A Consideration and Critique of Aristotle and Augustine’s Perspectives on the Political Life
By Tom Butler '12
For all their empirical detail, the classics Tom addresses here, Augustine’s City of God and Aristotle’s Politics, trade in some apparently brittle conceptual oppositions, which inform much reflection on the good life. Tom imaginatively depicts human experiences that challenge these oppositions and knock some of the rigidity out of them, without necessarily discrediting them; he thereby rehabilitates intellectual heirlooms for current service.
One of Augustine’s key arguments against the idea that the political life fulfills our nature and brings us closer to divinity consists in the grim portrait that he paints of the life of a judge in book 19.6 of City of God. In this section, Augustine details the immense burden that such a life represents because of our natural human ignorance of the hearts of others. How awful would it be, he wonders, to have to torture an innocent man for information in a case that was not his own, to have to put to death an innocent man who pleads guilty to escape further torture, or to set free a guilty man who by some inhuman stolidity in the face of torture refuses to confess to his crime? Though such things may not weigh on the conscience of a philosopher-judge because he knows that his intent is for the good, Augustine maintains that, “surely his cannot be the ‘happy life’ even though his philosophy may save him from a sense of wrongdoing” (City, 19.6). Nevertheless, our philosopher-judge chooses daily to carry this grim responsibility because although “he cannot get at the truth, yet the good of society demands that he hand down decisions” (City, 19.6).
Though Aristotle would agree that the good of society demands that a judge take on this responsibility, he holds nearly the opposite position on everything else that Augustine has said about the political life thus far. According to the Politics, the political life, including legislation, governance over others, and participation in the assembly, is one of the highest things we can aspire to. In fact, according to Aristotle’s reasoning it may be the case that the end at which humanity aims: the very fulfillment of our nature lies in the political life where we approach god-like status through the rational activity of the soul (1253a 7-18; 32-33). Since participation in such activity gives us opportunity to exercise reason, the very thing that gives supremacy to humankind and that places us over all other manners of being in the world, it seems clear to Aristotle that a political life would be a fulfilling one indeed (1325b 13-15).
I find these two perspectives on the political life interesting in that each of them represents an extreme. While Aristotle thinks that a political life gives us the opportunity to fulfill our nature and that such activity is bested only by a life of philosophy (1325b 19-20), Augustine holds firmly to the idea that politics is a thing of utility that, apart from the Fall, would have no place in the city of God (City, 14.28), and that a political life is not much better than the life of a garbage man or a plumber. Can either of these views be entirely correct? On the one hand, I think it too bold to suggest that the political life is nearly the highest life to which we can aspire, but on the other hand, I think that to dismiss politics purely as a thing of utility is a mistake as well. In the following pages I will shed light on portions of these authors’ views that are either similar or disparate, and will conclude by first offering a humble critique of each and then proposing a mediating position.
First let us take a somewhat more in-depth look at Aristotle’s position. He begins his argument by claiming that everyone “performs every action for the sake of what [they] take to be good” (1252a 2-3). He expands on the idea of all things in nature aiming at their good in his Ethics, but gives a related account of the relation between body and soul at 1254b in the Politics. In this passage, Aristotle says that it is in the lower animals that we can first observe the rule of the soul over the body, and that this relationship is analogous to the rule of a master over slave. Though there is nothing impressive about the rule of a master over a slave, since such rule requires only knowledge of the tasks to be performed and an ability to dictate these tasks to one’s subordinate, the relationship is nonetheless beneficial for both parties since it allows them to pursue their respective goods effectively. For the master, this is the rational activity of the soul; for the slave it is the direction of his energies towards the fruits of his physical labor (1254b 18-20).
In the same way, Aristotle says that among those creatures who possess a union of body, soul, and reason—the members of humankind who are not natural slaves—it is natural for reason to rule over the soul in the way that a statesman or a king governs. But how does one achieve such an existence, where reason and understanding rule over desire as though it were a willing subject? Such is the life of the virtuous, and since it is it is this kind of existence at which all our actions are aimed, it would seem helpful to come to a clear understanding of which angle of approach will be the most effective in moving us toward it.
