Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics: Happiness, Reason and the Ideal Society

1. Aristotle’s approach to ethics


Now in a general way, Aristotle’s ethics, as you would expect, is neither of the mystic nor the skeptic variety. Aristotle does not believe that ethics is a matter of commandments, or of mystic insights into another spiritual super-reality. As opposed to Plato, his ethics attempts to be naturalistic, this-worldly.


It’s concerned with men living on earth, and attempts to guide them to successful behavior here in this life without reference to the supernatural (either as the validation of his ethics, or as the goal of life). And as against the Sophists, Aristotle’s is not a subjectivist ethics in which anything goes, all feelings should be indiscriminately acted on, and might makes right. Morality, for Aristotle, does not require an appeal to the supernatural, nor a collapse into irrational whim-worshipping. In this general sense, his approach to ethics is naturalistic and objective.


However, Aristotle did not know how to implement this general approach in the form of a rational, scientific, proven code of ethics. He held that ethics was not an exact science where you could formulate precise principles and give mathematical proofs from logical premises. In ethics, he thought, you can only formulate rules true in a rough way and for the most part, and you couldn’t give formal proofs. Why? Well you remember that science has to begin with facts, from which we then generalize, induce, arrive at the principles and turn around, deduce, systematize. And what are the facts in ethics? What are the data to start with?


Now I interject, if Aristotle had given an analysis of the nature of life, and of the relationship between life and the concept of “value” in the form given by Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged, then he could have arrived at an objective ethics based on fact. But no such approach is anywhere hinted in what we have.


He said, in effect, we have to start with the way people actually behave, with what they actually value. That is the data, the facts, of ethics. Well, you ask, do we start with just anybody? No. There are certain men whom we all recognize to be wise, and good, and noble, says Aristotle; and ethics rests ultimately on our perceptions of how these men—the wise and noble Athenians—behave. We observe them; we can then generalize, try to eliminate inconsistencies if we find any, provide a metaphysics framework to systematize their behavior; but after all, there are many fluctuations even among wise men, many situations where our accepted general rules have exceptions, so at best all we’ll have at the end is a more systematic account of the moral principles governing the best Athenians, not a formal science. This is all Aristotle attempts to provide.


Now because Athens was a good culture in many ways, Aristotle says many things which are valid in ethics. But at bottom and at the base, he has no methodology to validate his ethical conclusions. And at many points, as we’ll see, his ultimate answer to an objection is: “That is how the wise man behaves. If you don’t see it, it simply means you haven’t been well brought up.”


2. Happiness: the ultimate end


Well now, how should we go about systematizing in ethics? Well, Aristotle observes that values are hierarchical. Everyone pursues some things for the sake of other things—you come to these lectures for the sake of knowledge—but the knowledge of ancient and Medieval and early modern philosophy is not an end in itself; you want it for a purpose, to guide your actions. Suppose, for instance, you have a career purpose. But your career is not an end in itself; you want it as a means to support your life. And so on.


Some ultimate end, some final goal (says Aristotle) must exist which we want for its own sake, and not simply as a means to something else. There must be an end in itself; and this is logically necessary, otherwise we have simply an infinite regress. You cannot value everything as a means to an end, unless something is the end, the ultimate value. Just as there must first be axioms or archai, there must be an ultimate goal. And when discovered, it will serve as the standard in terms of which to evaluate all other goals and values. So the question of ethics is: What is the end?


And then how best to achieve it?


Well, we can learn certain things about the ultimate goal. It must be an end in itself, as we’ve said. It must be self-sufficient; in other words, something which, even if we had only it, we would have everything worth having, because everything else we want for its sake. And thirdly and most importantly, it must be possible; it must, says Aristotle, be attainable by man on earth.


Now this is a crucial point of Aristotle’s ethics. We must remember, says Aristotle, that we are setting up an ethics for man; we are prescribing how this sort of entity should behave. We must, therefore, take as our given the facts of human nature, the kind of entity we’re talking about. For instance, man by nature has a body; we cannot then damn him for having a body, because that is inherent in being man, it is a fact the moralists must begin with. Man has emotions, he has desires, he is capable of all sorts of feelings; this is a fact the moralists must begin with. It is ridiculous, says the Aristotelian approach, to set up as an ideal the cessation of all feeling in the way that Plato virtually does. That is inherent in man. You can’t condemn him for having emotion. You can’t condemn him for being capable of error. You can’t condemn him for anything which is in his nature.


It would be the equivalent (if I made up my own example), supposing you were making up an ethics for dogs and you were to say that the supreme virtue for a dog is to study the theory of relativity; and you then give the dog a book of Einstein, and he sniffs at it, walks away, goes back to his bones, and you say, “You see, I always knew all dogs were rotten by nature—they are stained by sin because they prefer bones to Einstein.” Now if that’s the way a dog is by nature, then you are the senseless one to put forward that theory; it’s not the dog’s fault.


