Ethics and Politics (Part 2): Taking into account the Fool

The intimate connection of a prudential science with a society in which the excellences are actualized raises a number of problems. They are on principle the problems that also arose on occasion of the Platonic myth of the soul; but they have undergone certain transformations in the Aristotelian medium of contemplation. Plato could develop the good politeia, he could actualize it in his own soul and in the souls of his friends, but he could not actualize it in historical reality as the order of Athens or of a Hellenic empire.

On the level of pragmatic history, the philosopher is not the ordering force of society; he is in competition with rival forces of various kinds. The Platonic vision of order is not a possession of mankind; it is the possession of a limited group; and the same holds true for the Aristotelian prudential science. Other groups, and they may be the majority in a society, will be less receptive, or not receptive at all, to such insights. Men differ from each other in a manner that Aristotle characterizes through a quotation from Hesiod:

Far best is he, who knows all things himself;
Good, he that hearkens when men counsel right;
But he who neither knows, nor lays to heart
Another's wisdom, is a useless wight. 1

If we translate these lines (1095b 10-13) into human types, we may distinguish between (1) men who have authority, (2) men who can recognize authority and accept it, and (3) men who neither have authority, nor can recognize and accept it.

If we define a good society as a society in which the highest good of man can be realized, then we arrive at the proposition: The existence of a good society depends on the social predominance of a group of men in whom the excellences are actualized, or who are the "norm and measure" in the Aristotelian sense. When the predominance of such a group is endangered, for one historical reason or another, by the masses whose passions (pathos) are not restrained by reason (logos), then the quality of the society will decline.

Political science, in the sense of a general science of action, thus, is inseparable from a philosophy of historical existence. The validity of its insights is not in question; but the validity will be socially accepted only under certain historical conditions. The previously adduced challenge of the "That's What You Think" is, therefore, of considerable importance in a theory of ethics. The challenge cannot affect the validity of prudential science, but it brings home to us that the debate on ethics can be conducted only among the mature men and that a comprehensive study of moral phenomena must include a study of the moral attitudes of the fools or wights (achreios) in the Hesiodian verse.

A pathology of morals, in the most literal sense of a study of disorder through vagaries of passion (pathos) , is quite as important for the understanding of political society as the prudential science of the excellences. If we understand the "That's What You Think," not as a challenge to validity, but as a manifestation of the revolt against excellence, we shall become aware how precariously balanced the good society is in historical existence. And we shall understand that a well-functioning society must provide institutions not only for the inculcation of excellences in the educable but also for the management of the ineducable mass.

Aristotle was aware of this problem. In Nicomachean Ethics X, 9, he reflects that the task of ordering a society would be easy if men could be taught virtue by discourse. Discourse can encourage a generous youth of inborn nobility of character; it cannot guide the masses toward moral nobility (kalokagathia). The many are amenable to fear but not to shame; and they abstain from evil, not because of its baseness, but because they are afraid of sanctions. Living by passion, they pursue the happiness of pleasure; and they do not know about the noble pleasures because they have never experienced them.

To change the firmly rooted habits of such characters by argument is difficult, if not impossible. For, generally speaking, passions seem not to be amenable to reason but only to force. This being the state of things, it will be necessary to support the personal educational processes in a society by compulsory processes. The impersonal pressure of the law must come to the aid of personal influence and model conduct. The law has compulsory power (dynamis), and at the same time it is a rule participating in prudence and intellect (phronesis and nous).

A right system of laws, educating and enforcing the discipline of the young and sanctioning trespasses of the adult, is necessary for the stabilization of society. And the lawgiver is the man who knows how to devise institutions that will have the desired result of securing the social predominance of human excellence as understood by the spoudaios.2 We arrive again at the definition of politics as the science of nomothetics but now under the aspect of a science that will provide the supplementary instrument of compulsion for keeping in line those members of society who cannot qualify as spoudaioi.

We are coming closer to the more subtle reasons that have motivated the subdivision of the general science of action into ethics and politics. After the pragmatic failure of Plato it was probably clear to everybody who cared about such problems that political society could dissociate into private circles in which the excellences were cultivated (as, for instance, the cult communities of the schools) and the politicians who pursued quite different ends. One still could develop a science of nomothetics as Aristotle did in his Politics, but whether the molders of the political destiny would make any use of it, that was the great question, probably to be answered in the negative.

In view of the threatening possibility that the course of political history would annihilate the actual formation of a polity through the mature men, it became desirable to articulate the wisdom of the excellences independent of the problem of its political actualization. Through the Nicomachean Ethics, rather than through the Politics, the prudential wisdom of Hellas has separated from the contingencies of actualization and become the possession of mankind, or rather of that part of mankind that can recognize authority and bow to it. The Nicomachean Ethics is the great document in which the authority of the spoudaios asserts itself through the ages, beyond the accidents of politics.

1. Hesiod, Works and Days, 293 ff. Translated by W. D. Ross in the Oxford translation of Nicomachean Ethics.

2. In this context again the problem of the spoudaios is elaborated, 1176a 15ff.

Chapter 8, Science and Contemplation
pp 355-358