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The Concept of A Flourishing Life in Aristotle’s Politics & Nichomachean Ethics

June 18th, 2010

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In Politics, Aristotle argues that to lead a flourishing life, it is imperative that all free men embrace their responsibility in the political system, thereby protecting the interests of their personal lives, social class, and community, as well as instilling virtue in oneself through civil servitude and leadership. Consistent with this theory is the notion, as described by our political philosopher, that inherent human nature holds men to the conviction that they should participate in governmental proceedings, as he finds, “soul and body are the basic constituents of an animal, the soul is the natural ruler; the body the natural subject. ” (8). In this statement, one can decipher that Aristotle believes that each citizen rules in how the city-state is governed through a democratic system and is ruled by obeying the laws and keeping allegiance towards the governing body. In the opening pages of Book I, Aristotle produces a strong declaration about those who do not wish to take part in politics, “…human is by nature a political animal, and that anyone who is without a city-state, not by luck but by nature, is either a poor specimen or else super human…for someone with such a nature is at the same time eager for war, like an isolated piece on a board game. ” (4). As the collection of political theory progresses, Aristotle examines the necessity of an established community, governing body, social hierarchy, and inter-household status ranking in living a perfectly joyous and happy life, however we first must decide what exactly constitutes this supposed “flourishing life” in ancient Greece.


According to Aristotle in his prior publication, Nicomachean Ethics, happiness in lifestyle far surpasses the simple explanation of a contented emotion, but however, rely much more on success and fulfillment in the political world, thus necessitating involvement governmental affairs to the happiness of every free man. In modern society, most would consider happiness as coming from physical pleasure or honor, but as Aristotle insists, this is only due to an imperfect view of the good life. Predominantly, the concept of Greek happiness, which a flourishing life entails, is a much more public matter than how it is viewed by twentieth century philosophers. In ancient times more so than now, a Greek individual’s identity was extremely closely linked to the city-state to which he belonged to; thus, happiness was closely connected to the success and fulfillment achieved during public service. Moreover, happiness was not viewed as an emotion in the private sector, but more importantly a reflection of a person’s position within a city-state. Additionally, Nicomachean Ethics discusses the belief that because everything in nature exists for a specific purpose, the end goal of human existence (the specific purpose of human life) is happiness. Aristotle acknowledges a contrast between the means of attainment and the ends, ultimately happiness, of attainment. He states that men pursue happiness and rational activity for the sake of enjoyment, where as they will seek out wealth and health simply because they feel these acquisitions will bring them happiness. He will go on later to define this determination by stating, “…there are three groups – external good [wealth, reputation] goods of the body [health, sensual pleasure], and goods of the soul [wisdom, virtue] – surely no one would raise a dispute and say that not all of them need be possessed by those who are blessedly happy. ” (191). However, Aristotle places more importance upon the goods of the soul, since they are the ends themselves and the former types of good are the means at which acquiring the latter. Following up on this idea, Politics examines how to best secure these ends of happiness for the citizens of a city-state, which predominantly involved political activity, beginning with the construction of a community.

To begin the quest for obtaining a flourishing life, one first established a community in which to become actively involved, known in ancient Greek terminology as a poleis or city-state. The interests of the city-state and its citizens were one and the same, both to attain happiness in affairs, and therefore, conflict between individual liberties and the laws of the city did not often occur. As Aristotle expresses in his opening statements, “every community is established for the sake of some good (for everyone performs every action for the sake of what he takes to be good). ” (1), and as our author views it, one cannot lead a happy life without community engagement, as an individual will not fully realize the nature of their political being separated from the city-state. In asserting that man fails to fulfill his ultimate purpose when he disconnects from the state, Aristotle argues that life has no value outside the walls of a city-state.

