Lectures from Peripatos: On National Character
Historians of nationalism studying the modern period have been quite preoccupied with the idea of the nation as an imagined, limited, and sovereign political community. Despite convincing evidence of the categories in which they conceive of the nation having existed since at least the time of the Ancient Greeks, they insist that the formation of national character, for example, is the achievement of a modern state and its resources and bureaucracy. It is quite apparent in Aristotle’s works, however, that the Greek philosopher gave much thought to the formation of national character, the creation of good men and of good citizens.
Yet there remains in his works ambiguity about if it was possible to have national character such that the whole community actually shared a similar nature. On the one hand, Aristotle speaks of institutions that would inculcate values in people to make them responsible citizens and yet on the other, he delineates virtues or excellences that are largely of a personal nature. If one were to follow the former argument, Aristotle ignores individual tendencies and perhaps even liberty, while the latter position seems to indicate that Aristotle contradicts himself when speaking of national character.
Furthermore, it can be asked that if every person were to seek eudaimonia, would the resulting community not resemble a unity anathema to even Aristotle?
There is in fact no contradiction in Aristotle’s thoughts on national character and individualism for Aristotle divides character, as he does with virtue or the soul, into different parts or spheres. In the case of the character of the subjects of a nation, Aristotle sees it as divided into a public part and a personal one. For Aristotle, that part of the individual that contributes towards national character is a subset of what is required to be a good person. National character for Aristotle does not mean what modern historians would understand it as, namely, a distinguishing set of characters that marks the all equal members of community apart. For him, national character has more to do with the character of citizens of a state that have been similarly educated and come from a similar upbringing.
What is Aristotle’s concept of a nation? Following Anderson, a nation is a community, but as Aristotle opens his Politics, “every state is a community of some kind” (1252a1). Unlike many of his contemporaries, and indeed unlike many modern political theorists, Aristotle believes that the statesman, king, householder, and master are separated not only by a degree of magnitude but in fact degrees of complexity as well and differences that thereby arise. Furthermore, for Aristotle, the state “is clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part” (1253a19). As further proof that the state is a creation of nature, Aristotle argues that “the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing…he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient in himself, must either be a beast or a god” (1253a25).
In the Physics, Aristotle explains that “those things are natural which, by a continuous movement originated from an internal principle, arrive at some end: the same end is not reached from every principle; nor any chance end, but always the tendency in each is towards the same end, if there is no impediment” (199b16). “Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either a bad man or above humanity” (1253a3). Thus Aristotle’s understanding of nation is in accordance with modern understandings of the term. Therefore, Aristotle’s use of the word, “state,” or “nation,” can be understood to mean what modernists call the “nation-state.” The question now is if this nation-state can have a unique character that is formed by the likeness of its citizens.
In his Politics, Aristotle states that for a successful constitutional state, the natures of the citizens must be equal and not differ at all (1259b4). To this end, he suggests that “the citizen should be moulded to suit the form of government under which he lives…for the exercise of any faculty or art a previous training and habituation are required; clearly therefore for the practice of excellence. And since the whole city has one end, it is manifest that education should be one and the same for all” (1337a12). This does not mean that Aristotle does not see various groups within a community, each striving towards its own interests. Each group—artisans, farmers, traders, and labourers—exists within a polis and contributes differently in its flourishing (1321a5).
Furthermore, each group contributes differently in its running as well. Eventually, all groups break down to their common unit, the citizen (1274b40). The purpose of a successful state is to ensure that the citizen achieves eudaimonia. After all, the happiness of the state and that of the individual are the same. As the philosopher explains, “there remains to be discussed the question, whether the happiness of the individual is the same as that of the state, or different. Here again there can be no doubt—no one denies that they are the same” (1324a8). Aristotle also indicates that group behaviour or characteristics are not improbable despite individual differences. As he explains the nature of different types of government, Aristotle states,
A people who are by nature capable of producing a race superior in the excellence needed for political rule are fitted for kingly government; and a people submitting to be ruled as freemen by men whose excellence renders them capable of political command are adapted for an aristocracy: while the people who are suited for constitutional freedom are those among whom there naturally exists a warlike multitude (1288a9).
It is therefore possible in Aristotle’s framework for a group of people to acquire similar characteristics by dint of their state-provided education. As he elaborates in the Nicomachean Ethics, “though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states” (1094b9). Thus, in a way, Aristotle sees that a group of people, a community, may have a similar nature that identifies them or distinguishes them from other groups. However, this means that any other community that wished to also do what was best for itself might very well choose the same constitutional model and result in another group with a similar nature.
