Thursday, April 30, 2009
What's Good for the Nation Is Good for the Soul
In an odd twist of fate (and my very convoluted and complicated self-mandated reading schedule), I ended up in the middle of Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics at the same time. Nietzsche, of course, is one of the few Western philosophers who has little to no respect for either Plato or Aristotle, and in fact, from my understanding, he spearheaded the campaign to bring the pre-Socratics back into flavor. (I’m not sure of the degree to which that mission was accomplished.)
One chief argument between Nietzsche and Aristotle revolves around the function of the individual in society. I suspect that this argument is in a broader sense between the modern and ancient worlds, but Nietzsche and Aristotle will do for representatives of the two.
According to Aristotle, the absolute good is that which is pursued for its own sake—it’s the ultimate good, that which, in pursuing it, we pursue all other goods. To twist one of Aristotle’s own examples: To be a good archer, we need to know not only how to draw back the bow and hit the target, but when to shoot and when not to shoot.
The absolute good belongs in the sphere of “the most sovereign and most comprehensive master science, and politics clearly fits this description” (I.ii). This puts the society over the mere individual, but it’s not quite that simple. Aristotle takes what will eventually be called an Arnoldian view of culture—he believes that “the end of politics [which we can also translate as society or culture] is the good of man” (I.ii). So it wraps back around. The individual seeks the good of the culture, which translates back into the good of the individual.
Nietzsche, predictably, disagrees. Or more accurately, he agrees with Aristotle that ethics are designed for the good of society, but they part ways when it comes to the notion that what is good for society is good for the individual: “one would have to notice that virtues . . . are usually harmful for those who possess them” (I.21). Social “virtues” are thus not only not the same thing as the virtues of the individual—they are out-and-out hostile to them.
I’m much more sympathetic to Aristotle than to Nietzsche here. In fact, I imagine I am generally much more sympathetic to Aristotle than to Nietzsche, who often comes across as a petulant and aging wunderkind. (More accurately, I suppose, I follow Kierkegaard, who notes that the ethical is higher than the aesthetic, the universal higher than the individual, except where specific revelation from God dictates otherwise. I have argued that Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are closer than we might imagine, but I’m not sure to what extent I really believe that.) But, however unpleasant and egocentric Nietzsche may be, Aristotle is not as easy to agree with as one might suppose.
The problem comes in when he seeks to define the term justice. Aristotle has what appears to me an odd idea of the relationship between the lawful and the just. He claims that “Since a lawbreaker is, as we saw, unjust and a law-abiding man just, it is obvious that everything lawful is in a sense just. For ‘lawful’ is what the art of legislation has defined as such, and we call each particular enactment ‘just’ ” (1129b). But does that necessarily follow? It must assume either (a) cultural relativity, that is, that justice is not only defined but is different under different sets of laws; or (b) the universality of Athenian law.
Certainly almost no modern Americans would claim that lawful and just are synonyms. The right would argue that abortion, while legal, is in no sense just; and the left would argue that gay marriage is unjustly illegal. Am I misreading Aristotle, or were times that different? After all, if legal and just are in any sense synonyms, then there’d be no reason to refine and change the legal system—and I can’t imagine anyone would argue that principle.
And he takes it even further in the next section, claiming that “ ‘unfair and ‘unlawful’ are not identical but distinct and related to one another as the part is related to the whole; for everything unfair is unlawful, but not everything unlawful is unfair” (1130b). Not only does the law subsume virtue, it also creates it: “What produces entire are those lawful measures which are enacted for education in citizenship” (1130b). This becomes something akin to a worship of law—I just do not understand, with my 21st-century brain, how Aristotle can possibly believe this kind of thing.
I’m not a scholar of Aristotle; I’ve now read On Rhetoric and about half of the Nicomachean Ethics, and Politics still lies in my future. Am I misreading him? Was the concept of the State just that different in ancient Athens? Does he clarify this later in the Politics? And more pressingly: Is there a tertium quid? Is there a way to believe that what’s good for the State is ultimately good for the Individual without engaging in law-worship?
I need answers, folks.