11 February 2017

The State and The Good Life

As noted in several earlier post, Aristotle outlined a historical or developmental model for the formation of the state: households grow into villages; villages grow into states. And, of course, what Aristotle had in mind was the city-state or polis of classical Greece. The main purposes behind all these institutions include meeting basic needs and inculcating virtue or habits of excellence in individual members. This perspective contrasts with the contractual version of state formation based upon consent with the purpose of protecting rights--however they may be defined.

Aristotle notes, however, the inability of households and villages to provide adequately for the needs of individuals. He notes that the goal of life is not just to live, but to live well.

"It is clear, therefore, that the state is not an association of people dwelling in the same place, established to prevent its members from committing injustice against each other and promote transactions. Certainly all these features are present if there is to be a state.The state is an association intended to enable its members in their households and the kinships to live well.; its purpose is a complete and self-sufficient life."

Only with the rise of the state do people reach a level of self-sufficiency requisite for "the good life."

According to Aristotle, and conservatism in general, the state is more than simply an economic association. Living well includes more that just securing one's biological needs. It means fulfilling our nature as rational beings--cultivating virtue or excellence.

As noted in previous posts, instruction in virtue begins in the household:

“The instruction and habits prescribed by a father have as much force in the household as laws and custom have in the state, and even more because of the tie of blood and the children's sense of benefits received, for they are influences from the outset by natural affection and docility.”

The well-lived life, however, needs life-long reinforcement to retain the habits of virtue. This is done through laws. And because most people will fail to cultivate right desires or will lose them through the development of contrary habits, these laws must have appropriate sanctions for their transgression.

“It is not enough to have receive the right upbringing and supervision in youth; they must keep on observing their regimen and accustoming themselves to it even after they are grown up. So we shall need laws to regulate these activities too, and indeed in general to cover the whole of life; for most people are readier to submit to compulsion and punishment than to argument and fine ideals.”

This, according to Aristotle, is the most basic and fundamental task of government—to cultivate virtuous habits in their citizens by means of law.

In his words:

“Legislators make their citizens good by habituation; this is the intention of every legislator and those who do not carry it out fail of their object.”

And it is not just for the good of individuals that the state cultivates virtuous habits for its citizens. It is for the good of the state itself. In Aristotle's conception of the city-state, the success of the community depends upon the moral quality of its citizens, who deliberate about how to govern the community and who take turns ruling and being ruled. (And it seems evident to contemporary conservatives that this observation remains true today.) That is why in Aristotle's day the ultimate punishment for the incorrigible--those who fail to develop personal and civic virtues--was ostracism, i.e, deportation. It clearly sends the message that such a one is NOT the kind of citizen desired by the community.

And this, after all these preparatory remarks, is the first fundamental conservative principle: the task of government is to make citizens good.

And this is the principle that distinguishes conservatism from liberalism.

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