Aristotle’s ethics and American government

February 26th, 2013

Over at the Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute’s blog, Tony Williams, the Institute’s program director, takes a look at the influence of classical political thought on the American founders. He pays particular attention to Aristotle’s conception of politics and human happiness found in the Nicomachean Ethics, noting that “Aristotle’s vision of a well-ordered republic of free, virtuous individuals shaped the founding and should inform our discussion of the duties of citizens today.”

Williams writes:

In his Nicomachean Ethics, the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, describes his understanding of the basic nature of man. Humans are rational creatures, he maintains, and must use that reason to exercise self-restraint over their passions. That same rationality allows humans to be ethical, choosing between good and evil, right and wrong. Over time, these decisions become habits of vice or virtue that shape character.

Since the end of human life is happiness, Aristotle holds that true happiness is rooted in the well-ordered, good, and virtuous life. Self-government becomes possible when each individual literally governs himself and controls his passions. It is a liberty governed by natural law. . . .

Aristotle’s political philosophy was plainly evident in the new republican state constitutions. The 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights stated in Article XV that, “No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.” The 1780 Massachusetts Constitution argued in Aristotelian terms that, “Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people.” The Northwest Ordinance later established schools because, “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind.” Republican self-government was founded upon a virtuous citizenry.

[In] President [George] Washington’s First Inaugural, we see that he was expressing several Aristotelian sentiments.  Washington stated that, “There is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness.” Besides this essential ethical chord, he also struck another about the purposes of government made up of virtuous citizens. He asked that God, the providential author of their rights, might “consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the People of the United States, a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes.” Washington closely tied the virtue of American citizens to the success of the new republic, alluding to American exceptionalism and the idea of a “city upon a hill.” If the Americans were virtuous, their republic would succeed; if they practiced fall, it would crumble. 

As students read Washington’s Address, have them consider: What is the relation between “virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage”? And how does (or should) this relationship be reflected in our form of government? In our life as citizens?

Finish reading Williams’s essay at the Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute.

Related: WSPWH coeditor Diana Schaub reviews a new translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in the Claremont Review of Books.

Click here to sign up for our newsletter.