11 Aralık 2010 Cumartesi

Aristotelian Look To Active Life Versus Contemplative Life

Aristotle (384-322 BC) is accepted as one of the founders of modern Western thought with his antecedents Socrates and Plato. Aristotle, who was tutored by Socrates’ student Plato, later became very influential in the development of the idea of scientism and scholastic ideology. Aristotle believed in the importance of observation and used “teleology”, the study of ends which claims that everything in this world goes purposely to an end. Aristotle explained this purposeful voyage with the word “nature”. One of the core assumptions of Aristotle is that “man is by nature a political animal”[1] and the end of political animals is to form a state in which they can socially live in order. In Aristotle’s ideal state every individual, creature and object has a purpose defined according to their nature. According to him, nature of a thing is this thing’s end point and when it is reached it is not possible to go further because at this end point the thing obtained perfection. He asserted that the nature of human beings (political animals) is to live socially and form a state which would provide all men’s needs (material, social, religious). Thus, the state is a natural thing. “This association is the end of those others, and nature is itself an end; for whatever is the end-product of the coming existence of any object, that is what we call its nature-of a man, for instance, or a horse or a household” (Aristotle, pg 59). The main aim of Aristotle is to create a convenient environment in which a good human functioning and a flourishing life can take place. Another problematic in Aristotle’s theory is about whether an active life or a contemplative life would be more desirable in terms of best life. Aristotle deals with this issue in the book VII of the Politics. In this assignment, I am going to explain the reasons why Aristotle thinks that an active life of political participation is more desirable than a passive life of contemplation. I will argue that Aristotle’s ideas are very convincing in showing that an active life is more preferable to a passive life of philosophizing. In order to reach this point, I am going to first explain Aristotle’s ideas about the discussion and show how he constructs his argumentation. Later, I will put forward my own views related to the discussion and tell my reasons why I find Aristotle’s arguments convincing.
Aristotle begins the discussion by stating that in order to investigate the best discussion, one should first decide on what is the most desirable life. Aristotle thinks that the best life should be considered both on the individual and on the societal levels. “We must therefore first come to agreement as to what is the most desirable life for all men, or nearly all, and then decide whether it is one and the same life that is most desirable for them both as individuals and in the mass, or different ones” (Aristotle, pg 391). Aristotle claims that there are three elements of a good and flourishing life: “our bodily existence, our intellectual and moral qualities” (Aristotle, pg 391). He also adds that since “the soul is a more precious thing”, the satisfaction of moral qualities are more important and it is superior to the satisfaction of other elements (Aristotle, pg 392). In Aristotle’s view, the best life for men both individually and socially, “is the life which has virtue sufficiently supported by material resources to facilitate participation in the actions that virtue calls for” (Aristotle, pg 393). In Aristotelian thinking, the happiness (endaimonia) cannot be separated from the good life and from the virtue. In the second part of the book VII, Aristotle begins discussing the comparison of passive contemplative life versus and active life. He asks “Which life is more desirable, the life of participation in the work of the state and constitution, or one like a foreigner’s, cut off from the association of the state?” (Aristotle, pg 395). He further asks what constitution would be best for the state to provide a more desirable life for citizens. According to Aristotle, the first question is “incidental” whereas he deals more with the second question that is about political theory. However, since the second question is dependent on the first, I think the individual happiness and a good human functioning is core in Aristotelian thinking.
As far as Aristotle is concerned, men have always been hesitated between two ways of life in order to pursue a prosperous and blessed life. “Obviously the best constitution must be one which is so ordered that any person whatsoever may prosper best and live blessedly; but it is disputed, even by those who admit that the life of virtue is the most desirable, whether the active life of a statesman is preferable to one which is cut off from all external influences, i.e. the contemplative life, which some say is the only life for a philosopher” (Aristotle, pg 395). For the statesmanship there are two contesting views; some people claim that although slave-master relationship is a great injustice, statesmanship is different from this type of relationship whereas some other people believe that to take part in public affairs is a virtuous act. There is also an extremist view which states that “the only style of constitution that brings happiness is one modeled on tyranny and on mastery of slaves” (Aristotle, pg 396). Aristotle himself believes that although statesmanship involves a degree of mastery, it is not all about that and the master-slave relationship is not a model explaining governance. He thinks, “To rule at all costs, not only justly but unjustly, is unlawful, and merely to have the upper hand is not necessarily to have a just title to it” (Aristotle, pg 397). At this point, Aristotle feels the necessity of differentiating mastery