The Happy Polis: Aristotle and Ethics (Ph 104 Paper)

Perhaps one of Aristotle’s greatest imports in the field of ethics is his assumption that the moral life is a pursuit of happiness. Happiness is the highest human good (final, self-sufficient, and attainable), and is “an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue”—that is, happiness for man is adhering to his rational principle, his rational function, and so developing the excellence of his reason. Morality for Aristotle leads to both the contemplative and the political lives, both of which exercise human reason. In a word, the practice of philosophical and practical wisdom, the intellectual and ethical virtues, fulfills the human function and lead to happiness.

Aristotle’s idea of ethics seems to say that, to do the good, one must have the desire to do the good; doing the good presupposes the desire for happiness. The claim “a moral person is a happy person” is difficult enough to examine and prove in view of everyday life. But even more unsettling is the implication that not everyone can attain happiness: before happiness, the end of all human activity, can be achieved, one must reach the excellence of reason. But how can one reach the excellence of reason when he or she is hungry, or without the means for education, or mentally impaired? One can sense this anxiety even from Aristotle himself:

[A happy man] needs the external goods as well; for it is impossible, or not easy, to do noble acts without the proper equipment. …there are some things the lack of which takes the luster from happiness, as good birth, goodly children, beauty; for the man who is very ugly in appearance or ill born or solitary and childless is not very likely to be happy…

In the end, must one conclude that happiness—and morality—is the province of the privileged alone? Are those with resources the only ones fully capable of living the moral life?

And in our everyday experience, one gets the impression that, indeed, the unprivileged do not have in their hands the full capacity to live a moral life. Right outside our home, just on the adjacent street, a psychologically impaired woman cannot but cause scandal by shrieking and badgering by-passers. Along Taft Avenue we hear of people having their purses snatched; common knowledge would say prostitution happens in the nightclubs and bars. Even if we assert that their actions could not be excused—they could have explored alternative means, such as peddling or, say, working as street sweepers—in the end, the underprivileged do these things so as to satisfy the basic needs that they could not meet through normal means. Can we say, then, that due to the lack of nutrition and growth (the vegetative level of Aristotle’s hierarchy of functions) or perception and motion (the animalistic level), these people are deprived of happiness, of a moral life, and even of humanity?

Perhaps the answer is yes. But then, that such a state of crippling poverty and inequality exists speaks volumes about the neglect of the privileged. For Aristotle, after all, man is a political being “born for citizenship”—a being of the polis, the city-state: the public life is a properly human domain. Again and again he emphasized that happiness and the moral life is not turned in upon a single person; that happiness is self-sufficient does not mean that it is “sufficient for a man by himself.” Moreover, moral excellence for Aristotle lies on the relative mean between excess and deficiency. So we may ask ourselves: can the privileged, those who meet the basic functional levels, who live in plenty amid great want, be truly moral—and truly happy—in such a society as ours? Are they exercising excellence of reason any more than those who are hungry or are blind or crazed? Or, by forgoing practical wisdom, by living in excess, by forgoing the affairs of the polis, are they not as misguided, as inhumane, as the rest?

I do not mean to say that this was what the historical Aristotle had in mind when he proposed his ethical theory. However, it is possible that he could have considered this even as he addressed his Nicomachean Ethics to those who have the advantage, the “proper equipment.” Could it be that his theory is an exhortation for the privileged to enter the realm of the polis, to care, to “do noble acts” for the welfare of the state and all its citizens? Could it be a call to go beyond the basic and properly vegetative and animalistic functions of nutrition, growth, sensation, and locomotion, and to search true, lasting, final happiness in doing the good? We do not know for sure. But maybe we, especially us in the Ateneo, can read Aristotle in this light.

So we come at last to “reading,” that is, education and instruction. Aristotle places emphasis on the development of arête—and informed intellect, philosophical and practical wisdom, is one such good that needs development. Aware that we are, as Aristotle teaches, political beings, then the development of intellect (that is, education) cannot end in our own selves; self-enlightenment is no longer enough. We must teach our society as well, especially to the underprivileged. How can we do this, even as Ateneo students? One tangible opportunity is the immersion experience: those sponsored by OSCI as well as ACED, among others. We can view these not merely as another requirement to endure, but as a political exercise: literally, contributing to the development of the polis by developing tomorrow’s society.

And there is also the moral function of reason, which is developed to excellence by choice and habit. One must choose to do the good. Again, taking into mind our political nature, we must exercise our good choices and habits outward, directed not only to achieve a self-sufficient “inner glow” of moral satisfaction, but also to succor and to improve the rest of society. Our response here cannot be anything less but our daily life—and that life we must lead not only for ourselves, but also for others. The Ateneo has termed this life as “professionals for others,” which simply translates to doing the best one can in his specific field, his ergon as it were, for the sake of the other. As seniors approaching the start of our careers, this calling is particularly relevant for us. We are called to be good and honest businessmen, hardworking scientists, and truthful writers—for the betterment of society.

Earlier we have put into question the generalization, “the moral man is a happy man.” But now we may get a glimpse of what Aristotle could have meant by stringing the moral life with the happy life. For could the world be anything but a happier one if it becomes more just, a society where all support each other towards the common goal of the final good, the final happiness?

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