Aristotle on How to Make People Better

In the ninth and final section of the tenth and final book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says… we’re not done yet:

Surely, as the saying goes, where there are things to be done the end is not to survey and recognize the various things, but rather to do them; with regard to virtue, then, it is not enough to know, but we must try to have and use it, or try any other way there may be of becoming good.

Good philosophy will convince people who are receptive to it to live better lives. But for most people, a good argument is not sufficient to make them a good person. Virtue is a matter of character, and character is a matter of habit, and it is difficult to change habit with mere words.

Indeed, if you haven’t been brought up right, you are impervious to logical arguments, not knowing their value, so philosophical arguments like these cannot help you. And furthermore, you don’t care about what is good and noble, because your untutored natural inclinations have warped you instead to care only about simple, animal pleasures.

So in order for Aristotle’s insights into the good and noble to be of use to the mass of people, we need two things:

education
so that the youth will be brought up to be able to understand and respect good philosophical argument, to value what is honorable and good, and to inculcate habits of temperance and resilience
punishment
so that people who are impervious to philosophical argument and who do not value what is honorable and good may be persuaded by means they do respect to do what is right

And with this, we have left the realm of individual ethics and entered that of politics. (Aristotle, like any good author, has primed us for his sequel.)

People ought to come together to promote the virtue of everyone in the community. A system of law is a good way of doing this, Aristotle thinks, in part because it is something that can be attended to rationally, and in part because when people submit to laws rather than to rulers, there is less resentment involved (nobody likes to be dominated by some other person, but if everybody is dominated by the same law it’s less galling, even if the effect were the same).

For this reason, the art of legislation is a worthy one. Legislation is the practical science of making people good. Unfortunately, Aristotle says, the science of legislation is underdeveloped. The philosophers who have tackled the problem are inept theoreticians with no practical sense for the subject, but the most skilled practitioners of the art of politics don’t tend to share their philosophy in any rigorous way.

Aristotle intends to correct this deficiency in his Politics.

This brings us to the end of The Nicomachean Ethics, but I skipped from chapter seven ahead to chapter ten, so I still have the two chapters on friendship to cover before we’re really through.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics