Aristotelian Piety for a Liberal Politics

In recent decades there have been many thoughtful attempts to look beyond liberal political theory for a more satisfactory understanding of political life, and to find resources for combatting the radical individualism, moral relativism, and hedonistic self-gratification to which liberalism’s theories of individual rights and human autonomy may all too easily lead. There are those who argue that liberal practice, in distinction from liberal theory, requires and fosters liberal virtues (for example, self-reliance and toleration) appropriate to free and self-governing individuals. Others appeal to participatory democracy and engaged citizenship as conducive to human and political flourishing, some even finding support in Aristotle’s view of political community. Paul Ludwig shows how civic friendship exists in liberal regimes, especially in widespread civic associations and even in commercial activity, and how it extends to citizen’s shared assumptions about their regime. The ways in which civic friendship supports liberal communities are obscured by liberal theory itself, he argues, but Aristotle’s understanding of political friendship or like-mindedness provides a framework for understanding liberalism—a corrective not for its institutions, but for how we understand them. Such an understanding would nevertheless make a difference for the laws, policies, and practices that we support and reject, and even more important for what we admire in our fellow citizens and statesmen.

Others reject liberalism altogether. “Integralists,” for example, seek to base public life on Christian, often Catholic, principles, and thereby dissolve the separation between religion and politics. Adrian Vermuele, for example, writes that the question is not whether liberalism is desirable—for its demise is inevitable—but whether we can lessen the birth pangs of its successor. He proposes that “nonliberal actors strategically locate themselves within liberal institutions and work to undo the liberalism of the state from within.” Patrick Deneen, in Why Liberalism Failed, argues that the “accumulating catastrophe” of liberalism—its “titanic inequality,” its “uniformity and homogeneity,” its “material and spiritual degradation”—stem from its core understanding of human autonomy and its concomitant denial of any borders or limits, socially, morally, or politically. Unlike Ludwig, who sees the possibility of civic friendship on both the national and the local level, Deneen looks for alternatives to liberalism in local, faith-based communities, in family life, and in their transmission of culture and tradition that enriches human lives. He clearly states that Vermeule’s Catholic integralism is impossible “for the world’s first Protestant nation,” but religion is so integral to Deneen’s position that at least one commentator has observed that his “desire for a viable alternative to liberalism requires that the Christian religion regain an authoritative role in public life.”

The controversy that Deneen’s book aroused suggests that it struck a nerve in the American psyche, as do the series of critiques of liberalism over the last decades attest to a liberalism dissatisfied with itself. Its weakness and self-doubt have become increasingly visible in the United States recently in the inability of its leaders to address obstacles that race presents to our political community. Too often the desire for perfect justice in defining “merit” as the principle of distributive justice or the belief that we can repair past injustices through some perfect formula of corrective justice gets in the way of generating the “like-mindedness” or “civic friendship” that might allow for a healthy diverse community.

My exploration of piety and politics in Aristotle’s Ethics follows in the footsteps of those looking to Aristotle for a richer view of human nature and politics than found in liberal political theory. The alternative to liberal theory that I find in Aristotle provides support for liberal institutions and practices, while justifying them on the basis of higher potentials of human nature and at the same time more modest expectations. A pious understanding of what in us is akin to the divine encourages our virtuous actions and pursuit of the truth, fostered by our thinking and acting with fellow citizens and friends. Beings akin to the divine are capable of virtue, both ethical and intellectual, and beings only akin to the divine should not expect ethical or intellectual perfection, but only the “blessedness” possible for human beings, as Aristotle put it. If our kinship with the divine militates against radical secularism, our distance from the divine checks moral righteousness and impositions of religious orthodoxy. Aristotelian piety, as I have attempted to show, is based not on any divine revelation that dictates truth, or on any authoritative theology, but on inquiries such as Aristotle’s in the Ethics that explore the affinity and distance between human and divine. On such grounds we can justify such liberal institutions and practices as deliberative assemblies, inclusive governing institutions, freedom of speech and religion, fostering a friendly environment for religious communities as well as prohibitions against an established church, and a statesmanship that guides the many components of the political order toward a common good. An Aristotelian understanding of politics can inform how we view our own liberal institutions and practices, elevate our common lives, and provide a basis for their defense against those who criticize the selfishness, hedonism, and general moral bankruptcy of contemporary liberal culture.