The formation of a community is a natural phenomenon based on the principles of rational speech, reproduction, education, and religion. Once human beings were able to develop a language, they had a strong desire to interact with one another, and thus social groups and later political entities were founded. These assertions are echoed by Aristotle in saying, “Those who cannot exist without each other necessarily form a couple as [1] female and male do for the sake of procreation, [2] as a natural ruler and what is naturally ruled for the sake of survival. ” (2). An organized system of reproduction to best ensure the success of offspring needed to be devised in this ancient Greek society, as Aristotle constructs, determining that women should not be married until they are eighteen years of age and men should not be wed to these women until they have reached their thirty-sixth birthday. In modern times, a marriage license is required to surpass the problems that ancient Greek citizens had to enact laws to overcome, such as the marriage between cousins and a proper age to marry. Education, and even determining what subjects should be taught, also needed to be a collective endeavor. He believed that the city’s educational system will largely forecast the character of its future citizens and therefore asserts that it is preferable to enroll children in public education over private tutoring. A fundamental aspect of the state governments of the United States is just the topic, and overall, to every society, education is determined to be a very crucial political concern. Men also need leisurely activities, such as sports and music, to live to the fullest, and thus, for the sake of a flourishing life, it is ideal for humans to live in groups with common interests. As Aristotle puts it, “For it is by seeking happiness in different ways and by different means that individual groups of people create different ways of life and different constitutions. ” (204). In the creation of a city-state, Aristotle comments that all citizens should know each other and that the population should be “surveyable”, to reinforce the common aims of the community. Standardized religious practices and the public construction of temples in the worship of Gods were also public domain, as it would be nearly impossible for every citizen to have access to the proper altars and temples without publicly funded religious sites. In all these social aspects of life, reproduction, leisure activities, education, and religion, a functioning government must be held responsible and therefore, a community was formed to distribute money and duties across its populace.

Before an individual can become active in a political life, and thus achieve the all-important definition of happiness as described by the Greeks, one first must determine who should be given access to the government in terms of a social hierarchy. When deciding who should take part in political affairs, the author clearly separates the people who are necessary to the city, including slaves, and those who are essential members of the city. Aristotle is not concerned with giving every individual the access to the operations of the government because he does not consider their input to be valuable, rationale for excluding slaves. Slaves, he insists, are like property, and therefore, cannot comprise a city. He cites a fundamental difference in slaves and freemen in governmental affairs in saying, “For ruling and being ruled are not only necessary, they are also beneficial, and some things are distinguished right from birth, some suited to rule and others to being ruled. ” (7). Only freeborn citizens have the capacity to become leaders because only they would have the time to pursue education and leisure activities, and thus be well rounded and knowledgeable for government involvement. Our political theorist also makes distinctions along the lines of origin and age in stating, “Nor is a citizen a citizen through residing in a place, for resident aliens and slaves share the dwelling place of him…like minors who are too young to be enrolled in the citizen list or old people who have been excused from their civic duties, they must be said to be citizens of a sort, but not unqualified citizens. ” (65). Similar are the requirements in the United States to either naturalized if not born in this country and to eighteen years of age to participate in elections. By setting parameters for which individuals can participate in politics, Aristotle attempts to preserve what he believes a qualified social ranking of free men.

Aristotle concludes that the goal of the community as a whole is to achieve as much unity as feasibly possible, and thereby, protecting the interests of all citizens; however, Aristotle maintains that different people must make different contributions, fulfill different roles, and fit into distinct social classes to ensure that the city-state will be self-sufficient. Class division is important in maintaining a proper social order, but there seems to be a place for each free class in government participation, whether it be through leadership or simply voicing an opinion. Certain of this principle, he states, “A city-state is excellent, however, because the citizens who participate in the constitution are excellent; and in our city-state all the citizens participate in the constitution. ” (213). Aristotle suggests that the middle class is most vested in the success of a political entity in stressing that it is the least susceptible to factionalism, self-interest, and hatred of other classes. Both the rich and the poor, on the other hand, are more likely to conceive of justice and equality selfishly. He declares that a population of farmers would make for the best democracy, as they must work hard and are well spread apart, preventing the group as a whole from spending too much time involved with governmental affairs. Alternatively, he proposes that the population least conducive to democracy would be made up of mechanics, shopkeepers, and laborers because they are crowded within the inner city, and therefore could take an active role in politics leading to mob rule and violent overthrows. By involving all classes in the political system, Aristotle nearly achieves the prospect of a flourishing life, centered upon happiness in political participation, for every group of natural-born free men.

