Aristotle Essay, Research Paper
The primary concern of political theorists is to determine by what form of constitution the state will most likely succeed. According to Aristotle the definition of political success means the general happiness of the citizenry. Both Aristotle and James Q. Wilson share the belief that molding excellent character within the citizenry is the first and most important step towards solidifying the happiness of the state as a whole. The basic structure of Aristotle’s philosophies are derived by gathering as much information about the history of a subject as possible (in trying to develop the ultimate constitution Aristotle went through 150 constitution from historically great nations) taking from the good and removing the bad Aristotle thought he could develop superior political theories. The conclusion Aristotle came to in his effort to write the perfect constitution was that it was necessary to first pay attention to the development of the parts of a society (the citizens). Once the parts are in harmony the emergence of the whole is the next logical step. In developing political theory Aristotle begins by addressing issues of personal character on a microscopic level believing that in turn this will assist the state on a macroscopic level. Developing character or as Aristotle refers to it, “human excellence” is an activity of the soul, rather than the physical body. Aristotle refers to the cultivation of human excellence as an activity of the soul because on a spiritual level he believes the soul to be the whole of an individual, similar to his belief that on the political level the state is the whole of a group of citizens.
Aristotle’s ideas concerning the relationship between the cultivation of character and the maintenance of a just, free, and orderly political system can be most clearly seen in book VIII of The Politics when he discusses the value of molding the minds of the youth. Aristotle proposes that the constituents of a nation establish the character of government and depending on the goodness of the character formed a political structure either sinks or swims.
What Aristotle is saying is that in order to put together a political system of maintained justice, freedom and order, society must start with the right materials. The “right materials” are young minds trained to pursue the virtues that comprise excellent adults. The sentence at the end of the first paragraph of book VIII of The Politics shows the value Aristotle placed on excellent character being a fundamental part of excellent government where he says the better the character, the better the government. The issue of government policy concerning character formation and the implications of politicians passing legislation specifically aimed at improving moral character as a means of eliminating social ills is precisely the same issue James Q. Wilson addresses in his essay The Rediscovery of Character: Private Virtue and Public Policy.
Wilson structures his essay by going through a variety of public problems he believes can only be explained by the deterioration of character in modern America. The first part of Wilson’s essay goes through present government problems within the realms of schooling, welfare, public finance, and crime, at the end of each of these summaries Wilson comes to the conclusion that lack of character is the sole underlying cause in common behind these social evils. Like Aristotle, Wilson proposes a theory of eliminating social problems beginning by improving the parts of society as means of improving the whole . Wilson suggests that we begin to do the right things with regards to small matters and through time we become accustomed to doing what is right, and we begin to take pleasure in it. This idea of developing good character through habit Wilson admits is familiar because he has borrowed it directly from the works of Aristotle.
In the last section of Wilson’s essay, Character and Policy, there is a great deal of similarity between the conclusions made by Wilson and Aristotle in regards to the necessary steps to be followed in order to eliminate contemporary problems in government.
Both Wilson and Aristotle suggest that a means to strengthen the formation of character among the very young is vital for the future of the nation and both men believe that public interest and private virtue are interdependent. Wilson states that through the simple fact that social problems exist, the government is forced to acknowledge that defects in character are partly responsible and therefore are obligated to commit themselves to passing legislation that would resolve these issues. What is interesting about the similarities between Wilson’s and Aristotle’s writings is the fact that both men made their respective conclusions after having the democratic political structure play an important role in the lives of both men. Which leads to the hypothesis that perhaps character degradation is a natural result of letting the common man play too big a role in politics.
?????The similarities between Wilson and Aristotle’s conclusion towards the relationship between character cultivation and the maintenance just, free, and orderly political system show the incredible work that Aristotle did during his time. Over 2000 years after Aristotle’s death his theories are being shown as accurate in modern society.???????
To Aristotle there are two types of excellences, intellectual excellence, which according to Aristotle is gained and cultivated from teaching, and moral excellence, which is the result of habit. Intellectual excellence is acquired only through time and experience and moral excellence is acquired through practice. Exhibiting these two excellences is the groundwork for reaching the good life. According to Aristotle we come to a point of excellence by going after an intermediate state of pleasure and pain. There is both an excessive and defective level of actions and passions, true excellence is the state of being able to self moderate one’s intake of pleasure and tolerate a certain level of pain. Good character is seen as important to Aristotle for three main reasons and will be discussed in detail in the body of this paper.
Aristotle believes the cultivation of character is imperative for three main reasons. The first reason Aristotle believes cultivating a strong character is crucial is because if a citizen is not living a well-balanced life in pursuit of the most excellent virtues, he will never achieve the good life or eudaimonia. To reach eudaimonia one must live their entire life in a constant balanced pursuit of the virtues Aristotle mentions as those which are worthy of deriving true happiness (i.e.- courage, moderation, justice, honor, generosity, pleasure etc. etc.). Aristotle’s view, as a political theorist, of achieving national excellence was based on establishing a constitution that would enable the polis as a whole to achieve eudaimonia. Reaching eudaimonia on an individual level is crucial from a political standpoint because a state is only as worthy as its constituents are. A nation as a whole has no hope to achieve eudaimonia unless its constituents have achieved this level of excellence.
The second reason Aristotle sees character building as crucial in the rise of an excellent state is because it is a process, which requires habituation and practice. According to Aristotle habituation and practice are invaluable traits in the pursuit of eudaimonia. Aristotle states that no moral excellences arise in us by nature, rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and through habituation and practice we perfect the virtues of excellence. It is only by habit and practice that we are able to perfect the virtues that make us well rounded citizens. According to Aristotle there are many ways to fail but few to succeed, and only by becoming a master of the proper virtues through habituation could one achieve excellence. Aristotle’s believes a good constitution is vital because the way in which the legislators draft the constitution forms the habits of the people.
The third way in which we can see the value Aristotle places in character development lies within the way in which he relates the importance of educating the youth with the development of the state.
Aristotle lived in Athens towards the end of the Peloponnesian wars, the vicious internal tensions within Greece revealed the inadequacies of both the radical democracy of Athens and the communal/democratic/oligarchic/militaristic government of Sparta. Because of the deficiencies of the political structures surrounding Aristotle he became determined to develop a constitution that took all the positive from past political designs and eliminated the negatives. Educating Hellenic youth in a manner that would impress a life of adherence to the guidelines of this “ultimate constitution” was therefore an obvious goal. Aristotle had a strong belief that citizens should be educated in a manner that moulds their minds to suit the form of government under which he or she lives , meaning that every government developed it’s own individual character and the better the character the better the government. Aristotle felt strongly that legislators that did not direct their attention to the education of youth did harm to the constitution. By neglecting to form character at a young age politicians miss an opportunity to instill the values of true virtue and the desire to live a life in pursuit of eudaimonia. Book VII of the Politics states that each government has a unique character, which is a direct representation of the format of the constitution, therefore creation of a constitution that developed a nation in motion towards the state of eudaimonia was imperative to Aristotle .