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  • Aristotelian Necessities
  • Randall Curren (bio)

The opening of Aristotle's Politics depicts the self-organization of human beings into households, villages, and polises or city-states as "natural." Each of these institutions is portrayed as (properly) consensual and mutually beneficial for all participants, and these conditions are reflected in the theory of constitutions elaborated later in Book III. A polis is properly a partnership in achieving the "highest good" or best life for its members,1 and in the typology of Book III the "true," just, and legitimate forms of constitution aim at the common good or good of all citizens and are governed through consent rather than force.2 The naturalness of living together in city-states that are true to their nature seems to have three aspects: people are sociable or inclined to live together and pained when they cannot, they need to live together in city-states in order to live well, and they are equipped with language that enables them to cooperate in living well together.3 The second of these aspects of the naturalness of membership in a proper polis exhibits the second of four forms of necessity identified by Aristotle in Metaphysics:4 such membership is necessary for human beings in the sense that it is required for the achievement of a good, namely the good of eudaimonia or living well.5

Aristotle thus regards membership in a proper polis as something "which is necessary because and in so far as good hangs on it," or in modern terms an "Aristotelian necessity."6 I shall adopt Philippa Foot's more specific use of this term to refer to necessities that must be fulfilled in order for a member of a species "to be as they should be, and to do that which they should do" in [End Page 247] order to live well or flourish—to exhibit and experience goods achievable by members of the species, by fulfilling well potentialities characteristic of the life-form.7 In Aristotle's scheme of things, to be as one must be in order to live well is to have developed in such a way that one possesses the moral and intellectual virtues necessary for living well. This requires suitable upbringing, habituation, and teaching, in a polis or political community whose laws and ethos are conducive to virtue.8 To do that which one should do in order to live well requires suitably equipped and frequent opportunities to exercise the right virtues or excellences in suitable activities. Societies and their institutions might fall short with respect to the nature and frequency of the resources and opportunities they afford.9 Clearly, the specific Aristotelian necessities a proper polis would provide pertain to qualities of both persons and the circumstances in which persons live and act. The qualities of persons and circumstances mediate the fulfillment (or lack of fulfillment) of human potentialities in excellences and excellent activity constitutive of living well. The relevant qualities of circumstances pertain to the contextual regulation of both the development of personal qualities and the expression of personal qualities in activity.

Aristotle is in many ways clear about the import of his general conception of the natural aim of a polis for the design of institutions and judgments about the relative justice and injustice of various institutional arrangements. The Nicomachean Ethics opens with the identification of politics or political science as the master art aiming at the highest good for human beings - eudaimonia or living well - noting that the ends of subordinate arts are pursued for the sake of the end of the master art.10 The first argument Aristotle gives for thinking that politics is the most authoritative, true master art, is that "it is [politics] that [properly] ordains which of the sciences should be studied".11 The argument seems to be that it follows from this (normative) claim about the nature of the art of politics, and the tacit premise that education is essential to achieving the highest good for human beings, that politics must be the true master art, the art whose aim is the highest good for human beings. This makes sense only on the further assumption that an art having...


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pp. 247-263
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