Once the standards of citizenship have been determined, it is next necessary to determine how a government should be operated and maintained in order to maximize the number of individuals who can become involved. Aristotle suggests that a governing body must include all citizens and govern in the common interest, and that the laws be well constituted and directed toward the general good. Contrasting many political philosophers of his day, our author insists that a collective populace is wiser than an individual expert and an overall better judge as to whether people are being well-governed. In descriptions of each practical type of government, Aristotle concludes, “For tyranny is rule by one person for the benefit of the monarch, oligarchy is for the benefit of the rich, and democracy is for the benefit of the poor. But none is for their common profit. ” (78). In an oligarchy, influential and high standing offices should be reserved for the wealthy, yet the poor should still be able to hold infer employment in the functioning of the government. Additionally, wealthy officers are obligated, in this system, to perform significant public service in order to hold office, thus deemed worthy of leadership by the poor. Civic government consists of three main elements: the deliberative, the executive, and the judicial. The deliberative elements involve public matters such as foreign policy, enacting laws, judicial cases in which a severe penalty is involved, and the appointment of public officials. The executive branch of Aristotle’s government holds public order and takes responsibility for governing and issuing commands. Finally, the judicial element passes rulings on matters of private and public interest. Aristotle recommends that the ruling party always be wary of lawlessness, never try to deceive the masses, treat everybody well and fairly, especially those outside the constitution, cultivate a state of emergency so that people will not attempt a revolt, prevent in-fighting between nobles, ensure that property qualification for office remains proportionate to the wealth of the city, be careful not to confer great promotions or significant withdrawals of honor too suddenly, be wary of a class that is on the rise, and give power to the opposing class or the middle class, prevent public office from becoming a source of profit, and offer special consideration to the rich in a democracy and to the poor in an oligarchy. In all aspects of the prescribed varieties of government that Aristotle examines, the focus and motive remain the same: to create a political entity that will best suit individual citizens for a flourishing life.

In relating the ideas posed by Aristotle to the modern definitions of government in the United States, many political issues and dilemmas come to mind that obstruct such a flourishing life. As Aristotle suggested, “Nowadays, however, because of the profits to be had from public funds and office, people want to be in office continuously, as if they were sick and would be cured by being in office. ” (77). This has become increasingly so in the maturation of our nation as well, while congressmen and presidents fight to stay in office for as many terms as possible to ensure the push of their political agenda, often influenced by interested groups and top campaign contributors. Another problematic situation that the U. S. government has encountered since the birth of our nation is the decrease in individual participation in government. In ancient times, all citizens were required to contribute in some way to the government. Assemblies of citizens made decisions in governmental bodies that were similar to the law courts and city councils that few Americans take part in today. In ancient Greece, these lawmaking assemblies would rotate membership to ensure that every citizen could serve a term, however, the only institution which mirrors this rotation in modern day is jury duty. Without required participation in the government, many individuals in society wish to seek no part in it, and therefore, do not fulfill their civic duty or live in the criteria of happiness Aristotle maintains is essential.

Aristotle advocates a lifestyle involving political activism as a means of achieving a happy and flourishing life, by first detailing the necessity of establishing a community, defining a social hierarchy, and instituting a governing body in which every free man should take part. In arguing the need for politics in an individual’s well-being, he pronounces, “Some people think that ruling over one’s neighbors like a master involves one of the greatest injustices, and that rule of a statesman, though it involves no injustice, does involve impediment to one’s own well-being. Others think almost the opposite, they say that an active political life is the only one for a man, since the actions expressing each of the virtues are no more available to private individuals than to those engaged in communal affairs and politics (194). Political bodies make education, leisure, organized religion, and marriage possible, many of which compromised ancient issues reflected in modern dilemmas. Without politics, possible chaos and obviously a decreased level of interaction and social harmony would occur; therefore, it is in the best interest of the community and of the individual, to partake in government.

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