In Episode 501 of The Muppet Show (“With our very special guest star, Gene Kelly, yay!”) the starship Swinetrek in the “Pigs in Space” segment approaches the End of the Universe. As Dr. Julius Strangepork informs the other members of the crew, Captain Link Hogthrob and First Mate (Miss) Piggy, as soon as they reach the End of the Universe (in one minute), the Meaning and Purpose of Life will be revealed.
A few seconds later the dinner gong rings. Captain Hogthrob immediately heads for the hatch, whereupon Dr. Strangepork asks him why he isn’t waiting around to find out the Meaning and Purpose of Life. Link informs them that they, Strangepork and Miss Piggy, can wait if they want to — the chef has made swill stroganoff.
With but a few seconds to go before reaching the End of the Universe and discovering the Meaning and Purpose of Life, Dr. Strangepork says reflectively, “The Meaning and Purpose of Life.” Miss Piggy says, “Swill stroganoff,” and smacks her lips. Both race for the hatch.
The Meaning and Purpose of Life
Fortunately, we don’t have to take a voyage to the End of the Universe to find out the Meaning and Purpose of Life (or line up for swill stroganoff, evidently). We simply have to use our reason — which is why the death of reason is such a disaster in the modern world. (To connect A to B, and B to C, if we need reason to determine the Meaning and Purpose of Life, and we have killed reason, we won’t be able to determine the Meaning and Purpose of Life, obviously.)
According to Aristotle, the Meaning and Purpose of Life is to pursue happiness. That’s not what it sounds like. The Philosopher made clear that true happiness consists of conforming yourself to your own nature, that is (for human beings) to become more fully human.
How do we conform ourselves to our own nature? By acquiring and developing habits of doing good — virtue. What is good? Whatever is consistent with nature. How do we know what is consistent with nature? By observing what people in all times and places have generally agreed is good. Thus the good that is common to humanity, the good that defines us for what we are — the common good — is the capacity to acquire and develop virtue. That is pretty much a summary of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, generally considered the first part of The Politics.
In The Politics Aristotle got down to brass tacks. It’s all very well to say that humanity becomes more fully human by acquiring and developing virtue. The problem is how.
One of the first things we learn in The Politics is that “man is by nature a political animal.” By this, Aristotle did not mean merely social, but evidently something that appears to be unique: humanity is a creature with individual rights and an individual nature, which at the same time has social rights and a social nature.
Thus, as far as Aristotle was concerned, we best realize our individual natures within a social setting, the pòlis, the political unit. The art of politics consists of optimizing the exercise of individual rights in a way that does not interfere unduly with the exercise of individual rights by others — or the social environment within which we exercise our individual rights.
In general, that means we are free to exercise our rights in any way we please, as long as we do not thereby harm other individuals, groups, or the social environment. We can understand the social environment as the network of institutions that constitute the social order, the environment within which we exercise rights.
This social environment is extraordinarily important . . . although not quite as important as some people tend to believe. Maintaining the social environment is so important that it can require great sacrifice on the part of those charged with maintaining it — but never to the extent that harming an innocent person is ever justified, even if we anticipate that the greatest possible good will come of it.
The social environment is important because as political animals, humanity exercises individual rights within a social setting, the pòlis. The exercise of individual rights is important because it is by exercising our rights that we acquire and develop virtue, thereby becoming more fully human.
We can therefore say that, while the most fundamental way to express the common good is the capacity that each human being has to acquire and develop virtue, the concrete manifestation of the common good is the social environment within which people as “political animals” acquire and develop virtue. Specifically, then, the common good consists of that vast network of institutions within which people realize their fullest human potential through the exercise of their rights.
Institutions — laws, customs, traditions, and so on — are thus “social habits,” that is, way human beings do things socially, that is, in an organized manner. Consequently we can say that, just as the habit of doing good on the individual level is called virtue (or, more accurately, individual virtue), the habit of doing good socially (politically) is social virtue. Of the social virtues, the best known (and thus the most abused) is social justice, followed closely by social charity.
Given this understanding of virtue and the common good, once we know that the State is the guardian of the common good, we immediately understand that the State’s special role is to care for and maintain our institutions in such a way as to optimize each individual’s acquisition and development of virtue. This can best be summarized as saying that the role of the State is to provide equality of opportunity, not results.
Does that mean that the State has no responsibility to individuals? Yes — but responsibility to individuals is not the State’s special competence. Where there is no necessity for the State to take direct action and provide for individuals’ needs, it is profoundly wrong for the State to do any such thing.
As Pope Leo XIII carefully explained (and, as we shall see, was even more carefully ignored), the State’s responsibility for individual good is limited to “extreme cases.” (Rerum Novarum, § 22.) If someone has absolutely no other recourse, then the State must provide for that person, but only (and here is the catch), only until such time as the individual is able to care for him- or herself, or until there is other recourse. “There is no need to bring in the State. Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body.” (Ibid., 7.)
There is a very good reason for this, the best reason in the world, as far as a pope would be concerned. A paradox is involved. All people agree (or should agree) that taking care of the needs of another is a virtuous act. The giver and the recipient who give and receive, respectively, in the right spirit grow in virtue (the habit of doing good) — the giver in charity, the recipient in humility and gratitude, and both in graciousness.
A State, however, is not a natural person. This includes a government as well, even a government of one person; a ruler qua ruler, i.e., an office holder, is not a natural person. Neither the State nor a government has a natural capacity to acquire and develop virtue. A State only has what Aristotle would call a “reflected” virtue, i.e., whatever the citizens in the State delegate to the State so that the State can carry out its function — care of the common good, not individual goods.
Consequently, and strictly speaking, it is not a virtuous act for the State to take care of individual needs except as an expedient when there is no other recourse. When the State takes over the responsibility of providing for individual goods, it denies those for whom provision is made the opportunity to grow in virtue, that is, from becoming more fully human.
People have the rights of life, liberty and property to enable them to exercise those rights and thereby grow in virtue by building habits of doing good. The exercise of rights must be voluntary, of course. Coerced deeds may be good in their effects, and necessary at times as an expedient, but they are not virtuous, being done out of fear rather than love. When the threat of coercion is removed, people tend to return to their old habits, good (virtue) or bad (vice), as the case may be.
Unfortunately, many people today seem to misunderstand the role of the State. If having the State take care of people’s needs as an expedient in an emergency is good, then having the State take care of all of people’s needs all the time must be the best of all possible worlds . . . right?
Wrong. By taking away people’s chances to do things for themselves, you prevent them from acquiring and developing virtue and becoming more fully human. Since becoming more fully human is the meaning and purpose of life, providing for every need defeats the whole purpose of being alive in the first place, and the people whose every need is met remain children — or slaves.
Then again, becoming more fully human is work — a lifetime’s worth, in fact.
And, after all, it is swill stroganoff. . . .