Essays & Reviews

Aristotle and Foreign Policy: An Examination of the Common Good and its Effects in International Affairs

Ethical international politics can easily be associated with lawful international politics, or politics that secures universal human rights, but nonetheless it can also be conceived as an international politics that helps leaders secure the good of their own nations. Due to the influence of Kantian political philosophy, there is a temptation to argue on behalf of transcending the good of the political community for the sake of altruistic duty to humanity as such. Nonetheless, certain political realists such as Hans Morgenthau argued that the primacy of the national interest actually helped prevent much of the brutality seen in the wars of 20th century, which he claimed were fought on behalf on a “nationalistic universalism.” This universalism, according to Morgenthau was nothing other than the forcing of one nation’s ideals upon all other, by force if necessary.[1] A forgetting of the national interest was in fact part and parcel of the general moral decline which Morgenthau so frequently alluded to when writing about modern politics.[2] International law and universal human rights, Morgenthau argued, were more easily used for the purposes for political ideologies.

While Morgenthau believed that a recovery of the national interest as a guide to foreign policy was necessary for s more ethical international system, his argument for the goodness of the national interest could be described as negative in character. In his essay, “The Primacy of the National Interest” Morgenthau argued that the national interest was good not because it itself was moral, but because it prevented statesman from confusing moral principle with the lust for power.[3] Thus, the significance of the national interest was not so much its own inherent moral worth, but rather its ability to act as a bridle on those who were overambitious. In this way Morgenthau’s argument bears some similarity to the political thought of James Madison.[4] As Morgenthau himself seemed to think that choosing the national interest over moral objectives was the lesser of two evils, it would seem that the primacy of the national interest is a precept meant to make international politics less immoral, rather than more moral.[5]

In this essay, I hope to explore the significance of the national interest understood as the common good in Aristotle’s political thought. Although the identification of the common good with the national interest is fraught with questions, scholars have already suggested thinking about the common good as a way of discovering the ethics of the national interest.[6] Aristotle, a political philosopher who arguably saw that common good as a principle for all ethical thought, has yet to be treated in conjunction with issues concerning the national interest.[7] I will take up this question by examining the relationship of the common good to the virtues of justice and prudence. I do this, partly, because any serious claim about acting morally, at least from Aristotle’s standpoint, would require evidence that such actions come about through the exercise of the virtues. When we speak of international politics, two of the most prominent virtues are prudence and justice.

To uncover the meaning of these virtues I will turn to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics. The necessity of law and the common good for the exercise of justice within a political community requires a regime, the setting for both law and the common good. Since prudence is the virtue proper to deliberation about the good both for the individual and for a community, it is the virtue of the legislator who makes laws directed to the common good. This means that some conception of the common good is necessary for the exercise of both justice and prudence. Thus, we can see why Aristotle defines man as a political animal, rather than simply a rational animal – the political community and its common life form a prerequisite to virtuous activity, the moral life, and the fulfillment of the human being.


Aristotle begins his discussion of justice by asking what a just act is, and at what mean justice aims.[8] As we know from his earlier discussion of virtue in general, a virtue is a habit or an acquired quality of the soul which is productive of good acts. The qualities are identified as “means” between extremes of deficiency and excess. For example, the virtue of generosity is the habit by which a giver of money gives the right amount rather than spends too much money or too little. Aristotle begins his discussion of justice by reemphasizing these previous points about the mean, preparing us for his qualification and reinterpretation of these ideas about virtue. The qualification of the general sense of virtue when applied to justice is important, because there is an external component to justice that is not found in the other virtues – how the just man relates to others is governed by a mean exterior to him, and is not simply the interior disposition of the soul.

Whereas Aristotle begins with desires or feelings in his discussion of other moral virtues, in the case of justice he begins with external acts.[9] Moderation or courage, for example, Aristotle writes about primarily in terms of desires or passions, the rightness of those desires and passions, and then considers external actions in connection with that internal rightness. The mean which marks true virtue is internal to the agent himself, such as having the right passion for food, sex, or danger. The mean is neither too much nor too little in relation to the relevant passions within the soul. Aristotle inverts this order when he discusses justice. This way of proceeding indicates that with regard to justice, the external act is the way in which we first learn what the mean of the virtue is, and this how we can come to possess the virtue at issue. It would follow, then, that for Aristotle the quality of soul that makes just acts possible is acquired in a way different from the other moral virtues.

It should not surprise us then that Aristotle begins his discussion of just acts with law and external goods.[10] In particular, Aristotle notices that those we call unjust are either lawbreakers in general or those who “grasp for more” so that they can become unequal (i.e. superior) in relation to others.[11] Law is a statement of what is good and bad, set by the legislator. Thus, a citizen who follows the law follows a standard of conduct the origin of which is outside the citizen himself, while the lawbreaker is the citizen who refuses to follow that standard of conduct.[12] But breaking the law is not the only way in which one can be unjust, for he could also grasp for more and become unequal. If we ask “grasps for more what?” or “is unequal to what or to whom?” Aristotle points to those things which are the goods that fortune provides, which are simply good, but perhaps not good for all in the same way. Elsewhere, Aristotle identifies these goods as those which do not belong to the soul, like virtue, or to the body, like beauty or strength, but as an external possession, such as wealth or honor.[13] As one can have too much fear or too much confidence in battle, or excessive desire for pleasure, Aristotle points to external goods and claims that one can have too much or too little of them. Thus, if the excess of courage is having too much confidence and not enough fear, the “excess” of justice would be desiring too much of goods that are external to the agent. Aristotle concludes that our first notion of the just is that which is in accordance with law and is equal, and equality, it is soon revealed, involves how much or many things we have in relation to others.[14]