I therefore concur with Ludwig that we need less a reform of our institutions than a new way to understand them. To this end, I argue that Aristotle’s “philosophy of human affairs,” which never loses sight of the human relation to the divine, recognizes the religious or spiritual foundation of human life and community that weighs so heavily in critiques of liberalism such as Deneen’s. Whereas Aristotle rejects any strict separation of religion and politics, the linking of piety and politics that he attempts to forge also recognizes the dangers to freedom from integrating the two as closely as integralists might wish. Aristotle’s distinctive understanding of human beings as political and rational elevates them above the beasts and separates them from the divine. The piety growing out of this understanding supports liberal institutions and practices that foster virtue in a way that gives new meaning to a liberal way of life.

Our virtues for Aristotle are manifestations of freedom, but their exercise requires living with others and sharing in speeches and actions. They are not simply the “liberal virtues” sought as instrumental to liberal society, but the virtues that are the conditions for human happiness. They are exercised in our communities, and derive support from them, while they come in part through our own efforts. That is why our virtuous deeds are deserving of praise, and our failures are deserving of blame. Aristotle’s defense of freedom therefore cannot lead to a moral relativism when it insists on the deliberation and choice essential to virtue.

The virtues for Aristotle are both ethical and intellectual. Aristotle’s defense of freedom and community—and their connection—is based not only on ethical virtue but also on our desire to know the truth, especially the truth about the highest beings or being in the cosmos. We are beings who unlike beasts have “longing minds” and “intellectual longings.” Our mind, Aristotle says, is something divine in us, but it is “longing” mind. Longing indicates the absence of what we long for. Aristotle never attributes longing to the divine. Our longing mind supports our trust in a good or divinity that is “beyond us” for which we long and makes us akin to the divine, even though no divine being need pursue truth or deliberate. When Aristotle says that our choices can be understood as longing mind or intellectual longing, he means that we are free beings who are moved to pursue the truth and are capable of doing so and that our longing—our desires, our spiritedness, and our wishing, indeed, our actions, including our politics—can be informed by thought.

Our freedom therefore does not make us the autonomous individuals of liberal theory. That the divine is beyond us means that we are incomplete or imperfect beings whose happiness depends on others and on what is beyond our control. Our incompleteness means that we are political by nature, that friends are goods indispensable for our lives, and that we are indebted to our families and others for our nurture and education and owe them care in turn. As Aristotle says, self-sufficiency does not mean what suffices for someone by himself, living a solitary life, but what is sufficient with respect to parents, offspring, a spouse, and friends and fellow citizens (1097b8–12). Aristotle’s statement that we are “joint causes” of our dispositions and actions (1114b24) acts as a reproach to those who see themselves as sole causes of themselves, who forget what they owe to families and political communities and even to what they have been given by nature. We are like the munificent individual who has resources with which to begin, and the scientist who knows beforehand what he needs for science (1122b29–33, 1139b27). In all these ways, Aristotle’s rejection of human autonomy and defense of community resonates with the concerns of many contemporary critics of liberalism. His defense of community, however, is a defense of a limited government that supports the development of the communal ties that he understands as defining a human life. These include the resources of liberalism for civic friendship that Ludwig explores.

When Aristotle says that we are “joint causes” of our dispositions and actions, he also defends individual freedom against those who emphasize the extent to which human lives are embedded in their communities. Individuals are also causes of their dispositions and actions, not simply their families, political communities, or friends. Aristotle insisted that virtuous action does not simply follow the dictates of prudence but that it be accompanied by prudence (144b22–28), or that to be virtuous we must exercise our own judgment and not just follow the good judgment of another. So too our good does not depend entirely on the communities to which we belong, however much they are necessary to protect and to foster it. Our families are not the only source of our nurture and education, for political communities further the work of the family. Apart from political communities, moreover, there are those with whom we “share in philosophy” (1164b3). However much lawgivers and statesmen arrange matters in their communities, Aristotle warns that they do not command the gods (1145a10–11). That the divine is beyond us leaves us free to pursue our good; indeed, it calls us to do so. Aristotle therefore objects to those who fail to accept any responsibility for their actions but trace them to causes outside themselves, or who understand themselves as simply a part of a whole, as, for example, a father or a citizen rather than as a human being.