Although Aristotle does not see other non-Hellenic states possessing the same wisdom (he quotes a poet saying, “It is meet that Hellenes should rule over barbarians” (1252b8)), it is probable and even highly likely that other wisely ruled Hellenic communities would aspire to emulate their common good as Aristotle saw it. In extension, this divides the world between Greek and non-Greek, which is probably how the Greek ancients saw it anyway but it does not answer our question of unique national character for each community.
Aristotle discusses character extensively in his Nicomachean Ethics. For him, character is not inherent—even though we may have natural predispositions—but developed over time through action. Therefore, for national character to have any meaning it must be the habit of a nation to act in a certain way in a certain situation and this must be demonstrated over time. However, “character” is something only human beings can possess in terms of virtues. Obviously, if virtues are to be inculcated through thoughtful, not accidental, action, it limits the scope of the Nicomachean Ethics to only human beings since only they can act with the necessary awareness.
Aristotle explains in the Metaphysics, “animals are born with the faculty of sensation, and from sensation memory is produced in some of them…the animals other than man live by appearances and memories, and have but little of connected experience; but the human race lives also by art and reasonings” (980a28). Therefore, when we speak of national character, we are speaking of the sum total of the natures of the members of a community, not the nation itself. But Aristotle reduces the scope further, talking about the citizens of the nation, not its subjects. Further evidence of this line of thinking is present in the Nicomachean Ethics, where Aristotle states, “Now we must consider what [excellence/virtue] is. Since things that are found in the soul are of three kinds—passions, faculties, states—[virtue] must be one of these” (1105b19).
Since nations or communities cannot have souls, it is obvious that Aristotle speaks only of the subjects of a state when speaking of their good or bad national character. To paraphrase Aristotle from his Categories, the colour is in the shirt; the shirt is not in the colour. Aristotle is quite aware of this, and he explains, “…for in all things which form a composite whole and which are made up of parts, whether continuous or discrete, a distinction between the ruling and the subject element comes to light. Such a duality exists in living creatures, originating from nature as a whole; even in things which have no life there is a ruling principle, as in a musical mode” (1254a28). Thus, although the state itself has no soul, it is capable of characteristics that are provided it by its body politic.
It is also important to note that if moral virtues and political virtues had been similar and could be prescribed for all, Aristotle would not have needed to separate them into Politics and Nicomachean Ethics. To be fair, it is also true that the two are not entirely divorced from each other, in that the state exists for the good of the people. Aristotle begins his Politics by stating that every community is established with a view to some good, while he begins the Nicomachean Ethics by stating that the object of his enquiry is what the good is.
The structuring of these works would suggest, however, that there exists virtue outside the political life—in fact, Aristotle believes that the life of contemplation free from labour and politics is the highest form of eudaimonia. Furthermore, the philosopher saves his scrutiny of the different virtues for his work on ethics, not politics. The virtues Aristotle does bring up briefly in the Politics are the virtues of a good citizen, separate from that of a good man. We must therefore also look to virtues that Aristotle describes in members of the body politic to investigate a communal nature.
Courage is the first virtue Aristotle looks at, and in its treatment he reveals his formulation of national character. Courage, says Aristotle, is of five kinds: (1) political, (2) experiential, (3) passionate, (4) sanguinity, and (5) ignorance. Of note here is that Aristotle separates political courage from other kinds. Here, Aristotle is trying to separate virtues into two spheres, namely, a public virtue and a private virtue. Courage in the public sphere is of concern to the state. The state is supposed to create good citizens through education and regulate how a citizen behaves through laws.
This is the domain of virtues that can be shared by all and can form national character. Aristotle examines other virtues but most do not fall so neatly into public and private spheres. For example, the state is not directly concerned with a citizen’s wittiness, nor is it directly concerned about a citizen’s modesty. I say directly because the end of a state is to ensure the eudaimonia of all its citizens. Through laws and mutual security, the end of the state is to remove obstacles and allow citizens to pursue their goals. Aristotle’s teleology applies to the state as well—the state is a natural phenomenon, and nothing is wasteful in nature. Therefore, the state must have a purpose, and its purpose is the removal of obstacles and impediments to allow the pursuit of the good life. In this manner, a state is concerned with its citizens’ well-being.