It seems to be the case that the first and most crucial part in achieving the fulfillment of one’s nature, according to Aristotle, is to have one’s existence in the polis. It is only in a community that is for all intents and purposes self-sufficient that we can begin to exercise reason and to focus on those things that are noble. Outside of such a community, we are bounded too tightly by utility, and, according to Aristotle, though villages and households may allow us to live, it is the end of the polis that it should enable us to live well (1252b 28-29). Furthermore, since living well may be closely associated with or equated to the fulfillment of our nature, it seems that life in the political community is natural. In other words, when Aristotle says that the polis is by nature, he means not only that the polis is not derived from mere necessity by a need for protection or order, but also that congregation in a political society is inherent to our nature and its fulfillment, and that we will thereby find ourselves fulfilled by the political life.
After discussing the aim of the polis, Aristotle goes on to reflect on human nature. He says first that humans are by nature political animals gifted with the peculiarity of speech, whose task it is to determine that which is just and right, and whose nature is fulfilled by the perfect rule of reason over desire (1253a 7-18). Then, having that established, he says that statesmanship, since it gives one the opportunity to exercise practical reason, to reflect on justice and truth, and to make laws for free men, seems a worthy candidate for being a method by which to achieve fulfillment (1325a 16-33).
It is clear, then, that Aristotle thinks the exercise of practical reason and the rational activity of the soul to be supremely praiseworthy, and that we may be truly happy and virtuous through achieving these things. Augustine, however, thinks quite differently as evidenced by his famous quotation, “Thou hast made us for thyself, oh Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee” (Confessions, 1.1). It is to his point of view that we will now turn our attention.
As mentioned earlier, Augustine believes in a natural order that closely resembles that of Aristotle, but adds both that there is an order of utility placed on us by our earthly circumstance, and that humankind is not at the top of the natural order. For Augustine, both angels and God rank above humanity in the natural order of things, and we are told that we ought to love things according to their position in the natural order. However, because we have needs that must be fulfilled in order for our survival, it is often the case that our loves become inordinate and that we find ourselves appreciating things that are lower in the natural order more than things that rank higher (City, 11.16).
One such need that must be fulfilled in our fallen world is the need to be protected from outside forces, and it is the misfortune of mankind that sometimes because of inordinate love, we need protection from other members of our own species. In fact, it is because of inordinate loves that we must be wary of all kinds of criminals — thieves, murderers, rapists, swindlers, and so on. These criminals attempt to take things from us without justice. Thieves take our physical possessions; murderers, our lives; rapists, our bodily integrity, and so on. Furthermore, though the state may claim new lands and principalities as its own, it ought to do so in a just manner. Otherwise, the state is another of those outside forces from which some men need protecting. Augustine discusses this connection between justice and rights to property in City of God, 4.4.
In any case, this, for Augustine, is where politics and legislation enter into social life. It is not because political life is in some way divine or fulfilling that we practice it, but rather because it is a necessity. To use terms common to Aristotle’s writings, it is not the case that politics are a thing of nobility, but rather that they are strictly a thing of utility. Augustine then goes on to relate inordinate desire to the Fall of man as described in Genesis and suggests that, if not for the Fall, there would be no need for a political life in the City of God, or at least, if there were a political life, it would be strictly bound to a love of God and would resemble a speedy consensus among the populous rather than the drawn out debates of this world (City, 14.28).
Perhaps some of Augustine’s most convincing argumentation against the divine nature of politics can be found in his description of a judge’s life found in book 19, chapter 6 of City of God. In this section, Augustine describes how a judge desiring to determine a man’s guilt or innocence must torture him, not knowing whether or not the man is deserving of such punishment. Moreover, even if a confession is acquired the judge is left to wonder whether or not it was truthful or merely the result of a desire for the torture to stop. Furthermore, it may even be the case that innocent men are tortured as witnesses in cases that are not their own. In this case, how ought the judge to feel? And what about cases where the defendant goes free? Then, too, the judge cannot know whether the accused was dismissed justly or unjustly. Clearly, no one would desire a life like this, where our human ignorance is such a deciding factor that it drives us to do things that may be in no way just or right.
