English blockheads thought, and certainly not with bodily pleasures. (The German philosopher Nietzsche, whom you may have heard of, once quipped, "Man does not seek pleasure, only the Englishman does." I think you would approve of that line.) Happiness is an activity of the soul, not the body, in accordance with virtue.
Chapter Seven: Happiness, Intelligence, and the Contemplative Life. Now if happiness, eudaimonia, is an activity of the soul, an ergon of the psyche, in accordance with virtue or excellence, then it ought to be an activity in accordance with the highest virtue or excellence. You wisely distinguished the moral from the intellectual virtues and gave precedence to the latter. But among the intellectual virtues theoretical knowledge or contemplation, what you call theoria, stands in first place. Thus the highest life is the bios theoretikos, the life of theory, of contemplation, of philosophy. This is what your students in the Middle Ages called the vita contemplativa.
One of the arguments you give for the superiority of the theoretical life is the argument from sufficiency (1176b25 ff.) One who practices such virtues as justice, courage, and self-control needs other people. Thus a just legislator, a just judge, and a just executive requires other people as a condition of his virtuous behavior, a fact which brings in its train a lack of self-sufficiency. But he who follows the bios theoretikos needs little beyond the necessities of life. As you put it, "a wise man is able to study even by himself, and the wiser he is the more he is able to do so."
You go on to point out that the theoretical life is legitimately regarded as an end in itself and is a life of true leisure. By contrast, those who engage in military and political pursuits live in an unleisurely and servile fashion, and insofar forth can do little to advance the cause of culture. As you point out, we are busy in order to have leisure just as we wage war for the sake of peace. The vita activa is for the sake of the vita contemplativa. Have you read Josef Pieper's Leisure The Basis of Culture? He does an excellent job of expounding this idea of yours. All neg-otiation, whether economic or political, is for the sake of otium, leisure. I am sorry to employ the inferior language, Latin, but it is nearer to me and my readers than Greek.
Your view, then, is that the contemplative life stands higher than the political life. As the first to investigate logic systematically, you will not take it amiss if I set forth your view in a syllogism:
1. The highest activity is self-sufficient, an end in itself, and productive of the highest pleasure attainable.
2. Only theoretical, but not political, activity is self-sufficient, an end in itself, and productive of the highest pleasure attainable.
3. The highest activity is theoretical, not political, activity.
Chapter Eight: The Advantages of the Contemplative Life. The contemplative life is the happiest life since it is the life in accordance with the best in us, nous or intelligence, that in us which make us godlike and self-sufficient.
Chapter Nine: Ethics and Politics. If I may say so, this chapter, something of a grab bag of tentative considerations, does not attain the level of the chapters I have just summarized, and indeed leaves unresolved a tension that you must have felt while composing the various parts of your excellent book.
Is politics the master science of the good, as you say in Book One, so that ethics is a branch of politics? That would seem to suggest that the good of the polis is superior to the good of the individual, and that the happiness and self-realization of the individual must be subordinated to the welfare of the state. But this conflicts with your plain commitment to the thesis that the theoretical life is superior to the political life, not to mention the economic life and the pleasure-seeking life.
I don't need to point out to you that the theoretical life is the individual life par excellence. Indeed, you underscore its solitariness and self-sufficiency as key advantages of it. It is not a group life. And its thinking is not group-think. Indeed, your god, the primum mobile (pardon the Latin!) is noesis noeseos, thought thinking itself, in your beautiful phrase. And you would be the first to admit that no group of thinkers is a thinker.
So I think there is a bit of a tension here. Is politics the master science of the good, or is ethics? Which is subordinated to which? You can't have it both ways, and I would resolve the tension by giving the palm to ethics and to the happiness of the individual. And I would do so invoking your authority!
If over the centuries you have come to any further conclusions on this weighty matter, I should like to hear them, either directly, or via the good graces of your acolyte the estimable Dr. Gilleland.
Yours in the love of wisdom,
Vallicella of Arizona