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Aristotle 26 Essay

“Man is by nature a political animal”[1]. This alone is perhaps the best-known part of Aristotle’s many theories and treatises. Its meaning however is not concrete. Aristotle’s theory on the nature of man and the importance of states is an essentially contested subject. There are two strands of thought followed by Aristotle when explaining this statement. I will be examining these two strands in this essay. Firstly, by saying that man is political animal, Aristotle means that that man, more than any other animal, was designed for the political life.

This is found in his capacity for reasoned speech. The needs that this capacity brings with it are satisfied in the polis, or state. Secondly, by saying that man is a political animal, Aristotle indicates that man is naturally suited to the state as the state is natural. He goes on to portray its historical development. It brings out the best in human beings. Both these explanations end with the idea of the highest good, that it is only within the confines of the state that this good can be achieved. I shall also attempt to discover what is meant by the ‘highest good’ is in this essay.

Firstly, however, the statement itself should be properly examined. Aristotle states that man is by nature a political animal. How does Aristotle define what is natural? His seems to regard nature as a system of growth and development that directs organisms by their “inherent nature”[2] to ends characteristic of them. We see here how Aristotle’s theories of nature are guided by their final outcome. This is described as Teleology, that the final outcome of an organism best shows what it is. Then, is man inevitably going to lead a political life?

What does Aristotle refer to when he calls man a political animal? Aristotle saw politics as the master art, as it could bring about the best ends, the ends of the state. [3] The ends of the state are the best ends as they were matters of common concern. Aristotle also refers to politics as a collective activity, not merely a collective existence[4]. This distinction shall be important later, when we hall take a closer look at the state. I shall now examine the first strand of Aristotle’s reasoning. He believes that man is a political animal as man is an animal designed for politics.

Unlike other animals, man has the capacity for reasoned speech. His tongue is softer, looser and broader[5]. While other animals have voice, and can relate to each other if they are in pain, or pleasure, men can speak to one another. They can distinguish between what is good and what is bad, what is just and what is unjust. “Nature does nothing in vain”[6], states Aristotle. Therefore man, being capable of practical judgement, is fit for life in the polis, where this capacity can be exercised to its fullest. Man is also a social animal, and this is another reason for his desire to live in the polis.

While contemplative theory is very good for the mind, and the best way to exercise practical judgement, or phronesis[7], man is not meant to be isolated. Man’s aim of self-sufficiency can’t overtake man’s need for companionship. Aristotle uses biological fact to argue man’s innate desire for the political. He has a second line of reasoning however, which we shall now explore. Aristotle argues that man is a political animal. He ties this statement in with a second statement; that the state, or polis, exists by nature.

These two statements are generally seen as connected. Aristotle tracks the historical development of human communities and interaction. He believes that there are two forms of human relationship necessary to any group: that of the man and the woman, and that of the master and the slave[8]. The household, or oikia, is therefore the primary social unit, as it is the first unit to contain these two bonds. When a group of oikias exists, they become a village, or kome, ruled by the most senior member. Out of these spring the office of the king.

Finally, several villages bound together create the state[9]. The development of human communities stops with the state, because it reaches its goal of self-sufficiency. Everything that a human needs to survive is contained within the state. This is not all however. The polis came into being for the sake of life, but it exists for the sake of the good life[10]. The state is the limit of self-sufficiency, as it supplies us with human interaction, with markets, housing and so on. Broadly speaking, it provides us with our nutritional, economic and social needs.

The polis satisfies other human needs however. Man is a political animal, and so strives for goals only possible in the polis. Aristotle believes that the best life is only possible in the polis[11]. This is why he considers the study of politics necessary to a full understanding of man’s moral nature. The perfection of practical rationality, also described as practical judgement, needs political life, as men are biologically suited to the state. They can’t live alone, and they have a capacity for practical judgement, which has been discussed earlier.

But why is it the polis, and not any other kind of community, to which man is naturally inclined? According to Aristotle, it is because when a man is a citizen of a state, he can take part in the deliberative and judicial processes of that state[12]. He is capable of governing himself. In systems where the ability to govern one’s self is not available, man cannot use his skills of practical judgement to the best of his abilities. Therefore, he is hampered in his effort to live as successfully as he can. In a polis, man’s rationality can truly develop.

If a man lives outside a state of his own free will, he is either a wretch or a superhuman, as it is within the boundaries of the state that man is at his most natural[13]. Furthermore, it is dangerous for man not to live in a state, because there are no laws or civic responsibility to curb man’s worst instincts. “Man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all. ”[14] The best aim, or the highest good, has been mentioned many times in this essay. What is the highest good?

