Philosophy Political Philosophy

Aristotle’s Dialectical Politics: The Struggle for Virtue

Aristotle’s political theory is grounded in two principal cornerstones: that man is a political (or social) animal, and that the end of human existence is happiness.   Thus, humanity’s essential social character cannot be separated from his existential character.  The separation of humanity from society will not produce the happiness he seeks.  Likewise, a politics that does not produce arête (excellence) and other associated virtues that come with knowledge will also not sufficiently produce the happiness that he seeks.

I have examined Aristotle’s virtue ethics and how his action theory is related to knowledge and happiness in this post, and I have also provided a summary of some of the highlights of Aristotle’s basic political thoughts in this post.  Now I am moving into a more focused summary of Aristotle’s political thoughts as it directly relates to human happiness and the concept of the political.

Politics, for Aristotle, is an art.  It is a craft.  It cultivates excellence.  It demands knowledge.  It demands, in other words, reason.  Politics is the art of the reasonable because the reasonable would lead to happiness.  (Politics is not the “art of the possible,” whatever that means – which is nothing more than a quietistic justification for “the ends justify the means.”)  As Aristotle also famously retorted, reflecting his own intellectualism, “the Law is the rational.”  But what, then, is the main problem of politics?

The simple answer is knowledge and virtue, since the two go together in Aristotle.  Cicero, for instance, goes on and on about the crisis of education – specifically moral education – as it pertains to the breakdown of constitutions and their devolution into anarchy and tyranny.  Cicero drew from Aristotle, and Cicero’s comments that “the very nature of public affairs often defeats reason” is essentially Aristotelian even if Aristotle doesn’t use that phrase.  Thus, the struggle of politics is the unitive struggle for knowledge by which virtue follows.

For Aristotle, art – in all its forms, especially in phronesis (practical wisdom of daily work and living for particular people) – points to the Law.  Law is fundamentally a dictate of reason for Aristotle.  That art points to Law means that Law embodies prudence.

Prudence is the highest manifestation of the dictate of reason because prudence is the ultimate embodiment of knowledge of the mean.  Without prudence one doesn’t really know – one is either given entirely over to the control of emotion and passion which leads to excess, or one has not cultivated habit from what he knows which leads to deficiency and lack of arête.  The two extremes represent the two poles that tug at humanity: unrestrained desire (excess) which is ultimately is the root of the lack of knowledge, or lack of habitual action which is more a reflection of the suppression of our social animus.  The former is associated with recklessness, itself unreasonable, while the latter is associated with what St. Augustine calls the incurvatus in se – or the inward curve to the self, which is essentially an atomized individualism where one only cares about oneself and is therefore suppressing his social animus which equally leads to catastrophic problems for man and also society.

Drawing upon analogies of artisans and other works, and considering Aristotle’s condemnation of latitudinal commercialization, he shows the problem of why art itself is not the rational but can only be a sign of the dictates of reason.  The artist paints, and while he has this gift and ability, it does him no good unless he is in community.  The phronesis that he has cultivated by a coming to understand the nature of beauty and then applying that knowledge to creating masterful works of arts, can only lead to a limited happiness unless he is able to share with others.  Likewise, the carpenter suffers the same problem.  He can craft a great chair, but it is better to be able to extend this gift unto others.  Thus, to fulfill their natural desire for happiness, as well as to continue cultivating their own practical excellence, people come into community with one another to fulfill the two cornerstones of Aristotelian ontology: social animus and happiness.

The problem now becomes one of prudence, or moderation.  In this community there is a dialectical confrontation between the artist and the carpenter.  This must be regulated by Law.  If not, then the latitudinal confrontation goes on and on and one without end.  There is no teleology at all.  There cannot by an end to latitudinal metaphysics – it is, by its own definition and thought process, a complete denial of nature itself and the ends to which natural is directed through final cause (teleology).  This is the problem of commercialization for Aristotle, we begin chasing after something outside of us.  This is, of course, a result of ignorance of nature and being, but it primarily an ignorance of nature and being because such a view presupposes unlimited acquisition as what is good for humanity.  But unlimited acquisition cannot be satisfied.  It does not lead to prudence (or moderation) it only ever leads to more self-seeking gain.  It is, once again, the inward curve of deficiency whereby man is also (implicitly) detaching himself from society.

This is also Aristotle’s critique of the Epicureans and other hedonists.  He disagrees with them on their fundamental materialist ontology and metaphysics.  The experiential, which is what bodily hedonism entails, denies soul, and in denying soul, it denies knowledge since soul is principally mind.  At the same time, it also denies hylomorphism.  It rejects, in its own materialism, the unity of form and matter by only embrace the matter.

Thus, we are at endless war with ourselves as we chase after fleeting happiness that can never be satiated because hedonism requires no cultivation of virtue and prudence, which is to also say it requires no pursuit of knowledge at all.  It is also individualism writ large within a materialist framework as I’m only ever out for myself and use others to try and derive happiness – but at every level of this philosophy of life I’m confused since (1) I seek happiness (which is an implicit recognition that happiness must be part of nature and is therefore within you), (2) I don’t understand this nature by principally seeking happiness in things outside of myself, and (3) in seeking happiness outside of myself I implicitly recognize the other part of my nature which is social animus.  The glue that brings this all together is philosophy from which prudence is understand and in this understanding the cultivation of excellence can begin whereby I move toward the mean either from previous deficiency or excess.