That the divine is beyond us suggests our incompleteness, which makes our belonging to communities necessary and desirable. The divine that is beyond us is also beyond the communities that we form with others. Piety so understood cautions us against the dangers of any identification of religion and politics. Such piety would support the separation of church and state not because both are autonomous, their integrity threatened and violated by interference from the other, but because both are incomplete, with the goods they provide necessarily tied to their incompleteness. If the divine is beyond us, religion would support moderation and tolerance, rather than seek to impose its view on others. So too legislators and statesmen who are aware of their own limits in relation to the divine would hold back from trying to dictate to religion. Just as Aristotle questions the completeness of the law, such as its need for the Graces, natural justice, and equity, and clearly insists that politics cannot replace the work of families, piety too would limit politics’ reach. Both religion and politics might work together in fostering the blessings that flow from human incompleteness and in deriving support from the other in doing so. Church is separated from state, but politics and piety are entangled, in the support they need from the other.

Moreover, our incompleteness and longing that leads us to community and the achievements it makes possible also make us aware of ourselves apart from our communities. We are political by nature, but it remains for us to investigate what causes regimes to be governed beautifully or not, and what sort of regime is the best (1181b13–24). We face perplexities, while we wonder at our resources and at their source or cause. Even when we wonder with others, our wonder is our own. We act in light of our wonder, with the encouragement and moderation it gives us, in concert with others, to be sure, but also as distinct individuals who can therefore act as causes. Time after time, we have seen how Aristotle’s discussions in the Ethics attempt to maintain this complex vision that weaves together freedom with community, private with public, and piety with politics. Consider, by way of a summary, his treatments of greatness of soul, justice, philosophy, and friendship.

Aristotle describes the great-souled individual as apparently free of the impediments that circumscribe others and limit their action, as if he could stand alone, as it were, as the best thing in the cosmos. It turns out, however, that he lacks knowledge of his own dependence on others, and that his lack of self-knowledge prevents him from undertaking the activity he craves and that alone makes him worthy of the honor he deems he deserves (e.g., 1124b18, 24–25). By appealing to his desire to perform worthy deeds, to his dependence on honor and his shame, and even to his inclination to truthfulness, and by gesturing toward friendship, Aristotle attempts to bring him into the community, in ways that sustain rather than diminish his freedom. In his treatment of greatness of soul, Aristotle shows that belonging to a community, or living with others, both frees one from the inactivity or idleness of self-sufficiency and checks any presumptions of divinity.

Although Aristotle first speaks of justice as the lawful, and of laws as commanding every virtue and forbidding every vice (1129b1, 1130b24–25), throughout his discussion of justice he shows the limits of law. In addition to the laws, the community is supported by what Aristotle calls reciprocal justice, an exchange of harms for harms and goods for goods (1132b34– 35). In particular, shrines to the Graces are displayed in prominent places, hence public ones, to encourage returning benefits and even initiating them. Not all the Greek gods, to be sure, but these beneficent ones whom Aristotle calls forth, serve to illustrate the reliance of the city on the divine for fostering the beneficent deeds that hold it together and for encouraging human beings to act as causes—to initiate good deeds rather than simply to perform them in return (1133a2–6). Even more than reciprocity is needed, inasmuch as there must be a first giver for there to be giving in return. In Aristotle’s example, the Graces by such encouragement are the first givers who serve as models for human beings to be so. So too there is a natural justice that belongs to political justice and that structures and informs law for those who can share ruling and being ruled in their political communities. Finally, equity, as Aristotle describes it, which corrects the universality of the law in light of individual cases, inclines to pardon (1143a19–24), thereby giving the individual case more than it is strictly or legally due. It is moved by a grace that goes beyond reciprocity.

The most significant and obvious division in the intellectual virtues that Aristotle makes is between prudence and wisdom. The division limits the scope of political life, for although prudence is concerned with only what is good for human beings, wisdom involves the highest or best things in the cosmos (1141a19–b2). At the same time, the division also protects political life against a wisdom that might claim divine-like knowledge, such as possessed by the Republic’s philosopher-kings, and by implication those who attempt to derive an authority to rule from religious orthodoxy, or even those whose secular orthodoxies entertain no doubt about their own wisdom. Prudence, not wisdom, is the virtue that guides politics. In a sense, however, Aristotle’s own way of philosophizing bridges the gap between these intellectual virtues, for he investigates not only the human goods, but their relation to the best or highest in the cosmos. His focus therefore does not demote politics in light of the higher but rather elevates it by trying to understand its place in a whole larger than itself, and indeed the ways in which human life touches divinity.

