ABSTRACT: This paper argues that Aristotle conceives happiness not primarily as an exercise of virtue in private or with friends, but as the exercise of virtue in governing an ideal state. The best states are knit together so tightly that the interests of one person are the same as the interests of all. Hence, a person who acts for his or her own good must also act for the good of all fellow citizens. It follows that discussions of Aristotle’s altruism and egoism are misconceived.

Why does Aristotle think that the good life must be lived in a state (polis)? It is usually supposed that the state serves to provide the security and stability that individuals need for virtuous acts.(1) Though it is also recognized that participating in the governing of the state could play some important, or even necessary, role in a good life, the predominant view is that happiness is mostly pursued individually or with friends.(2) Such private pursuits seem to R. G. Mulgan a bulwark protecting individual ends from subordination to those of the state.(3) The idea that happiness is a private pursuit is implicit in the contrast, formerly drawn often, between the egoism of ancient ethicists and the properly moral analyses of modern philosophers.(4) Recent writers have attacked this contrast, pointing to the importance Aristotle accords concern for others in friendship (philia) and the centrality of friendship in happiness.(5) Yet they, too, presume that happiness is mainly a private pursuit, for they imagine that concern for others manifests itself when the other's interest conflicts with one's own—as if, even among friends, personal interests must conflict and the person who furthers the interests of his friend does so only with some detriment to his own.(6) That a happy life mostly involves the cultivation and exercise of personal virtues, whether alone or with friends, is an assumption that interpreters have brought to Aristotle without, I believe, offering evidence. On the contrary, instead of individual virtue aided by a concerned friend, Aristotle's account of the best friendships emphasizes mutual interest and common activity. In this paper I shall go a step further: happiness not only requires living with friends in a state, but consists of governing a state. My aim is to show that Aristotle maintains that the best states are knit together so tightly that the interests of one person are the same as the interests of all and that the virtues he describes in his ethics are meant to be exercised in the governance of such a state.(7) It is just because governing the state (or rather the polis) fulfills the individual's potential for acts of virtue that the state is said, in the Politics, to be "by nature."


That some virtues are best exercised in political activity(8) can be seen from their definitions. Courage, for example, is a disposition toward a particular behavior in battle: "Properly (kurios) the courageous man might be said to be fearless of noble death and all that suddenly brings death, most especially in war" (N.E. III.6.1115a32-34). States, not individuals, go to war; so only people who live in or act with states could be properly courageous. Likewise, Aristotle declares that political justice or, apparently equivalently, simple justice is "found in a life lived in an association for the sake of self-sufficiency" (1134a26-27), that is, in a state (Pol. I.1.1252a1-7). (By contrast, relations with family members only resemble justice—N.E. V.6.1134b8-9, 15-17). In particular, he defines distributive justice as "the distribution of honors, wealth, or whatever can be divided among those who share in the political system" (V.2.1030b31-32). This is clearly the task of a political leader (6.1134b1-2). Rectificatory justice is an attribute of someone who can restore equality in private exchanges, namely, a judge (4.1132a19-25). So the paradigmatic exercises of courage and justice, at least, occur in performing tasks of governance. Moderation would seem to be a more private pursuit, but Aristotle's paradigm of immoderation is a king, and "many people in positions of power (exousiais) feel the same way as Sardanapallus" (I.4.1195b21-22; Irwin trans.). Since those who exercise political authority are most able to gratify their desires for pleasure, they exercise the greatest degree of moderation in choosing not to do so. Among the so-called social virtues of book IV, magnanimity and proper pride are realized by attaining some suitable position of superiority, and though he does not quite say so, Aristotle surely has in mind positions of political leadership. In short, Aristotle clearly thinks the paradigmatic exercises of courage and justice are in political activities and hints, at least, that the greatest exercise of moderation as well as the exercise of magnanimity and proper pride also occur in the exercise of political power.(9)

There are at least two more indications in the Nicomachean Ethics that the virtues it describes are meant to be exercised in governing states. One occurs in Aristotle's statement near the end that "the actuality of the practical virtues is in political and military activity" (X.7.1177b6-7). He goes on in the next chapter to contrast the life of practical virtue with the contemplative life: the former requires more external goods than the latter, for, as he explains, "the politician . . . differs greatly [from the contemplative] in respect of his activities" (8.1178a25-27). One of the two optimal lives is the political life. Aristotle simply does not envision a life of private moral virtue.(10) The only good private life is the philosophical life.