Now by this Aristotelian approach (to which he is not fully consistent, but nevertheless, by it), the doctrine of Original Sin is inherently impossible. If something is inherent, it cannot be sin. Ethics must prescribe values and virtues based on the facts of human nature, capable of attainment by man here on earth. It follows, according to Aristotle, that man at birth is neither innately bad nor innately good; he is simply morally neutral at birth. If he becomes good, that’s his achievement; if he becomes bad, that’s his fault. He cannot blame his nature, he cannot blame his passions—passions are simply facts of human nature, and as such, they are neutral; it’s what you do with your passions, says Aristotle, what you make of them, what form you give to them (they being now the matter)—that is what determines moral virtue.


All right, what is the ultimate goal which fulfills these traits? Happiness—it’s an end in itself, it’s not a means to an end; it’s self-sufficient (if all you had was happiness, but you really had it, you would be lacking in nothing worth having); and it is possible, if you act properly to attain it. Now the Greek word for “happiness” is eudaimonia, and Aristotle’s ethics is therefore often called a eudaimonistic ethics. The word “eudaimonia” does not literally mean “happiness,” although it’s usually translated that way.


The word “happiness” for us suggests strictly an emotional state of enduring enjoyment in life. Now eudaimonia, for Aristotle, certainly included that—he emphasized that pleasure was an essential component of eudaimonia (the Greek word for “pleasure” being hēdonē); he emphasized that the man of eudaimonia thoroughly enjoyed life—but eudaimonia is broader than simply the emotional level. It implies successful living on all levels; not merely emotional enjoyment, but successful action, unimpeded thinking; in general, living, functioning, acting successfully. And further, for the modern usage, “happiness” suggests primarily an inner state of the person, so theoretically you can be happy even if you’re poor, or persecuted by society, etc. For Aristotle, however, eudaimonia requires not just this inner happiness (although that of course is the crucial ingredient; he is, in this respect, a true follower of Socrates), but it requires also what we might call “outer happiness.” Eudaimonia, he tells us, requires a certain amount of money, it requires a few friends, it requires freedom; it even, he says, requires a decent appearance and well-behaved children. You see then that it’s a very all-inclusive state, and it’s perhaps best translated as a full, rich, happy, prosperous, unimpeded life of thought and action on earth. But rather than utter that mouthful, I’ll just call it “happiness.”


Now given this as the ultimate goal, you will see that Aristotle’s ethics will have no trace of the later Christian or Kantian approach to ethics—in other words, that ethics is a matter of struggling against temptation, forcing down your base impulses in order to be miserable and do your duty. He accepts— Aristotle accepts— Socrates’s basic idea that virtue leads to happiness. He holds—Aristotle holds—that the moral man has no conflict between his desires and his moral obligations. The moral man recognizes that if something is right, it will make him happy. And he gladly wants to do what is right, therefore, to do it for the sake of his own happiness. The moral man thoroughly enjoys his life, and morality indeed is justified precisely because it gives him the knowledge needed to enjoy his life thoroughly. Now you see how opposite this is from all the ethics that came later, and even from Plato’s with its preaching of self-sacrifice for the state or the World of Forms, etc.


3. How happiness is achieved


Now the question is: How is happiness to be achieved? You can’t attain it in any old way. On this point, Aristotle agrees with Socrates against the Sophists. Happiness requires living a certain way. How? Here’s where Aristotle’s metaphysics enters. Everything which exists has a distinctive nature, distinctive unique potentialities; and the nature of reality, we know, is that everything acts to achieve, to realize, to actualize its distinctive potentialities, to pass from matter to form, to express in reality that which is in it potentially, to fulfill itself, to realize itself. This is inherent in each thing—the striving after its full realization. If so, what can the good life—what can eudaimonia for a thing—be, except to act as reality and its own nature require?


Now, to take another hypothetical case, suppose that you were making up an ethics for an acorn. The only thing you could tell this acorn is: “Look, cooperate wholeheartedly with the laws of reality and your own nature. Strive with all your might to actualize your distinctive potentialities and become an oak. Because if you try anything else”—suppose, for instance, this acorn conceives an ardent passion to become a willow tree—“it is doomed to frustration, to self-negation, to misery.” A happy acorn, an acorn of eudaimonia, would be one working to actualize its distinctive potentialities.


Well, the same is true for man. He, too, has unique potentialities, and the good life, eudaimonia, consists of realizing it. What is man’s distinctive potentiality? Aristotle’s psychology has already answered that—reasonnous. To be true to his own nature and the nature of reality, then, man must actualize his distinctive potentiality: reason. The life of reason is thus the life of happiness. But what in this context is reason?


Aristotle distinguishes two different uses of “reason”—reason which is used to guide life, to regulate the emotions, to tell us how to act, and that he calls the "practical reason;" and reason which is used to acquire knowledge as an end in itself, just to discover and contemplate truth for its own sake without any reference to practical consequences, that he calls the "theoretical" or the "contemplative reason." (I interject that this is an invalid distinction, and I will say a word later about it, but for now let’s follow Aristotle.)