We can add then, the fourth confusion in that even the Epicurean hedonist still embodies his fundamental natures of want for happiness through social animus even though he goes about all the wrong ways of seeking happiness because he has fundamentally denied knowledge in his materialist ontology.  I must have a balance of self-happiness with social happiness. Thus, I do, in fact, need prudence which comes from knowledge which is the dictate of pure reason.  Until I am at rest with my nature – and all that my nature is – I can never truly be happy (or virtuous and knowledgeable for that matter), which is to say I need to have a harmony of my hylomorphic nature, a harmony of knowledge and virtue, of knowledge leading to action.  We can see, then, in Aristotle, why knowledge becomes important.  Without proper knowledge we are left confused and unhappy, at war with ourselves which is not only at war with our nature but also the end to which nature aims for.

Prudence and moral virtue go together then, as should be clear from reading Nicomachean Ethics.  According to Aristotle, prudence and moral virtue are infused together as part of our hylmorphic nature.  Prudence is principally contained in the form (knowledge) while moral virtue is contained in matter (through actions in the material world).  The best life, then, is the life that is completely devoted to understanding (form) and from this understanding virtue is acted out upon in the world (matter).  Therefore, the struggle of knowledge is also the struggle for virtue – they are integrally intertwined in our hylomorphic nature.  You cannot have one without the other.

Thus, it also becomes pertinent to understand what the nature of a city is – since the city is the highest calling and manifestation of social animus which necessarily means it is tied to happiness which we have just situated as the result of prudence and moral virtue.  The city is the collective society of individuals who have cultivated practical wisdom (the low order of prudence) that are now bound together through the high of prudence which is civil law which regulates all actions and, through the dictate of reason, directs all activities toward the end of moral virtue from which happiness flows.  Law is fundamentally and unequivocally hierarchal then, as any law that embraces latitudinal ideals can never cultivate virtue and never be truly rational since it fundamentally denies the first principles of human nature and nature more generally.  The city, then, is like a collection of families or households bound together in common cause.  This becomes the common good that Cicero identifies as necessary for any republic.

The common cause of the city is also the common cause of all persons, namely happiness – which is why happiness is the highest good.  As Leo Strauss notes in reviewing Aristotle, “The highest good of the city is the same as the highest good of the individual.  The core of happiness is the practice of virtue and primarily of moral virtue.”  You can think of the city in a pyramid where the top is moral law which the regulated side of the pyramid (which has form) is the Law that pushes up toward that top goal.  The wide base of the pyramid is the multifaceted nature of the city with all its different peoples and their practical practices which sustain their livelihoods but also allows them to cultivate their own virtues to derive happiness.  In this sense, like so many other ancient philosophers, Aristotle sees plurality as only being possible in a hierarchy of difference.  Difference, by definition, is plural.  Sameness, which is what monism entails in oneness, cannot, by definition, be pluralistic.

Therefore, each person strives for happiness from his practicality and through the cultivation of his particular phronesis.  This is where Aristotle pivots to an understanding of envy and why democracy is a perverse form of constitutionalism (which is to say democracy destroys the Law of Reason which promotes virtue and returns us to the abyss of non-virtue).  Democracy is the rule of the poor and the envious, those who have not cultivated practical wisdom or virtue, and therefore hold those who do in contempt.  Rather than lift themselves up, they would rather drag those above them down.  This is the politics of resentment.  Democracy was, in Aristotle’s eyes, fundamentally anti-intellectual and non-virtuous by its very own definitions and practices.

Democratic “rights of man” of universal rights, so to speak, are the equivalent to universalist ethical egoism which devolves law and politics to the lowest common denominator in all persons: self-survival and nothing more than this.  Self-survival does not require knowledge or virtue, it only requires brute strength.  Democracy is the greatest reflection of brute strength because it is the coming together of large masses of ignorant animals – “brute animals” – united in “action.”  The “man of action” which Aristotle speaks of in Book VII of Politics is the activist animal united with his legion of cohorts who, in their envy, tear down the wisdom, virtue, and success of others in their folly.  They strip others of their happiness and remain unhappy themselves since they are not virtuous and knowledgeable people.

The struggle of politics is more than just the struggle for virtue in Aristotle.  Cicero draws extensively from Plato and Aristotle, but many of Cicero’s ideas which he puts to pen and paper are implicitly contained in Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics.  The struggle of politics is, in fact, the struggle for virtue, but in it being the struggle for virtue it is the struggle for wisdom and knowledge.  It is the struggle for embodying and living out one’s hylomorphic nature which seems to be at war with itself: “flesh and spirit” to use the language of St. Paul, between the virtue of the flesh (matter) and the wisdom of the spirit (form) that unite together and produce the virtuous happy man at peace with his nature and with those around him in his sociality.  (This is precisely why Christians and Hellenized Jews sought to integrate Aristotle with their ideas too – they are essentially the same just communicated through different prisms.)

Aristotle differed from Cicero insofar that Cicero’s cycles of constitutional evolution/devolution are cyclical.  Aristotle’s art of political dialectic is wholly hierarchal.  It goes up, or it goes down.  Only a wise and virtuous city is the happy city, which is to also say it is the city with the happiest of citizens.  An unwise and unvirtuous city is the tyrannical city; it is the city that is at war with itself and members of itself – it is the chaotic and unorderly city that doesn’t even permit for basic living as it is at war with itself.

For Aristotle, dialectical struggle is not as Hegel and Marx envisioned.  It is not “us” vs. “them,” per se, it is myself vs. myself, it only becomes “us” vs. “them” when I reject my own nature and give up on the internal struggle for wisdom and virtue and lash out at others who are wise and virtuous – but upon whom I craft accusational blame on to justify my envy.  In this sense Aristotle’s politics is not all dissimilar from Plato.  The dialectical nature of politics in Aristotle is the struggle for knowledge and virtue (high end) from which happiness is derived, and insofar that this is the peak that politics seeks, politics is also the struggle against all things that would drag such a politics down into the abyss of ignorance, egoism, and the Cave of tyranny.

This was originally published on Hesiod’s Corner, September 22, 2017.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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