Likewise, discussing practical wisdom (phronesis) in N.E. VI, Aristotle ascribes this virtue to those like Pericles who manage households and are statesmen, for they understand what is good for themselves and for humankind (VI.5.1140b7-11). Insofar as they have practical wisdom, they also possess all moral virtues (VI.13). There is an interesting, albeit brief, comparison of the practical wisdom of the statesman with that which a private individual might possess in VI.8. The practical wisdom that enables a Pericles to decide what is best for a state is but one type of practical wisdom; other species enable one to decide what is best for oneself, for a household, or for litigants in a legal case (8.1141b29-33). Common opinion would have it that of these four, the practical wisdom that concerns an individual is most properly called by this name; and indeed, it regards those who even worry about the best for others as busybodies (1141b33-1142a9). However, Aristotle thinks this common opinion must be revised because there can be no individual good without household and polis (1142a9-10). He does not say what the individual good is—that he leaves for later (1142a10-11), presumably after considering the good of the polis. However, he apparently revises common opinion by identifying the practical wisdom concerned with governing a state with that concerned with the individual; as the opening sentence of VI.8 goes, the former, "politics" and the latter "are the same character state, though they differ in their essence [i.e., their definition]" (1141b23-24). If this interpretation of VI.8 is correct it affirms the point of VI.5 that it is political leaders who exercise practical wisdom and, thus, moral virtue. In short, in the Ethics a life of virtue is public rather than private.


Let me turn now to the evidence for this conclusion in the Politics. Much of its third book is taken up with the classification of states by the number of rulers—one, several, or many (III.7)—and the inquiry into which of these is the best. Aristotle's conclusion is that the best state is an aristocracy or monarchy, and the choice between these two depends on the character of its citizens. Where there is only person of truly outstanding abilities, he ought to rule as king (13.1284b25-34); where there are many, an aristocracy is preferable (15.1286b3-7).(11) In short, the moral qualities of the citizens determine which constitution is best for any state. At issue is not which constitution will best govern and provide for the needs of its citizens but which will allow its citizens the opportunity to realize the greatest virtue. Rule is an honor that ought to be distributed to people who merit it(12) and an opportunity for them to exercise virtue. It is, thus, clear that Aristotle conceives of political activity as the exercise of virtue.

It may be thought, though, that the opportunities that politics provides for virtuous acts are limited to the small number who rule the best states. On the contrary, Aristotle thinks that, ideally, a state should provide all citizens opportunities to realize their virtues to the extent they are capable. This I surmise from three of his claims: First, he defines the citizen a someone for whom "it is possible to share (koinonen) in the deliberations and judgments of rule" (III.1.1275b19-20).(13) If this means only people who can participate in legislative assemblies, as sometimes supposed, the number of citizens must be small—indeed, one in the case of the monarchy. But deliberation and judgment are exercised in the large number of administrative and judicial task necessary in any state; such as, managing the young or the old, taking care of public markets, and providing for defense. Aristotle takes note of them (see IV.15-16), and, significantly (the second claim), he refers to them as "types of rule" (tas archas) (1229a3). Citizenship, the capacity to share in the deliberations and judgments of rule, must extend to all who are capable of any of these tasks. Third, Aristotle takes one task of the rulers of a state to be the distribution of all these offices to those capable of them. It follows, then, that it is not only the monarch or the aristocrat who has the opportunity to exercise virtue but, ideally, each citizen can realize his capacity for virtue in executing any of the manifold tasks of government.

Two more texts from the Politics taken together lend support to my thesis. The first is the detailed discussion of the offices of polities in the last three chapters of book IV. Aristotle divides the offices into legislative (ch. 14), executive (ch. 15), and judicial (ch. 16) offices. The second is Aristotle's consideration in Politics III.4 whether the good man and the good citizen are the same. The former deals with states whose leaders are not morally good; the latter with states whose leaders are good.

