How Are Citizens and States Best to Thrive?

Since the whole point of associating into a polis is to promote human flourishing, and the best constitutions will be those whose resulting states do this best, it’s important for the political scientist to have a clear picture of what human flourishing consists of. Aristotle has dealt with this at length in his Nicomachean Ethics, but he returns to the subject and treats it in an explicitly political context in book Ⅶ of the Politics.


The Character of Citizens

The good life requires three things: the basics of bodily survival, a good character (the virtues), and the finer things of life.

Aristotle prioritizes the virtues over material goods. This is in part because having the virtues better enables you both to acquire, to use well, and to properly appreciate such goods.

If you were to take two random schmoes who have little but their basic survival needs met and then equip one of them with the virtues, the other with material prosperity, Aristotle is going to place his bet on the one with the virtues as being most likely to thrive as a result.

This is in part because our characters are (or ought to be) that which is most precious to us. If we acquire material possessions, we do so (if we’re functioning at a healthy level) in order to further the flourishing of our characters. People without virtue fritter away their material possessions in ways that are purposeless or even detrimental to their characters, and so prosperity can do them more harm than good. People with the virtues, on the other hand, find that additional material prosperity can be useful to the practice of the virtues.

You might contrast Aristotle’s point of view in this chapter with the Maslow’s hierarchy theory, which says (at least in my superficial understanding of it) that people need to have a certain amount of material prosperity and social status first, and only then do they have the slack they need to begin concentrating on fortifying their characters.

The Virtues of States

Aristotle further says that when it comes to wealth and virtue, a state is kind of like a person: Just as a person’s wealth is not conducive to their thriving unless they are also virtuous, so also a state’s prosperity is not helpful to it unless the state has courage, wisdom, restraint, and other stately virtues.

He notes that there seems to be some similarity in general between what people think is best for the individual and what people think is best for the state. People who relish having power over others want a state that lords over its neighbors; people who think winning a bar fight is glorious also think a belligerent and well-fortified state is best; people who think being wealthy is the be-all and end-all will measure the health of the state by its GDP; and so forth.

It hasn’t been fashionable in my lifetime for people to suggest (in more than a rhetorically decorative way) that the purpose of the state is to facilitate the acquisition of the virtues by its citizens, or that the best state is the most virtuous one. “It’s the economy, stupid,” is more of the spirit of the age. When Trump vows to “make American great again,” he certainly is not appealing to people’s desire for America to attend diligently to improving its courage, wisdom, and restraint (judging by his actions, you’d think fear, foolishness, and capriciousness were more important ingredients of American Greatness).

On the other hand, modern states that decide to take an active role in shaping the virtues of their citizenry can appear frighteningly Orwellian.

Most states though, Aristotle says, don’t really have much in the way of a governing philosophy of what they’re aiming to accomplish for the people; they’re more haphazard.

(Tyler Cowen recently argued that this is part of why the neoliberal consensus is unraveling — “People want ideas and inspiration, and when no good new ideas are put forward, the current default seems to be nationalist ideas, including of the less tolerant variety.”)

States Organized Around Military Virtues

Those that do have such a principle usually just have a crudely bellicose one: they want to dominate their neighbors and to prevail in warfare. Such nations organize their educational systems, public ceremonies and tokens of prestige, and so forth, to promote military achievements. Aristotle doesn’t think much of this. It puts the virtue of justice aside and makes a virtue of might-is-right.

He awkwardly tries to reconcile this call for virtue-not-dominance with his earlier remarks about slavery, in which he matter-of-factly said that some people were just naturally slavish and meant to be dominated by their betters (see ♇ 28 November 2018). He again tries to lean on the idea that some people are indeed formed by nature to be slaves and to be dominated, but that this understanding should not be extended to the idea that whole states or peoples ought to be treated in this way.

He also notes that a state without enemies — an isolated state — would have no need for the military virtues but would still have some purpose and some virtues appropriate to it. He thinks the military virtues and the military capability of a polis ought to be seen not as ends but as means to the end of preserving a healthy state in which the more important virtues may be encouraged.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics