The opening paragraphs of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics always leave me speechless due to their strangeness.  Aristotle famously writes,

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly ever action and choice, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.  But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them.  Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities.  Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth [sic? in other translations, I’ve seen this passage discuss household management, not wealth; this seems to be an anachronistic reading of ancient understandings of economics, coming as it does from oikos, which refers to the home].  But where such arts fall under a single capacity– as bridle-making and other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others– in all of these the ends of the master art are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued.  It makes no difference whether the activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just mentioned.

So far so good.  Everything Aristotle here says is clear enough and I marvel at the clarity and systematicity of his thought process.  It is the next paragraph that gets strange.  He continues,

If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good.  Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life?  Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what we should?  If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object.  It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most truly the master art.

Now comes the startling sentence that brings everything to a grinding halt.

And politics appears to be of this nature; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them; and we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this, e.g. strategy, economics, rhetoric; now, since politics uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the good for man.  For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete both to attain and to preserve; for though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states.  These, then, are the ends at which our inquiry, being concerned with politics, aims.  (The Complete Works of Aristotle, Volume II, 1729 – 30)

I distinctly recall the shock I experienced decades ago upon reading the second paragraph of the Nicomachean Ethics.  Such a reaction, I think, calls for an interpretation both of the text and my assumptions at the time.  Why was this claim so startling to me.  Part of the issue, of course, has to do with the title of the Nicomachean Ethics.  “Ethics”, the title says.  I opened the text expecting a treatise on right moral or ethical conduct; yet now, suddenly, the great Aristotle was telling me that this was a treatise on politics.  At the time I must have thought that ethics and politics were two separate realms, that they were distinct issues and domains of inquiry, yet here I was being told that they are interrelated; or, to put the matter more forcibly, that ethics is the domain of the political.  I have more to say about this “mysterious” claim in a moment.

read on!

However, the other shock came from the very suggestion that politics is highest of the sciences.  I approached the Nicomachean Ethics quite young, before I had learned how to read.  In the popular culture that pervaded my thought process, “politics” had quite negative connotations and my general attitude towards “political science” was that it was a dismal science.  “Politics”, to my way of thinking at that time– and I think this is a very common view of the signifier “politics” today –signified the games that politicians play over and above policy and governance to get elected and get people to support their positions.  It seems to refer, in this connotation, something like rhetoric in its most negative sense (unfairly), where rhetoric is taken or understood to be something like seducing, manipulating, and duping people to follow you.  All the time you hear people say “I hate politics” and what they seem to be referring to is silly debates over whether it was horrible that Obama didn’t wear a flag pin or some sort of demagoguery designed to enflame the passions and anger of people to get them to oppose something.  Today I would say that if people hate politics, it is because we don’t have politics.  Instead we get demagoguery and the manipulative use of rhetoric.  Insofar as “politics” had these connotations for me at this time, I could not but react with horror at Aristotle’s suggestion that politics is the highest of the sciences and the science of the good.  What a bizarre claim!

However, I have long held the principle that when I come across a passage in a great work of philosophy that strikes me as utterly bizarre, it means that I am not understanding something and that there is a theoretical perspective from which the claim makes sense or would be rational (were we to accept the premises of the claim), or that the philosopher must mean something different by the term than what comes to mind when I think of the term.  Aristotle, after all, was not a stupid guy– I’m astonished that such a mind ever existed; just look at the clarity, the systematicity of that first paragraph –so I must be missing something.  I therefore followed the etymology of the term “politics”.  “Politics” comes from the Greek word “polis”, referring to the city.  Aristotle’s claim, I then reasoned, must be closer to a claim about the good governance of the city and, when referring to politics, must refer to something closer to sociology than what we today call politics.