If there are two uses of reason—the practical and the contemplative— then the life of reason will have two departments—the exercise of the practical reason, and the exercise of the theoretical reason. And every man, for Aristotle, must exercise both insofar as he can. In each case there will be a proper use of reason, a virtuous use (and remember “virtue” for the Greeks means “excellence of function”). So there will be two types of virtues. The excellent use of practical reason will give us what is called the "moral virtues," and the excellent use of contemplative reason will give us what is called the "intellectual virtues." Let us look at each briefly, and first the virtues of practical reason, the moral virtues.


Now practical reason, as I said, is reason used to guide or regulate man’s actions, emotions, desires. (Parenthetically I observe that for Aristotle, as for Plato, emotions are an independent non-rational element of the personality which require regulation by the reason. But for Aristotle, because he believes in only one world, and because he does not believe in a metaphysical soul-body clash, he does not believe that it is as hard to control the emotions as Plato does. He doesn’t believe that there is an inherent war between reason and emotions. He believes that if you use your reason properly, you can control your emotions largely, and live harmoniously and happily.)


4. The doctrine of the mean

Well what is the proper use, the virtuous use, of practical reason? Well to this question, Aristotle thought he detected a general principle common to all virtuous practical behavior. Whatever we do or desire, he says, we can do or desire in different amounts. We can take any human action or emotion and distinguish three amounts on a scale—the too much, the too little, and the just right—the Golden Mean. Virtuous behavior will always be the Golden Mean between the two extremes. On the one hand, the too much (the “excess,” as it’s called), on the other hand the too little (the “defect,” as it’s called). Now Aristotle, in a very ingenious way, worked this out on subject after subject, ranging human traits into the three-fold column. I’ll give you just four out of a great many examples.


Suppose the question is: What should your attitude be when facing threats? Well, on the one hand: too little fear, the kind of rash person who takes senseless chances—you know, not only walking through a cannibal colony needlessly, but doing so naked—that is the vice of foolhardiness; that’s too little fear. On the other hand there is the other extreme: too much fear, the kind we call a coward. And of course in the Golden Mean position is the virtue, the just right amount—not too little fear, not too much, but just right—courage, the courageous person.


Or what should your attitude be to food, to sex, to money? Well the defect would be the person who turns against these things completely, the ascetic. That is a vice. It’s as much a vice as rashness or foolhardiness. Aristotle did not know what to call it, because in an extreme form it did not exist in the Greek world, and he calls it "insensibility." It became the supreme virtue, or one of them, in the reign of Christianity. If Aristotle knew of the life of St. Francis, for instance, Aristotle would be appalled at the phenomenon. But now at the other extreme, there’s the people who are overzealous about these things, the self-indulgent profligates à la the Sophists, or Gyges when he gets his ring and runs riot. Now what is the proper virtue here? The Golden Mean—not too much passion for food, drink and money, clothes, etc., not too little, just the right amount—what Aristotle with the Greek tradition calls “temperance.” And here it does not mean “temperance” as in the Women Christian’s Temperance Union; it means a sensible balance between the extremes.


What should your attitude be in regard to social relationships? Well on the one hand, there’s the person who attaches too little importance to them, what we would call a “misanthrope;” Aristotle calls that the vice of “sulkiness.” On the other hand, there’s the kind of person who is obsessed with people, who is obsequious and rushes around saying to everybody “I love you, please love me”—what we would call a social metaphysician—Aristotle says that’s the vice of "obsequiousness." And in the middle, the Golden Mean, the just right amount—the rationally friendly person, he has the virtue of "friendliness."


What should be your attitude to yourself? On the one hand, the person who has too low an estimate—the person who walks around saying “I’m no good, I’m rotten, I’m worthless”—that person has the vice of "humility." On the other extreme there is the person who walks around saying, “I’m the greatest thing that ever lived,” who claims for himselfmore than is his due; that is the vice of "vanity" or "conceit." And the Golden Mean is the person who has a high and earned self-respect, the virtue of "pride."


5. Pride and the proud man

Now I must leave the Golden Mean for a couple of minutes, because pride for Aristotle is the crown of the virtues—the man of pride, the man of megalopsyche, the man with a big soul, which is now translated the “magnanimous man,” is his ideal man in terms of the moral virtues. And his description of it in the Ethics is the liveliest passage in his ethics, very famous, so I must read it to you even though I’ll give you just a few excerpts; but it will give you an idea of the type of man Aristotle admired and recommended.


He’s describing the virtue of pride:


Now the man is thought to be proud who thinks himself worthy of great things, being worthy of them; for he who does so beyond his deserts is a fool, but no virtuous man is foolish…The proud man, then, is the man we have described. For he who is worthy of little and thinks himself worthy of little is temperate, but not proud; for pride implies greatness, as beauty implies a good-sized body, and little people may be neat and well-proportioned, but cannot be beautiful…


The proud man, then, is an extreme in respect of the greatness of his claims, but a mean in respect of the rightness of them; for he claims what is in accordance with his merits, while the others go to excess or fall short…Now the proud man, since he deserves most, must be good in the highest degree; for the better man always deserves more, and the best man most. Therefore the truly proud man must be good. And greatness in every virtue would seem to be characteristic of a proud man. And it would be most unbecoming for a proud man to fly from danger, swinging his arms by his sides, or to wrong another…If we consider him point by point, we shall see the utter absurdity of a proud man who is not good. Nor, again, would he be worthy of honor if he were bad; for honor is the prize of virtue, and it is to the good that it is rendered.


