The Selfishness of Practical Wisdom

In Book Six of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses the different states of the soul in order to achieve virtue. He describes each of them and the components of each. One distinction he made caught my attention. In chapter eight, Aristotle makes a seemingly clear distinction between the different types of practical wisdom. He divides political wisdom from the larger category of practical wisdom. The differentiation Aristotle made between these two appeared to divide them definitively. On the one hand (the practical side) was caring for oneself and looking out for ones own interests, while on the other (the political side) was looking out for the larger community. At the same time, Aristotle argued that these were just two different versions of the same thing.

This argument initially seemed counterintuitive. How could looking out for yourself and looking out for others be categorized under the same state of your soul? This line (VI.8.1142a) seemed to clear up my confusion: “yet perhaps one’s own good cannot exist without household management, nor without a form of government.” People could look out for others in order to simultaneously enhance their own interests. This seems to suggest, then, that all actions that fall under the practical state of the soul are selfish. Either they are practical, in which case people concerned with their own interests, or political, in which case they are concerned for the community in order to foster an environment in which to promote their own interests.

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