Politics and Ethics in Aristotle: Agonistic Ethics

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, where there is a picture of the agora, not just the link.

Image above is a reconstruction of what the agora may have looked like in Ancient Athens.

I’ve been doing some work on Aristotle’s ethics for next semester’s teaching. Going other Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics, I’m struck by how political it is. The good that Aristotle seeks to define is associated with the art of politics which must have the good of the political community as its goal. It’s not just that Aristotle says that politics is a branch of ethics, he says that politics is ethics. The Politics is a parallel treatment of the same subject matter as the Nicomachean Ethics. That is perhaps an exaggeration, but an exaggeration which conveys a truth. What Aristotle regards as the good life is the life of leading citizen of the city in wealth and politics. Certainly the good life requires liberality, and clearly Aristotle thinks you can only manage that with quite a lot of property with which to be generous.

In his ethical inquiries into the Good, Aristotle mentions the city as what educated and conditions its citizens in virtue. How do we get the kind of rulers who will undertake that task. It starts with the pursuit of honour, by which I presume Aristotle largely means liberality and courage. This is a time when a citizen was a soldier so Aristotle is certainly thinking of military courage. Liberality and military courage are marks of aristocracy then and since, and Aristotle clearly does not think the poor and uneducated are capable of much in the way of virtue. Honour is not enough for the good life for Aristotle since it means dependence on the praise of others, so the city’s leading citizens need virtue as a higher goal which makes life truly happy.

Aristotle’s account of virtue is that is not enough in itself, since nobody can be virtuous at all times. He rather quaintly adds that no one can be virtuous in sleep but we should not allow this quaintness to distract us from the basic claim that no one can be constantly virtuous for a whole life time. Virtue itself needs to be embedded, and what embeds it is a life of actions which are unified in three different ways: unified with prudent intentions, unified with each other at any one moment, unified over time between different instance of action at different moments.

This unity of action gives us a happiness which withstands all circumstances, and bad fortune, or at least a lot of them. Aristotle implies there is something rather godlike about such a state, which I take to be a way of saying aristocratic. This is the people who should be running the political community, making and administering its laws, controlling the distribution of property, leading the military forces. Whether we are talking about the Politics or the Nicomachean Ethics, we are talking about the preparation of an aristocracy.

What is the aristocracy? People who compete for honour. Honour needs to become virtue, but virtue still contains honour and competition. The great cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt, thought of the Ancient Greek aristocracy as obsessed with competition. Aristotle’s emphasis on temperance perhaps conceals this to a degree, but we see that he thinks the leaders of a political community are motivated by competition. Ancient Athens had democratic competition of a kind Burckhardt does not care for: the competition of demagogues to control public opinion, the competition for other people’s property through the dishonest use of the legal process. For Burckhardt, that is the decadence of Athens, but maybe that was the height of the competitive aristocratic spirit, certainly they can go together.

Aristotle’s ethics and politics are full of contestation, if not directly acknowledged. They also contain notions of being above such things, the Great Soul, the ruler as friend of citizens, the happiness of a life of competition. But all these are the product of an aristocracy driven to compete, in order to distinguish itself from the law goals, and actions, of the poor and uneducated. The competition to seem at least a bit like an Olympian god.

Sometimes, the ethical dimension of politics is seen as something that counters ambition, competitiveness and agonism. Sometimes, the difference between Aristotle and Machiavelli is supposed to be that Aristotle takes politics to be the continuation of ethics, but Machiavelli takes politics to be a separate sphere of activity from ethics. But what if we wee Aristotle’s ethics as competitive, agonistic and ‘Machiavellian’? Aristotle’s Politics is much more agonistic than Machiavelli in The Prince or the Discourses. In the Discourse, we may see a contestatory and agonistic republicanism, a freedom based on political struggle. Maybe we should see a more radical version of it in Aristotle’s ethics and politics, rather than the safe picture of virtue in control. What virtues then? Maybe agonistic virtues?

Maybe we should see Aristotle in relation to the Athenian agora in every respect. The place where commerce takes place, and political and legal struggle, not far from where the theatrical contests take place, events which united the city as much as the politics, law and religion. There are certainly other elements of Aristotle, but maybe the agonistic Aristotle of the agora has not been respected enough.