Introduction to Political Philosophy: Midterm 1

I’m afraid I lost the questions. But look, it’s Aristotle!

I like Plato’s Republic a lot more.

Question 2:

In Book 3, Chapter 4 of his Politics, Aristotle asks whether “the virtue of the good man and the excellent citizen is to be regarded as the same or not the same” and then writes “it is possible for a citizen to be excellent yet not possess the virtue in accordance with which he is an excellent man.” His reasoning is really very simple: In Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle laid out the virtues of the excellent man; in The Politics he lays out the virtue of the excellent citizen; he demonstrates in this chapter that these virtues are partly opposed in all but the best regimes.

Book 2 of Ethics begins Aristotle’s discussion on the virtues, and he lists them as Courage, Temperance, Liberality, Magnificence, Greatness of Soul, Gentleness, Truthfulness, Wittiness, and Friendliness. In Politics 3.1, he defines the citizen as “Whoever is entitled to participate in an office involving deliberation or decision;” this is not limited only to leaders but to decisions in all aspects of life – jurors in a trial, lawmakers, ambassadors and those who make financial decisions can all be considered citizens under this definition. Moving back to Chapter 4, he writes of the citizen that “preservation of the partnership is their task, and the regime is this partnership; hence the virtue of the citizen must necessarily be with a view to the regime.” One can see a conflict coming already, for it is possible that an unjust regime will demand that some of its citizens lie, or that those who are in power be ungentle so as to preserve their dominance.

But Aristotle sees an even deeper conflict than these simple examples. For everyone agrees that the city requires men of many different professions and kinds (even if we do not agree on what kinds of men), and Aristotle says that each man who fills his place in the city well is a good citizen. For instance, a city requires servants (in the modern world think waitresses and janitors), but it is not the place of a servant to be courageous or to have greatness of soul, although they should possess gentleness (at a level that would be excessive in a generally excellent man with more greatness of soul) and some servants should have much wittiness in order to entertain those they serve.

Lastly, Aristotle distinguishes between rulers and citizens in most regimes. He says that the virtues of the good man and the ruler correspond – that the excellent man possessing all the virtues discussed will be a ruler. He notes that there are two beliefs about citizens and ruling: first that the excellent citizen is excellent because he is good but not necessarily prudent (whereas the ruler is prudent and possess all the virtues of the good man), and the second belief that the mark of a good citizen is “the capacity to rule and be ruled finely.” To resolve these differences, Aristotle defines two kinds of rule: rule of the master over the servant, in which the servant must know how to do things and the master must know how to use the servant to get things done; and also “political rule” which is used when ruling over “those who are similar in stock and trade,” and this kind of rule is learned by being ruled, similarly to the learning of a cavalry commander or a general.

It is in a regime under political rule that the good man and the good citizen can coexist in the same person, for the virtue of the good citizen in such a regime is “knowledge of rule over free persons from both points of view,” and this also belongs to the good man. And while the ruler and the ruled must have some of the virtues in different quantities or at different means, the good man knows what these are in both cases and can act at both levels.

Question 3:

Aristotle’s discussion of justice in Nicomachean Ethics, Book 5, Chapter 7 seems somewhat confused (indeed, the translator marks it as probably jumbled up somehow) and inconsistent. But a careful reading of the passage reveals that you can resolve the passage in a way that leaves it both consistent and meaningful, as I will endeavor to show here.

First (verse 1), Aristotle notes two kinds of justice: natural and conventional. The natural justice “has the same validity everywhere, and does not depend on our accepting it or not.” Conventional rules “may be settled…indifferently, though having once been settled [they are] not indifferent.” This means just what it says: there is both conventional and natural justice, and conventional justice is defined by human beings but natural justice exists whether we define it or not. He then acknowledges (verse 2) that “some people think that all rules of justice are merely conventional” because “rules of justice are seen to vary.” This is the first seeming contradiction (that natural justice exists regardless of acknowledgment, and yet that rules of justice vary). But it is fairly easy to resolve: first, “rules of justice” here seems to refer to the laws that have been enacted rather than what justice actually is. In other words, he seems to mean that “because laws are the attempt of the regime (if it is a good one) to enact justice within the city, and because the laws of cities vary, there are those who claim that there is no natural, true justice.”

In verse 3, Aristotle says “That rules of justice vary is not absolutely true, but only with qualifications.” This appears an obvious, almost unneeded addition standing on its own (after all, it is everywhere illegal to kill a citizen because you do not like his hair), but when you add in the next sentence ( “Among the gods indeed it is perhaps not true at all; but in our world, although there is such a thing as Natural Justice, all rules of justice are variable.”) it seems that the meaning attached to “rules of justice” has changed. For how can the gods need laws to approximate justice when they know what the just actually is? And did he not just say that natural justice “has the same validity everywhere?” It appears that either the original text or the translator has failed to maintain a distinction between “rules of justice” meaning “laws” and that meaning “what is actually just.” What this section means is that, while the laws do vary, in some ways they are all the same (all agree that the murder of citizens is unjust without good reason, and while “good reason” varies it is still an agreement on the basic principle); and while natural justice itself varies (there are times when it is just to kill a man and there are times it is not just) that variation does not mean that natural justice does not exist. Perhaps among the gods natural justice does not vary at all.

Aristotle does not explain why justice might not vary among the gods, but the arguments he gives lead to something like this: “because justice varies most when it deals with people who are least just (as when a man tries to kill you and it becomes just to kill him to save yourself, or to have the state kill or imprison him if you escape without killing him), and varies less among people who are more just and are unjust only by lack of knowledge or accident (for instance, when a child takes a plaything from you because he does not understand property, it is not just to kill or take from him in return but only to have your property returned with an apology and a lesson for the child), perhaps among the perfectly just and all-knowing justice does not vary at all.”

Moving on, Aristotle reiterates the existence of Natural Justice and “justice not ordained by nature,” then says in verse 4 “it is easy to see which rules of justice, though not absolute, are natural, and which are not natural but legal and conventional, both sorts alike being variable.” The following sentence is perhaps an attempt at explanation: “The same distinction will hold good in all other matters; for instance, the right hand is naturally stronger than the left, yet it is possible for any man to make himself ambidextrous.” Applied to justice, this would seem to mean that, though Natural Justice exists and it is natural for you to feel that it is justice, people can by regular practice (of living under their particular law) come to believe that their conventional justice is just as strong and that natural justice does not actually exist, yet a survey of all people can demonstrate that the Natural Justice is the stronger by nature. Alternatively, it is not a metaphor for the kinds of justice but a simple example like those I have given above: the right hand is naturally stronger, but in certain situations (ie, certain individuals) the left is stronger or just as strong, but that does not mean that having strength of the hands is itself unnatural or that having a stronger right hand is unnatural.

In verse 5 Aristotle describes the conventional justice as varying like measures in the market compared to measures in wholesale (in more contemporary terms, the price variation of a bushel of apples against the sale of a single apple) and says that “Similarly the rules of justice ordained not by nature but by man are not the same in all places, since forms of government are not the same, though in all places there is only one form of government that is natural, namely, the best form.” The first half of the sentence needs little explication; the second is a reference to his discussion of the forms of government in chapters 3 and 4 of The Politics where he develops the idea of the perfect government and then the most perfect government that can be put in place in a given city.