In this essay I will be concentrating on explaining what Aristotle meant when he said ‘Man is a political animal’. I will be doing so by assessing his own works as well as presenting conflicting opinions on his statement.
To begin with, a few definitions and where they originate which can be used to help clarify what Aristotle is saying and means when he uses such words. We get our word politics from the Greek word Polis, which is the classical Greek state. The term for a free citizen is Polites. The word economy derives from the Greek Oikonmia, which derives from Oikos (Household) and Nomos (Law, usage, manage). As you can see from these definitions, our tradition of political economy was originally a matter of citizen’s family business. This is largely due to Aristotle and the work discussed in this essay.
So to begin to explain what Aristotle actually meant by such a statement it would be best to start with the state of nature. Aristotle believed that the forming and getting together of the household, was the beginning of the state. Making parenthood, family and the rearing of children a political beginning. This evidently leads to a household forming a city of households’ and so on forming countries and states etc. ‘It is clear that the city-state is a natural growth, and that man is by nature a political animal.'(1)
Therefore, man being a political animal naturally forms families (Households) and those families form groups of united families (Cities, towns, states, countries, etc.) Thus the state and society itself is a natural result of man’s intrinsically political nature. Making the state, politics and society a natural manifestation of what man is.
‘Therefore the impulse to form a partnership of this kind is present in all men by nature; but the man who first united people in such a partnership was the greatest of benefactors. For as man is the best of the animals when perfected, so he is the worst of all when sundered from law and justice.'(2)
If man is a political animal than what is its purpose when it manifests that nature? To Aristotle, man is teleologically a political animal with the purpose of politics, resulting in the bringing of justice and goodness. The just and the good of the individual is inseparable from justice and the good of the society.
‘Every state is as we see a sort partnership, and every partnership is formed with a view to some good (Since all the actions of all mankind are done with a view to what they think to be good). It is therefore evident that, while all partnerships aim at some good, the partnership that is most supreme of all and includes all the others does so most of all, and aims at the most supreme of all goods; and this is the partnership entitled the state, the political association.'(3)
Furthermore, it is human nature to live amongst politics. Each citizen should participate in politics because it is essential to exercise wisdom. Which to Aristotle is the core of the good life which is outlined in his Nicomachean Ethics. Direct political participation is essential to giving the citizen the good life.
‘Men’, Aristotle says, ‘are by nature political animals’. This remark is no casual aphorism, but a piece of biological theory. ‘Political animals are those which have some single activity common to them all (which is not true of all gregarious animals); such are men, bees, wasps, ants, cranes’. ‘What is peculiar to men, compared to the other animals, is that they alone can perceive the good and the bad, the just and the unjust, and household and State.'(4)
What Aristotle means by this is that society and the state are not artificial constructs or trappings that chain natural man to other humans. What he means to say is that society and the state are manifestations of human nature. Our politics, society and state are a part of human’s natural nature. A human construct you may call it, but artificial or unnatural you cannot.
All of what Aristotle thinks and argues follows logically from his statement that man is by nature a political animal, but the premise itself may be false. The problem that Aristotle and ourselves today face is that we can only judge man’s nature from the society that he and ourselves are born into. We cannot judge man in its natural state which would prove man to be or not to be a political animal by nature. Political philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau(5) (1712-1778) thought that natural man was solitary and only became social from becoming aware of the benefits of staying together longer than just to breed. Thus making politics and the state a bi-product of social benefits, rather than a natural extension of our nature. Also, other political philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes(6) (1588-1679) believed that laws and the state were merely invented with our intelligence in order to suppress, control and correct our naturally barbaric nature.(7)
To conclude; Aristotle thought that man naturally was political so politics and the state would always come about, so would the pursuit of the good life, the good life being the objective of man. We cannot prove any of these premises, merely use them to see that today we can choose the purpose of the state as we see fit to our current society. Meaning that society has no objective purposes, which Aristotle would evidently argue against.
1. Aristotle, Politics, translated by H. Rackham (Harvard university press, 1959) Book 1, p. 9.
2. Aristotle, Politics, translated by H. Rackham (Harvard university press, 1959) Book 1, p. 13.
3. Aristotle, Politics, translated by H. Rackham (Harvard university press, 1959) Book 1, p. 3.
4. Aristotle, A very short introduction (Oxford university press, 2000) Chapter 18: Practical philosophy, p. 127.
5. This argument is contained in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A discourse on Inequity (Penguin classics, 1984) ‘Discourse on the origins and foundations of inequity among men’: Part one
6. This argument is contained in Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Oxford world’s classics: Oxford University press, 2008)
7. Both of these arguments and the argument of the purpose of the state are contained in: Marcus Skjøte, Human nature and its role in defining the purpose of the state (TSD, 2014, Introduction to political thinkers)
– Aristotle, A very short introduction (Oxford university press, 2000)
– Aristotle, Politics, translated by H. Rackham (Harvard university press, 1959)
– Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A discourse on Inequity (Penguin classics, 1984)
– Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Oxford world’s classics: Oxford University press, 2008)