Discussing the offices of a polity, Aristotle says nothing about specific virtues. Still, the division of offices would seem to reflect different virtues. The judicial branch should exercise rectificatory justice; the legislative requires practical wisdom (cf. N.E. VI.8), and the executive branch requires distributive justice, moderation (as noted earlier), and, for military leaders (15.1300b10-12), courage. But citizens of polities do not have or cannot be counted upon to have these virtues and, besides, they are often chosen for tasks by lot. In exercising these tasks, they perform acts that resemble acts of virtue. For citizens of polities, the value of the state is that by simply following its laws, they come to participate, insofar as they can, in acts of virtue. That this is so we can see from the account Aristotle gives of the relation between good man and good citizen in Politics III.4. For there Aristotle maintains that only the ruler will have practical wisdom:

Practical wisdom is the only virtue peculiar to the ruler. Though the other [virtues] must likely be common to ruler and ruled, the virtue of the ruled is not practical wisdom but true opinion. (1277b25-29)

How can someone lacking practical wisdom have any virtue? Is Aristotle contradicting the principle laid out in Nicomachean Ethics VI.13 that practical wisdom is necessary for any virtue? There need be no contradiction, for prior to the text quoted Aristotle distinguishes between the justice, courage, and moderation of the citizen and that of the ruler (1277b13-21; cf. 1277a23). Though the quoted text says that citizens and rulers share some virtues, the two groups need not possess the same forms of each virtue. Insofar as the citizens' virtues are directed by true belief, they are derivative forms of the proper virtues guided by practical wisdom. (An indication of the status of the citizen's virtue is Aristotle's comparison of the citizen's courage with that of women [1277b21-22], for women clearly do not possess courage in the proper sense.) Yet citizens exercise these "virtues" in performing the tasks required of them as citizens. Lacking practical wisdom, ordinary citizens partake of the virtues to the extent they can through political activity governed by wise rulers.

Just as the value of the best state to ordinary citizens is the degree of virtue it allows them to exercise, the value of lesser states to citizens performing much the same tasks should also be the degree of virtue such states allow its citizens to exercise. Both groups would be guided by true belief rather than practical wisdom.

Only the ruler of the best state has virtues that spring from practical wisdom, that is, genuine virtues; and the thesis of III.4 is that for him alone is it the same to be a good citizen and to be a good person. The discussion of this chapter is confusing, for Aristotle pays more attention to showing why the two cannot be identified. His main point is that since a person is a good citizen by performing well any of the many tasks of citizenship, there are many ways to be a good citizen; but there is just one way to be a good person.(14) This argument remains unconvincing because, even granting the implausible claim that there is one way to be a good person, we could define it broadly enough to include any of the citizen's tasks. But this objection misses what I take to be the main point of the discussion, that tasks other than rule do not require practical wisdom. What makes the ruler alone exercise human virtue is that he alone has this central virtue that is necessary for the most proper exercise of all other moral virtues. Hence, the ruler alone is humanly good; and, more to the point here, human goodness is realized through rule and only through rule.

We can appreciate this notion by considering two striking images in Politics III.4. Aiming to explain how the ruler has practical wisdom and the ruled true belief, Aristotle compares their relation to that between a flute player and flute maker (1277b29-30). Earlier in the Politics and in the Physics, he had subordinated arts of making to arts of using, arguing in the latter work that users know forms and makers matter; since an instrument is make to be used, the user directs the maker.(15) Just as the use to which the flute will be put determines its construction, the activity of rule determines the citizen's activities. Why is rule so important? The answer can only be that the ruler alone exercises genuine virtue because he alone has practical wisdom. The ruler can direct the citizen because he understands the end their activities serve; in contrast, they, not grasping that end, can have only true belief. Apparently, rule is the only activity (aside from philosophy) undertaken for its own sake. It is the only proper realization of moral virtue.

