Victor Nuovo: Aristotle on the City and the Good Life

Editor’s note: This is the ninth in a series of essays by Middlebury College Professor Emeritus Victor Nuovo on the origins of western political thought.

According to Aristotle, not every settlement of persons is a city. What qualifies a settlement as a city is how effectively it enables its inhabitants to live a good life. To that end a city must provide for various things: a secure site, urban planning including sanitation, a just way to settle disputes, public tranquility, health and welfare, defense against foreign enemies, education, and commerce sufficient to guarantee a comfortable life.

These constitute a common good, but for Aristotle, they are not enough. A city must also be a place whose institutions and laws are designed to make its citizens truly good, living lives that are virtuous and just. And because Aristotle supposed that only the virtuous can be happy, it must promote happiness as well.

A city that does this well is just, or “politically correct,” because it does everything right. Consistent with his naturalism, Aristotle expected that a just government would ensure a common good to which social goods would be distributed according to each person’s natural capacity to use them. The rule of law, of right reason, must be comprehensive and must aim at this all inclusive good — true justice always does good, never harm.

Aristotle follows Plato in regarding the city as first and foremost a school of virtue.

Perhaps no idea so clearly differentiates ancients and moderns than this.

We moderns tend to regard morality as a private matter, and although everyone would agree that teaching children right from wrong is important, they would not want this to become the chief business of the state. Perhaps this is because most everyone believes that all governments are immoral, their officials motivated by greed and a lust for power. But then, if that is the condition of our government, we have little reason to believe that individually we are any better.

We too often mistake resentment towards the wrongs of others for a moral passion. I am reminded of a book entitled “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” first published in 1932, but still timely. In it the author, Reinhold Niebuhr, who was my teacher, ridicules the illusion of private morality and proves its public irrelevance; he also has uncomplimentary things to say about moral optimists who fail to recognize the intractable forces of injustice and of greed in public and private life.

James Madison, a principal framer of the Constitution, was also under no illusions. He wrote: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” 

As he saw it, a city is not a school of virtue but a sanctuary of law that protects its citizens from oppression and from the insolence of government officials. But even Madison was forced to admit that our system of law relied on citizens choosing more or less virtuous leaders who would infuse the mechanism of government with moral resolve and a moral purpose and thereby purify it.

He supposed that a fundamental law, properly constituted, would oblige a government to control itself. But self-control is a virtue. So the rule of law must teach virtue, perhaps not in a formal manner, but indirectly using law to promote a common practice of seeking first the public good.      

Like us, Plato and Aristotle lived in times of crisis and were in search of a method to negotiate the rapids of political disorder and to preserve justice. This is why they wrote their books, and why we read them.

In an earlier essay, I mentioned that Aristotle wrote the Politics when the Greek polis was in jeopardy. Alexander, his sometime pupil, had a lust for conquest, but also a quaint fondness for Greek cities. Following the conquest of a new country he would found a Greek city as a monument to his achievement.

Aristotle may have seen an opportunity in this practice. Clearly, he had a conservative goal: to preserve the idea of the city as a school of virtue. It was a noble purpose. He was not naïve. He understood what he was up against, which becomes evident in his account of the economy of the city, of what it should be and what it might become when its horizons become global.

Our word “economics” is derived from the Greek term oikonomike, which describes the art of household management, something that all heads of household must master if they are to prosper.

In the Politics, Aristotle enquires whether this includes the art of getting rich, of acquiring large sums of money, and of dealing in money. One must keep in mind that Aristotle believed that the wealth of a city should reside in its households. The wealth of a household consists of the goods and personnel that are needed to meet the needs of living. He also acknowledges that wealth is accumulated through commerce, by those who supply the goods and services on which all households depend, namely merchants and tradesmen. Money is needed for acquisition of goods and services, so the householder has need of it. The question is how much?

Money and trade are necessary for the household’s well-being, and therefore for the well-being of the city, but only so long as they are employed to provide for natural needs and modest comforts of life. Trading in money, usury, and the building of large trading conglomerates to acquire wealth without limit, are unnatural practices and should be scorned. In the face of a changing world, Aristotle worried that the acquisition of great wealth, which was going on all about him, would corrupt the city and ruin the land, making it unusable for meeting the ordinary needs of modest households.

In short, he became aware that greed fostered political and environmental degradation, and because greed is a vice that operates without limit, the devastation that it may cause could be total. This is a familiar concern that unites the ancient and modern world. It should also be our concern.

But how do we remedy it? Aristotle’s remedy was by causing the city to become a school of virtue. A modern solution was to make it a sanctuary of law. This was Machiavelli’s solution, which we will explore next.

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