Why Liberalism Needs Piety (Lee Trepanier, 2/13/24, Public Discourse)

[T]here has been little discussion of Aristotle’s view of piety and how it could enrich liberal politics. Mary P. Nichols, professor emerita of political science at Baylor University, fills in this gap with her book, Aristotle’s Discovery of the Human: Piety and Politics in the “Nicomachean Ethics.”

Beginning with Aristotle’s famous statement in his Politics—“Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god”—Nichols argues that Aristotle believes human flourishing occupies a middle ground between these two extremes. People need one another to flourish. By rising above our bestial natures, that is, learning how to live with others, we discover what is most akin to the divine in ourselves. But this also requires us to accept our limitations. We are not, and cannot become, gods. “A good human life, which reflects both the virtues and the limitations of the human,” writes Nichols, “would therefore neither deny the human connection to the divine nor try to eliminate the distance between the two.”

According to Nichols, Aristotelian human flourishing requires piety, the acknowledgment that humans are akin to the divine but cannot be divine themselves. The task of the political community is to support the life of piety. Aristotle refers to the works of the statesman, in securing the good of his community, as divine, including the honors we assign to the gods. Because we can wonder at the divine, we are elevated above the beasts and consequently can deliberate, make choices, and act in forming a political community that aims at the common good. And because we do not receive our ethical virtues from nature, we must be educated and acquire them through our efforts. As Nichols writes, it is, paradoxically, our piety that leads us to discover what is truly human within us, allowing us to cultivate life-giving community.

Whereas the moderns aspire to become gods, Aristotle’s piety limits human ambitions. He claims that we can become “blessed”—a state attributed to the gods—but only as human beings. We can think “divine thoughts,” but recognize that the source of those thoughts is outside of ourselves. The piety that emerges from Aristotle’s philosophy is “a source at the same time of confidence, on the one hand, and moderation, on the other.” Human flourishing occurs in a middle place between beasts and gods.