Society and the Individual in the Ethics

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle claims that “presumably, being a good person is not in every case the same as being a good citizen” (Aristotle 1130b). Although he makes this claim, it actually runs contrary to Aristotle’s definition of ‘goodness’ (and its attainment) as depicted throughout the Ethics. It may appear from his use of two distinct terms (and the definitions he gives to differentiate them) that these are distinct categories, but in fact, virtuous citizenship may be considered the fulfillment of one’s personhood. For Aristotle, being a good human being and a good citizen are synonymous, as he conceives man to be a fundamentally social being.

Aristotle offers definitions of both classifications, of “person” and “citizen,” but what is missing is the effect that living in a society has on one’s thoughts about life in society. He defines a person as human being, who possesses social capacities and the ability to reason far beyond levels observed in any animal, whereas a citizen is a free member of a society, bound by its laws and customs, and is in search of that which is good for him. In this manner, a man’s personhood is what gives him his basic capacities and appetites, but it is his citizenship that motivates him towards the good, as well as providing a solid framework under which he may both achieve the good and measure his own achievement.

In discussion of virtues, the means by which man strives toward the good, Aristotle says, “Let us leave the nutritive capacity aside, since by nature it plays no role in human virtue” (Aristotle 1102b) because the nutritive capacity is one that is not unique to man, but rather “such a capacity of the soul [exists] in everything that takes in nutrition” (Aristotle 1102b). What sort of capacity can man fulfill when he is alone? Undoubtedly he would be fighting to fulfill those same nutritive capacities that Aristotle excludes from consideration in human virtue. In explaining the nature of virtue as a state, Aristotle says, “The virtue of a human being too will be the state that makes a human being good and makes him perform his characteristic activity well” (Aristotle 1106a). What, then, is man’s characteristic activity? As Aristotle tries to explain, 

“If… we take the characteristic activity of a human being to be a certain kind of life; and if we take this kind of life to be activity of the soul and actions in accordance with reason, and the characteristic activity of the good person to be to carry this out well and nobly, and a characteristic activity to be accomplished well when it is accomplished in accordance with the appropriate virtue… the human good turns out to be activity of the soul in accordance with virtue" (Aristotle 1098a). 

Unfortunately, this definition of man’s characteristic activity does not seem to set out any simple metric by which we can measure that activity’s fulfillment by a person. Working backwards, from what Aristotle describes as virtuous it is possible to deduce what man’s characteristic activity might be. What aspects do the various virtues that Aristotle describes have in common? Courage, temperance, generosity, magnificence, greatness of soul, even temper, friendliness, truthfulness, wit, justice, and friendship all share a necessity in a second party, exterior to the practitioner. Thus, the existence of fellow man is essential for achieving virtue, and therefore is required for any single human to be good. Man’s characteristic activity must be the good and happiness, for those are the characteristics of a virtuous man, as a virtuous man, by his nature, is accomplished in the characteristic activities of humankind. Beyond the characteristic activities of any being, however, are the fundamental characteristics that define man’s natural dispositions.

Aristotle says that man is, by nature, a 'political animal’, and since he sees political science as the study of the good of the city, it would seem that man is a social being, one that is most at home in a society. Thus, the question that must be answered in order to determine whether, under Aristotelian ethics, there exists a distinction between a good human being and a good citizen: is there a human existence outside of society that can be virtuous? 

Given Aristotle’s conception of man’s fulfillment, it becomes clear that every man must live an existence within society, as society, or rather citizenship, is the characteristic activity of man. Describing virtue within the context of society, Aristotle claims, “For praise is indeed appropriate to virtue, since it makes us the kind of people to perform noble actions” (Aristotle 1101b). Here, Aristotle is drawing a link between what others think and one’s own propensity towards virtue. Note that 'praise’ does not encourage virtue, but rather 'it makes us the kind of people’ that are likely to 'perform noble actions.’ The emphasis is on the fact that praise is capable of fundamentally altering one’s disposition: the knowledge that society’s opinion is on the side of virtue causes people to become nobly-inclined. Similarly, scorn, or the threat thereof, is sufficient to redirect a man onto a course of virtue. This creates a feedback loop that is essential for society to function: citizens make each other into more virtuous men by applying praise and scorn when it is called for. In the realm of relationships, however, Aristotle positions friendship as an even stronger motivator for virtuous action.

