The Active and Contemplative Lives for Citizens

In chapter ⅱ of book Ⅶ of the Politics, Aristotle brought up and then put to one side the question of whether it is best for the individual to be an active citizen-participant (or perhaps even a statesman-tyrant) governing the state, or to be aloof from it and live a more contemplative, philosophical life. In chapter ⅲ he picks this question back up.


This is interesting in part because I would assume from what Aristotle has said up to this point in the Politics that being an active citizen-participant is important to being a fully-flourishing human being — and yet Aristotle himself was a resident alien in Athens, not a citizen, he never held citizenship in a Greek polis, and in his Nicomachean Ethics he held out the life of philosophic contemplation as being the best sort of life a human can live.

Aristotle begins in a characteristically Aristotelian fashion by rejecting the choice of extremes in favor of a compromise position. Neither an inactive contemplative life nor a desperate struggle to be the alpha of the tribe, but instead a life of active but just and restrained participation, is the ideal to be striven for.

But shouldn’t the most virtuous people strive to rule over the others? Can’t a virtuous person accomplish more and do it better with others to command? Aristotle considers this argument, and thinks it has some merit, but inclines to the belief that it is more in keeping with virtuous people to cooperate than to compete for dominance. Perhaps, he thinks, this could be different when virtue is very rare: when one person is extraordinarily virtuous, for example, it would make sense for them to take charge.

Aristotle reminds us that virtue is a form of action: it is not merely an inclination, preference, or understanding. This is in part why he rejects the caricatured version of the passive life of philosophical contemplation as an ideal for the virtuous person. But he reminds us also that this is a caricature: “nor is intelligence ‘active’ only when it is directed towards results that flow from action. On the contrary, thinking and speculation that are their own end and are done for their own sake are more ‘active’, because the aim in such thinking is to do well, and therefore also, in a sense, action.” As an analogy he asks us to consider something like an architect, who is just as “active” as a carpenter in making a building happen, although the architect may never handle any building materials.

In this regard, Aristotle again makes an analogy between what is good for people and what is good for states. He says that just as people may have an active life of practically-minded contemplation that is proper and important even if it does not immediately concern political life, states too have plenty that can concern them internally that does not have immediate application to inter-state commerce, diplomacy, or warfare.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics