Human as a Nature Political Animal in Aristotle Works

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​Aristotle famously claimed that man is by nature a political animal. (Aristotle 4) He goes on to write, “He who is unable to live in a society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or God.” Furthermore, he claims that the state is a natural phenomenon. This extends from the natural union that results first in a family, then a village, finally ending with the creation of a state. (Aristotle 6) This paper examines the nature of these claims. The term political can be interpreted in two ways, the merely social and the strictly political, and both views will be explored further below. The paper will also enquire into what makes the state a natural phenomenon, and natural in itself.

​In the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides quotes Pericles thus: “We alone consider the man who takes no part in politics not un-meddlesome, but useless”. (Lateiner 1) The institutionalization of direct democracy in Ancient Greece gave every citizen the right to deliberate on state matters. However, the conception of political life in Greece must not be confused with the modern interpretation of the activity. The word ‘politics’ is etymologically contingent on the word ‘polis’, meaning ‘of’ or pertaining to the polis. (Mulgan 196) As such, it does not refer solely to involvement in the administrative branches of government, through either statesmanship or juridical duties of a freeman. Rather, it encapsulates the sum of social interactions a person engages in with fellow citizens in the polis. All social life was thus political. This quote from Aristotle echoes the sentiment of socio-political exigencies expressed by Pericles. He writes,

“He who is unable to live in a society, or has no need for one because he is sufficient for himself, must either be a bad man or above humanity. He is like the tribeless, lawless, hearthless one- the natural outcast is forthwith a lover of war” (Aristotle 5)

In contrast, he says that the establishment of any community is carried out with a view to a good. The state, occupying the highest echelon in the hierarchy of communities, thus aims at the highest good. (Aristotle 1) But Aristotle believes that men desire to live together due to their political nature, regardless of the utility community provides them in terms of well-being. (Aristotle 59) A survey conducted by sociologist Emile Durkheim appropriately illustrates the need for association. In a study tracking the chief cause motivating suicide rates across Europe in the late nineteenth century, he concluded beyond a doubt that those with fewer social constraints were more likely to kill themselves. (Durkheim xiv)

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, writes that having strong social relationships strengthens the immune system, extends life, speeds recovery from surgery, and reduce the risks of depression and anxiety disorders. (Haidt 133) In terms of self-sufficiency, the study by Durkheim also shows that the more an individual is forced to sustain himself by his own resources, the higher the suicide rate in the society is bound to be. (Durkheim xiv) Following this, a man who takes no part in politics might not simply be useless, but an active danger to himself.

​In his Politics, Aristotle claims that the state is a natural phenomenon. The union of a man and woman, and a master and slave lead to the creation of a family. This family is meant to look after man’s basic needs. (Aristotle 4) A collection of families leads to the formation of a village, and several villages combined make a state. However, the purpose of a state is radically different from that of a family. While the latter is meant to provide for basic necessities, the former seeks to elevate the condition of humans through self-sufficiency for the sake of a good life.

The earlier associations are all culminations of natural phenomena, consequently making the state one too. (Aristotle 6) This arrangement is particularly beneficial for humans, who are political animals “born for citizenship”. (Aristotle 1097b10) Humans are related to the state as a part is to a whole, since they are not self-sufficient in themselves. Furthermore, when separated from law and justice, man is the vilest beast, but when perfect, he is the best of all animals. (Aristotle 6) The ascension in political purpose of the communities is the key indicator of whether it qualifies as a ‘natural phenomenon’.

The state is the most natural of all communities, since it aims at self-sufficiency and the inculcation of virtue in its citizens. The family and village are imperfect forms of the state, since the family is focused on the fulfillment of the bare requirements for mere existence, and the village is an extended family. On this, Aristotle writes, “For it is the end of them, and the nature of a thing is its end. For what each thing is when it is fully developed, we call its nature”. (Aristotle 4) Since a community is only fully developed when it evolves into a state, the nature of each community is to grow and mature into a polis.

