Aristotle Vs. Aquinas

I’m rereading Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. Certain books are good to come back to year after year. And Nichomachean Ethics is one of those books.

During this read, I discovered a disagreement he has with Aquinas. To experts in philosophy, this is likely a well known disagreement. But not to me, a hobbyist, I found it quite interesting that Aquinas isn’t on board with Aristotle. Why is it worth comparing Aristotle with Aquinas? They are both masters of Natural Law theory, and so when they disagree, you should probably pay attention.

The issue is with Book 1, Section 2 of Nichomachean Ethics. Aristotle discusses the highest art. By art, he means skill or practice, like archery or cooking. Art, in this sense, comes from the Greek word techne, from which we get the word technique. Therefore, to Aristotle, art is a skill, which is rather different from how we think of art. But I digress.

Aristotle claims that political science is the highest art.

This translation uses “science” instead of “art.”

He says that since the art of politics uses all the other arts and since its aim is for the good of man, it has to be the highest art. This is a compelling argument. But it differs from Aquinas, who argues in Article 1 Question 5 that Theology or the science of Sacred doctrine is the highest of the arts.

Aquinas argues that because the art of theology’s end is “eternal bliss,” it is the highest art. Because all the arts have eternal bliss as their end. Now, to be fair, this argument only works for believers. However, Aristotle, while obviously not Christian, believed in the Good. So, it’s not wholly irrelevant.

So, who is right? At first, my instinct was that Aristotle was correct. He’s correct when he says that politics affects more people. He even says, “The good of the individual by himself is certainly desirable enough, but that of a nation and of cities is nobler and more divine.” What could be higher than the human flourishing of a society? It’s a solid point and why I initially agreed with him.

However, upon further reflection, I came to agree with Aquinas. How can you do the political art if you don’t have a firm understanding of the good? It’s like flying a plane without having a destination in mind. It makes sense that the most important thing to study is the Good or, in Aquinas’ terms, theology. Because it’s only with a proper understanding of theology that you can achieve a good society.

But why do they differ? Why doesn’t Aristotle say, “study of the Good is the highest art?” Because of a few things.

First of all, living the Good life is much more important for a Christian than a Pagan like Aristotle. It’s the difference between going to heaven or suffering eternally in hell. Aristotle does not find himself in such a conundrum. This is not to say that Aristotle is an atheist, only that he is not a Christian. Secondly, Aquinas admits in Question 1, Article 1 that determining the Good is difficult. And because it is difficult, it requires practice and divine revelation(but that’s not pertinent to this point).

because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. Whereas man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation. It was therefore necessary that besides philosophical science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through revelation.

These are both good arguments for why someone should practice theology. The stakes are high, and it is difficult—two things Aristotle doesn’t necessarily agree with. But the third reason is the most important.

Thirdly, it seems like Aristotle views noble or good things as held as social convention. He says in Book 1, part 3, “The noble things and the just things, which the political art examines, admit much dispute and variability, such that they are helped to exist by law alone and not by nature. And even the good things admit of some such variability…” There is an important footnote on the word law here. It reads, “Or, ‘convention,’ ‘custom’ (nomos); this is the first appearance of this important term.”

This third point holds the key. I was confused. Why would Aristotle not say something similar to Aquinas? Aristotle could have easily argued that philosophy(or whatever he would have called it), the study of the good, should be the highest good. A society needs a good to aim at, much like an archer with a target. However, to Aristotle, there is no target. At least not a natural target. To Aristotle, the good that a city aims for is purely one of convention.

My instinct is to rush and call Aristotle a relativist, but I won’t. This seems wrong. Instead, let’s keep reading Aristotle.

He does admit that the aim of politics is happiness(Eudaimonia). But he clarifies that there is a lot of disagreement about what brings happiness. In Book 1, section 4, Aristotle then says, “Hence he who will listen adequately to the noble things and the just things, and to the political things generally, must be brought up nobly by means of habituation.” So it appears Aristotle is saying that the noble, just, and politically well-practiced man does this by habituation(in this case, meaning custom). He is that way because of his upbringing. Because he happened to be raised in that particular society.

It seems that the good a society aims for Aristotle is at least somewhat random.

This is a huge difference from what Aquinas believes(And what I believe). It explains the difference between Aristotle and Aquinas when it comes to which is the highest art.

I did not realize this third point until after I started writing this post, which is why I write posts. They can help you clarify your thinking.