Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, August 07, 2009

ARISTOTLE: Politics and the Good Life

A lot has changed in the past 50 years; a whole lot has changed in the past 2500 years. Can someone who lived that long ago really have much of importance to say to us today? Well, yes and no. In some ways Aristotle seems hopelessly outdated. For example, he thinks slavery is not only acceptable, but natural and right. He thinks women are inferior to men because they’re not as rational. He thinks charging interest for lending money is bad. These ideas don’t go over well in the modern world. So why read Aristotle at all?

Because Aristotle also has much wisdom for the modern world. Some of his ideas are at the very foundation of western civilization. Occasionally it does us good to be reminded of them. Aristotle starts with the assumption that people always act in order to obtain that which they think good. Until fairly modern times this would not have been a controversial idea. Don’t people normally do things they at least think is in their own best interest? Aristotle seems right about this. But somewhere around the 19th century we started questioning that idea. Dostoevsky says (in “The Underground Man”) when, to begin with, in the course of all these thousands of years has man ever acted in accordance with his own interests? Come to think of it, don’t people often do things that they know to be self-destructive and against their own good. Why? Could Aristotle have been wrong about his assumption that we seek the good for ourselves and our families?

Dostoevsky may have been thinking of man at his worst; Aristotle of man at his best. For Dostoevsky people are full of sin and corruption and he tends to dwell on that aspect of human nature. But Aristotle says we must look for the intention of nature in things which retain their nature, and not in things which are corrupted. It may be true that men often act badly, but that isn’t natural for them. By nature we’re created to pursue the good life. People who live badly have been corrupted and shouldn’t be used as our model for living well. And that’s the true goal in life: not only to live, but to live well. Anyone can barely get by with just a few necessities. But is this all we aspire to? Eating and drinking and procreating until our lives are over? No, says Aristotle, we should aim higher than that; lots higher. That’s where politics comes in.

Aristotle believes that the state comes into existence originating in the bare needs of life and continues in existence for the sake of a good life. In order to be happy we need other people. For starters, there are many things we can’t produce by ourselves. And Aristotle points out that no man can live well, or indeed live at all, unless he is provided with basic necessities. Most of us don’t make our own shoes or bake our own bread. Aristotle believes shoes and bread are important. They improve life. But we need other things too. We need to be around other human beings for comfort and companionship. We need music and health care and beautiful buildings. To be fully human we need these things. Without some sort of communal life we’ll never “be all that you can be.” For these reasons Aristotle claims that he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is not part of a state. A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature. Living the good life for Aristotle isn’t retiring to some mountaintop to live all by your self. Living the good life means becoming what you, by nature, were meant to be. It means participating fully in the life of a human community. And for Aristotle that’s an idea that never changes.


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