Aristotle's Defense of the Theoretical Life: Comments on Politics 7

Article excerpt

ARISTOTLE OPENS POLITICS 7, his discussion of the "best form of government" (politeias aristes), which he later calls "the city according to prayer" (kat'euchen), by informing his audience of his plan of attack. (1) Anyone who undertakes an inquiry into the ideal city must, he says, first determine what the most "choice-worthy life" is. (2) After all, "it is fitting for those who are best governed to act in the best way." (3) To commence discussion of the nature of this best life he refers to what he calls "the exoteric discourses," which, whatever exactly they were, seem to have expressed basic ethical principles. (4)

   Concerning one distinction, no one would disagree. There are three
   divisions [to be made within the best life]: external [goods],
   those of the body, and those of the soul. All of these must belong
   to those who are to be among the blessedly happy (makariois). (5)
   For no one would say that the blessed man has no share of courage
   or moderation or of justice or practical wisdom, but is afraid of
   flies buzzing around, can resist nothing when he desires food or
   drink, destroys his dearest friends for a pittance, and is as
   foolish and prone to error when it comes to intellectual matters as
   a child or a madman. With these assertions everyone would agree.
   (6)

Aristotle is confident that no one would disagree that the best life requires possession of sufficient external goods (like money), a healthy body, and most important of all, the good which belongs to the "soul"; namely, "virtue" (arete). He does not use this last word in the passage above, but his mention of courage, moderation, and so on, as well as the fact that he uses it shortly thereafter clearly indicate that "virtue" is what he has in mind. (7)

Even if it is granted that the best life requires virtue, it is not clear in what sort of virtue such a life consists. Politics 7.2 narrows the possibilities to two:

   Which is the more choiceworthy life, that of engaging in political
   activity and sharing in the life of the city, or is it rather the
   life of the stranger (ho xenikos) whose ties to the political
   community have been dissolved? (8)

   Among those who agree that the best life is most choiceworthy there
   is dispute whether the political and practical life is
   choiceworthy, or whether the life whose ties to all external
   matters have been dissolved--namely, the theoretical life, which
   some people say is the only life for a philosopher--is more
   choiceworthy. For it is nearly the case that the most honor-loving
   of men, both of the past and of the present, seem to choose these
   two lives when it comes to virtue. The two I mean are the political
   and the philosophical. (9)

From a long tradition, Aristotle inherits the view that there are two genuinely excellent forms of life: the theoretical-philosophical and the practical-political. (10) In Nicomachean Ethics 10.7-8 he argues unambiguously on behalf of the former. Most commentators think he is less straightforward here in the Politics 7.1. For example, Kraut says that Aristotle "does not decisively draw a conclusion about which is better." (11) Reeve describes him as "cagey, dialectically balancing the claims on the political life against the philosophical, but not giving decisive precedence to either." (12) Solmsen puts the point strongly by saying that "we have to accept the oscillations of Aristotle's argument and the ambiguity of his conclusion; they are indicative of a deeper conflict between diverging tendencies and inclinations in his mind." (13) Miller concurs: "Aristotle's discussion is somewhat inconclusive because he does not explicitly answer the question he has posed as to whether the best life is political and or philosophical." (14)

Miller's assertion is based on his reading of the following passage.

   Some consider that the despotic rule over one's neighbors involves
   the greatest injustice, while political rule, even if it does not
   involve injustice, nonetheless is an impediment to one's own
   well-being. …