Having established these philosophers’ views on the political life, can we say definitively whether one is better or more truthful than the other? Perhaps not, but I think it likely that there are small criticisms to be made of each, and it may be the case that the development of those criticisms will be beneficial in trying to determine what a proper view of the political life would be.
Of Aristotle’s view I should like to say that, while it may be comforting to think that our nature may be fulfilled by our own efforts and struggles, it seems unlikely. When Aristotle comes to the conclusion that the end at which humankind aims is the rational activity of the soul, he has reduced our proper existence to nothing more than that rational activity, and this, I think, denies a very important part of the human condition. While Aristotle acknowledges the role of utility in our lives, discussing our desires and the function of households and villages and so on, it seems that he ultimately dismisses the fulfillment of basic needs as being completely and utterly “beneath us.” But is this always the case?
Consider, for instance, marriage, which is an institution that Aristotle claims to have arisen purely from necessity (1252a 26-30). Here he says that the sole function of a man and a woman coming together as a couple is for the sake of procreation. While this may have been the case in the beginning, and it may still be the case that an important reason for marriage is the fulfillment of a need for attachment or emotional support, does the fact that it has utility and is not pursued entirely as an end in itself really take away from its value? Aristotle would say yes, as he does both at 1252a and later at 1325b 19-20, and though I would never claim to argue that such basic needs should be the sole focus of our energies, I think that the fact that we struggle to fulfill both those basic needs and the exercise of reason is evidence in support of the claim that our nature is not wholly fulfilled by one or the other.
It may also be suspicious that Aristotle’s argument for the fulfilling nature of the life of politics and philosophy rests on the idea that an action pursued for its own sake is necessarily better than the action that is pursued for the sake of its consequences (1325b 20). While this makes sense in circumstances where the action in question is performed entirely for the sake of its consequences (e.g., the pursuit of wealth cannot be our highest good because the acquisition of money is not inherently beneficial, but only insofar as it affords us other things), it does not seem that the categories of things pursued for their own sake and things performed for the sake of their consequences are necessarily mutually exclusive categories. Isn’t it the case that an action might be good in and of itself, and that it might also possess an external utility? This is almost certain. Even the study of philosophy, which Aristotle considers to be good in and of itself, has the beneficial effect of fulfilling the rational part of my nature. And if I study philosophy to better myself rather than simply because the truth is worth pursuing, does this diminish the importance of philosophy? It seems not. And if that is the case, then why couldn’t an action that happens to fulfill a basic need also have an inherent worth, rather than being simply of necessity?
Take the art of hunting for food, an action that seems to be performed completely out of necessity. It fulfills my basic need for sustenance, and this is why I perform it in the first place. Nevertheless, it may be the case that a skilled hunter would find opportunities to employ his reason in developing a clever method for hunting his prey, and it would seem that if he consistently sought opportunities to better his reasoning while hunting, that the art would take on both an intrinsic and extrinsic worth. Not only does it allow him to sustain himself, but it also allows him an opportunity to develop his rational nature. Aristotle might say that because the action is not performed as an end in itself, but rather as a means to other ends, that it is therefore inferior to the action that is performed as an end in itself, but I am tempted to wonder whether such actions are necessarily better than others given the human condition. After all, what good is a man who studies philosophy intensely for forty days before dying of starvation? In the spirit of fairness, I will acknowledge that Aristotle addresses the nature of our existence as precluding a purely intellectual life in the Nicomachean Ethics (1178b 34-37). However, since the view being critiqued is that of Aristotle as expressed in his Politics, I think that this idea is deserving of some consideration.