Aristotle acknowledges as much. Neither does the philosopher expect every citizen to be an upstanding person. He is fully aware of the fact that individuals vary from one another, in abilities as well as virtues. Aristotle explains this by justifying classes in society. Some are fit to rule while others better serve their purpose by providing manual labour so that those who can purse higher virtues are not encumbered by menial tasks. There are obviously different virtues for different classes—the excellence of the hammer cannot be the same as the skill of the carpenter. Aristotle therefore asks,
So in general, we may ask about the natural ruler, and the natural subject, whether they have the same or different excellences. For if a noble nature is equally required in both, why should one of them always rule, and the other always be ruled? … The difference between the ruler and the subject is a difference of kind. … It is evident, therefore, that both of them must have a share of excellence, but varying as natural subjects vary among themselves (1259b32).
This immediately negates any sense of uniform national character. Furthermore, since Aristotle defines liberty as of two kinds, (1) “for all to rule and be ruled in turn,” and (2) “that man should lives as he likes” (1317b1, 11), the state becomes “a partnership of citizens in a constitution,” and therefore when the form of the government changes, and becomes different, then it may be supposed that the state is no longer the same” (1276b1). Therefore, national character is not constant and cannot be reified by action since it must also change with the government. As Aristotle sees it, not surprisingly, the constitution is not necessarily a rigid set of rules but an evolving way of life (1295b1). This also explains Aristotle’s position on differing virtues for different kinds of citizens since citizens vary with the constitution.
But Aristotle does not expect all men to be identical. As he explains the separation of the public good and the private good,
…if the state cannot be entirely composed of good men, and yet each citizen is expected to do his own business well, and must therefore have excellence, still, inasmuch as all the citizens cannot be alike, the excellence of the citizen and the good man cannot coincide. All must have the excellence of the good citizen-thus, and thus only, can the state be perfect; but they will not have the excellence of a good man, unless we assume that in the good state all the citizens must be good (1276b37).
Here, Aristotle argues that there is a distinction to be made between the good man and the good citizen. Clearly, the virtue of a citizen is a subset of the virtue of a good person. The virtue of a citizen lies primarily in his service to the national community, whereas the virtue of a good person lies in his interpersonal relationships as well as his relationship to the state. The good person must accomplish his teleos of living virtuously and seeking happiness. The good citizen must perform his teleos of preserving the state and helping it flourish. Says Aristotle of citizens,
…the salvation of the community is the common business of them all. This community is the constitution; the excellence of the citizen must therefore be relative to the constitution of which he is a member. If, then, there are many forms of government, it is evident that there is not one single excellence of the good citizen which is perfect excellence (1276b29).
The requirements of citizenship change as constitutions change, implying that the best form of civic virtue is variable. But the virtue of the good man is not variable. Thus, Aristotle allows for the creation of a sort of national esprit de corps that does not ignore an individual’s particular tendencies. In his view, “the state is a plurality, which should be united and made into a community by education” (1263b36).
However, Aristotle is a great proponent of the golden mean. Although he wants the state to produce good citizens through public education, he rejects Socrates’ ideas in Plato’s Republic. Socrates seeks a degree of unity in a state that Aristotle is uncomfortable with—“it is best for the whole state to be as unified as possible. Is it not obvious that a state may at length attain such a degree of unity as to no longer be a state? (1261a15). Aristotle says in response to Socrates,
…since the nature of a state is to be a plurality, and in tending to greater unity, from being a state, it becomes a family, and from being a family, an individual; for the family may be said to be more one than the state, and the individual than the family. So that we ought not to attain this greatest degree of unity even if we could, for it would be the destruction of the state. Again, a state is not made up only of so many men, but of different kinds of men; for similars do not constitute a state (1261a17).
Clearly, Aristotle rejects the notion of a community of automata indoctrinated by public education. Even if it were possible to attain a very high degree of unity, Aristotle feels that this would hurt the state. The essence of a state is a combination of dissimilars as Aristotle explains, and creating a uniform citizen body would in effect mean the demise of the state. Furthermore, excessive unity of the state would infringe upon human desires and actually impede the individual pursuit of the good life. Aristotle declares,
how immeasurably greater is the pleasure, when a man feels a thing to be his own; for surely the love of self is a feeling implanted by nature and not given in vain…and further, there is the greatest pleasure in doing a kindness or service to friends or guests or companions, which can only be rendered when a man has private property. These advantages are lost by excessive unification of the state…visibly annihilated in such a state (1263a40).
Thus, excessive unification actually works against the purpose of the state by obstructing some virtues. The purpose of a state is to promote the good life, and liberty to do as one pleases is part of eudaimonia. The inability to perform virtuously in any manner reduces eudaimonia because the good life is contingent upon the acquisition of virtues. In the example Aristotle gives, the unity of the state impedes a full friendship. However, eudaimonia also involves conducting the duties of good citizenship, for as Aristotle says, man is homo politicus, a man of the polis. As in any society, there are rules to be observed and it is through education that Aristotle thinks that the common nature of a good citizen can be formed.
