Aristotle argued that the purpose of the state was to help citizens lead the good life, and that the highest good was happiness.
Of course he was perfectly aware that people might differ about what would make a city happy. Some might say wealth, power or pleasure, while others might say virtue. But Aristotle doesn’t think that these differences are insuperable. In fact, he thinks there is something objective about happiness which cannot be found in any of these particular goods. Rather, happiness, or Eudaemonia, is not in any of the particular goods but in how they are drawn up like cords into a coherent whole.
Since one of the chief characteristics of the human person is that we can distinguish between good and evil, Aristotle taught that we have an innate moral sense of what it takes to make a family and a state. So it follows that the happiness of a family or a state will be diminished by vice and increased by excellence and virtue. That is to say that the happiness of a state is never objectively wealth or power, pleasure or “utility maximisation”. Rather, the happiness of a state goes up or down according to how it is ruled for the good of citizens as a whole.
Thus for Aristotle, the chief “product” of a good state will not be wealth or power or pleasure, but virtuous citizens. The Philosopher doesn’t think this is simply “desirable” but what human beings require of politics by their very nature.
For many years American politics have been governed by economic concerns alone. We have come to think that our chief good is economic growth. This confuses a particular good for the happiness of the common good, and also disorders soul and city alike. Aristotle said: “All wise men ought to choose [external goods] for the sake of the soul, and not the soul for the sake of them.” Or as Senator Marco Rubio has recently put the same point, we don’t have families and states for the sake of an economy, but we have an economy for the sake of our families and states.
Senator Rubio’s observation came under heavy fire yesterday from National Review’s Kevin Williamson, who began his withering diatribe against the Florida Senator’s “common good capitalism” not by disputing his basically Aristotelian principles, but by lining Senator Rubio up behind a parade of horribles from the ranks of democratic socialists. Apparently, there is no discernible difference for him between Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Aristotle and Pope Leo – or so it seems from the framing of his complaint.
Williamson writes with remarkable condescension “as a fellow Catholic” to inform the Senator that the popes he cited in his recent address at Catholic University of America only provide him with “fascist economic thinking”. It’s quite something for a Catholic to consider the teachings of his own Church to be fascist on economics – perhaps his faith is merely quarantined. He asks God with some impiety, again “as a fellow Catholic”, to “defend us from these backward, primitive-minded Catholic social reformers”. It’s not entirely clear, but by “reformers” he seems to mean the popes.
Williamson’s cynicism about Senator Rubio, whom he decries as someone who wants “power to overrule markets”, can be put to one side. The deeper problem at the heart of Williamson’s criticism of Senator Rubio, Catholic social teaching and (whether he knows this or not) Aristotle is not his cynicism but his scepticism about our ability to know the common good which he describes as “plastic”, over and against the “discrete goods” which he apparently considers to be just those external goods that express themselves as consumer preference. How sad. As he puts it, happiness seems to be that some “people like Chevy trucks, some like Fords, and some of us prefer Toyotas built in Texas”.
William of Ockham could not have said it better. The insistence that we cannot know the common good of human nature, and that we cannot think of the happiness of families and states apart from ordering everything to market rule, is a species of that medieval error which rejects our capacity to know universal principles for what is the right and just order of families and states.
Like the 14th-century nominalists who once sought to detach political thought from transcendent universals, Williamson seems to think of politics primarily as economic liberty. But as Senator Rubio, channeling Aristotle, has rightly asked, economic liberty for what end? Williamson takes that teleological question the way the nominalist Luther took all principled Catholic objections: as an occasion for name-calling.
Upholding limits for politics is a good thing. I am sure Senator Rubio would agree with Williamson on limitations to state power were he more focused on a debate over principles. But a politics of limits for everything except the economy is a recipe for a politics which increases particular external goods at the expense of the spiritual goods of human morality required for families and states alike. This preference for a politics of external goods alone is, in fact, at the root of a Hobbesian war of all against all.
Williamson concludes that “the nation does not need your philosophy, Senator Rubio.” What he means is that the nation does not need the moderate realism of Aristotle or Cicero. Rather, in his intemperance, Williamson reveals the shallowness of a nominalist politics that “secures our liberty and our property in the least obtrusive way”. It’s the politics of “leave me alone”. It’s not Aristotle. It’s not even our Founders. It’s sad and lonely, and it’s no recipe for a happier America.
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