A second powerful image in III.4 is Aristotle's comparison of the state to a ship. Just as the different sailors on boat work together to preserve the boat, so too the different citizens perform different jobs to preserve the state. Plato often compares the ruler to a ship captain, but here Aristotle emphasizes that though sailors work together to preserve the ship, they each have different tasks to perform, and for each task there is a distinct virtue. Thus, for the pilot to be a good sailor requires a skill different from that required by the rower or lookout. Likewise, the tasks of citizenship are manifold. Indeed, they will vary among different states. Strikingly, Aristotle presumes that all work together:

The preservation of the ship is the task (ergon) of them all. Likewise among citizens, though all are unlike, the preservation of the association is their task, and the state is an association. Therefore, the virtue of the citizen must exist relative to the state. (1276b26-31)

In a state different citizens perform diverse tasks together for a common end, their own preservation; which is to say that they work together in order to continue working together. If this seems impossible, we have only to think of a football team: the players bring diverse skills to their different positions but all have the same end, victory. Just as individuals could neither develop nor exercise their skills apart from the team, there would not be virtue apart from the state. In an ideal state, individual interest and common interest merge.


It should now be clear that governing the state is a way to exercise virtues and at least plausible that it is the best way to realize the virtues. However, that it is only the ruler who can fully realize virtue through the state leads us to inquire further about private exercises of virtue. It is not enough for my thesis to show the possibility of realizing virtue through political activity; I must also exclude other paths.

The contemplative is an example of a private realization of virtue. However, it exercises intellectual rather than moral virtues. It lacks the external goods to exercise the highest degree of moral virtue (N.E. X.8.1178a23-b7). We must look elsewhere.

There are some virtues that seem private: friendliness, wittiness, generosity, and moderation in respect of sex. But the first three, at least, also have public expressions that would seem greater in respect of their greater scope than private virtues. As for moderation, I have already suggested that the position of a ruler offers him opportunities for indulging his desires that make his proper exercise of desire all the more laudable. Hence, even the exercise of seemingly private virtues is dwarfed by their more public manifestations. As Aristotle puts it in the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, the good of the state is "more noble and divine" than the good of any individual; "to secure and preserve [it]" is "greater and more complete" (I.2. 1094b7-10). So, too, the ability to secure the good for the state is more noble and divine than the ability to secure the good for oneself: political virtue is more noble than private.

The best alternative candidate for a private life of moral virtue is a life rich in acts of the best friendship, virtue friendship. We tend to think of friends as people who help each other in need, but virtuous friends do not have such needs. (Gifts and favors may enter the relationship, but they cannot play a large part.(16)) Such friends do not act for one another but with one another. However, Aristotle takes their common activity (koinonia) to be part of and governed by the common activity (koinonia) that defines a state (VIII.8.1160a8-9, a28-30; cf. VIII.9-12). He claims friendship is an expression of justice, and what counts as justice depends on the state (8.1159b29-30; cf. 11.1161a10-11). Each person should give the other his due; the friend, because of his moral virtue, deserves more than others; he deserves the close association of those of like virtue. Thus, friends pursue virtue together, but the character of the virtues pursued must depend on the state. Hence their activity of friendship is not just part of the state, but positively beneficial to it.

It follows from all this that in Aristotle's ideal state, there cannot be altruism or egoism, for to act in the interest of one person, whether myself or another, is already to act in the interest of all. Indeed, the more I benefit myself or another, the more I increase the exercise of my or the other's virtue, and so the more I benefit all. The best friendship promotes virtues in the friends, but their best exercise of these virtues promotes the common interest.

To conclude, the good life must be lived in a state because it is the life of virtue and virtue, or at least moral virtue, is best exercised in governing the state.(17) Aristotle claims that the polis exists by nature because, among other reasons, a person is not self-sufficient outside of it (Pol. I.2.1253a25-29).(18) What he means is hardly clear in its context; but if the foregoing analysis is correct, a person can realize his nature in the ideal polis because, in governing it, he exercises, to greatest possible degree, the human virtues.


