Aristotle on Marriage and Trust as the Foundation of Civilization

Published: Sep 1, 2019
Updated: Apr 19, 2023

I was listening to the AoM podcast #515: Aristotle’s Wisdom on Living the Good Life, and heard a bit that’s stuck with me all this week. It’s too good not to write down.

Brett McKay: Okay, well let’s think about … let’s talk about our relationship with other humans, because this is another part of Aristotle’s Ethics, that a lot of times when people talk about philosophy, or how to live a good life, it’s very self centered, it’s like how can I take care of myself? It’s just like … how can I control my emotions? But Aristotle also thought about no, in order to live a good life, you have to have relationships, or friendships, with other people. So talk about that a bit.

Edith Hall: Well he actually regarded relationships as the most important aspects of human life. He was interested in the difference between animals and humans in our capacity to make very, very strong bonds with non kin, for example. And our city building abilities, that is building large communities where there are people who we don’t know personally but whom are our friends, because they’re our fellow citizens, and our good depends on their good, right?

So it’s entirely relational, entirely relational. And he regarded his four or five very close friendships, including with his young colleague, younger colleague, Theophrastus, who was the inventor of botany, as the most important things in his life. But the trouble is, they take a lot of work and investment. And the most important thing is trust. So whether it’s with your wife, your best friend, your colleague at work, your fellow citizen, or even with the people in another country on another part of the world, trust is what is absolutely indispensable to a good relationship, and the good relationship is indispensable for happiness.

Misery only ever results from breaking trust, that’s actually one reason … when I said that there were not categorical imperatives in his thinking, he actually says adultery … which is very strange for an ancient Greek male who had many opportunities to commit adultery, and wasn’t really blamed for it, right? He was free to have sex outside the house. He hates adultery. And the reason he hates it is not because you’re sort of cheating on someone in the sense that we see it, but because the primary relationship, which is your life partner, the person that you have sex with, is the building block of all of society for him. Society starts with that partnership, right? And then there are more partnerships in the household. If you compromise that partnership by breaking trust, he says basically the foundations of your whole civilization are placed on crumbling stones.

Now that really appeals to me as an intellectual argument. And I’ve personally found it very helpful. If you go and sleep with someone else, you’re not just cheating on your husband, you’re actually taking out a foundation stone of … in my case, a family, an extended family, and a community of people who will all be affected by it, because the trust is gone. So you can affect happiness by far more than just one person. And I’ve thought about this one very, very hard. He does say that one slip doesn’t matter. I do wonder whether he didn’t just once slip. But that he’s committed to the principle of absolute honesty, and trust, and fidelity to his woman.

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