Don Morison: "Aristotle on the Happiness of the City"

Don Morison (Rice): "Aristotle on the Happiness of the City". Listen to the talk here.


The happiness of the city (the eudaimonia of the polis) is a central concept in Aristotle’s political philosophy. For example, in NE I, 2, Aristotle says that the ultimate end of human action is the good of the city. At the beginning of his discussion of the ideal regime in Politics VII, 1, he says that the happy city is the one that is best and acts nobly”. Chapter 2 of book VII is devoted to the question whether the happiness of the individual and the happiness of the city are the same or different.

The aim of this paper will be to argue that Aristotle uses the term “the happiness of the city”, he means it not metaphorically, but literally: he intends to predicate a genuine property, eudaimonia, of a genuine subject, the polis. I will then explore some of the philosophical implications of this concept.

The realist view that I will defend agrees that the polis is not a substance. The polis is not animate, in the strict sense that it does not have a soul. However the polis is alive: it has a “life”. (Both bios and zoe). It is an organic being in the sense that it has functional parts. And it has states of character and makes decisions that are not reducible to the characters and decisions of its citizens. Individual citizens have their own intrinsic value, which is largely but not entirely independent of the city in which they live. On the other hand, the city as such has intrinsic value that is not reducible to the value of its individual citizens. The value of citizens to the city is partly instrumental, but also partly intrinsic: the life of the city includes the lives of its citizens.

Aristotle’s political philosophy employs two crucial holistic conceptions of value: (1) the good or happiness of the city; and (2) the common good. What is the relationship between these two concepts? I shall argue that the “good of the city” and the “common good” are distinct notions. This is an uncomfortable result.