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A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science

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Volume 52, Issue 4


Every Man a Legislator: Aristotle on Political Wisdom

Dhananjay Jagannathan
Published Online: 2019-03-06 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/apeiron-2018-0034


I argue that Aristotle’s unmodern conception of politics can only be understood by first understanding his distinctive picture of human agency and the excellence of political wisdom. I therefore undertake to consider three related puzzles: (1) why at the outset of the Nicomachean Ethics [NE] is the human good said to be the same for a city and for an individual, such that the NE’s inquiry is political? (2) why later on in the NE is political wisdom said to be the same state of soul as practical wisdom? (3) why in the Politics does Aristotle identify practical wisdom as the peculiar excellence of rulers when deliberation was said to be the common work of all citizens insofar as they are genuinely citizens? While these puzzles have individually received treatment in the literature, they have seldom been treated together. Taken independently, the passages in question can seem to express a more familiar conception of politics. In particular, each of the sameness claims made in (1) and (2) has too easily been assimilated to a more modern conception of the relation of ethics to politics and thereby domesticated. As I hope to show, in (1) Aristotle is not simply asserting that the human good in a city supervenes on the good as achieved by its inhabitants (since this by itself, while true, would fall short of establishing the political character of his inquiry in the NE); and in (2) he is not claiming only that political wisdom is a species of practical wisdom, but is rather asserting a more thoroughgoing identity between various types of deliberative excellence that are conventionally distinguished and assigned different names. Working through these passages will provide a sufficient basis for tackling (3), the question about the respective excellences of rulers and citizens. I will show that, despite his restriction of the exercise of practical wisdom to rulers, Aristotle imagines that non-ruling citizens will also exercise their political agency and thereby require a distinct rational excellence. More precisely, for Aristotle, there are two forms of political agency, deliberation on behalf of one’s community, which is perfected by practical-political wisdom, and the comprehension (sunesis) exercised by citizens on the basis of the view of life preserved by their character-virtues. Understood this way, the division of labor between rulers and citizens does not generate two spheres of activity, political and private, which could have unrelated excellences or concern distinct goods.

Keywords: Aristotle; politics; individualism; totalitarianism; practical wisdom


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About the article

Published Online: 2019-03-06

Published in Print: 2019-10-25

Citation Information: Apeiron, Volume 52, Issue 4, Pages 395–414, ISSN (Online) 2156-7093, ISSN (Print) 0003-6390, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/apeiron-2018-0034.

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