Aristotle, ontology, Politics

Family contra the State: Problematizing Aristotle and Confucius

“..for the relationship between people and government is the most pervasive ideal relationship upon which commerce between teacher and pupil, lord and servants, father and family, general and soldier, master and apprentice have unconsciously been modeled.”—Friedrich Nietzsche. 

For centuries, the history of philosophy has explored the general opposition set up between Occidental and Oriental philosophy, especially concerning their respective “origins.” Generally speaking, it has been assumed that Western and Eastern philosophies differ over the metaphysical question of the constitution of the (conditions of possibility of the) universe, ending with the antinomy of a decision concerning Being/Nothingness (Plato vs. Lao-Tzu, both of whom subordinate becoming either to the movement of the idea or the non-activity of the Dao). In the same sense, Aristotle’s political ontology has been argued to end up in another binary opposition with that of Confucius: it is asserted that the former makes the state primary to the family, whereas for the latter this formula must be inverted. Instead, these reflections will attempt to illustrate that the opposition of these philosophical decisions should be shown to be inadequately founded and that a more clarified reading can show that this opposition is both untenable and capable of exemplifying that the problem has not yet been sufficiently determined.
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Aristotle, friendship, justice, Politics

Friendship and the State

 In chapter 9 of book III of the Politics, Aristotle discusses the general relation between justice and the state. In the course of examining the relation of equality and inequality, Aristotle proposes that the state “exists for the sake of a good life, and not the sake of life only” (1279b31-32). Notice that the good is already predicated of the state in this statement, and it is because of this bias that Aristotle will conclude: “if life only were the object, slaves and brute animals might form a state, but they cannot, for they have no share in happiness in a life based on choice” (1279b33-34). Although happiness as an end for the virtuous life is one of Aristotle’s primary concerns, the emphasis on the choices that the political situation makes possible seems to conceal the fundamental lack of choices for the individual as well as the a priori nature of any state whatsoever. This assertion stems from Aristotle’s misunderstanding that the political arrangement of a state (whether constitutional or otherwise) has very little to do with the will or mood of the multitude, even if, in the last analysis, they are given priority in power because of their total quantity of property (cf. 1282a37-40).

 In other words, since Aristotle theorized earlier that the state precedes any individual which would constitute it (just as the whole precedes the parts), it seems to be false that the state would only consist of individuals for whom life was founded on a choice. Moreover, when Aristotle claims that the state is a community of families whose goal is self-perfection and self-sufficiency, he seems to undercut the primordial character of the state that would subordinate families for its own ends (i.e. his previous position). More fundamentally, he also seems to negate his earlier statement that political life had anything to do with a choice. He writes: “Such a community can only be established among those who live in the same place and intermarry. Hence there arise in cities family connections, brotherhoods, common sacrifices, amusements which draw men together. But these are created by friendship, for to choose to live together is friendship” (1280b36-38 my emphasis). It then follows that our political environment is contingent and that friendship is only a choice in terms of choosing to live virtuously; only then could we call “living together” a choice, insofar as we choose not to live or strive against one another.

 The concept of friendship, which is analyzed in depth in the Nicomachean Ethics, in relation to political choice can be better illustrated in reference to the pre-eminent individual (1284a10-15). The pre-eminent individual is a person whose excellence, especially in political affairs, overshadows that of anyone else. In fact, Aristotle admits that they are “God among men” and that “legislation is necessarily concerned only with those who are equal in birth and in capacity; and that for men of pre-eminent excellence there is not law—they are themselves a law.” In this sense, they are above the law simply by being at the very center of it. Men of this caliber may find it difficult to find friends because of a lack of equals suitable for them, but the important point is that the example of the man above the law logically leads to the counterexample, i.e. that of the ostracized man, the outlaw, those beneath the law (1284a34-36). 