Aristotle continues his discussion by elaborating his notion of the “lawful” sense of justice. Acts commanded by the law are in some way just, for the very purpose of the art of legislation is determining what is just. Aristotle writes, “The laws pronounce on all things, in their aiming at the common advantage, either for all persons, or for the best, or for those who have authority, either in accord with virtue or some other way.”[15] The purpose of law, then, is preserving either the good for all, or for those who best exemplify the chosen life of the political community, or for the rulers. In short, then, the laws preserve the regime insofar as they preserve or aim at the good for all, or for some or, for those who rule. This understanding of laws and the legislative art is reaffirmed in the discussion of well-ordered regimes in Politics, where he argues that appropriate laws are aimed at preserving the regime.[16] Because “we say that those things apt to produce or preserve happiness and its parts for a political community are in a manner just” it follows that being lawful is the same thing as being just.[17]  It is worth noting that Aristotle only goes so far as to say that whatever is like a law in preserving the happiness of a political community is in a manner just. He does not affirm that law and acts like law are unqualifiedly just. More fully explaining what he has in mind, Aristotle points out that law generally demands that citizens perform acts of virtue, such as doing one’s duty in battle, and refrain from vicious acts, such as not committing adultery or rape, or not assaulting someone.[18] Aristotle follows up this presumably partial list of virtues necessary for preserving the common good of the political community with the observation that laws can be correct or incorrect – a correct law disposes citizens towards virtue and taking part in the common work of the political community, while other laws are laid down in a “worse way” if they are laid down “haphazardly”, although it is not clear what he means by this. Are “worse” laws those that do not aim at virtue? Or those that aim at preserving a regime not worth preserving? Aristotle, at this point, remains silent.

Aristotle then explains why it is that justice is more external than the other virtues. Justice is a unique moral virtue because it is the perfection of virtue in relation to others.[19] He notes with approval that justice is regarded as wondrous, more wondrous than the stars or the rising of the sun, and goes on to claim that every virtue is summed up in this one. Thus politics becomes one of the greatest human activities, for virtuous actions towards others become all the more possible when in ruling office. The just act, according to this notion of justice, is doing good (performing acts of virtue) towards anyone who participates in the political community.[20] Indeed, so perfect is justice that Aristotle writes that he who acts unjustly is the worst, and he who acts justly is the best, in part because it is easy to be virtuous with regard to oneself and one’s own good, but “it is a difficult task” when virtue is put to the service of others and a common good.[21]

Justice is doing virtuous acts for others, especially for the sake of the common good of the political community. Because justice is in relation to others, we can see why Aristotle begins his discussion by speaking of the just act first, rather than the correct disposition of the soul.[22] Any virtue, whether moderation or courage or some other virtue, can be comprehended by lawful justice, insofar as those virtues are exercised for the common good rather than the private good of the individual. Because justice is not differentiated from other virtues by the correct disposition of passions, but rather by the object being sought, so we would not see a difference in the passions of the just and unjust man with particular virtues, but rather in the way they make manifest the qualities of their soul. The correct disposition of the just person would be a desire to act for the common good. The difference between the just and unjust military leader is not found so much in his courage or moderation, but whether he serves the political community or seeks to master it and use it for his own ends.[23]

Aristotle then further complicates the account he has already given us, by explaining that although it is true that justice is virtue put in the service of the common good, there is another way of speaking about the virtue that names a more specific characteristic, rather than justice as lawfulness which is the same as all the virtues.[24] This sort of justice is that which has as its object equality, understood as either “arithmetic” or “proportional,” rather than the common good of the political community. “Arithmetic” equality refers to something like equality of exchange, while “proportional” equality is related to distribution of good things in relation to merit. Consequently, while law could be understood to be guarding the common good of the entire community or at least of the regime, this more peculiar sense of justice regulates the actions between individuals as such, aiming at equality or proportionality in exchange and distribution.

Aristotle then asks where the “middle” of justice as equality lies. As in the case of justice as lawfulness, he does not begin with rightly ordered passions but rather by arguing that the middle he is looking for corresponds to equality between individuals. Thus the just, in this sense, is measured at first not by how it guides desires but by how it guides the actions between people.[25] While in some cases the mean of these actions is equality, in other cases it may in fact be inequality, depending on who the interacting people are.[26]Aristotle points to disputes as evidence. Accusations and fights can occur if unequal people receive equal goods; for example, the winner of a contest should be honored as such. Claims about justice, especially in terms of the distribution of goods, have to do with what we deserve or merit, and it is manifest that not everyone deserves the same thing. In Politics, Aristotle makes this clear by pointing out the problem of political authority. Democrats think that the free rather than the servile are the most deserving, whereas oligarchs argue that the wealthy are the most deserving.[27] Equal goods should be distributed only when the people involved are themselves equal; otherwise we must distribute proportionally according to merit.[28]