The highest good must be something that we strive for, more than anything else. It must be something that we seek for itself alone. Aristotle isn’t sure whether there is one ultimate good, or if there is a few things that we aim for that are better than others, as the many things that we consider to be independently good are good in many different ways[15]. We aim to live successfully. But what does it mean to live a successful life? Aristotle believed that to live successfully, a man must live by his rational soul and the best of his virtues[16].

To live by his rational soul, he must practise rational judgement. This brings us neatly back to the polis, where man can live by his rational soul to the best of his potential. Though the life of the philosopher is the most worthy life, the political life is the one most suited to humans. Though it is important for man to achieve the highest good that he can, the ends of the state are ultimately more important than the ends of an individual. To clarify this point, Aristotle employs the metaphor of the body and its parts[17].

A hand, for example, has no life separate from the body. It has no interests save those of the body as a whole. From this should we conclude that the citizen has no life save the life of the state? Some would take this to mean that Aristotle was advocating extreme totalitarianism[18]. However, Aristotle is quick to point out the difference in the relationships between master and slave and the ruler and the ruled in the polis. The slave has no power over his destiny, and has no say in the manner in which he is ruled. The power of the master is unrestrained.

Political rule, on the other hand, is exercised over free people, and it must work in the interests of those who accepted it[19]. It is misleading to say that that the good of the state is more important than that of the individual. The aim of the state is the promotion of the good of its citizens. Therefore, the good of the state is defined by the good of the individual. In conclusion, the phrase, Man is by nature a political animal is highly influential in political thought. In spite of that, its meaning is relatively cloudy.

I have attempted to indicate what I believe to be the significant points of this phrase. I have attempted to analyse these points, following the two trains of thought described by Aristotle himself. I have discussed its biological interpretation, and the interpretation relating to the polis. Finally, I have discussed what Aristotle meant by the highest good, and this was related to the state. I think it is interesting, when one remembers the history of this time, that Aristotle’s ideal community was the polis.

At this time, empires ruled the political landscape, and the city-state was clearly on the decline[20]. If the state was the end of the line in the development of human communities, what was the vast empire of his pupil, Alexander the Great? Was it that Aristotle could not conceive of a reason for this great stretch of land being under the rule of one man? It is strange that Aristotle describes the polis as the ideal community for his political animal as it was falling apart before his eyes, that a philosopher so intent on attaching his theories to reality had no time for the reality of his own world.

In this essay, I have attempted to analyse some of the questions thrown up by this influential theory. I hope that it has been successful. ———————– [1] Aristotle, Politics page 1253a2 [2] Sabine, George Holland, A History of Political Theory page 122 [3] Aristotle, The Works of Aristotle. 20 page 1094 [4] Kullman, Wolfgang, ‘Man as a Political Animal in Aristotle’ in Keyt, David and Fred D. Miller, A Companions Guide to Aristotle page 106 [5] Baldry, Harold Caparne, Unity of Mankind in Greek Thought page 89 [6] Barnes, Jonathan (ed.), A Cambridge Companion to Aristotle page 238 [7] Baldry, Harold Caparne, Unity of Mankind in Greek Thought page 92 [8]

Rosen, Michael, and Wolff, Jonathan (eds. ), Political Thought page 10 [9] Rosen, Michael, and Wolff, Jonathan 1999 page 10 [10] Barnes, Jonathan (ed. ), A Cambridge Companion to Aristotle page 237 [11] Barnes, Jonathan (ed. ), A Cambridge Companion to Aristotle page 233 [12] Barnes, Jonathan (ed. ), A Cambridge Companion to Aristotle page 243 [13] Rosen, Michael, and Wolff, Jonathan (eds.), Political Thought page 11 [14] Sabine, George Holland, A History of Political Theory page 101 [15]

Aristotle, The Works of Aristotle. 20 page 1094 [16] Barnes, Jonathan (ed. ), A Cambridge Companion to Aristotle page 202 [17] Barnes, Jonathan (ed. ), A Cambridge Companion to Aristotle page 239 [18] Barnes, Jonathan 1995 page 240 [19] Barnes, Jonathan 1995 page 240 [20] Kullman, Wolfgang, ‘Man as a Political Animal in Aristotle’ in Keyt, David and Fred D. Miller, A Companions Guide to Aristotle page 102


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