Virtue and Morality in Greek Thought: According to Plato and Aristotle!
Politics is primarily concerned with the political affairs and administrative system of the state.
Its association with virtue, morality or ethics is not rated highly because many people do not regard politics or political science as a normative science. But the place of virtue or morality in the vast domain of politics is termed by many as of crucial importance.
The Greek thinkers treated politics, virtue and morality as the subjects of same domain because they believed that politics without virtue or morality is barren and not helpful for good and fruitful life of citizens.
The relationship between politics and virtue received maximum treatment in the hands of Greek philosophers and specially Plato and Aristotle. John Morrow (History of Political Thought, writes: Identification of a direct relationship between politics and virtue is one of the central themes of the Western tradition of political thought.
This tradition originated in the writings of Plato and Aristotle the foremost political philosophers of the ancient world. Plato, a piquant observer of various political incidents that took place around him, believed that they were full of corruption and devoid of virtue and morality.
So, to attain short term gains and other benefits the political persons and administrators did not hesitate to adopt most heinous and corrupt means and practices.
This led to the deterioration of the entire body politic or polis. In Plato’s opinion, divorcing politics from virtue and morality practically led the polis to dissolution. The life of the common people ultimately became miserable.
The polis was converted into a hell. The entire politics was disfigured. If we go through the ’The Republic’ we shall find that Plato gave maximum importance to the miserable-and corrupt condition of the polis.
The society was unhealthy and unfit for human habitation. In the .The Republic he said the polis was bloated and unhealthy. He thought that the foundation of politics must be morality and virtue.
After analyzing the function of his contemporary states he comes to the conclusion that politics must be based on virtue and morality and corruption must be banished from the domain of politics.
According to Plato, a virtuous and moral state is one that gives utmost importance to justice. That is, a state must make all efforts to achieve justice for its citizens. Therefore morality, virtue and justice are the terms he treated with same importance.
Plato finally thought that in an ordinary state or polis virtue cannot be attained. The states of his time were generally corrupt and the rulers of those states neglected virtue in all possible ways. This pained him considerably and for that reason he made an elaborate plan to build up an ideal state whose primary purpose would be to make citizens moral and virtuous.
Such a state was called by him an ideal state—ideal in all respects. He chalked out an elaborate programme of his ideal state.
He thought that the structure and administration of the contemporary states were such that virtue and morality could never be the foundation of state. Even they could not guide the functioning of the state.
Naturally, Plato ardently felt that for the attainment of virtue and morality a new state was required. For that reason he planned for an ideal state.
Though Plato believed that the state of his imagination could never see the light of day, yet such a state was required for the sake of virtue and morality Plato’s ideal state was not only a state of virtue and morality but also a just state. That is—an ideal state must be based on justice.
According to Plato “virtue is a kind of mental health or beauty or fitness and vice a kind of illness or deformity or weakness .He treated virtue in this light. It needs to be noted here that for a better and enlightened polis Plato combined psychology with politics. The contents of .The Republic are based on the dialogues that took place among the various participants.
He, along with other participants emphatically said that a good polis and virtue are not different from each other. Virtue anal good qualities—especially morality must occupy most important place in the state and must guide the political affairs of state.
It, in other words, must play central role in politics. Plato and other Greek philosophers cherished the idea that politics is an all-embracing concept which virtually means that all the universal values including virtue and morality fall within the purview of politics.
Naturally, any attempt to divorce politics from morality and virtue will shorten the ambit of politics. Hence, in Plato’s opinion, a state must strive in all possible ways to give utmost importance to the attainment of virtue and morality in its discharge of all normal functions.
Aristotle, the great disciple of Plato, actively and seriously thought of associating virtue and morality with politics. But the method of treatment of the subject in the case of Aristotle is different. In Politics, he writes: Every state is a community of some kind and every community is established with a view to some good.
If all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at same good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good. Aristotle, we think, is very logical.
Every community or a family is created for the attainment of some good. Since the state is the highest or greatest community or association, naturally it will aim at the highest good.
Aristotle’s idea about the relationship between polis and virtue is quite fascinating and in this respect he differs from his teacher Plato. Plato thought that the state must pursue virtue and morality. This process can make citizens to be moral and virtuous.
But Aristotle believed that politics or political science must pursue and preach virtue and morality because political science is the science of polis. The main concern of political science is the realization of “human good”1 which includes virtue and morality. Human good does not mean the attainment of material satisfaction- fulfillment of material needs.
Now let us try to follow Aristotle’s argument. Political science is an analysis of polis and polis is the supreme association—supreme not simply in structure but in purposes and in realization of purposes. A supreme association must also take note of the fact that general welfare, virtue, and morality all are attained within the sphere of the polis.
It cannot neglect the moral, virtuous and material aspects of the citizens. Polis is all embracing, so we find that in Aristotle’s view the polis is both supreme and virtuous organisation and association.
Explaining Aristotle’s stand in this regard John Morrow observes “polis is natural and man is by nature a political animal. For Aristotle the state comprises a co-operative order through which its members practice virtue and thus enjoy the good life.”
When Aristotle says that man is by nature a political animal he specifically means that he is reasonable. Keeping himself within the boundary of polis, man will always sincerely and seriously follows virtue and morality and thus he will act as an active member of the polis. By practicing virtue man can lead a good life.
A further point is that Aristotle’s virtue is never a state sponsored virtue. Virtue, morality or precepts of good life are all known to everybody and, since man is reasonable, he will spontaneously and enthusiastically follow the principles of virtue and morality.
Then what is the exact role of the state in this regard? Aristotle does not directly deal with this matter. But from his analysis it is quite manifest that the state cannot impose virtue and morality upon its citizen. But the state will create a congenial atmosphere in which people will pursue virtue.
Morrow says “For Aristotle, the state comprises a cooperative order through which its members practice virtue and thus enjoy good life.”
Talking about the relationship between attainment of virtue and the role of the state Aristotle has drawn our attention to a very practical issue. He says that people realize virtue and morality through their participation in the affairs of the state. This view of Aristotle opens the door to the citadel of democracy.
He believes that by remaining detached from the affairs of the polis, people cannot be virtuous. It means they must participate in the day-to-day affairs of the state and, in this way; they can be virtuous and be called good citizens. He also draws our attention to another important issue which may be stated in the following way.
In a polis there are different types of people whose socio-economic position, intellectual capacity and moral perceptions are different. All these people cannot be treated equally. The supreme objective of the polis will be to create a favourable atmosphere in which all will be able to find a suitable atmosphere for the realization of their moral and virtuous ends.
It means that Aristotle was quite democratic minded and he had no intention to brush everyone’s shoes with the same colour. Even an association and not a polis can pursue virtue and morality. It further emphasizes that Aristotle was never a conservative—minded philosopher.