(1) R. G. Mulgan, Aristotle's Political Theory: An Introduction for Students of Political Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), p. 7. Mulgan would be right if he were thinking exclusively of philosophical pursuits. My concern here will be with the realization of moral virtues. text»

(2) Annas speaks of the polis (rather than the village or nation state) as natural in the sense that its citizens participate in its governance, pp. 150-52. This participation is important to human life:

"Our final end . . . must not leave us lacking in anything required for a rationally chosen plan of life. Aristotle is saying here that our lives . . . will be lacking in something important if we are not functioning parts of a city-state. Only in this context can we 'live well' rather than just liv-ing; for only this form of community demands of us what we would call political abilities. If we do not take part in a political community of equals, and live as active citizens, our lives will not develop as they would naturally have done--they will be in some way stunted."

This might express my thesis, depending on how a state's absence stunts a person. Does being "stunted" prevents one from leading a properly human life as severe poverty, for example, could stunt a life? Or does Annas mean something more mild like the way too little protein stunts the natural growth of a child without necessarily interfering with many of his activities? Annas does not explain. Instead she claims that part of the plausibility of the notion that the good life de-pends upon the polis depends on the "generality" of Aristotle's claim. She goes on to speak of Aristotle's drawing on common sense and empirical observation to support his claim that the state is by nature. Though the quotation can be read to express my thesis, it suggests that partici-pation in a polis contributes to or, perhaps, is part of one's final end. I shall be arguing for a stronger connection. It is unclear to me whether Annas would disagree with my conclusion, but, in any case, the issue needs more discussion. text»

(3) Mulgan, Aristotle's Political Theory, pp. 32-33, denies that "ethical virtue" is primarily concerned with "public or political activity"; it extends, rather to households and friends. In fact, Aristotle denies that the household is the locus of virtuous acts; a chief problem with the Republic was that it treated the state as a household and so eliminated political virtue (Pol. II.1.1261a16-22; 5.1263b7-14). Friends, though, are a locus of virtue, at least friends of the third type, friends for the good. But this sort of friendship consists of acts of virtue some of which, I shall argue, are intrinsically public.

Martha Nussbaum, "Shame, Separateness, and Political Unity: Aristotle's Criticism of Plato," in Essays on Aristotle's Ethics, edited by Amelie O. Rorty (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), p. 422-27, stresses Aristotle's endorsement of the value of personal autonomy, which led him to reject Plato's view of the unity of the state, and she recommends that we con-sult works of literature to help us choose between these two. She clearly interprets Aristotle to uphold personal autonomy against the rights of the state, a view that presupposes some separation between the two. text»

(4) One version of the distinction appears in Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1907 [reissued 1962]), pp. 105-6. text»

(5) Cooper, Annas. text»

(6) Note Annas's discussion about someone loaning money to his friend: he acts for the sake of his friend, but he himself benefits by exercising a virtue. Monetarily, though, the loan is in his friend's interest rather than his own. To be sure, Annas thinks this payment more valuable than the monetary loss he suffers by making the loan. But the loss must detract from perfect happi-ness. Ultimately, the interests of the two diverge.

It may seem unfair to accuse of Annas of supposing that happiness is a private pursuit when she emphasizes the importance of concern for others in a happy life. However, Annas treats concern for others as a feeling that good folks have for their friends, and she herself has a hard time de-ciding whether the good a person does for a friend counts more than the good feeling he gets from doing the action. I want to contrast the divergent feelings and interests in her account with the convergence of interest on the account I propose. text»

(7) A.H.W. Atkins argues for the latter point in "The Connection Between Aristotle's Ethics and Politics," Political Theory XII (1984): 29-49 (Reprinted in A Companion to Aristotle Politics, edited by David Keyt and Fred Miller, Jr. [Oxford: Blackwell, 1991], pp. 75-93). Atkins' argument turns on Aristotle's function argument of N.E. I.7. text»

(8) Here and throughout I shall use "political activity" in the Aristotelian sense of performing a job necessary for the preservation of the state, from rule down to child care, provided only that it requires some degree of deliberation, judgment, and command (1299a25-27; cf. a15-24). The phrase should not be given the quite different contemporary sense connected with campaigns for public offices. text»