And yet, Aristotle states “that what is being sought is also the simply just [or justice without qualification], that is, the just in the political sense.”[29] This statement about what we are seeking is prefaced by a brief inquiry – how do we know if someone really is unjust, rather than simply doing unjust things? Aristotle notes that someone can be an adulterer, yet be moved by a desire for pleasure rather than by desire for gain. In such a case there is a failure of moderation, rather than of justice, even though the act is itself unjust. Thus, we not only want to know what the “simply just” is, but also how it manifests itself, and who can be said to be just and unjust. The politically just, it would seem, is precisely what reveals someone to be just or unjust, and in the unqualified or simple sense.[30]What is the “qualified” way one may be just or unjust? It seems to have to do with equality between the people in the relationship at hand. Qualified justice has to do with people who are naturally unequal, and thus have more of a claim on each other than exists between those who are equal.[31] In particular, Aristotle singles out masters and fathers as unable to act justly in an unqualified sense, because within the household all things are understood to be one’s own.[32] Political justice, on the other hand, is found among those who share alike in common with a view toward being self-sufficient, who are free and equal, either in accord with a proportion or arithmetically. As a result, for all those for whom this does not exist, there is nothing politically just in relation to one another, but only something just in a certain sense and by way of similarity. The just exists for those for whom there is also law pertaining to them, and law exists among those for whom there is injustice.[33] The politically just, which is what is owed between citizens or the ruler and the ruled, is justice simply speaking.[34] Other relations in which there are claims made about what is owed are measured against the politically just. It is only insofar as other communities, specifically the family, are like the political community that they can have any sort of justice. It is also in the context of the political community that Aristotle finds the activity of injustice in the particular sense, rather than the sense of general lawfulness, namely in fellow citizens taking too much for themselves.[35] And because human beings tend to act unjustly when they rule by giving themselves more than what they deserve, the rule of law is preferable to the rule of a human being.

Aristotle leads us to think that political justice is the primary way in which we should speak about justice with regard to equality or proportion. Furthermore, political justice exists only among those who share in law. Thus law rules the political community, to guard against the politically unjust, that is, the tyrant. However, Aristotle also claims that “justice is a judgment about the just and the unjust.”[36] But as judgment is an act of rule, indeed the act of rule, it follows that law determines what is just and what is not.[37] We also know that law, if laid down correctly, looks to the good of the regime. Thus, once again the common good of the regime determines what is just and unjust in the political sense. We can conclude, then, that both justice in the full sense of term, the justice which is known as simply lawful behavior, and the more particular sense of justice, are determined primarily by the common good of the regime.

It would seem, then, that law is vital for both general justice and distributive justice, the former because the laws direct citizens to the common good, the latter because laws determine the share of goods and burdens that each citizen receives. While it may seem, then, that Aristotle is conflating the two senses of justice by referring each to law, there are different qualities of the soul that the same word, “justice,” signifies. Legal justice is the activity of virtue immediately aimed at the good of the political community – a courageous act, done for the good of the city, comes to mind.[38] Indeed, all acts of virtue are commanded by the general virtue of justice. Thus, perfect general justice demands that we be moderate and not commit adultery, for the sake of the common good. The more particular virtue of justice, which touches on equality or proportion, has especially to do with the distribution of goods, and whether we take too much in the way of external goods. While it is true that this second quality is determined and thus made possible by an act of legislation, it remains a different quality, since its object is different. While the laws command all acts of virtue, and being lawful is being just in the general sense, law governs the distribution of goods itself, that is, it makes possible the act of justice in the particular sense. It follows that the just in the sense of equality or proportion depends on the regime and its good in a way that other virtues – say, moderation – do not. A moderate man has the correct desire, in accordance with the mean in respect to himself. Even though it is the case that the just man understands his moderation in terms of the common good, its mean is interior to him alone.[39] While a regime may outlaw drunkenness, the law itself cannot determine what drunkenness precisely is for each individual citizen. This is quite different for external goods, like money, property, or honor. This mean for justice is external and is determined by the laws of the regime. Thus, someone who is physically active should eat more than someone who is sedentary regardless of whether he is in Sparta or Athens, but the question as to what share the physically active should have in rule depends a great deal on the regime.

Because either sense of justice depends on the laws, and the laws depend on the regime, we begin to see why Aristotle defines the human being as a political animal.[40] It is not only that human beings have a need for politics or that politics benefits human beings, although both these points are true. As Aristotle points out, the capacity for speech reveals the political nature of human beings, because speech is the means for communicating about the just and common work.[41] This very common work and speech about justice is what makes the activity of justice a possibility. Just action necessarily takes place in the context of politics; thus to be a virtuous human being one must participate within a political community. Yet, we must wonder where the laws come from. As laws are the products that come from the legislative art, the legislative art rather than the common good would seem to be the beginning (archē) of the regime. Then we can wonder, if being just is acting politically, which is acting according to the laws, then it would seem the legislator must be someone who determines the regime rather than is determined by it, for he makes the laws and thus determines what the common life of the regime will be. And because the virtue of prudence is closely tied to the legislative art, we begin to wonder about the relation of prudence to the political community. As prudence is the virtue of practical reasoning about human action, it seems possible that excellence in practical reasoning is the origin of all just actions. Does the prudent man, especially acting as a legislator, stand outside the context of the political community? Or is the exercise of prudence also largely determined by the regime? To answer this question, it is necessary to turn toward Aristotle’s exposition of prudence and especially its relationship to the common good of the political community.


Aristotle’s discussion of prudence takes place within the larger discussion of the intellectual virtues, those qualities which enable the soul to attain truth.[42] Prudence, in particular, is a quality of soul which has to do with the truth regarding right action.[43]What is the nature of the truth possessed by the prudent man? Where does that truth come from?

