In Nicomachean Ethics, the city takes on several layers of symbolic significance. Because Aristotle is concerned both with the individual’s cultivation of virtue and the community’s, he sometimes draws comparisons between the human soul and the political life of the city. For example, in his discussion of incontinence, or lack of self-restraint, he says that “The incontinent person is like a city that votes for all the right decrees and has excellent laws, but does not apply them.” In this instance, the city represents the individual who struggles to govern themselves effectively—they know how to act virtuously, but they don’t actually act on that knowledge. Aristotle also draws comparisons between various kinds of human relationships and the political structures found in cities—for example, kingship is like a father’s relationship to his children, and a timocracy (rule by property-holders) can be likened to the relationship between brothers. By tying the individual practice of virtues to the overall wellbeing of human society, Aristotle shows how the individual and the community are tightly connected.
The City Quotes in Nicomachean Ethics
In fact the incontinent person is like a city that votes for all the right decrees and has excellent laws, but does not apply them, as in Anaxandrides' taunt, 'The city willed it, that cares nothing for laws'. The base person, by contrast, is like a city that applies its laws, but applies bad ones.[…] The [impetuous] type of incontinence found in volatile people is more easily cured than the [weak] type of incontinence found in those who deliberate but do not abide by it. And incontinents through habituation are more easily cured than the natural incontinents; for habit is easier than nature to change.
Moreover, friendship would seem to hold cities together, and legislators would seem to be more concerned about it than about justice. For concord would seem to be similar to friendship, and they aim at concord among all, while they try above all to expel civil conflict, which is enmity. Further, if people are friends, they have no need of justice, but if they are just they need friendship in addition; and the justice that is most just seems to belong to friendship.
Since, then, our predecessors have left the area of legislation uncharted, it is presumably better to examine it ourselves instead, and indeed to examine political systems in general, and so to complete the philosophy of human affairs, as far as we are able. First, then, let us try to review any sound remarks our predecessors have made on particular topics. Then let us study the collected political systems, to see from them what sorts of things preserve and destroy cities, and political systems of different types; and what causes some cities to conduct politics well, and some badly. For when we have studied these questions, we will perhaps grasp better what sort of political system is best; how each political system should be organized so as to be best and what habits and laws it should follow. Let us discuss this, then, starting from the beginning.