(9) See Richard Bode`u?s, The Political Dimension of Aristotle's Ethics, trans. Jan Edward Garrett (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993), pp. 44-45. Originally published as: Le Philosophe et la cite, Publications de la Faculte et Lettres de l'Universite de Lie`ge. Bodeus points to the dependence of particular virtues on the state to argue that ethics is part of politics and has no autonomy. That ethics comes under the jurisdiction of politics is both right and important. The present contribution would lend additional support for this part of Bodeus' conclusion. However, his contention that ethics has no autonomy does not follow from his argument. A subordinate discipline does not lose all autonomy to what is superior. In several places Aristotle distinguishes an art of making an item from the art that uses it, and declares the former subordinate to the latter (Physics II.2.94a33-b9; Politics III.4.1277b29-30 --more on the latter text later). Just as the art of making is a distinct art despite being subordinate to another art, so too ethics' being subordinate to politics is not a ground to deny its independence.

It is worth noting Aristotle's claim that the laws of a well-governed state will dictate what constitute manifestations of particular virtues:

"Now the law instructs us to do the actions of a brave person--not to leave the battle-line, e.g., or to flee, or to throw away our weapons; of a temperate person--not to commit adultery or wanton aggression; of a mild person--not to strike or revile another; and similarly requires actions that express the other virtues, and prohibits those that express the vices. The correctly established law does this correctly, and the less carefully framed one does this worse." (V.1.1129b19-25, Irwin trans.)

Merely by obeying the laws, a citizen exercises some degree of virtue. text»

(10) I owe this point to Gene Garver. text»

(11) William W. Fortenbaugh, "Aristotle on Prior and Posterior, Correct and Mistaken Constitutions," in A Companion to Aristotle's Politics, edited by David Keyt and Fred D. Miller, Jr. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), p. 235, notes that the virtue of the ruler provides Aristotle with an ordering principle for constitutions. text»

(12) Mulgan, Aristotle's Political Theory, p. 8 makes this point. text»

(13) This looks to be a modification of the definition stated at 1275a22-23, that the citizen is one who "partakes (μετ?χειν) in decision and rule." This earlier definition is declared to apply mainly to citizens in a democracy where everyone has a hand in the law court and the assembly (1275b5-6). To extend it to cases where these offices do not rotate, Aristotle advances the definition quoted in the text. text»

(14) Cf. 1276b27-35. The contrast between the many complete political virtues and the single complete human virtue is drawn most clearly at 1276b33-34, a sentence that is omitted from some manuscripts. Even without it, though, the contrast would be clear, for Aristotle claims that there is no single complete virtue of the citizen (1276b31-33) and would then concludes that someone could have the virtue of the citizen without that of a person (b34-35).

Aristotle advances variation of the argument by locating the plurality of citizens in different constitutions (1276b31-32), different types of people within a state (1277a5), and finally the difference between ruler and ruled (1277a14-16). Inasmuch as the good person cannot perform all tasks of all good citizens, the issue becomes which of these tasks to identify as his. The answer is rule. text»

(15) See Politics I.8.1256a5-10. Physics II.2.193a36-b7 runs as follows:

"The arts that rule over and know matter are two, one that uses and one that directs production. Therefore, the using one is somehow directive (architectonik?), but they differ insofar as the one knows the form, the other, directive in producing, knows the matter. The pilot knows what sort of form the rudder should have and sees that it is done; the other knows from what sort of wood and form which procedures it will be." text»

(16) VIII.13.1163a21-23; cf. 1162b31-33. Aristotle has much to say about what friends owe each other, but it mostly concerns the breakdown of friendship (VIII.13-IX.3). text»

(17) As noted at the beginning intellectual virtues (aside from practical wisdom) require the state in the way that all virtues are taken to require it. My concern here has been the exercise of moral virtue. text»

(18) Annas, Morality of Happiness, pp. 150-52, considers Aristotle's empirical support for the naturalness of the polis. Aristotle provides no empirical support, and I see no reason to suppose that he relies on any. That through governance of a state one can exercise moral virtues is, for Aristotle, simply analytic. text»