from statesmanship and claims that for some people being slave is “natural”. “Of course we may be sure that nature has made some things fit to be ruled by a master and others not, and if this is so, we must try to exercise masterlike rule not over all people but only over those fit for such treatment – just as we should not pursue human beings for food or sacrifice, but only such wild animals as are edible and so suitable to be hunted for this purpose” (Aristotle, pg 397). Aristotle in his works talked about two types of slavery: the natural slavery and the legal slavery. Although nowadays it seems extremely cruel, disturbing thing, 2500 years ago in ancient Greece slavery was very common and acceptable. In ancient Greece’s elitist system slaves as well as women, non-Greeks and merchants, were not accepted as citizens in addition, slaves had not got any rights. Their role was to serve their master and use their bodily strength according to masters’ orders. As far as Aristotle can concern, natural slaves were people who have physical power but no capacity to think and use practical wisdom. He even saw natural slaves as tools, properties that help handling household affaires and increasing production. “So any piece of property is an assemblage of such tools, a slave is a sort of living piece of property; and like any other servant is a tool in charge of other tools” (Aristotle, pg 64-65). Aristotle defended his theory with the help of nature concept.,
I think both the view that statesmanship is like mastery and as the most desirable of all lives, are “partly right and partly wrong” (Aristotle, pg 399). Aristotle also makes it clear that he always favors intermediate solutions to excessive or defective ones. In his idea, “not all rule is rule by a master, and those who think it is, are mistaken” (Aristotle, pg 399). Aristotle claims that there is a difference between ruling over free men and ruling over slaves which caused by the nature. While ruling free men requires many additional qualities since they are naturally designed to be free, ruling over slaves is normal and does not require any virtues. At this point, Aristotle makes an important point: “For happiness is action: and the actions of just and restrained men represent the consummation of many fine things” (Aristotle, pg 400). Aristotle thinks that although the intention and the idea are very important, without putting these into action it would not be preferable. “Hence it is only when one man is superior in virtue, and in ability to perform the best actions, that is becomes fine to serve him and just to obey him” (Aristotle, pg 400). Aristotle thinks that “virtue in itself is not enough; there must also be the power to translate it into action” (Aristotle, pg 400). Since results flow from action, “the active life will be the best both for any state as a whole community and for the individual” (Aristotle, pg 401). So, Aristotle clearly favors activism and an active life versus passive contemplative life.
Now, I want to manifest my own views related to the discussion. I think Aristotle is right and very successful in claiming that an active life is more preferable to passive philosophical life. Aristotle bases his argument again on the conception of nature while differentiating statesmanship from mastery. Although it is highly controversial whether some people can be classified as born as slave, in Aristotle’s argumentation since their nature require them to be slaves, I think we can find Aristotle’s theory plausible. Governing a slave does not necessarily require people to have virtues since slaves are naturally ready to do what has been said to them. However, governing free and rational people would require many important qualities like charisma, legitimacy, justice and satisfaction to get people’s support. It is not easy for people to get promoted and become the ruler of a country and leaders are somehow talented, extraordinary people. Sometimes, their extraordinarity comes from their humbleness but this is again a kind of virtue. Moreover, without having statesmanship virtues, leaders would fail to protect people’s support and people may revolt against them. Thinkers like Machiavelli think that it is not the mean but the end is important and the leader has right to use all means including terrible ones. However, in Aristotelian thinking leaders should be virtuous both mentally and practically since results flow from actions. Although passive contemplative life, similar to what Plato advised, is very beneficial to find, discover realities, without turning these ideas into action, they would simply stay in the paper. Moreover, as far as I am concerned a life of philosophy away from people would not lead to right conclusions. This is also true for statesmen and politicians. The role of politicians and people who hold offices, is to understand their problems and find solutions to those problems. I think is Aristotle is right to say that the political system must be based on the good human functioning of citizens since the state is established by and for the people. Although he says that he deals more with the political system, what is in his mind is the happiness of citizens. One criticism could be made against Aristotle is that he leaves women and slaves out of politics and think that they naturally do not have rights.
Finally, in my opinion, Aristotle is very successful in showing that a life of action is more preferable to a life of passive contemplation in order to reach a good, flourishing life. Without taking responsibilities and risks, we cannot change anything and problems would continue to exist. That is why I strongly find Aristotle’s argumentation as convincing.

- Aristotle, (1992), “The Politics”, London: Penguin Books

[1] Aristotle, “The Politics”, pg 59

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