Humans have been bequeathed with reason, speech, the ability to judge between just and unjust, and to administer justice through this judgment. (Aristotle 6) All of these facilitate the natural progression of events that lead to the state. It also leads to an alternative interpretation of the phrase “man is a political animal” as one indicating the unique suitability of man to administrative life due to his propensity for justice. This will be discussed later in the paper.

​Since the family is one of the natural communities, and the village is an extended family, an important clarification is necessary. As mentioned, the two unions that need to be realized for a family are between a male and female, and a master and slave.

​​“In the first place there must be a union of those who cannot exist without ​​​each other, that the race may continue, and of natural ruler and subject, that ​​​both may be preserved” (Aristotle 4)

The striking claim here is the relation between the natural ruler and subject, which is common between this union and that of the master and slave, albeit more overtly in the latter. Aristotle mentions that the relation between male and female is not exclusive to humans, but common with animals, plants, and barbarians. The ability to procreate, and “the natural desire to leave behind an image of themselves” is also a common characteristic amongst all the aforementioned species. (Aristotle 4) Besides, a romantic conception of coexistence would be painfully anachronistic.

The naturalness of this union amongst humans, but not barbarians, also rests in large part on a reductionist perspective of human relationships to simply between the ruler and ruled. (Ambler 167) This natural function cannot be performed in isolation from the other in either union, which is why they cannot survive without each other. (Roberts 193) In a later chapter, Aristotle says such a distinction is omnipresent in any whole that is composed of parts. “Such a duality exists in living creatures, but not in them only; it originates in the constitution of the universe”, he writes. (Aristotle 8) The barbarians have been excluded from the list of species who show this duality, indicating the unnaturalness of their associations.

Aristotle believes them to be a community of slaves, with women being naturally servile. (Aristotle 4) While they were successful in bringing men and women together for reproduction, there is no natural ruler among them. (Ambler 168) This has deprived them of any natural rule, perhaps contributing to their barbarianism. Another point worth mentioning is that while the union itself is natural, not all the aspects of this union are natural. (Ambler 168) The two unions mentioned are natural without qualification owing to the equation of a ruler and the ruled, and the same can be applied to determine the naturalness of other associations between human beings. (Ambler 168)

​Man is a political animal, which, as has been established, is equivalent to being a social animal. The conception of a social or public life, however, also implies the existence of a private sphere. But whether the Greeks had a modern parallel to a ‘private life’ is uncertain. The sense of strict inviolability associated with an individual’s private space is a notion that would be alien to Ancient Greeks. On this, Richard Mulgan writes,

​​“The average Greek had as little truly private life in our sense as the modern ​​​inhabitant of a Mediterranean village where all behavior, both communal ​​​and personal, is under constant scrutiny and the subject of immediate ​​​​criticism” (Mulgan 198)

As a result, the distinction between private and public life could be misleading, and all activities are, in a way, public. However, the notion of a private life did exist, just one that could be as ‘political’ in nature as is possible. (Mulgan 198) The spirit of normative ultra- sociability inherent in Greek life, as expressed by Pericles and Aristotle, is contrasted by a diametrically opposing one. This regarded the political life, relating to administrative and litigative rights and duties, an unsavory business, or a necessary nuisance at best. (Lateiner 1) “Minding ones own business” was admirably expedient in Athens under most circumstances, particularly amongst aristocrats, who clung on to an ideal of private self-sufficiency. (Lateiner 2)

However, even for the willing, the time one could devote to strictly political affairs was also determined by their economic status. “For the citizens being compelled to live by their labor have no leisure; and so they set up the authority of the law, and attend assemblies only when necessary”, Aristotle writes. (Aristotle 89) He also talks of the rich being inconvenienced by caring for their property, which prevents them from taking part in assemblies and courts. (Aristotle 90) The stigma attached to political participation today due to its reputation of being ensconced in corruption was not unheard of in Ancient Greece. These corrupt practices were used to generate revenue in large democracies of Ancient Greece to pay those destitute of leisure in return for their participation in state administrative affairs. (Aristotle 146)