What I’m trying to get at here is that it seems that Aristotle’s conception of a “perfect” human being would consist of a perfectly rational mind (or perhaps a mind interacting with other minds, since it is in our nature to be social), and a body which had no needs whatsoever (or perhaps no body at all, despite his claim that it is natural for the soul to rule over the body). A perfectly rational mind that has no basic needs to fulfill, however, does not sound too different from Aristotle’s conception of god. Thus, it seems perfectly natural that Aristotle should consider the political life to be divine since politics give us an arena in which to develop our practical reason. But existence as a rational mind alone is vastly different from our own existence. Shouldn’t we perhaps find out what is best for us given our current state of affairs, rather than determining what is merely best for the soul or mind, particularly if, like Aristotle, we are focusing mainly on the benefits to be had in this world as opposed to an afterlife? It seems to me that we should not consider our basic needs merely as parasites that we have to feed first before feeding our real selves, as Aristotle seems to, but rather as parts of our nature which need fulfilling in addition to our capabilities for reason.
Turning to Augustine’s view, I think that because he relies so heavily on metaphor and comparison in other places in City of God, he should not be so quick to dismiss political life as being strictly a thing of utility and a consequence of the Fall of mankind. Consider the numerous times throughout this work where Augustine compares the earthly city to the heavenly city, and in particular those occasions where he does not claim that they are utterly different. For instance, it seems to be Augustine’s view that there is something good about the security that we can find in our earthly cities because it resembles, though in a flawed way, the kind of security we will be able to find in heaven (City, 5.17). In the same way, why should it be the case that the political life is considered to lack any form of nobility and to be no more preferred than any other life, when it so clearly gives us reason to reflect on truth and reason and represents an opportunity to consider the kind of rule that God has over humanity?
I also question Augustine’s dismissal of the importance of the political life on the basis of his admitting that the good of a society demands that judges hand down decisions (City, 19.6). Presumably, the judge should not simply hand down arbitrary decisions since that would not be for the good of the society, and he should instead try to maintain justice. But if the judge is truly attempting to maintain real justice in his community, does the judge not serve God’s will? It may be granted that Augustine does not deny this claim, but then shouldn’t some slightly greater amount of importance or worth be placed on the attempt to make just decisions that thereby give the judge an opportunity to enforce God’s law in his community and to better the community out of a love for God? Though the life of a judge is certainly not a happy or ultimately fulfilling one, as we can see from Augustine’s depiction of that life, I think that the judge can take comfort in more than the simple fact that his intentions are good. I think he can also ease his burden by considering that his work may help to preserve the moral structure of his society, and that doing so may be a form of devotion to God.
It is the fact that the political life lends itself so readily to reflection on truth and justice, and even to devotion to God as in the case of the judge, that I think it deserves slightly more credit than other ways of life. Yes, most lifestyles can be viewed in such a way that they lend themselves to those things just mentioned, but few lifestyles lend themselves to it so readily. Because of this nature, it seems as though there is something inherent about the political life wherein we find our own work to be representative of God’s work on a miniature scale. Though this position might lead someone like Aristotle into hubris, thinking that their work was making him or her more like a god, if treated with humility, it seems as though the political life can quite easily be beneficial to the devoted Christian. This, if nothing else, should award the political life a certain nobility.
While the views of Aristotle and Augustine on the subject of the political life are no doubt nearly polar opposites, their joint consideration gives us a place for constructive reflection that helps us in coming to a well-rounded view of political activity. This has been my purpose here, and it is my hope that this purpose has been achieved at least in some degree. Though further consideration is almost always beneficial, I will leave the present discussion here.
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Aristotle & Reeve, C. D. C. (1998). Politics. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
Augustine & O’Donnel, J.J. (1992). Confessions, vol. 1: Introduction and text. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA.
Augustine, Walsh, G. G., Zema, D. B., Monahan, G., & Honan, D. J. (1958). City of god. Garden City, NY: Image Books.