The Political Community and the Good Life

Catholic Social Teaching rests on an Aristotelian philosophical foundation.  I believe that a better familiarity with certain components of Aristotle’s political philosophy not only clarifies central aspects of Church teaching, but also gives considerable insight into contemporary social, economic, and political problems. This essay will focus on just one of those components, namely the objective teleology of the political community and the implications of this for political reform.

According to Aristotle, all things, all modes of being—including political communities like nations, states, and cities—have a purpose, end, or telos.[1] He treats the telos of a thing as one of the causes of the being of the thing—“that for the sake of which” it comes into existence. Aristotle calls this sort of cause a final cause. This is simply on account of the fact that the final cause is the ultimate or “final” purpose for which the thing comes about. In the case of the products of human art, it is easy to see final causes: the woodworker crafts a chair for the ultimate purpose of having a comfortable place to sit. The fulfillment of that need or desire is the final cause of the chair. There are many steps in its construction, but each is for the purpose of the end product; absent this “final end,” the process of building the chair would not take place at all. Nor would the process be intelligible as a single, unified phenomenon; it would instead be merely a series of unrelated, random events.

Before the craftsman makes the chair, it exists as a kind of pattern in his mind which can be realized well or badly in the actual chair. The purpose for which it is made becomes the criterion according to which we judge the final product, and this goes for everything deliberately made by human beings.

Final causality is also involved in the generation of natural objects as well, although this is perhaps more difficult to see for we modern people. Consider, however, the growth of a plant. A particular kind of seed, say a basil seed, contains within it latently the potential to grow into a fully mature basil plant—and only this. It will not become a tomato plant or an oak tree. From germination to seedling to full-grown plant, the growth process is entirely oriented in each of its stages toward the production of a basil plant. Thus, since the basil is “that for the sake of which” each event in the growth of the plant takes place, the form or pattern—the species—which the growth of the plant seeks to realize is its telos. And no less than in the case of human artifacts, we may rightly evaluate any given instance of a basil plant in light of its species nature; thus some plants are sickly while others flourish.

Now, a human being is no different. He too has a telos. Everything he does must be for the sake of some final end and this will be the telos of human nature. A distinguishing feature of human beings is that, unlike plants and the other animals, we can consciously consider the ends we pursue and choose some over others. When we see some goal as desirable, we apprehend it as a good. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that “every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”

Thus the end of medicine is the good of health; the end of business, money-making. But of each such activity, we can ask why its particular good is desirable, and so on until we come to some ultimate good or final end desirable not on account of some further, higher end but desirable in and of itself. Aristotle writes, “If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain,) clearly this must be the good and the chief good.”[2]

Now, according to Aristotle—which he learned from his teacher Plato—what is desirable in itself, and not because it is a means to some further desirable thing, is happiness. Plato, in his Symposium, had pointed out that happiness is the one thing about which you cannot sensibly ask, “And why would you want that?” We can ask this of other goods like money or power or pleasure, but not happiness. True, people often equate such lesser goods with happiness, but when Plato or Aristotle talk about happiness, they mean some end, goal, or object of human desire such that once it is attained, it leaves nothing else to be desired and is therefore also not desired on account of some further thing.

True happiness is self-sufficient. By this criterion, everything we ordinarily identify with happiness turns out to be only an illusion of happiness if we make this unfortunate identification. Money can only buy material goods, and no matter what these might be, we can and do always want more. Moreover, they are only temporary, and cannot last forever. Physical pleasure is certainly desirable, but it too is only fleeting and often leads to misery. Honors like degrees, awards, and titles come from outside us (and might well be unmerited) while we intuit that happiness must come from within. If the criterion is self-sufficiency, every such finite good fails as a candidate for true happiness.

If happiness is the end of human life, the telos of human nature, then the question becomes how we attain it. And here Aristotle appeals to the highly plausible idea that each thing, whether natural or artificial, has a certain function: the eye has the function of sight; the heart, of pumping blood; medicine, of bringing about health. In accordance with its nature, each has a specific excellence or best state of itself that it reaches through a definite and unique type of activity (sight, pumping blood, healing, and so on), and the human being is no different. His end is happiness, and he reaches his end through his own specific activity, which for human beings is rational activity. No other earthly creature has the capacities for true thought and conscious, deliberate action. When we have a stable disposition to live and act in accordance with our highest capacities, we are living a life of virtue, and this, says Aristotle, is true happiness.[3]
Sometimes the language that Aristotle uses makes it seem as if each thing, especially natural things, reaches its end by its own power alone, but this is not what he claims. For the basil plant to thrive, it must have rich soil and plenty of water and sunlight. Similarly, the human being must have sufficient material goods to allow him the leisure to pursue the true good; he must also have education and the company of his fellow human beings so that they can do the same through inquiry. Moreover, his character must be formed by the laws of a properly constituted state. A human being cannot reach his perfection alone, then. He needs the political community to attain his telos. This community, or polis, then becomes a kind of partnership among the citizens in pursuit of the ultimate good. The good of the citizen and that of the state are inseparable. We come together as citizens of a political community in order to live the authentically good life, which is a life of virtue oriented toward true happiness.[4]

This basic philosophical outlook—which, again, undergirds Catholic Social Teaching—has rather radical consequences (radical at least in juxtaposition with modern Western societies). The fact that communities have an end—human happiness—means that we have a right to expect that our communities will provide what they are by design supposed to contribute to that end, namely the goods already mentioned: material things sufficient for leisure, education, and a well-ordered system of laws. On the other hand, we have ourselves an obligation to contribute to the provision of these ends. In the latter connection, it is interesting and suggestive that in Book VI, Chapter 5 of the Politics, Aristotle says that the community ought to provide capital to everyone sufficient to start a trade or set himself up as a farmer. He is not advocating some sort of “nanny” state but a communitarian means to create a self-sufficient, virtuous citizenry.[5]   

Another consequence is a need for a complete reorientation of values. The political order is grounded in virtue, which is in turn grounded in the natures of things (this is, of course, a natural law view of things). Thus, for example, virtue requires that we moderate our desires in accordance with our nature. This represents the virtue of temperance. The central value of modern economies could no longer be acquisitiveness without limit—in other words, greed. Money and the material goods it can buy would be only for the satisfaction of bodily necessity and the meeting of other legitimate human needs. The celebration of the vice of greed and extreme materialism can only harm the moral fabric of a society.
To put the matter simply, a political community has a purpose like anything else. We come together for mutual benefit, not to pursue our own selfish ends. And when we remember that teleology in fact reflects divine intention, political reform becomes all the more imperative. 

Doran Hunter 

[1] For Aristotle’s account of final causality, see Physics II: 3 and Metaphysics V: 2. Both works (and all of this works) are available online at
[2] Both quotations are from Nichomachean Ethics, I: 2.
[3] See ibid., I: 7.
[4] See Aristotle, Politics I. 
[5] Aristotle was the product of his times in many ways. His polis is really just for the benefit of the ruling class, and he allowed for slavery and the subjugation of women. What I am advocating is the extension of certain of his principles to our contemporary context.  

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