St. Thomas Aquinas drew on the writings of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) in developing ideas about how political communities should promote the common good. In Aristotle’s time Athens was a democracy but not in the sense that we know it today. Only about 15% of the population was allowed citizenship and slavery was part of this ancient society. Nevertheless, the American founders saw much to admire in the Athens city-state and in the teachings of Greek philosophers like Aristotle.
According to Aristotle, the citizens of the polis (city) are to act as partners in pursuing the common good. Citizens find happiness in exercising virtue among their fellow citizens. “The end (or goal) of politics is the best ends; and the main concern of politics is to engender a certain character in the citizens and to make them good and disposed to perform noble deeds,” Aristotle wrote.
Man’s “telos,” or purpose, according to Aristotle, is to find happiness by exercising virtue in the public square. This idea that men and women are to act virtuously for the common good stands in contrast to the emphasis often found in modern liberal democracy, where individual freedom is gloried over the common good and government’s role is seen as simply an umpire in the contest for private gain.
Aristotle would likely see modern democracy as a system that appeals to people’s baser instincts, “what’s in it for me,” rather than calling people to a life of virtue. He would also be amazed at how many people participate in democracy and in such a large country as America. In Athens, citizens would meet face-to-face to discuss issues and make decisions.
The Athens city-state was far from perfect, and Aristotle’s philosophy may seem a unworkable today, but certainly if modern democracies are to survive, they must somehow promote virtue and ensure that democratic dialogue remains the model for how citizens work out their problems on behalf of the common good.