That Aristotle thinks the common nature of good citizens must be formed through public education is clear. It is also clear that Aristotle does not see the role of education as indoctrinating people with pre-programmed algorithms. For Aristotle, public education involves teaching not merely what is useful, but also what is honourable. “There can be no doubt that children should be taught those useful things which are really necessary, but not all useful things…to young children should be imparted only such kinds of knowledge as will be useful to them without making mechanics of them” (1337b3). The liberal and noble kind of education, Aristotle charges the parents with: there is a sort of education in which parents should train their sons, not as being useful or necessary, but because it is liberal or noble (1338a31). Aristotle wishes to balance liberal arts and technical knowledge in his schema for public education but also leave room for the development of virtue through the parents.
Aristotle clearly states, “the training in things which are of common interest should be the same for all” (1337a26), implying that other training or knowledge can and should be seen to privately by the parents. This is because Aristotle has already argued that each class of people has its own virtues or excellences and just as individuals are not identical, neither are their virtues. It would be illogical for all children of the state to have a similar education except where their interests were common.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle declares, “…for it is [politics] that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them” (1094a26). The Lacedaemonians come for a rare bit of praise from Aristotle for their teaching their children the virtues required to be good citizens (1337a31). Education, for Aristotle, comes in three stages: first, the body must be trained, for a good mind cannot remain in a weak body. Second, the appetites must be trained, i.e. the irrational part of the soul, and finally, the rational part of the soul should be trained. These three stages build upon each other: the training of the body should give rise to the correct appetites, and the correct appetites should make way for reason. Partly, this is because he sees the human being developing through life and not fully formed at birth. The training of the body should induce preferences and character, and the training of the appetites should be geared towards good taste. If a young man can develop an instinctual like or dislike for the good or bad, he can then be trained to reason. Obviously, people fall out depending upon their capability at different points in this regimen. That is why Aristotle insists on different classes and virtues of each class.
Although the thinking man, homo sapiens, has achieved the highest virtue, it does not mean that other members of the community have no virtue. In fact, many of them still provide vital goods to the polis, such as farmers provide food. However, they should not participate in the political functioning of the state because their education and occupation leaves them ill-equipped to properly pontificate upon the matters of state. “No man can practice excellence who is living the life of a mechanic or a labourer” (1278a20).
Another interesting pronouncement by Aristotle is that citizens belong not to themselves or each other but to the state. “Neither must we suppose that anyone of the citizens belongs to himself, for they all belong to the state, and are each of them a part of the state, and the care of each part is inseparable from the care of the whole (1337a27). Clearly, Aristotle does not mean that every person is the property of the state in the sense of a master-slave relationship. Obviously, this would obstruct the pursuit of the good life, for slaves or full-time workers cannot be completely happy. Aristotle means that every citizen owes the state a debt of allegiance in return for which the state confers power upon the citizen. Hence the appointment of magistrates and such. The state should be capable of calling up any citizen for any duty that s/he is qualified for. `These citizenly duties are owed by every member of the community to their capacity. The education of some might have made them soldiers, while others have become farmers or traders.
Nevertheless, they should serve the state by their bodily labour or taxes or any other way the state sees fit if and when required. In exchange, the state facilitates the entire community’s happiness by making available material wants and the peace of mind to seek spiritual or mental desires. National character in this sense is formulated by the close proximity of people to each other, united in a common destiny. The character that is formed is through their working together towards a common goal. The state, in some senses, is a modified version of a large family even though the state comes ontologically prior to the family. Nevertheless, because the nature of work is different for each person, there is no common virtuous unity that can be identified as national character. As Aristotle says repeatedly, every person has his own virtue depending upon his occupation and station, and for Aristotle, not all virtues collapse into one as it did for Plato.
This comes as no surprise. Obviously, since man is homo politicus, Aristotle expects everyone who is not beast or god to live in a society, not as hermits, out on their own. Yet it is not man’s essence to be part of a community, only his nature: if a person is not a member of a community, s/he will not cease to be although it is to the advantage of the individual to be a member, to fulfil his potential. Aristotle again advocates the mean position. It is unadvisable to live away from society since it will obstruct the pursuit of the good life, but a person should not be too integrated into the state for this will also mean the same. The good citizen and the good person, though the same people, act in different spheres that overlap. Clearly, Aristotle rejects Plato’s view of the unity of the virtues. While Plato merges political and moral virtue (because a good citizen must be a good man as Socrates argues in Plato’s Republic), Aristotle separates the two by drawing a contradistinction between the duties and role of the good citizen and the good man in a time of constitutional change.