When Aristotle describes the intellectual virtues as different qualities that enable one to attain truth, it may be surprising that there are no fewer than five, rather than one, say, “the adequation of the intellect to the thing.”[44] It is helpful to remember that Aristotle begins book six of Ethics by noting that the part of the soul possessing reason can be divided into the part that knows necessary things and the part which knows contingent things.[45] Aristotle proceeds to describe these virtues; those belonging to the former part are science, intellect, and wisdom, while the virtues of the latter part are prudence and art.[46] As we can know first principles, or knowledge derived from syllogism, or a combination of the two, so we can know what pertains to practice and production. If the intellectual virtues could be described as perfections that allow the soul to attain truth, what sort of truth do the intellectual virtues of practice attain? Aristotle argues that since practical truth and practical thinking conclude in action or making, and action has to do with desiring some particular, the truth we are searching for is a coming together of what reasoning asserts as good and what desire longs for.47[47]

While truth pertains to both art and prudence, however, Aristotle draws our attention to distinctions between them. Art does not have to do with action, but rather with generating something outside the artist, with the artist acting as a beginning (archē).[48]Indeed, the artist seems to be judged not so much on the end he aims at, but how he achieves it, for “in the case of art, it is more choiceworthy to err voluntarily.”[49] Prudence, on the other hand, has to do with practice about which “there is no art.” The artist as an artist, then, can equally aim at either of two contraries, for example, winning or losing a wrestling match. As long as the finished product is what the artist intends, he is still attaining truth according to art. The prudent man, however, cannot be indifferent about the end, for example, being just or unjust, since prudence has to do with “what is good for a human being.”[50] Thus prudence requires “conviction” (hupolēpsis) about the good for a human being, namely seeing the good for a human being as desirable for oneself, because what one takes to be his own good is the principle of his action.[51] To preserve the conviction necessary for prudence and thus the possibility of practical truth, moral virtue is necessary; Aristotle singles out moderation as a virtue especially necessary.[52] To make the aim right, then, moral virtues and the longing for the good they produce are essential for prudent action to be possible.[53]

Prudent action is reasoning about the means to be good, made possible by the possession of moral virtue, or the desire for what is good and noble. Moral virtue makes possible the conviction necessary to begin reasoning about practicing the good. And if moral virtue comes about through the knowledge of the laws and acting according to them (though not due to them, since virtue is an interior cause of action, and the laws are exterior), then prudence in large part depends on what has been set down as good and bad, or just and unjust by the regime. Prudence, since it is oriented toward justice, is possible only within the context of the regime, since the regime determines what is just or unjust.

It is worth observing that although the regime is a prerequisite to prudence, the individual’s good is not the same as political community’s good in a straightforward sense, and likewise the virtue of practical reasoning that corresponds to the individual’s own good is not quite the same as the virtue of practical reasoning that corresponds to the good of the political community as a whole. Aristotle consequently distinguishes political prudence from the prudence of the individual, that is, prudence that secures the good of the entire political community from a prudence that aims at the good of one’s own work. Political prudence or politikē, which appears to be the work of statesmen, legislators, and judges, has as its proper object the work and good of the political community. Aristotle points out that political prudence has distinctions within it – the legislative art, the issuing of commands, judging, and perhaps obeying all seem to be distinct ways of being prudent with regard to the political things. Among these, the legislative art is called “architectonic.”[54] Although Aristotle does not collapse an individual’s prudence about his own good and his own work into political prudence, Aristotle notes that it is difficult to see how “one can do well for oneself in the absence of household management or a regime.”[55] This is in part because what it means to act well for oneself without the context of the regime would be fundamentally unintelligible, because when one is “without law or adjudication” he is the worst all animals.[56] A human being without the political goods is scarcely human at all.

This still leaves open the question of the “legislative art,” which would seem to be the quality which has to do with attaining practical truth for the political community as a whole, as architectonic prudence. Since the one who acts through legislative art makes laws for the community, we must wonder what kind of knowledge he has. For if prudence must be guided by virtue, which in some sense is possible only because of law, as argued above, what guides the prudence of the legislator? Aristotle argues that the products of the legislative art, laws, must be ordered toward the regime, and exist for the sake of the regime.[57] He also notes that regimes should not be ordered toward laws; there are no laws that exist prior to the regime and to which the regime must conform. This does not mean that there are no “best laws”; but it would seem that they are applicable only to some sort of best regime.[58] What is good for the regime, then, governs the prudence of the legislator. Because the good of the regime, and thus the common good, governs the prudence of the legislator, it seems then that the good legislator more than anyone else must be just.

Aristotle confirms this understanding of prudence when he claims it is the virtue proper to the ruler as such.[59] He does not tells us whether he means prudence in all its manifold meanings belongs to the ruler, for example whether the ruler possesses the prudence proper to the household, but at the very least we can expect political prudence to belong to the ruler, perhaps including the legislative art. As Aristotle points to the virtue of the ruler as such, we should notice the kind of rule he has in mind, namely political rule, the rule of “those who are of similar stock and free.”[60] When exercising this sort of rule human beings participate in ruling, taking turns in office, and learning to rule by participating in political life. Political rule, that is, rule over the free, is distinguished primarily from despotic rule or mastery, rule over the slave.[61] As the free man is nobler than the slave, so political rule is nobler than despotic rule, which is “connected to necessary things.” The rule of the free concerns virtue and nobility, and thus, by its very nature, is not servile.[62]