Pride, then, seems to be a sort of crown of the virtues; for it makes them greater and it is not found without them. Therefore it is hard to be truly proud; for it is impossible without nobility and goodness of character. It is chiefly with honors and dishonors, then, that the proud man is concerned; and at honors that are great and conferred by good men he will be moderately pleased, thinking that he is coming by his own or even less than his own; for there can be no honor that is worthy of perfect virtue, yet he will at any rate accept it since they have nothing greater to bestow on him; but honor from casual people and on trifling grounds he will utterly despise, since it is not this that he deserves, and dishonor too, since in his case it cannot be just…


He [the proud man] does not run into trifling dangers, nor is he fond of danger, because he honors few things; but he will face great dangers, and when he is in danger he is unsparing of his life, knowing that there are conditions on which life is not worth having. [I interject—so much for Aristotle’s view on the question of "better red than dead."] And he [the proud man] is the sort of man to confer benefits, but he is ashamed of receiving them; for the one is the mark of the superior, the other of an inferior…It is a mark of the proud man also to ask for nothing or scarcely anything, but to give help readily, and to be dignified towards people who enjoy high position and good fortune, but unassuming towards those of the middle class; for it is a difficult and lofty thing to be superior to the former, but easy to be so to the latter, and a lofty bearing over the former is no mark of ill breeding, but among humble people it is as vulgar as a display of strength against the weak.


Again, it is characteristic of the proud man not to aim at the things commonly held in honor, or the things in which others excel; to be sluggish and to hold back, except where great honor or a great work is at stake, and to be a man of few deeds, but of great and notable ones. He must also be open in his hate and in his love (for to conceal one’s feelings, i.e. to care less for truth than for what people will think, is a coward’s part), and he must speak and act openly; for he is free of speech because he is contemptuous, and he is given to telling the truth, except when he speaks in irony to the vulgar.


He must be unable to make his life revolve around another, unless it be a friend; for this is slavish, and for this reason all flatterers are servile and people lacking in self-respect are flatterers…Further, a slow step is thought proper to the proud man, a deep voice, and a level utterance…Such, then, is the proud man; the man who falls short of him is unduly humble.”


Now if you consider this in the light of what was to come philosophically—"the man who falls short of this is unduly humble"—you can’t believe it. This is one of the few man-worshipping passages in all of philosophy, and it is fitting that it comes from Aristotle, who has needless to say been despised by centuries of Christians for this very passage and this very quality. And this, I should say, is one of the great kinships between Aristotle and Objectivism. All right, so much for pride. Let’s go back to the Golden Mean.


6. Problems with the mean


Now if you recall the four examples I gave you, the moral that Aristotle draws is it’s not what you do or desire, but the degree to which you do it, that determines virtue and vice. Virtue is an issue of moderation, of not going to extremes.


Now you can see, I think, that there is a common-sense validity, and at certain points even a highly admirable quality, in the content of the virtues Aristotle endorses (and I’ve just given a few samples). The particular virtues that he’s in favor of are generally sensible, and even noble. But as a principle of ethics, it should be apparent to you that the Golden Mean is unsatisfactory and invalid. Here are a few obvious objections.


First notice that the trinity of attitudes which Aristotle ranges on a continuum, do not in fact fall on a continuum at all. The vices in each case are differentiated from the virtues in kind, not just in degree (as Aristotle’s doctrine requires). The obsequious social metaphysician, for instance, is not differentiated from a rationally friendly person by just having more of the latter’s attitude. The obsequious person’s motive and interest in people is different in kind, not just in degree or amount. And the same is true on all these other cases.


Notice secondly, if it were just a difference in degree, there would be no argument in favor of the Mean. There is no reason why a mean is valid just because it’s a mean. The mere fact that some attitude is in the middle, between two other attitudes, doesn’t at all show that it’s therefore desirable.


For instance, on one extreme we have never committing adultery; on the other extreme we have committing adultery every night with a different partner. Now is the Golden Mean just the right amount? Just the right amount of murder? Just the right amount of envious hatred? Etc. Now here, obviously, your place on a continuum is irrelevant. Now Aristotle tries to encompass this type of case, and he says in effect: “These things (like murder, adultery, and so on) are already extremes, and therefore the doctrine of the Mean doesn’t apply. You can’t have a mean of an extreme.” But this is not a valid answer on his part. Because the question is: How does he know they are extremes? If you go solely by the doctrine of the Mean, we can range three attitudes on murder, or on adultery, etc., and then pick the middle.


Actually, the fact is Aristotle knew in advance that murder, for instance, is wrong, and he therefore classified it as an extreme. It’s not that it’s an extreme and therefore wrong, but rather, it’s wrong and therefore he concluded an extreme; which means that his virtues are not in fact derived from the theory of the Mean at all; rather from, as he himself says, the observations of the wise Athenians. The Mean doctrine is no proof or definition of these virtues, just a way of expounding what we know on other grounds; and as such, is philosophically insignificant.