What is characteristic of these singular positions in society is the fact that they have nothing to do with a political choice, at least in the straightforward sense in which Aristotle presents his argument. If we were to agree that these positions could be characterized by choice, we would be forced to look at the more fundamental phenomena at work in the unconscious of the society as a whole. In other words, ostracizing someone from political life and incarnating them in the very fabric of the law constitute the extreme forms under which the balance of justice and friendship in the state come to take on their most dissymmetrical distributions of equality and inequality. But it is also here that justice as friendship, as the (anonymous) perpetuation of noble deeds in the absence of a telos, can illustrate the very inconsistency of the social bond (Badiou).

actualization, Adorno, Aristotle, contradiction, freedom, freud, identity, image of thought, Minima Moralia, minor ethics, Negative Dialectics, Negativity, Normativity, psychoanalysis

From a Melancholy Science to a Negative Diale(c)t(h)ics

Everyone will agree that it is of the highest importance to know whether we are not duped by morality. Emmanuel Levinas—Totality and Infinity


It is a question of attaining this will that the event creates in us…It is a question of becoming a citizen of the world—Gilles Deleuze, Logic of Sense [1]

From a Melancholy Science towards a Negative Diale(c)t(h)ics

Adorno’s ethics is a “melancholy science” because it has grown weary of the subject. In other words, Adorno’s ethics is both pessimistic and antagonistic because it aims to critique the processes of subjectification which the dominant society (re)produces. On the one hand, Adorno analyzes the principium individuationis of modern society, but on the other he does not subsume it to a dialectic which would lay claim to totality through a unifying principle of identity. Yet Adorno’s critique of modes of subjectification and individuation are always brought back to the society through which they are socially and economically determined. This is what allows his ethics the means to sharpen its critical edge. The main thrust of this ethics is to assert a radical critique of the substantiality of the subject and to fully do away with the absolute, constitutive nature of the self [2] founded upon a transcendent God [3]. In following this critique through its development in a negative dialectic, we will say that Adorno’s analyses constitute a minor ethics because they submit the major mode to a critique that attempts to dislodge the dominant image of thought [4] from its normative pretensions.
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activity, Aristotle, contemplation, God, happiness, idealism, materialism, philosophy, reason, virtue

Aristotle and Light


Aristotle and Light
Contemplation, Activity and Happiness in the Nicomachean Ethics

For while the whole life of the gods is blessed, and that of men too in so far as some likeness of such activity belongs to them, none of the other animals is happy, since they in no way share in contemplation. Happiness extends, then, just so far as contemplation does, and those to whom contemplation more fully belongs are more truly happy, not as a mere concomitant but in virtue of the contemplation; for this is in itself precious. Happiness, therefore, must be some form of contemplation.


What is reason? Aristotle tries many times to answer this question; but perhaps most vivid and penetrating among his responses is the spiritual “answer” he offers in the conclusion of the Nicomachean Ethics. There we find Aristotle claiming that the exercise of human reason cultivates ‘something’ in the human animal which is the “best and most akin” to God (1179a11). God loves and honors those who love and honor reason: those who “care for the things that are dear to them” and act “both rightly and nobly” (1179a14). In this sense the philosopher is dearest to God (1179a17) and is the one who “will presumably also be the happiest,” moreso — potentially, anyway — than any other (1179a18).

Why may we presume the philosopher’s life to be happiest? Even assuming he were to possess the virtues attendant upon a cultivated exercise of reason, does this ensure him a happy life, even the happiest of lives? Aristotle repeatedly acknowledges the serious difficulties barring the way to human happiness, perhaps most importantly our need for external sustenance. (It seems clear to Aristotle that it would be difficult to contemplate anything but food if you are starving — thus leisure, freedom from activity, is an essential requirement for contemplation.) Yet in this respect, too, the life of the philosopher is superior, even to other men of virtue, since his virtues require neither money nor power in order to be recognized.

Indeed, the philosopher’s contemplation may even be hindered by the sorts of conditions and resources which allow other kinds of natures the opportunity to exercise their highest virtue — money for the liberal man, power for the brave man, a tempting hint for the temperate man, and so on (1178a28). Moreover, despite the human need to attend to the health of our bodies, “we must not think that the man who is to be happy will need many things or great things, merely because he cannot be supremely happy without external goods; for self-sufficiency and action do not involve excess, and we can do noble acts without ruling over earth and sea; for even with moderate advantages one can act virtuously (this is manifest enough; for private persons are thought to do worthy acts no less than despots–indeed, even more); and it is enough that we should have so much as that; for the life of the man who is active in accordance with virtue will be happy.” (1179a11)
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Aristotle, difference, ethics, ethnology, friendship, happiness, humanity, justice, light, Plato, Politics, science, society, spiritual evolution

Happiness or Justice? Ethics and the Politics of Friendship

No one would choose a friendless existence on condition of having all the other things in the world.