The aims of political rule and despotic rule differ as well. The despot (anyone who exercises rule over those who are slavish) aims primarily at his advantage alone, whereas the rule of the free aims at the common good. [63]Thus, while the despot uses the members of the political community as tools (for slaves are nothing else but living tools) to achieve some end, whether wealth, political aggrandizement, or pleasure, the political ruler aims at a good that is shared by all, and thus proper to each, and does not treat the members of the political community as tools. Furthermore, because the common good, precisely as a common good, moves all the members of the political community (otherwise it would not be a truly common good, but rather the partial good of tyrannies, oligarchies, or democracies), we can understand why Aristotle claims that the good of the political community is “nobler” and “more divine” than the good of an individual. Because it moves more than one individual, it is more like a divine being which can move the whole of the universe toward itself.[64] Prudence aiming at such a good would thus partake in the nobility of its end, and a polity where all or at least most ruled would share the good of prudence and its aim of the common good most of all.

Because political rule over the free is distinguished from despotism of a part over other parts by its reference to a good for all, this brings us to the question of foreign relations. Because justice has reference to the laws of the community, made by the legislative part of prudence which takes its bearing from the common good, it becomes difficult to see how a good man could exercise the virtues in the absence of the regime and the good it aims at. Thus, it is necessary to consider the common good more fully, and to consider its possibilities with regard to justice between political communities. If there is no common good beyond that of particular political communities, are foreign relations more marked by despotism and partial goods rather than political rule and common goods? Are foreign relations marked by servility or nobility?[65]

 The Common Good

As I argued above, justice depends on the laws, and the laws look to the common good of the regime. In a sense, then, the common good governs the political community and its manifestations of justice and prudence. This raises the question, then, for those who think about politics between regimes; how can justice occur? One answer might be that since all human beings seek the good, and that the good is the virtuous activity of the soul, the good for all human beings is one.[66] As there is a common good for the human being as such, virtuous activity, there is no problem in discussing justice between political communities. This, however, fails to make a crucial distinction that Aristotle emphasizes, namely that what is good for us cannot be adequately answered by an idea of the good.[67] Action involves particulars, not universals, and so when we ask how being prudent is good, or how honor is good, the mere name or idea of good is of limited value.[68] It has been pointed out that Aristotle’s dispute with the idea of the good underlies his criticism of Socrates’ city in Republic.[69] Where the philosopher-king would find one form of goodness that would be mapped onto the soul of the city and its citizens, Aristotle begins by asking about the good of this man or this city, a good that is actually achievable and knowable for him. To put it far too briefly, Aristotle seeks a good that truly moves, rather than the idea of a good which can be dialectically predicated of all beings as beings, and which thus is silent on the properly human good.[70] Thus, while we might predicate “virtuous activity of the soul” as the good of human beings, this does not tell us what virtuous activity of the soul may be for this man in this place at this time.

Not only is it problematic to try to deduce what to do here and now from the idea of the good, as Aristotle implies the Platonists try to do, we have already seen the importance of the regime for determining what it means to be just, and thus also what it means to be prudent. This importance lies both in providing the laws which allow citizens to be good, and providing the ultimate aim of the legislative art, thus governing rulers as well as the ruled. While it may be true to say all human beings should be prudent and just, what it means in the here and now to be prudent and just will vary from political community to political community. Thus the particularity of the human good, insofar as it must be a good for us, and the fact that this good will manifest itself differently according to the variations of regimes means that a simple appeal to the “human good” is of limited use at best when we try to establish the common good of the political community.

Indeed, Aristotle seems to have a very different notion of the common good, one which may preclude it from being the kind of thing that can extend to all human beings as such. As pointed out above, political justice exists only among those who are equal and capable of being governed by law. If one were to counter that all human beings then should simply have the same laws, or a common law which directs all human beings to their true good, Aristotle emphasizes the difficulty of legislating for a large number of people. He writes, It is difficult – perhaps impossible – for a city that is too populous to be finely governed. Of those that are held to be finely governed, at any rate, we see none that is lax in regard to number. This is clear also through the proof afforded by arguments. For law is a certain sort of arrangement, and good management must of necessity involve good arrangement. But an overly excessive number is incapable of sharing in arrangement. This is, indeed, a task requiring divine power, which is what holds together the whole itself.[71]Aristotle questions the possibility of law that could arrange all human beings, since that would require divinity. The reason of a human legislator is limited to knowing and achieving the laws necessary for a particular political community to be good, and thus could never consider all the parts of all humanity that would need to be arranged by law. Aristotle points out the need for legislators to know their own people. Appropriate laws are fashioned for the sake of what a particular political community needs to achieve its end. As argued above, however, justice depends on law. Thus, if it is impossible for law to arrange the whole of humanity, it is likewise impossible for justice to govern the whole of humanity. The ability for human beings to exercise justice relies on the arranging power of law and human reason, which is possible only in a particular political community. Consequently, the common good of the regime, whatever it may be, is not something shared by all regimes. To speak in such a way would be to predicate “good” of all regimes, but would not truly reveal what that good entails.