And then, of course, there is the question: How do you know what the mean is in a particular case? Suppose one person says "never eat chocolates," and the other—a chocolate manufacturer—says "eat 200 boxes a day." Well, what is the Golden Mean? A hundred boxes a day?


Now Aristotle considers such a case, and he says: “No, I don’t mean the arithmetic mean; I don’t mean the exact halfway point. That would be silly. I mean the just right amount for a given person—the not too much, and the not too little. And this varies from person to person. For instance, on chocolates, it depends on your health, your tastes, your money, etc. The just right amount if you’re on a diet is not the same as if you’re not.” The Mean, he says, is relative to a particular set of circumstances. It’s not figured out by arithmetic.


But then of course, the question is: Well how do you know, given a set of circumstances, what is the mean? And you have to know if the doctrine is to be of any use to you in guiding your life. Well Aristotle says, in effect, if you take into account all of the relevant factors in a given situation, and if you’re well brought up, you will just know; you will in effect perceive what the right amount is for you by direct insight. Now then of course the question is: Well what does being well brought up consist of? To be well brought up presumably is to be brought up via the Golden Mean.


And the Mean is what a well brought up person would choose. So you see, it’s inexorably circular. And you see again, he doesn’t offer a scientific ethics; it’s based ultimately simply upon his observations of the wise and good Athenians.


Well I don’t want to belabor the Mean doctrine further. It’s had very unfortunate consequences. Although I should say for Aristotle’s own sake that he didn’t originate the idea of moderation by any means; that was an ancient Greek tradition, “Nothing in excess,” goes way back before Aristotle, and all he did is systematize it. But in any event, that particular Greek doctrine, although given Aristotle’s influence, has had terrifically unfortunate consequences. It’s led people to all sorts of compromising, fence sitting, contradictions and evasion on principle, even though none of this was Aristotle’s intention. You need merely think of the way the terms “moderate” and “extremist” are thrown around in American presidential elections to get an idea of the devastatingly bad consequences of the doctrine of the Golden Mean (even though, as I say, Aristotle would surely never have imagined its use by modern pragmatists).


7. Knowledge as an end in itself

Now let’s look at the intellectual virtues very briefly, that is to say, the virtuous use of contemplative reason. In this use of reason, we pursue knowledge for its own sake—essentially science, mathematics, philosophy. We discover and contemplate truth as an end in itself, without any concern for practical action or the existential consequences of that knowledge. Knowledge on this level is not a means to anything, but an end in itself. Now for Aristotle, this life of contemplation is the highest embodiment of the life of reason; it is superior to the exercise of reason in practical affairs, it is the summit of rationality. And this is the life which any man of adequate intelligence ought to follow, in his view.


Now this brings us to another error in his ethics. I don’t mean his emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge, but the idea that knowledge is an end in itself (as against being a means of human action and life). Why did he commit this error? There are many reasons; here are some.


In general, no Greek—Aristotle included—grasped the relationship between knowledge and life, between reason and life. This is prior to the Industrial Revolution, and I would maintain as an actual fact that it would be impossible to grasp the relationship between reason and life, philosophically, prior to the Industrial Revolution. No one did, and I would say no one could have, because at this stage of civilization, the skills needed to sustain life were manual and seemed to be obviously unintellectual. On the other hand, the knowledge which seemed pleasurable and demanding of a man’s full intellectual powers (science, metaphysics, physics, mathematics) seemed to have no practical value, which it didn’t at that early stage. And consequently, Aristotle, along with the rest of the Greeks, concluded that knowledge was not ultimately justified by its utility in life. This is an error, but certainly an understandable one at the stage of knowledge he was writing.


Then in addition, there is of course a definite element of Platonism here, the exaltation of contemplation, retirement from action and the hubbub of life and so on, into private contemplation of truth. And of course, we know that Aristotle never freed himself from this Platonic element (never freed himself fully) in any branch of philosophy. And of course, the Prime Mover is relevant here, and that in effect is one of the main effects of Aristotle’s God on his ethics. In this life of contemplation, Aristotle says, you get as close to the divine life as you can, because that’s all God does, is contemplate.


For these and still other reasons, Aristotle ends up advocating the contemplative life as the highest and best life. And unfortunately, he even declares that human beings are too imperfect to live this perfect life. It’s not, he says, insofar as they are human that they can live thus, but only insofar as they have an element of the divine in him. In other words, he contradicts his own distinctive approach, again succumbing to a Platonic element.


Now of course, this whole doctrine of knowledge as an end in itself has had very bad consequences. It has the effect of making Aristotle’s ethics impracticable for most men, restricted in this respect at least to a comparative few who have the wealth and the leisure to contemplate. Most men however, as Aristotle recognizes, have to work, they have to act; and they have, therefore, neither the time, the wealth, nor the ability, for this sort of life. Consequently for them, says Aristotle, the highest form of human happiness is impossible. In this way, and in this respect, Aristotle ends up with an ethics for a comparative few, similar in this one respect to Plato.