In such cases Aristotle advocates for a reduction in proceedings to only a few times a year, greatly limiting the ‘political’ life of the average Athenian. In conclusion, while the existence of a private life in ancient Greece is questionable at best, the political life of an Athenian was divided between the administrative responsibilities that accompany life in their democracy. Per Aristotle, “a citizen is one who shares in governance and being governed”, reiterating the prevalence of the dynamic between the ruler and ruled, with a view to establishing virtue in the polis. (Aristotle 70)

​​For the final part of this paper, we discuss the relativity of man’s political nature with his ability to live the best life. In the Ethics, Aristotle establishes the three kinds of lives one can live. These are the life of pleasure, the political life, and the contemplative life. The life of pleasure is immediately dispensed with as one suitable only for beasts. The political life is led by anyone who active in the community, while the contemplative life is one suited for philosophizing. (Aristotle 1095b15- 1095b25) He also differentiates between three types of goods a human can possess.

They are, 1) external goods (wealth, power, friends), 2) goods of the body (good looks, physical strength), and 3) goods of the soul (virtues and pleasure). (Cooper 177) Aristotle says that a happy man must have all three. (Aristotle 153) However, external goods are the most relevant to this discussion. Anything besides our mind, body, and character can be called external goods. (Cooper 177) Throughout the Ethics, Aristotle associates happiness with the explicit exercise of virtue, and not the mere possession of it. (Aristotle 1098a15-1098a20)

However, the exercise of morally virtuous activities requires external goods to be carried out. “In many actions we use friends and riches and political power as instruments [to do noble acts]”, he writes. (1099a30-1099b5) Thus, the political nature of humans enables him to actualize his full potential for happiness and possessing virtue. A virtuous person can use these external goods to uplift his fellow citizens through philanthropy, “furthering the careers of like-minded people”, etc. enabling a more virtuous society. (Cooper 179) For example, Aristotle advocates the redistribution of revenue to the extremely poor, providing them with a vital external good for the propagation of virtue. (Aristotle 147)

Following this, it would seem that the political life would undoubtedly be the best life one can live, but it is the contemplative life, which he considers superior. Since happiness is the intrinsic end of life, it has four further characteristics. It is an activity, lacking in nothing, desirable for its own sake, and self-sufficient. Contemplation fits the criteria for this better than the activity of moral virtues. While not fully self-sufficient in itself, it is more so than the latter. Aristotle also says that the virtuous activities within political actions aim at an end, and are not ends in themselves. (1176b0-1176b20)

This means that they are not desirable for their own sake. On the other hand, reason, which is essential for contemplation, is more suitably characterized as self-sufficient. While man is a political animal, and the related external goods are a fundamental requirement for human flourishing, it comes second to a life of contemplation. This life is not entirely solitary, and Aristotle asserts that this activity might be enhanced by the presence of fellow workers. (1177a30-1177b0) However, it is contemplation that ensures the most self-sufficient life, and not the political.

​In the Ethics, Aristotle aims to answer the question of how to live, and what goals one must aspire to. While the book covers the philosophic basis of desirable ends such as virtue and happiness, the Politics provides a glimpse of how these ends can be manifested in a society through the actions and constitutions of individuals. Engaging in the political life in an effort to obtain external goods such as influence, friends, wealth, power and the other auxiliary benefits of social interaction are key factors in expressing a wider range of moral virtues.

The role of the polis in facilitating well-being rests not only in an inculcation of virtue, but a self-sufficiency that can only be achieved through a society. “It is not that an individual becomes self-sufficient with the aid of the other members of a polis, it is that only the polis as a whole has a self-sufficient life”. (Robertson 198) This reconciles the political nature of man with the naturalness of the polis.​


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Human as a Nature Political Animal in Aristotle Works. (2021, Mar 17). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/human-as-a-nature-political-animal-in-aristotle-works/

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