One could still argue that even if law cannot extend to all human beings, presumably because the human mind cannot arrange the whole adequately, perhaps we could still say that the good of all people remains the same, even if arrangement must take on a more local character. Even here, Aristotle’s words cast doubt on both the relevance and the truth of such a claim. It is not simply that human reason is limited which necessitates the particularity both of law-giving and of notions of justice and the common good. He also points out that there are different ways of living, and that this more immediately explains the separation of human beings and their differing laws. We find these ways of life in the beginning of Politics, namely nomadic, hunting, and farming.[72] The variety of human life seems to come from two things, namely the circumstances in which human beings find themselves and what they happen to find pleasant. Aristotle goes so far as to compare some human beings with other human beings as herbivorous animals to carnivorous animals.[73] Concluding his argument for the variety of human life, he writes, “But the type of human being that is most numerous lives from the land and from cultivated crops.”[74] That Aristotle claims that there are kinds of human beings is significant.[75] If there are different kinds (genē) of human beings, it could be argued that there are different “natures” that belong to human beings, and thus separate definitions.[76] Since things are defined from their end, this would imply different ends for human activity. Being human would be different from one political community to the next. It would not follow that living virtuously would be different from one group of human beings to another, but rather what it means to live virtuously, indeed how human happiness manifests itself, would differ considerably from political community to political community. Thus the happy Athenian will not look the same, or in fact be the same, as the happy Spartan. Aristotle will expand upon this theme later.

Aristotle seems to confirm this view toward the end of Politics, although he points to other reasons why human beings pursue different goods. He considers again why there is so much variety in human life, as opposed to fairly consistent appearances of other natural beings. He first notes that political communities consist of many people who are similar and gather together for the sake of living as well as they can.[77] That there is variety of human life within the bounds of human nature, that a particular man is more like these people rather than those, is reminiscent of a pluralist understanding of human life. Aristotle continues in this vein by arguing, Since happiness is the best thing, and this is the actualization of virtue and certain complete practice of it, and since it happens that some persons are able to share in it while others are able to do so only to a small degree or not at all, it is clear that this is the cause of there being several kinds and varieties of city and several sorts of regime. For it is by hunting (thereuontes) for this [happiness] in a different manner and by means of different things that individuals create ways of life and regimes that differ.[78] Aristotle argues that although all men seek happiness, the way they do so and what they land on as happiness differs dramatically. Even if there is one end that can be called true happiness, namely the practice of virtue, perhaps some peoples simply do not choose to pursue virtue or do so badly. If this is the case, then the goods aimed at by various political communities vary dramatically. Thus, it is not simply that the common goods of different political communities are in fact distinct goods, but that not even all regimes and political communities aim at virtue. This again reveals the problem with extending virtue beyond the borders of the political community – some political communities are not even aware of virtue, and thus would not even be able to recognize it if they saw it. What differs in this account of varying ways of human life is the emphasis that Aristotle places on how human beings can fall away from the perfection of being human. While a just nomad and a just farmer may do different things and treat their neighbors differently, they may both still be just and thus attain the human good.

On the other hand, Aristotle here points to what seems to be widespread confusion about virtue and the human good as the main cause of difference between regimes. It is by a deficiency, as measured against the regime that truly safeguards and promotes the virtue of its citizens that explains differences in human life. So here differences would be marked as falling away from, or coming closer, to human perfection. There seem to be at least two causes for diversity of regimes and the separation of political communities, then. On the one hand, there are different ways of life that might entail different needs for the political community, meaning that justice and prudence will manifest themselves very differently, and on the other hand not all regimes equally look toward virtuous activity as the human good. The one seems to be at least partly due to the exigencies of time and place, and the other seems more akin to a moral failure of entire groups of people to discern the true good of human life.[79]

This variety of ways of living for human beings is problematic if one wishes to find an Aristotelian justice which extends beyond the borders of a particular political community. Justice contains within its account the notion of the common good. As Aristotle says in Nicomachean Ethics, we say something is just if it is productive of happiness for the political community as a whole, and that it can properly be considered as the exercise of virtue entire in relation to others.[80] He further argues in Politics that the political good is justice, which is the common advantage.[81] But as noted above, it is not at all clear that there is a common advantage or common good that extends to all political communities; rather, we are left to think that each group of people “hunts” for happiness or the common good, in its own way.

It might be worth qualifying at this point that Aristotle is only making claims about the common good and the political community with reference to differences in regime, and differences in political life. It seems appropriate to limit our understanding of the common good then to a political common good, and not a common good simply speaking. It could be that there are other notions of the common good which might be subpolitical, as in the case of a family or some other subpolitical association, or superpolitical, as is the good known by the wise.[82] While these common goods certainly play a part in Aristotle’s thought, it is unclear, at this point, how they affect or make possible the virtues of justice and prudence. These take their bearing from the goods of political life properly speaking, and not the goods of family life or the goods of the whole cosmos.[83]


The thesis of this essay is that the acts of justice and prudence are possible only within a political community, because both virtues take their bearing from the common good of the community, and are thus ordered by the regime. Although we might think that it would be possible for regimes to share a common good, it is difficult to see how Aristotle’s notion of the political common good allows for such a sharing. The political common good is something which belongs to a particular people (these people) at a particular time (this time). It is a good that is a particular community’s own, and does not belong to another community. Indeed, if the political common good were not particular to communities, it is somewhat difficult to see why there would be distinct and separate communities and regimes, a phenomenon Aristotle takes seriously.

Is Aristotle a thinker who gives no guidance for moral behavior in international politics? Not necessarily. While the political common good is in some way the source of moral reasoning, nonetheless Aristotle does distinguish between good and bad regimes according to how well they support and nurture that sort of reasoning. And there is evidence that Aristotle thought that inculcating certain virtues for the sake of going to war and dominating others was in fact a negation of the political common good.[84] Not only that, but Aristotle argues that there is a kind of justice that exists by nature, and with that justice it would seem that there would need to be a regime, and this a common good, to go along with that justice.[85] To pursue this idea further would be to go beyond the scope of this essay, however.