8. Egoism

All right, let’s leave the moral and intellectual virtues and turn to one last point in connection with Aristotle’s ethics, namely egoism. Aristotle is a thorough egoist in ethics. He believes that each man should be primarily concerned with the attainment of his own happiness, which is to be achieved by the exercise of his own practical and theoretical reason. In contrast to Plato, there is nothing in Aristotle advocating self-sacrifice, self-abnegation, the exalting of something above your own happiness on earth. Aristotle is a pure egoist. And in contrast to the Sophists, Aristotle definitely says explicitly that the true egoist is the man of reason, not the whim-worshipping brute. The Sophist, for Aristotle as for Socrates, is merely engaged in expressing the worst element in himself, the part that isn’t really him—his irrational whims and passions. As such, he is simply destroying his real self— his reason— and along with it his only chance of fulfillment and happiness. In this sense, Aristotle is a consistent champion of rational egoism, the only philosopher to be such in all of philosophy (if you are talking of the major philosophers, and not simply the disciples who parrot the masters).


Now because this is such an urgently important issue in ethics, I want to read you a few passages from Aristotle even at the risk of taking a couple of minutes, because I think you get a feeling for the philosopher from hearing a few things in his own words that you can’t get from any summary. This is also from the Nicomachean Ethics (that’s the ethics named after his son, Nicomachus, dedicated to his son):


[The good man] wishes for himself what is good and what seems so, and does it…and does so for his own sake; (for he does it for the sake of the intellectual element in him, which is thought to be the man himself.) And he wishes himself to live and be preserved, and especially the element by virtue of which he thinks. For existence is good to the virtuous man, and each man wishes himself what is good, while no one chooses to possess the whole world, if he first has to become someone else…he wishes for this only on condition of being whatever he is; and the element that thinks would seem to be the individual man, or to be so more than any other element in him. And such a man [the good man] wishes to live with himself; for he does so with pleasure, since the memories of his past acts are delightful, and his hopes for the future are good, and therefore pleasant…[By contrast], wicked men seek for people with whom to spend their days, and shun themselves; for they remember many a grievous deed, and anticipate others like them, when they are by themselves, but when they are with others, they forget. And having nothing lovable in them, they have no feeling of love to themselves.


And here’s another little excerpt, just a brief fragment I’ll quote you:


Existence is to all men a thing to be chosen and loved, and we…exist by virtue of activity (i.e., by living and acting)…the producer…loves his handiwork, therefore, because he loves existence.


How’s that? And, as to self-love:


Such a man [the rational man] would seem more than the other [the irrational man] a lover of self; at all events he assigns to himself the things that are noblest and best, and gratifies the most authoritative element in himself [reason], and in all things obeys this…and therefore the man who loves this [reason] and gratifies it is most of all a lover of self…Therefore, the good man should be a lover of self…


Now you see how this ties in with Aristotle’s advocacy of pride as the crown of the virtues. It is also a majorly important element in his ethics, one that went into eclipse and was denounced by all subsequent philosophers, and not resurrected until many, many centuries later.


Now I can’t resist adding that Aristotle had a remarkable theory of friendship, egoistic friendship, a fascinating theory which I’d love to tell you about because it exemplifies one of the best elements in his ethics; but unfortunately there is no time. But if you ask about friendship in the question period, I’ll be glad to say a few words on it then.


9. Assessing Aristotle’s ethics


Now to sum up our brief survey on Aristotle’s ethics, you can see, I think, that Aristotle’s ethics is very mixed in its merits.


Much of the time he is on the right track. Many points you can agree with—his advocacy of happiness on earth as opposed to the Platonic asceticism and supernaturalism; his emphasis on reason, the acquisition of knowledge; egoism; pride—but these points, as you see, are embedded in a framework which is streaked with hangovers from Platonism, and which is avowedly not scientific or proven. As such, Aristotle’s ethics was not strong enough to combat the Platonic and Sophistic rivals in the field. And therefore, to answer a question which I get all the time (so I hope you will regard this as at least a partial answer), this is one of the major reasons— this deficiency of Aristotle’s ethics— why his philosophy did not become a major influence over all future philosophizing right away.


When a philosopher’s ethics is weak, no matter how many good points he has in metaphysics and epistemology, his influence on men will be significantly less; because men feel the influence of any philosophy primarily through its ethics. That, after all, is the primary purpose of philosophy—to teach men how to live.


As an analogy, if you offer men a magnificent internal combustion machine, but they have no idea how to use it and there is no fuel to make it run, and the alternative is a horse and buggy which actually works (to say nothing of promises of a mystic flying carpet if only they pay enough money and go to church long enough), they will choose the horse and buggy, or the flying carpet, over the unusable internal combustion machine, if you get my analogy. You should not be too surprised, therefore, to learn that shortly after his death, Aristotle’s philosophy went into eclipse, and took many, many, many centuries to exhume. But that’s a story we’ll start telling next week.


