Aristotle's Political Virtues
ABSTRACT: This paper argues that Aristotle conceives happiness not primarily as an exercise of virtue in private or with friends, but as the exercise of virtue in governing an ideal state. The best states are knit together so tightly that the interests of one person are the same as the interests of all. Hence, a person who acts for his or her own good must also act for the good of all fellow citizens. It follows that discussions of Aristotle’s altruism and egoism are misconceived.
Why does Aristotle think that the good life must be lived in a state (polis)? It is usually supposed that the state serves to provide the security and stability that individuals need for virtuous acts.(1) Though it is also recognized that participating in the governing of the state could play some important, or even necessary, role in a good life, the predominant view is that happiness is mostly pursued individually or with friends.(2) Such private pursuits seem to R. G. Mulgan a bulwark protecting individual ends from subordination to those of the state.(3) The idea that happiness is a private pursuit is implicit in the contrast, formerly drawn often, between the egoism of ancient ethicists and the properly moral analyses of modern philosophers.(4) Recent writers have attacked this contrast, pointing to the importance Aristotle accords concern for others in friendship (philia) and the centrality of friendship in happiness.(5) Yet they, too, presume that happiness is mainly a private pursuit, for they imagine that concern for others manifests itself when the other's interest conflicts with one's own—as if, even among friends, personal interests must conflict and the person who furthers the interests of his friend does so only with some detriment to his own.(6) That a happy life mostly involves the cultivation and exercise of personal virtues, whether alone or with friends, is an assumption that interpreters have brought to Aristotle without, I believe, offering evidence. On the contrary, instead of individual virtue aided by a concerned friend, Aristotle's account of the best friendships emphasizes mutual interest and common activity. In this paper I shall go a step further: happiness not only requires living with friends in a state, but consists of governing a state. My aim is to show that Aristotle maintains that the best states are knit together so tightly that the interests of one person are the same as the interests of all and that the virtues he describes in his ethics are meant to be exercised in the governance of such a state.(7) It is just because governing the state (or rather the polis) fulfills the individual's potential for acts of virtue that the state is said, in the Politics, to be "by nature."
That some virtues are best exercised in political activity(8) can be seen from their definitions. Courage, for example, is a disposition toward a particular behavior in battle: "Properly (kurios) the courageous man...