The purpose of this essay is not to give Aristotelian warrant for some crude version of Realpolitik. Its purpose is to show the deep significance of the political common good, and that acting morally requires a robust notion of the common good. The implication, I believe, is that we cannot approach international politics from the neutral standpoint of an outside observer, but from the standpoint of citizens and statesmen within real and existing political communities which have their needs, desires, and fears. Abstraction from this standpoint, according to Aristotle, is a kind of abstraction from political and ethical thinking. Likewise, it is difficult to see how one can actually approach the problems of the international system as a citizen of the world, say, rather than as a citizen of a real place. Acting justly and prudently has to do with how we act toward our fellow citizens first and foremost, rather than the great undifferentiated mass of humanity.

Aristotle, then, gives a different account than Morgenthau regarding the place of the national interest. For while Morgenthau himself makes a deeply impassioned argument on behalf of the national interest with an eye toward alleviating the misery of totalizing war, Aristotle would remind us the fundamental purpose of the political community: the achievement of the common good. He reminds us that that pursuing the political common good is not the lesser of two evils, but rather a choiceworthy end, perhaps the most choiceworthy end. Finally, he might also remind us that our very concern for justice and virtue is inculcated and practiced within the very political community we so often seek to overcome and look beyond.



[1] Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (Knopf: New York) 1973. 327-329.

[2] 12 Hans J. Morgenthau, Scientific Man vs. Power Politics (University of Chicago: Chicago) Midway reprint, 1974. See especially chapter VII “The Moral Blindness of Scientific Man.”

[3] 3 Hans J. Morgenthau, “The Primacy of the National Interest” The American Scholar, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Spring 1949). 207- 212, but especially 211.

[4] James Madison, “Federalist 51.”

[5] Morgenthau, Scientific Man vs. Power Politics. 201-203.

[6] In this way I follow W. David Clinton, The Two Faces of the National Interest (Louisiana State University: Baton Rouge) 1994, 52. On the other hand, see William T. Cavanaugh “Killing for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation-State is Not the Keeper of the Common Good” Modern Theology 20:2 April 2004, 243-274. Cavanaugh argues that the classical medieval notion of the common good has no place in modern politics, and is certainly not expressed by the national interest.

[7] Charles de Koninck, “The Primacy of the Common Good against the Personalists” in The Writings of Charles De Koninck Vol. 2, ed. Ralph McInerny (University of Notre Dame: Notre Dame) 2009. 63-108.

[8] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics trans. Robert C. Bartlett and Susan Collins (University of Chicago: Chicago) 2011. 1129a4. All references to Ethics will be from this edition.

[9] 1115a7; cf. 1102b30.

[10] External goods are the goods that luck provides, and are not necessarily provided by our own efforts, unlike the goods of the body or the soul. Eutuchia meaning “good luck” or “fortune.”

[11] 1129a34-35. Literally, “having more.”

[12] This does not mean that law cannot be internalized or be “in” those who follow the law, but rather that its source seems to be external.

[13] 1099b1-3.

[14] 1129b2-10.

[15] 1129b15-17.

[16] Aristotle, Politics trans. Carnes Lord (University of Chicago: Chicago) 1282b8. All references to Politics are from this edition.

[17] 1129b18-20.

[18] 1129b22.

[19] 1129b27.

[20] 1130a5. Aristotle also states that justice is doing good toward the ruler.

[21] 1130a9.

[22] Also, see 1133b30-1134a2

[23] Aristotle implies that military leaders as particularly likely to become tyrants.

[24] 1129b12-25.

[25] 1131a10-20.

[26] 1131a24.

[27] William Mathie helpfully points out that part of Aristotle’s critique of the positions of the oligarchs and democrats is that they understand political authority in terms of distributive justice, when political authority should take its bearings from the proper work of political authority, namely care for the common good. See “Political and Distributive Justice in the Political Science of Aristotle” Review of Politics, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Winter, 1987). 59-84.

[28] 1131a30.

[29] 1134a25.

[30] Some translations use “absolute” instead.

[31] 1134b10.

[32] The implication being that the king or the tyrant cannot be just in an unqualified way.

[33] 1134a26-30.

[34] Although we should bear in mind that we are still speaking, it seems, of the particular virtue of justice, justice as equality, rather than the general virtue of justice, justice as lawfulness.

[35] 1134a33.

[36] 1134a 37

[37] Politics, 1253a38-40.

[38] Such an act would be different from “citizen courage” because the aim is the common good, rather than fear of legal penalties or a desire for honor.

[39] It would be difficult for a political community to legislate moderation directly, then, since the mean could vary drastically from person to person.

[40] 40 And not a rational animal, which would suggest that reason alone allows for virtue.

[41] Politics, 1253a15.

[42] Ethics, 1139b15.

[43] 1140b2. Action seems to be distinguished from art insofar as the action is not separable from the agent, as the artifact is separable from the artist. Thus, goodness in action is primarily found in the agent, that is, his dispositions and passions, whereas goodness in art is primarily found in the artifact

[44] Martin Heidegger, “On the Essence of Truth” Cf. Aquinas Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate q 1 a 1.