10. Aristotle’s politics

Now in conclusion, let us say a very few words about Aristotle’s politics. For the most part in his political writings, Aristotle contented himself with describing existing states in the ancient world, and making recommendations for their improvement within the framework of their basic premises. Aristotle was not a political revolutionary with fundamentally original ideas in politics; certainly not on the order at least of Plato who, regardless of the content of his views, was a major innovator in politics. Aristotle is more the documenter, rather than the crusader, in politics. And his politics therefore is, therefore, less interesting or important than any other part of his philosophy. In general, to merely synopsize a few of his conclusions: he was not a major collectivist like Plato; he objected vigorously to Plato’s communistic and totalitarian views; but Aristotle himself, his own political writings, was certainly not a major individualist either.


Now it’s one thing to say that his metaphysics and ethics laid the basis for which his subsequent followers centuries later derived individualism—that is true—but judging simply by the actual politics Aristotle himself recommends (which reflects the more Platonic elements in him), you’d have to say in effect that Aristotle unfortunately followed his Golden Mean in politics. He took a position that today would be pretty much described as a variant of the middle of the road. For instance, he objected to Plato’s view that the few ideal philosophers should have absolute power—he objected to rule by Platonic experts—but, he says, this would be ideal, only it’s impractical and utopian because it's too much risk of it degenerating into tyranny (you see, conceding to Plato that this would be ideal, but simply impractical).


He also objected to rule by experts on the ground that we must have, he says, a government of law, not of men; that is a central Aristotelian idea. A constitution must be defined which spells out what the government can and cannot do. There must be laws. And we do not want a government by arbitrary decree. In this sense, he’s the Father of the Idea of Constitutional Government. On the other hand, like Plato, Aristotle has no concept that all men have individual inalienable rights, or that the function of government is only to protect these rights. As was common in Greece at the time, he was thinking of the state as the city-state of course, and he thought that it had a variety of proper functions—educational, cultural, religious, economic, he says somewhere that it should see that there are restrictions on the amount of wealth so there’s not too much or too little in any given person’s hands—in general, he advocates functions of the government quite incompatible with anything that an individualist politics would advocate.


For Aristotle, as for Plato, the important issue of politics is: What group should have ruling power in the state? What group should be able to control the policies of the state? And in answer to this question, he came up with a sort of Mean position (that is, a moderate position) as the most practical and stable type of state. He said we don’t want one where the few wealthy upper-class aristocrats rule, because this can generate into tyranny or oligarchy; and we don’t want one where the masses, or poorer, people rule, as in democracy, because that becomes unlimited mob rule, and that’s hopeless; both Plato and Aristotle were staunch opponents of the idea of unlimited mob rule.


Rather, said Aristotle, the best state is a cross between rule of the rich and of the poor, rule of the few and of the many; a state ruled neither by the mob nor by an elite of experts, but by an intermediate class—what we today call the middle class, you see? A state such as this Aristotle called a polity, and he advocated it as the best, most practical constitution. In other words, a large middle class should hold the balance of power and act as a check on what today would be called the proletariat on the bottom, and the few potentially tyrannical aristocrats at the top.


So there is a definite sense in which Aristotle differs from Plato’s totalitarian philosopher-king theory, and as I mentioned, Aristotle objects to Plato’s communism, but in very, very mixed and rather feeble terms. Remember, Plato objected to “mine” and “thine”? Well, Aristotle says, mine and thine are inherent in human nature, and you only create conflicts and resentments if you try to communize property and families. Better to leave people private property and encourage them to develop a community spirit voluntarily so they’ll share with others voluntarily. Now to this audience, such an answer speaks for itself; it is not a very powerful answer to Plato.


However, I should point out that even though Aristotle allows the citizens of his state to have much more say than Plato does, Aristotle’s state as he describes it also inclines in the direction of being an aristocracy run by a comparative few, even if not in nearly so pronounced a form as Plato’s. For instance Aristotle, and Plato I should say (and the Greeks in general) advocated slavery. They had no concept of inalienable rights.


They argued—Aristotle argued, for instance, (and I stress again, he did not originate this view, nor was he distinctive in holding it)—but he argued that there were natural slaves, men who had the capacity to understand a rational argument but not to exercise reason independently, who were in effect living tools; and, he said, it would be to their own benefit and to the benefit of a master if they serve and work a natural master (in other words, those in whom theoretical reason is fully developed), because the slave gains the benefit of contact with a fully rational man to direct him, and the rational man, exempt from the need for menial work, has the leisure for contemplation.


Now this is an obvious gross flaw in Aristotle’s view, but I stress it is not a flaw in his ethics or philosophy; it is a flaw in his anthropology, that is to say, in his view of mankind; and a flaw which he shared with the Greeks in general. The Greeks never really grasped (at least not until the time of the Stoics, a later school), that human beings—all human beings—are metaphysically equal. The Greeks of the classical period all held that men are divided into the metaphysical superiors, and the metaphysical inferiors, one destined to rule the other. This is an error. But it is an error in their theory of the nature of man, not an error in their ethics. Their ethical error is simply a consequence of it. And they had some provocation for it—they were the only civilization. Around them was not another civilized world, but a world of crude, ignorant barbarians. And at that stage of the game, if you lived in Greece, you had a certain warrant for looking around you and saying, “We are human and the aliens are simply savages.”


