Rebirth of Reason


Aristotle and the Highest Good
by Jeff Landauer

I had always heard that Aristotle’s ethics were all about Eudaimonia.  Imagine my horror and shock when I read in Book 1, Section 2 of Nichomachean Ethics that the highest good belongs to the science of politics.  “The attainment of the good for one man alone is, to be sure, a source of satisfaction; yet to secure it for a nation and for states is nobler and more divine.”

To be fair, immediately after making this claim, he seems to ignore it, finally deciding in section 7 that happiness is an end in itself, and “the good of man is an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence or virtue,” which brings about happiness because living virtuously makes one happy.  I thought, "Ah, good, this makes sense and is the sort of thing I was looking forward to," but then he comes back with the politics in section 9, saying, “Our results also tally with what we said at the outset: for we stated that the end of politics is the best of ends; and the main concern of politics is to engender a certain character in the citizen and to make them good and disposed to perform noble actions.”  It seems to me that Aristotle is contradicting himself.

If attaining happiness is the highest good for a man, how can securing good for a nation be nobler and more divine?  He seems to set up a circular argument. The job of the state is to make people good.  Therefore, making a state good is better than making yourself good. Since you can only have one highest good - because if you try to have two, at some point there will be a conflict - saying that making the state good is better than making yourself good means that in some way you must sacrifice yourself for the state – or, sacrifice your good for the good of others.  But then they would be expected to sacrifice their good for the state as well (since you’re sacrificing to make the state good at making them good, and that is the highest good that they can do). So the sacrifice goes around in a circle, with no highest good at all!

Another problem with saying that the good of the state is the highest good, or that to study the highest good belongs to the science of politics, is the question of whether or not a man on a desert island can seek good. Politics simply does not apply to a man on a desert island because politics has to do with society and people's interactions.  But clearly, a man on a desert island can do things that are virtuous or not. He can build his house well or not. He can play the flute to entertain himself well, or not.  He can be happy, or not.  What Aristotle says apart from his references to politics would fit the desert island scenario just fine.

At the very least, bringing politics into it seems unnecessary.  If the good of the state is higher than the good of the individual, just so the state can promote the good of individuals, then why not just leave it at what Aristotle says in section 7, that happiness is the highest good?  No intermediary necessary.  Or, if you want intermediaries, they all must be subservient to the highest good. If you want to bring politics into it, fine. Let’s bring politics into it.  A man, in order to live a life of excellence and therefore happiness, must live his life according to reason.  But force and fraud negate man’s ability to live according to his reason, because force and fraud take away man’s ability to act upon his own choices; rather, force and fraud force a man to live according to the wishes of others. So, in order to attain the highest good and live a life of excellence, man must be free of force and fraud, and the best way to free man from force and fraud is through a government that protects rights. Such a government will serve man’s highest end, and is a powerful tool in living a happy life.  A government is good only so far as it allows men to be happy. Thus we have man’s happiness as the most noble and divine, and the goodness of government as a tool – as subservient – to man’s happiness.  This is how Aristotle should have put it.
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