In poverty and other misfortunes of life, true friends are a sure refuge. The young they keep out of mischief; to the old they are a comfort and aid in their weakness, and those in the prime of life they incite to noble deeds.

A true friend is one soul in two bodies…


There is an important sense in which Aristotle’s political and ethical project is well-studied in the Platonic method of questioning and re-evaluating conventional priorities and relationships between spiritual elements. Both projects re-discover in traditional virtues a philosophical power which they express in dialogues, encapsulating critical or diagnostic re-evaluations of specific mental and social priorities. The unspoken consonance (implication) here is interesting, and merits reflection: that the old social values and relations are themselves capable of producing new procedures, contain within themselves the power or potential to radically reformulate the ‘axiomatic’ rules and relations between material and psychic agencies.

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Aristotle, distance, equality, ethics, friendship, Greek philosophy

The Distance of the Gods : A Note on Aristotle and Friendship

In one of the more singular passages of the Nicomachean Ethics (Book VIII, Chapter 7), Aristotle makes several claims about the nature of friendship.  One of these claims is that friendship arises out of (or, we shall say, strives for) equality. Similarly, friendship has a reciprocal nature insofar as the more useful or better of the friends (a father in relation to his son) deserves more love and thus owes less, so to speak. It is in this sense that friends would strive to be equal to one another, all things considered. Yet this is to take friendship only in its ideal cases: all of our friends are particular, and thus they play a variety of different roles (which are not reducible to being useful, helpful, beneficial, etc.). On the other hand, Aristotle seems to be saying something more profound than this: he stresses that friends are good things, and this does not have to consist in them simply being good to us. They are good for us and also help to intensify and actualize the good in us. Though this is not simply a question of prepositions: Aristotle poses to us that if friends are good, and we want good for our friends, can we want our friends to be gods, insofar as this would diminish (the proportionality of) the friendship, and thus not be a good for us? Can friends be gods and goods (1159a 1-7)?

                But Aristotle rephrases himself: we want the greatest goods for our friends, but not all the greatest goods (perhaps). This is because Aristotle is not so sure that we always wish the best things for our friends—what would prevent us from wishing the best for our friends? Obviously, wishing the best for ourselves! But back to the more important question, one that does not go away so easily for all that: if our friends could be gods, or aspire to such a status, they would “surpass us most decisively in all good things” (1158b 34-35). Aristotle’s more fundamental question is: to what point can friends remain friends?

                Instead of going to the side of the negative (bad vices, bad habits, hygiene, culture, style, attitudes, etc.) as a reason for breaking off a friendship, Aristotle goes to the other extreme of virtue and excellence. At what point are friends too unequal in terms of “goodness”, insofar as they base their relationship in that quality? But if we take this as an absolute abstract social value, virtue-in-itself, then we can say that friendship will be broken when one of the friends cannot stand the embarrassment of being inferior (ressentiment), or when one of the friends is too embarrassed by the other (contempt). Neither of these two states of mind or attitudes has to be real per se—they can still have negative effects if they are believed to be real by one or the other. Or it could be more subtle: becoming a god changes the value of things, including friends. There could be a relative displacement of systems of valuation: in other words, becoming a god affects the friendship negatively when the proportionality of the love between friends (in Aristotle’s terms) is broken because the love is considered too minimal to produce a noticeable effect—or the effort required to obtain recognition from the beloved is considered “not to be worth it.” Aristotle calls this distance. Another tie to Nietzsche: there is Zarathustra’s love of the farthest as a virtue—this would befit a noble or great soul—and Aristotle’s megalopsychia. As for our friends: if they become gods or overmen, we only hope that somehow some of that increases our belief in ourselves to recreate ourselves in such a manner as to continue to compete and struggle with them, in order to further develop the dimensions of a common godhood.

Aristotle, character, classical philosophy, ethics, eudamonia, happiness, justice, law, Plato, Politics, virtue

Outline of Aristotle’s Ethics


“We make war that we may live in peace.”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics — 1177b (Book X, Chapter 7)

Let’s try to understand this work first through the method by which its project is assembled, the way the text functions.

In general Ta Ethika has three phases or stages of development: (a) a general, in-depth study of the “good” and the “good life”; (b) an analysis of moral virtue or excellence; and (c) an investigation into social ethics, or ethics within society.

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