Excellence, Virtue, and the State

Written by Marc Neilsen on August 25th, 2009

Before addressing the importance of virtue and its relationship to the polis, Aristotle makes a number of key observations concerning the individual. In Book I, Aristotle frequently eludes to the fact that happiness is an individual experience and may be acquired through training and cultivation (20-21). Moreover, man is capable of remaining happy throughout his life as long as his engages himself in “virtuous conduct and contemplation” (23). And according to Aristotle, virtuous conduct is best performed through politics. Happiness, therefore, is directly linked to virtue, as a “virtuous life” is one of happiness.

Such a view most certainly contributed to the Ancients’ perception of the state and the importance of civic virtue. While moral and intellectual virtue (both a “mean” and “extreme”) can be encouraged by a state and its institutions, they are utterly dependent upon individual agency and action. Without a voluntary group of individuals choosing to be virtuous, a polis cannot successfully cultivate a higher way of life.

A state consists of a number of institutions ideally designed for the “happiness” of its people. It should be acknowledged that such institutions not only reflect the morality of the populace itself, but can in turn, encourage a sense of morality and virtue among individuals. Nevertheless, it’s prerequisite that the individual remains free to voluntarily develop the virtue and morality encouraged by the state.

Intellectual and moral virtue do not exclusively depend on the state, but it’s impossible to expect the state to remain free of some form of moral encouragement. The state itself is an extension of the individual, and naturally, espouses similar perceptions of virtue and morality.


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