Philosophical foundations for political change : Aristotle's inquiry into beginnings in the Nicomachean ethics.


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This dissertation is an attempt to articulate an Aristotelian alternative to the two prominent contemporary ways of understanding human freedom and dependence on the past, and their implications for political action and change. The liberal tendency that emphasizes the absolute self-reliance and even self-making of the individual, on one hand, understands the task of political founding and ruling to consist in breaking from the past. This approach follows Machiavelli’s emphasis on new modes and orders, as well as Hobbes’ and Locke’s emphasis on the founding acts of human beings when they enter into contracts that remove them from a “state of nature” and form civil societies. The more conservative camp in modern thought, on the other hand, follows Burke in his emphasis on tradition, the experience of the past, and the benefits of relying on it. This approach understands human flourishing to depend on laws and customs inherited from the past. Aristotle’s teaching in his Nicomachean Ethics on the freedom and responsibility that make human beginnings possible points us, I propose, to a better understanding of political founding than either of the modern alternatives. Aristotle’s founding work addresses liberals who neglect the traditions that bind a community and the stability that makes human flourishing possible, as well as conservatives who minimize the deliberate guidance—from philosophers, founders, statesmen, and citizens—that cultivating virtue requires. Simple appeals to both nature and history that look beyond human action miss the complexity of human and political life that Aristotle presents. In the Politics, he connects the city to natural beginnings in the family but also calls the first who founded a city one “responsible for the greatest of goods” (Pol. 1253a31-32). And in the Ethics, he offers his own founding of a way of inquiring about politics, which engages with his own predecessors, as a model for politics itself. In this way, Aristotle offers us a deeper understanding of political change, even presenting his own philosophic inquiry in the Ethics as its ground and model.



Aristotle. Politics. Philosophy. Political philosophy. Beginning. Founding. Freedom.