A second principle I’ve adopted in my reading over the years is that we should not read a text simply in terms of what it says, but also in terms of what it doesn’t say.  What was so obvious to Aristotle and his listeners (these were lecture notes, after all) that it didn’t have to be explicitly said or that it went without saying?  Perhaps this claim would provide the key to interpreting his claim that this is both a work of ethics and that political science is the highest of the sciences.  In the same text Aristotle will say that all of us, by nature, desire eudaemonia:  happiness, human flourishing, or an excellent life.  Eudaemonia is the theme of the Nicomachean Ethics.  It aims at providing us archers with the bullseye to hit that target.  Political science is the science that would deliver us knowledge of how to attain this.  What goes without saying here?  Aristotle must have been working on the unspoken premise– he actually states it more explicitly later –that we are social animals that live amongst others.  If this is true, then achieving flourishing or eudaemonia cannot be a personal or individual affair, but must also be bound up with the social world in which we live.  If you live in a dysfunctional polis or society, it will be that much more difficult to achieve flourishing.

Here, then, I encounter a discovery (and please be gentle, as I’m writing about an intellectual journey and process of discovery; I’m sure these things are obvious to all of you).  The relationship between the individual and the social (political) is like a mobius strip, where we don’t have too opposed poles, but rather a single, continuous surface where the one refers to the other and the other refers to the one.  Aristotle’s thesis, it seems, is that the individual and the social, the ethical and the political, cannot be thought apart from one another.  They form a continuous surface, an “interior 8”, where both require one another.  For me to achieve flourishing, we must form a well functioning, “healthy”, society and my actions determine both how others will react to me and the formation of that society.  If so much ethical thought today seems to be impoverished, then this is because it separates the ethical from the political, seeing them as distinct domains, failing to see how they are on a continuous surface from one another.  Of course, as good critical theorists, we should ask how we came to think in this way; what set of historical events and mutations led to this illusory separation.  Marx’s account of commodity fetishism, where relationships between people come to appear as relationships to things might provide a clue or a guide.

However, as we approach these questions, we should also ask just what constitutes a society or the polis.  Whenever we deploy a concept or signifier, we are activating a distinction that defines what belongs or doesn’t belong to the category or that defines the extension of the concept.  We should ask ourselves if there aren’t other mobius strips at work in our concept of the polis.  The object-oriented ontologist in me wants to ask, “what belongs to the polis?”  If there has been a sin at work in concepts like “culture”, “society”, and the polis, and the political, it lies, I think, in seeing all of these things as consisting solely of people, norms, and beliefs.  This would explain the central regard and focus Aristotle gives to rhetoric in his thought.  If the polis is composed of people and people govern or organize based on beliefs, then it follows that we must persuade people to believe certain things to achieve good governance and therefore human flourishing.  (I promise that I will someday write my post on our loathing or hostility towards rhetoric; which I hold in very high regard).

This is fine so far as it goes– I do not at all disagree that the signifier, the cultural, and the domain of beliefs and norms is a crucial component of the polis –however, the question should also be whether this necessary condition of a polis is sufficient?  How is it, for example, that so many of us can treat the ecological as an issue that is something other than the political or outside the political?  How is it that we can see the ecological as some sort of minor subdivision of the political?  This can only occur if we grant a very specific extension to the concept of the political that sees the set of the political as only ranging over people and their beliefs.  This can only arise if we see the political as a sort of boundary or wall that segregates a very specific set of things.  However, if we recognize that the polis can only exist with infrastructure, architecture, energy (in the form of food and fuels), a variety of organisms, and so on; if we recognize that the social relation can only be instituted where these things are present, then our idea of what belongs to the polis grows exponentially and we see that the natural is not something other than the social, but is at the very heart of the social.  We discover what I have called the “wilderness”.  We now discover all sorts of other forms of power that impact our possibilities of flourishing and that become matters of the political in Aristotle’s sense of the word.  These forms of power– what I have elsewhere called “gravity” –follow a different form of influence than discursive power (the signifier, the symbolic, the norm, the belief, the cultural), that while imbricated with these things are nonetheless distinct.

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