Discussing friendship, Aristotle again delineates humans from their animal counterparts by the reasons that each tends to live with others of its own species. Whereas most all animals live together merely for reproductive purposes, “human beings live together… also to supply what they need for life. From the start, their characteristic activities are divided” (Aristotle 1162a), and so the characteristic activity of mankind as a whole must be the sum of each individual’s characteristic activities. Just as a man and a woman naturally have divided characteristic activities, and thus require each other in order to be virtuous in the conception of a child, so too does man in general require various partners to do good things in the other areas of human characteristic activities. In other words, living together (the enabling factor for friendship) is also what provides man with the opportunity to be virtuous. Extrapolating, the sum of man’s characteristic activities could be roughly described as citizenship, and the fulfillment of those characteristic activities as virtuous citizenship.

Given this focus on citizenship, one could argue that a man could be in a society of one, a citizen in aim of only himself, and that would be sufficient for him to be able to be virtuous and happy. But Aristotle does comment that “happiness obviously needs the presence of external goods as well” (Aristotle 1099a), and these 'external goods’ (‘goods’ in the sense of good deeds, rather than objects) are found in other people. Just as praise and scorn point citizens towards virtue, so too can others enable a potential for happiness, which comes about when one has lived a virtuous life. As Aristotle admits, those with more possessions are more capable of higher forms of virtue. A poor man cannot be magnificent nor great-souled, as he does not have the means, but a wealthy or well-connected individual is capable of touching many people’s lives simultaneously. The edifices of magnificence are never built alone, but rather rely on the assistance of great multitudes of men to realize. It is in this manner that 'external goods’ can contribute to happiness, as the goods of others allow one to achieve these higher forms of virtue. Ultimately, Aristotelian virtue always entails multiple people: someone to be virtuous towards, someone to have made the object being given, or most often, both. In other words, it is impossible for a solitary man to be able to be virtuous, as his life will be consumed by mere sustenance; he will have no time to dedicate to more virtuous tasks, nor the resources to construct anything great—he would be living a nearly animal life.

Although he does not delve deeply into a definition of happiness, Aristotle does outline its defining characteristics in the Ethics. This outline portrays happiness as a truly human capacity and trait: it is dependent upon civilization, good fortune, and persistent choice. In the end, happiness is the first principle of the human existence, and virtue is the human means to that end. Because Aristotle does construct an ethical system under which all virtues are not considered equal, there are certain circumstances that can make attainment of happiness, the fulfillment of the human mission, nearly impossible, and almost all of those conditions are associated with solitude (such as having no one lesser to help, no previous knowledge to contemplate, etc.). In his writing, Aristotle has detailed a system under which the individual and the collective can (and must) live together harmoniously, for the one depends on the other to thrive.

The Nicomachean Ethics details a world in which every man is intrinsically also a citizen, as there is no conception of human fulfillment that can be achieved when one is truly alone. Aristotle, much like the Thoreaus of modern times who wish to leave civilization behind, is unable to comprehend that his entire worldview is colored by the fact that he himself is a fundamentally societal creature. Even if he were to leave Athens behind and live alone in the wilderness, Aristotle would carry with him the skills and knowledge that society had impressed upon him. In that sense, his citizenship would be maintained through ingrained and indestructible ties back to society.

Being members of society, we are unable to even conceive of a life that is truly solitary, because from birth we carry the marks of our society. Those marks are what distinguishes man from animal: man is continually ‘standing on the shoulders of giants,’ improving on what others have done, being habituated with lessons that ancestors had to learn the hard way. In the end, the question of whether being a good human being is separable from being a good citizen is irrelevant, for as long as a man is lives within a society, being a human being and a citizen are irreducibly the same.