Aristotle argues that the virtue of the good citizen is relative to the constitution and since there are many kinds of constitutions, it follows that there are many kinds of virtues of the good citizen. The one case in which the virtue of a good man and a good citizen overlap perfectly is that of a ruling citizen: the ruling citizen seeks the maximum good of the state and the good of the state rests on the good of its subjects. Therefore, the ruling citizen must also be the good man in his dealings with his subjects. However, the virtue of a good man is complete because there are no deviations.
Aristotle’s understanding of national character hinges on this separation of the public sphere and the private sphere. Otherwise, much of what he says would appear contradictory. It is indeed this separation that allows Aristotle to speak of the common nature of a community as well as the individual eccentricities that mark us for who we are. If Aristotle were to truly believe that virtue is simply a matter of state, there would be less need for this Nicomachean Ethics and if the political were personal, his Politics would have a lesser place in the corpus of his works. For the Greek, it is only the separation of these two of interaction that holds any meaning.
The separation of these spheres of action allows for a greater degree of accuracy in the predication of individual behaviour. For example, truthfulness is a virtue in an individual. However, the state may not have this luxury in its dealings with other states. The justification of this is that the state exists for another, i.e. the purpose of the state is the advancement of the community it represents. Clearly, Aristotle believes in national character, but it is neither a personal attribute of an individual nor is it of a homogenous variety that is crudely referred to as stereotype. For Aristotle, national character is formed through a common sense of belonging and destiny. Aristotle states,
…men, even when they do not require one another’s help, desire to live together; not but that they are also brought together by their common interests in so far as they each attain to any measure of well-being. This is certainly the chief end, both of individuals and of states. And mankind meet together and maintain the political community also for the sake of mere life (1278b19).
In his discourses on citizenship, Aristotle does not make virtue a part of citizenship, nor does he define a certain character one must possess to become a citizen. The philosopher’s definition of a citizen is simply one who “has the power to take part in the deliberative or judicial administration of any state” (1275b19). And since “the state is a body of persons sufficing for the purposes of life,” the unifying factor is the sense of belonging of this body of persons to the state and their conjoined activity of running the state. Citizenry is, therefore, not a passive attribute but an activity through which close bonds may be formed between the citizens. The excellence of the citizenry in their common endeavour is what Aristotle means by national character, the strongest sense of their commonality being their affiliation to the state’s organs and its functioning.
Aristotle obviously believes in national character. However, it is equally obvious that he does not mean it in the same sense as when he is talking about an individual’s character. As I have argued, although the essence of virtues remains the same in both the cases, their medium changes from a person to a citizen. The teleos of a citizen and a person are different and in ways which restrict Aristotle’s definition of national character to only citizens. Non-citizens do not partake in the state and therefore do not contribute to national character. Of course, non-citizens are of various kinds and each contributes to the state in his own way. However, by Aristotle’s criteria for citizenship, they do not partake in state affairs.
When Aristotle is referring to national character, he is therefore referring to a select class of people who have been similarly educated and probably have similar backgrounds. In the modern world, this is akin to a Civil or Foreign Service. It is far easier to see commonalities among members of the British Foreign Service than among all Britons. It is therefore not contradictory for Aristotle to talk about national character when he himself admits to diversity among the subjects and defends their liberty to be such. Lastly, if each constitution and its resultant government has unique attributes, it would stand to reason that the virtues required by the citizens of each type of government are different. Thus, each constitution causes unique national characteristics among its citizens.
If we take this to mean all those who live under the rule of that government, the carefully inculcated national character would dilute significantly—ancient Greek democracy seldom bestowed citizenship to more than a third of its subjects. Thus, according to Aristotle, it is improper to suppose that whole communities can share a single nature—segments of the community certainly do, and perhaps certain classes of people carry the image of the state more than others. In this sense, there exists a national character, but not in the modernist definition of everyone being an equal part of the community and having some common distinguishing markers.
 As Aristotle puts it in his Physics, “…that for the sake of which, or the end, belongs to the same department of knowledge as the means. But the nature is the end or that for the sake of which. For if a thing undergoes a continuous change toward some end, that last stage is actually that for the sake of which (194b28).
 I do not mean the reductio ad absurdum position here that an individual will leave society to live entirely in the forests, though this has happened on numerous occasions. I mean instead the possibility of an individual to live in a community and yet not partake too much of it or give much in return. Individuals who live on the fringes of society will not actualize their potential.