[45] Although Aristotle apparently thinks it is not necessary for the statesman, and thus the readers of his political works, to have any distinct or philosophic understanding of the soul (1102a25), St. Thomas Aquinas helpfully comments that Aristotle cannot really mean that the intellect is truly divided; rather, what Aristotle means is that one power of the soul can be used in two different ways. Thus the practical intellect would not be something different from the theoretical intellect, but is directed toward practice rather than knowing. See Commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics, Book Six, Lecture 1 1119-1123. See also, De Anima 433a15.

[46] 1139a27.

[47] 1139a15.

[48] 1140a14. Thus it would seem that the legislative artist would be the true archē of the political community, rather than law itself.

[49] 1140b22. Perhaps an unjust doctor could be skilled at producing health.

[50] 1140b6.

[51] 1140b16. In De anima, Aristotle claims that both knowledge and prudence, as well as opinion, are species of hupolēpsis, as well as their contraries. So hupolēpsis could also mean something like a premise, a belief, a supposal, or any starting point of thought. Aristotle also suggests that hupolēpsis is not entirely within our control, as something like imagination is. We can imagine most anything we would like (though there are limits even here) but we cannot suppose whatever we wish. So we should not be surprised that Aristotle compares prudence with mathematics, noting that the difference lies in where our convictions lie. For prudence, our convictions must be the desirability of virtue. For mathematics, our convictions must be the starting points of demonstration about mathematical things

[52] Moderation would seem to be especially necessary, as it guards against pleasures and pains which would especially destroy the principles of action in accordance with truth.

[53] 1144a35.

[54] 1141b26.

[55] 1142a9.

[56] Politics, 1253a32.

[57] 1289a14.

[58] 1294a8.

[59] 1277b25

[60] 1277b7

[61] 1277a30-35.

[62] 1254a15; Rhetoric 1366a33-5, 1367a24; Metaphysics 1078b3. Cf. 982b30, “human nature is servile in many ways.” Political rule and good politics seems to be concerned with raising humanity out of the servility of human nature.

[63]  1278b35, 1279a15-20. Good understood as “sumpheron”, which seems to be what prudence settles on after deliberation about how to achieve the human good, “agathon.” At 1140b7 Aristotle argues that prudence is concerned with the human good (agathon), and at 1358b22 notes that political oratory aims at the good (sumpheron). Thus, “sumpheron” in common could be understood as what is expedient or advantageous for the human good, “agathon.” Consequently, “sumpheron” could be understood as a “working together (sum)” for the good, and indeed finding that very good “agathon” within the work of “sumpheron.”

[64] 1094b10. The good as the first of all causes.

[65] Martin Wight “Why is There no International Theory?” in Diplomatic Investigations, ed. Herbert Butterfield and Martin Wight, (London: George Allen and Unwin) 1966. 17-34. Wight claims that, in effect, foreign policy can only aim at survival and not human flourishing. This would seem to characterize international life as despotic, rather than political. It is worth noting, however, that the just is not the same thing as the noble, or even the good.

[66] 1094a1

[67] 1096b25.

[68] Aristotle is dubious of a universal good understood as an idea which enters into the definition of all other, more particular, goods. The good of truth and the good of honor, so it would seem, cannot be reduced to one common definition of good.

[69] Charles N.R. McCoy, “The Logical and the Real in Political Theory: Plato, Aristotle, and Marx” American Political Science Review, Vol. 48, No. 4 (Dec., 1954) p. 1061. Mary Nichols, “Both Truth and Friends Are Dear: Aristotle’s Political Thought as a Response to Plato” in Natural Right and Political Philosophyed. Ann and Lee Ward (University of Notre Dame Press: Notre Dame) 2013. 72.

[70] For another understanding on the kind of “universal good” that Aristotle seeks in his political philosophy, see Ronald McArthur “Universal In Praedicando, Universal In Causando” in Laval Théologique et Philosophique 18 (1962) 59-95.

[71] 1326b30

[72] Aristotle gives no indication as to which life is better at this point in Politics. However, given the limitations that the art of hunting brings to political life, and that farming is considered the best circumstance for democracy, along with Aristotle’s observation that it is difficult for anything other than democracies to come into being, it would seem he has a preference for a farming democratic political community. He prefers farmers because they are too busy to legislate frequently, which reduces the chance for injustice. However, it would seem that the simply best way of life would be understood in terms of what is noblest in human life, namely politics and philosophy. It is curious that Aristotle derives the differences in human ways of living from how human beings deal with necessity, rather than leisure. On that note, Aristotle points out that nomads “live without productive work, being at leisure.”

[73] 1256a20

[74] 1256a38.

[75] The Greek word is genos, a term significant in Aristotle’s logical works. It could also simply mean “kin” or “race,” which might make more sense given the context.

[76] Aristotle, Metaphysics trans. Hippocrates G. Apostle (Des Moines: Peripatetic Press) 1966. 1030a1-25; Nicomachean Ethics. 1115b20.

[77] 1328a35.

[78] 1328a35-b1.

[79] I will elaborate later in what way Aristotle thinks that moral failure can affect an entire political community.

[80] 1129b20-1130a150

[81] 1282b17

[82]  Metaphysics 1075a13,40, 10776a5.

[83] Which is not to say that these goods have nothing to do with politics; rather, their connection with justice and prudence is unclear.

[84] See, for example, Aristotle’s extended critique of Sparta in Politics 1271b1-15.

[85] 1134a30-1135a6. If justice exists where there is law, and law exists for the sake of upholding the common good of a regime, then it would seem that there must be a regime by nature that coincides with natural justice.