Piety, Philosophy, and Politics: The Nicomachean Ethics as Aristotle’s Discovery of the Human

Date
Apr 4, 2024, 4:30 pm6:00 pm
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As is often noted, piety is not among the list of moral and intellectual virtues mentioned by Aristotle in the Ethics. I argue that this is neither an oversight on Aristotle’s part nor a subtle way for him to reject the legitimacy or importance of piety. Rather, for Aristotle piety is not simply one of the virtues but in fact it provides a crucial element underlying the specific virtues. Piety is reverence for the divine. Reverence, in the first place, entails our distance from the power and goodness of divinity, and thereby conveys a sense of our limitation. In the second place, beings who revere obviously have a capacity for reverence, an openness to the divine. This link to divinity that Aristotle finds in the human soul confers on us a privilege, or rather a duty, to act in a way that is worthy of who we are. Because we look up to the divine, we are not beasts. Piety confers pride. Because we are not gods, piety confers what could be called humility. Aristotle discovers the human not merely in a state between god and beast but in those ethical and intellectual virtues in which both this pride and humility are at work, in the political and philosophical lives we lead.

This discovery of the human has several implications for political life. For example, the distance between human and divine rules out the possibility that philosophy culminate in wisdom and therewith the authoritative rule of the wise. Moreover, Aristotle’s political recommendations direct us to a polity that protects and fosters what is divine in the human soul, whether manifest in religious worship, the pursuit of the truth, or the activities of virtue, Far from endorsing the ancient polis (city-state) that binds its citizens to the way of life it deems superior, Aristotle’s political thought offers support to a politics that respects religious tolerance, academic freedom and the cause of knowledge, and conditions of civility that are conducive to virtuous action.  Aristotle’s political thought might provide a more solid foundation for liberal politics than the view of human nature offered by early modern theorists.

Professor Nichols studies Greek political philosophy, the history of political thought, and “politics, literature and film,” including Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle, the dramas of Shakespeare, and the films of John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and Woody Allen. Her most recent book is Aristotle’s Discovery of the Human: Piety and Politics in Aristote’s “Nicomachean Ethics” (Notre Dame 2003), on which her presentation at Princeton is based.