I may point out that Aristotle also excluded women from citizenship in his state—not only slaves, but also women—on the grounds they were metaphysically inferior; again, equally invalid, but equally warranted by a study of the women in his purview. He goes so far as to build this into his metaphysics in a doctrine which has no importance at all, but he says, for instance, that in conception, when men and women unite to produce a child, the woman contributes the matter (the low element), and the man contributes the form, you see. I may say to be accurate that on this one point, Plato was ahead of Aristotle—he recognized the metaphysical equality of women with men, Aristotle did not.


Also, in his capacity as a Platonist, Aristotle generally scorned tradesmen, mechanics, that type of person, and he says their life is “ignoble and inimical to virtue,” and they too are to be deprived of citizenship or any act of participation in the state. That’s simply the equivalent of Plato’s view that the productive group is out of the state, or is in a servile position. You see from these viewpoints that there’s a heavy Platonic influence in Aristotle’s politics; there is not much of great value in it, and I do not want to pursue it farther now.


11. Summation of Aristotle

Now let’s sum up Aristotle as a whole. In looking at his overall philosophy, you can point out many errors and many bad points. To review a few: his inadequate account of sense perception; his inadequate account at many points on the nature of mind; his doctrine of God; of teleology; of contingency; of prime matter; of the Golden Mean; of contemplation as an end in itself; his deficient politics; etc., etc. Now all of this you must know if, as students of Objectivism, you claim any kind of affiliation with Aristotle, because these are facts and in conversations people will confront you with them, and you will be amazed at what Aristotle could say.


But in the process of inventorying his bad points, I ask you not forget what he did achieve, and in what context. Starting from a culture in which there were only Platonists and Sophists, Aristotle laid down the basic principles of a scientific epistemology: the role of the senses, the role of abstraction, the laws of logic, the types of reasoning, the basic rules of validity in deductive reasoning. He laid down the principles of a naturalistic, this-worldly metaphysics: one reality, a world of particulars, of entities acting in accordance with their natures, lawful, intelligible, graspable by man. And in ethics, the principles of a this-worldly ethics, according to which man’s goal is to achieve personal happiness and personal pride by exercising his intellectual powers to the fullest.


On these topics, Aristotle did not say the last word. But as I have observed, he often said the first of any value. The pro-reason, pro-life, pro-this-world approach to philosophy, in its essence and at root, is the creation of Aristotle. And it is for that that we owe him a debt of gratitude no matter how great his other errors and Platonic carryovers.


Now the best summary of Aristotle’s achievements—of his good points and of his errors—is given by Aristotle himself, at the end of what is now the final section of his works on logic. He is referring in this passage to his work in logic, but his remarks are applicable much more widely to his entire philosophy in all branches. Now this passage that I have in mind is a fairly extended one, but I think it only fitting to conclude by reading it to you and giving the last word to Aristotle himself to assess his own achievements:


That our program, then, has been adequately completed is clear. But we must not omit to notice what has happened in regard to this inquiry. For in the case of all discoveries the results of previous labors that have been handed down from others have been advanced bit by bit by those who have taken them on, whereas the original discoveries generally make an advance that is small at first though much more useful than the development which later springs out of them. For it may be that in everything, as the saying goes, ‘the first start is the main part’: and for this reason also it is the most difficult; for in proportion as it is most potent in its influence, so it is smallest in its compass and therefore most difficult to see: whereas when this [the foundation] is once discovered, it is easier to add and develop the remainder in connexion. This is in fact what has happened in regard to rhetorical speeches and to practically all the other arts: for those who discovered the beginnings of them advance them in all only a little way, whereas the celebrities of to-day are the heirs (so to speak) of a long succession of men who have advanced them bit by bit, and so have developed them to their present form…Of this inquiry [in other words, logic], on the other hand, it was not the case that part of the work had been thoroughly been done before, while part had not.


Nothing existed at all. For the training given by the paid professors of contentious arguments [that’s the Sophists] was like the treatment of the matter by Gorgias. For they used to hand out speeches to be learned by heart [and that was their idea, you see, of teaching logic]…and therefore the teaching they gave their pupils was ready but rough. For they used to suppose that they trained people by imparting to them not the art but its products, as though anyone professing that he would impart a form of knowledge to obviate any pain in the feet, were then not to teach a man the art of shoe-making or the sources whence he can acquire anything of the kind, but were to present him with several kinds of shoes…for he has helped him to meet his need, but has not imparted an art to him…on the subject of reasoning we had nothing else of an earlier date to speak of at all, but were kept at work for a long time in experimental researches. If, then, it seems to you after inspection that, such being the situation as it existed at the start, our investigation is in a satisfactory position compared with the other inquiries that have been developed by tradition, there must remain for all of you, or for our students, the task of extending us your pardon for the shortcomings of the inquiry, and for the discoveries thereof your warm thanks.


Thank you ladies and gentlemen.


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