Aristotle offers an alternative to modern liberalism’s radical disjunction between public and private life also in his treatment of friendship in the Ethics. There he explores the ways in which families and politics remain distinct but codependent. Good family relations serve as models for good regimes and act as a reproach to deviant ones (1160a31–1161a9). Families serve politics at the same time politics serve families. Politics guards against the oppressive family relations that model deviant or unjust regimes, if only by providing a broader context for human life that limits the reach of the family over its members. More important, political communities also advance the ends of the family—the provision of life, nurturing, and education of the new generation that Aristotle identifies as the work of parents (1161a17–16, 1162a5–8). Politics depends on families to begin this work that is its highest calling.

Friendship, at least some friendships, nevertheless go beyond the scope of the law—friends who “have no need of justice” (1153a26–28), for friends receive not merely their due from each other but more than their due. Like Homer’s heroes, “two [friends] go together,” because they “are better able both to think and to act” (1155a15–16), but unlike Homer’s heroes their thoughts and actions have less to do with war than with their own reciprocal giving and receiving and with the kind of world or cosmos in which their giving and receiving can occur. Once again, Aristotle has drawn the outlines of a limited politics, limited, on one hand, by the families out of which political communities arise and whose ends they advance, and, on the other, by friendships that transcend politics. Those include communities that come together for the sake of worship (1160a19–25) and those that “share in philosophy” (1164b3, 1172a5). Although such friendships transcend political life, they arise with the development of political life, when human relations extend beyond family members. Paralleling the relation between piety and politics, private and public for Aristotle remain distinct but are also inseparable. Because Aristotle holds that they remain distinct, he can speak to liberals. Because he holds that they are inseparable, he has something to say.

Our Declaration of Independence speaks the language of liberal political theory, even echoing Locke when it proclaims our inalienable rights, including the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But it also says that we are endowed with these rights by our Creator. Our rights are a divine gift, whether from our Creator or from Nature’s God, which the Declaration also mentions. Even if such phrases were included for their rhetorical appeal, that appeal recognized the beliefs of many Americans. They became inscribed in what became one of our fundamental documents that declared our political principles. “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” That our inalienable rights are God-given qualifies human autonomy, even though they mean that how we choose to live, what we do with our freedom, and how we pursue happiness are “up to us,” to use Aristotle’s words. Indeed, such freedom means that all things are arranged “in the most beautiful way,” since only if we achieve our happiness will it be truly our own. That we are free to earn our happiness is a divine gift (1099b12–24). Our happiness is not by nature, nor contrary to nature, but like the ethical virtues themselves, our natures allow us to receive it. The proper human response is gratitude. It is also an acceptance of responsibility. We have been given, and we should give in return. In this way, Aristotle fosters a reverence for life, not because we can make it what we will, but because we can make it good. A political community that recognizes this could pledge allegiance to a nation as “under God,” and might print on its coins “In God We Trust.” As Aristotle said, we should acknowledge what we owe and make whatever return we can, even though such debt can never be repaid.

Such moderation that emerges from Aristotle’s teaching in the Ethics is one that is proper for those engaged in political life, since it means that politics serves something higher than itself, and proper for those concerned with what is highest, whether religion or a philosophy that is open to the divine. Their pursuit of the highest does not merely require respect and protection from political life for its flourishing. That pursuit, as Aristotle suggests by his deeds in the Ethics, requires investigating the relation between the highest (whether understood as the highest good, the divine, or the cosmos) and human longing, and therewith actions that aim at the just, the beautiful or the noble, and the good. That pursuit requires, in other words, attention to political life, to its highest reaches and to its limits. Learning about both requires experience, from our own attempts to contribute and from those of others. Only then should we accept limits, while never ceasing to demand the highest from ourselves and others.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is excerpted from the chapter, “Afterthoughts: Aristotelian Piety for a Liberal Politics,” in Aristotle’s Discovery of the Human: Piety and Politics in the “Nicomachean Ethics” by Mary P. Nichols. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. All rights reserved.

Featured Image: Botticelli, Primavera, 1572; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Mary P. Nichols

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