Ethics and Politics (Part 1): Sciences for The Mature

Politics in the narrower sense of nomothetics [constitution-making science] intends to teach the lawgiver how to create the institutions that will inculcate the ethical excellences in the citizens. Assuming for the moment that such a science of means for the desired end can be successfully developed, there remains the great question whether the desired end is valid in itself and whether we should invest any efforts in its realization.

The value of nomothetics depends on the validity of the prudential science of ethics as developed by Aristotle. What if somebody should challenge the truth of the Aristotelian propositions concerning excellences? What if he should advance an alternative catalogue of goods to be realized in society? If, for instance, we should make a rising standard of living the supreme value to be realized, the governmental institutions favoring the realization of this end would diverge widely from the standards developed in Politics VII and VIII. In brief: Aristotle has to face the famous "That's What You Think!"

Aristotle realized the problem. In Nicomachean Ethics II, 3 and 4, he explains that political science (in the sense of a general science of action) has a lower degree of exactness than the demonstrative sciences. We can arrive at truth in a prudential science only by sifting opinions; and we must use some caution when we proceed from the general rules to a discussion of concrete cases. The reader should, therefore, receive the propositions in the same spirit in which they are made, "for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of things admits"—a golden rule that should be taken to heart by our contemporaries who feel unhappy because political science has not the same type of exactness as physics (1094b 11-27).

Moreover, in order to discuss ethical problems with discernment, one must be well acquainted with them; the disputants must have had an all-round education and considerable experience in life and conduct, for these experiences are the basis of the discussion. Young men will, therefore, not profit much from the study of political science; and it makes no difference whether they are young in years or youthful in character.

Ethics is not a matter of abstract knowledge but of the actual formation of the man; hence, for persons lacking in self-restraint the mere knowledge of ethical rules will be of little use, while critical knowledge will be of great benefit for men whose passions are guided by reason. The pupil must be in possession of good habits in order to be an intelligent student of the noble and just, and generally of political science (1095b 6).

Still, we have not disposed of the problem that different people desire different things as good. In the face of this fact we must either maintain, so it seems, that each man desires as good what appears to him as good and that, as a consequence, we have only apparent goods; or, that there is a real good, but that the persons who choose wrongly do not really wish what they desire. Aristotle solves the problem by defining as good what is wished for in the true sense, while conceding that every man wishes what appears to him as good.

He distinguishes between "true" good and "phenomenal" good; all goods are good in appearance, but only that phenomenal good is the true good that is desired by the true wish. The truth of the good is inseparable from the truth of the wish; hence, a critical debate about the good can be conducted only by men who are capable of desiring according to truth. Such a man Aristotle calls spoudaios. The translators render the term as "the good man." It would perhaps be more adequate to speak of the serious, or weighty, man; or, in order to oppose him to the "young man" who is unfit for ethical debate, one might call the spoudaios the mature man, or the man who has attained full human stature. Such a mature man differs from others by seeing the truth in each class of things, being as it were their kanon kai metron, that is, their norm and measure (1113a 29-35).

These reflections of Aristotle are perhaps the most important contribution to an epistemology of ethics and politics that has ever been made. We remember Plato's problem of the truth (aletheia) of the myth. The truth of the compact unit of wish-good is, in the contemplative attitude, the problem that corresponds to the truth of the myth. In our preceding analysis of the cycle theory we have, furthermore, seen that the memory of the species in the infinite time of recurrent cycles takes the place of the Platonic unconscious from which, through anamnesis, the myth is drawn.

The reflections of Aristotle are of priceless importance in the history of ideas because here we can observe in the very act how the truth of the prudential sciences emerges from the truth of the myth. The debate about truth in action is neither a vain opining without verification, nor is it an intuition of "values" in the abstract. It is a critical analysis of the excellences in actual existence in a historical society. The prudential science can formulate principles of action (such as the mesotes) according to reason (logos) because it finds the logic of action embedded in the habits of man. The reality of habituation and conduct in a society has prudential structure, and a prudential science can be developed as the articulation of the logos in reality.

From this fundamental insight, then, follow the corollaries. The analysis of excellences can be conducted only by men who know the material that they analyze; and a man can know the excellences only if he possesses them. Moreover, its results can be understood as true only by men who can verify them by the excellences that they possess, that is, by mature men—or at least by men who are sufficiently advanced in formation of character themselves to understand the problem.

As a consequence, if we may adapt a famous formula, ethics is a science of mature people, by mature people, for mature people. It can arise only in a highly civilized society as its self-interpretation; or, more precisely, in that stratum of a civilized society in which the excellences are cultivated and debated. From such a social environment the analytical consciousness of the virtues can flower; and this consciousness, in its turn, may become an important factor in the education of the young.

Chapter 8, Science and Contemplation
pp 353-355