The buzzword increasingly used to describe our political climate is “polarized.” Though mainstream media and celebrity culture are largely to blame for this divide, individuals bear the ultimate responsibility for maintaining a thriving political community in our own neighborhoods.
According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, the fundamental component for a successful political community is ethical individuals. What makes an ethical individual? In Hillsdale College’s online course on Aristotle, Dr. Larry Arnn teaches that ethics is the development of character, the expanding of one’s perspective beyond oneself.
During his second class of the series “Aristotle’s Politics and the Nature of Man,” Arnn explores man’s natural orientation for the good and the formation of political communities.
The development of character, the improvement of the self, is man’s purpose, Aristotle wrote. A thing’s purpose is what he called “the good.” The creation of character is thus aligning one’s self with the good, which is a practice requiring repetition and dedication. This practice of pursuing ethical transformation in accordance with the good is what makes community successful.
Arnn teaches that man’s highest pursuits, both individually and socially, are obtained through the development of ethics. The highest individual good is happiness, which Aristotle says is cultivated through character. Just as man is aimed at the highest good in his own soul, he is also aimed at the highest good in politics. The highest political good is the city built from households and villages. As happiness is man’s highest pursuit, so is the city.
But this city cannot function without the virtue of individuals—the development of ethics in accordance with the good. To be good is to fulfill your purpose. If your purpose is not fulfilled, then you are not good, Aristotle wrote. Arnn used the example of a cup. If a cup loses its bottom, it is no longer a good cup. In fact, it is no longer a cup at all because it cannot fulfill its purpose.
“There is a propriety and satisfaction in each thing being fully what it is,” Arnn said. “A bad thing is only a good thing spoiled.”
What is man’s purpose then? How can man be good? Aristotle says man’s end goal is happiness, that is necessarily the result of virtue or ethics. This definition of character is a man who looks beyond himself to see the world for what it is.
“Virtue is seeing the world clearly…For looking for both the goodness, truth, and beauty in a thing as well as the falseness,” Arnn said. “To see the world as it is you actually have to cultivate these moral virtues to get yourself into this state of patience and attention where you can put your energy into doing each thing before you.”
Cultivating virtue is a lifelong commitment. However, it is a commitment to forgo selfishness for the good of the community. Politics relies on individuals who focus on the community and not themselves. Imagine what our conversations would look like if our aim was to understand each other.