Aristotle famously said in Politics that “man is, by nature, a political animal.” What did he mean by that? Why is it important? Aristotle’s political philosophy is dependent upon his understanding of human anthropology and ontology, as well as teleology. Unlike today, Aristotle’s statement is not meant to signify that humans should be “politically active” (i.e. like activists). Instead, it signifies that man is a social animal who naturally desires community, to be in association with others, and that this desire to be in community and association with others constitutes some level of the good life and brings about happiness.
Just prior to his famous statement that humans are political animals, Aristotle states, “We see that every city is some sort of community, and that every community is constituted for the sake of some good, since everyone does everything for the sake of what seems good” (Politics, 1.1.1252a). In order to understand Aristotle, it is necessary to understand his philosophical anthropology. Philosophical anthropology is the philosophical study of the nature of humans and what it means to be human. Originally, anthropology is a theological discipline first systematized by Judaism and Christianity, but the basic ideas of philosophical anthropology are also seen in commentaries by Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Plotinus. For Aristotle, humanity’s telos (natural end) is happiness (or eudemonia). Humans also have an innate human nature according to Aristotle, which is hylomorphic (matter + form) in Aristotle’s full account, we can summarize Aristotle’s basic human nature as twofold: a natural desire to be in community, and a want for happiness. Happiness is not experiential, for that is nothing more than materialistic hedonism which denies the Form of happiness (which is an ontological state of being). This is what our nature and end work for: The telos of human nature is social and desires happiness, wherein fulfillment, or happiness, is a product of coming into a community and having relations with others.
Aristotle does not argue that the purpose of the polis, or political community, is for the advancement and unfolding of History (historicism) out of common weakness in some “state of nature,” or for socially engineering a utopia. Aristotle understands the formation of community to be a natural, desirable, and spontaneous event. People, in their natural instincts for want of community, and because of their telos – which is happiness – naturally form community to fulfill their social desires which also brings forth a certain degree of happiness. Humanity’s political nature is the final cause of humanity’s nature since happiness can only consummate, fully, in political life.
Ultimately, Aristotle makes the argument that humans cannot be happy as a-social and solitary beings. This is two-fold. First, if human nature is naturally social and communitarian, then to be a-social, atomistic, and solitary is a suppression of humanity’s basic social instincts. Second, it is almost certainly the case that Aristotle is also waging underhanded sleights against the remaining sophists (who advocate pure self-interested advancement in community rather than working together in unity and harmony), as well as the Cynics and Epicureans, who advocate detachment from society (Cynics and Epicureans) and deny ontological happiness and favor fleeting bodily pleasure as the highest good in life (Epicureans).
Since happiness is the highest good in life, as it is humanity’s natural end, so too does political community serve to fulfill this purpose. Aristotle’s take, here, is different from Plato’s. In Republic, especially books V and VI, Plato makes the case that, while political community is a good, it naturally limits the happiness of others. Since order and structure are good, and this is what political community brings, it is desirable even if it restricts some level of happiness. For Plato, politics is entirely a negative. In a community without order, which is the equivalent of the Cave of Opinion, there is no wisdom, no truth, and no happiness. The sophists and nihilists, whom Plato famously rebuts in many of his Dialogues and Republic, run amok, advancing only themselves and advocating the same from among the strongest and most “intelligent” members of society. Chaos ensues. Thus, political order is primarily one to prevent the tyranny of nihilism, sophistry, and pure self-interest. By contrast, Aristotle takes a more positive view of political community. It is a natural product of human life and existence, and it can help cultivate virtue, the good, and the happy life.
Since the concept of the political is entirely good and positive in Aristotle, the political community, when fully functioning, is a beautiful portrait of the ebb and flow and harmony of pluralism. Each person functions in a different capacity to another. All occupy different levels of the social strata. Each is performing tasks that are best to them, but the rest of the city benefits from this. For instance, the city benefits when soldiers are the best possible soldiers, when farmers are the best possible farmers, when rulers are the best possible rulers, when judges are the best possible judges, when craftsmen are the best possible craftsmen, etc. There is a sense of filial purpose, since family is the building block of political community according to Aristotle, but there is also a sense of the common good because it is natural for humans to desire community and that a fully functioning community helps bring happiness.
The notion of excellence, or arête, factors prominently in Aristotle’s understanding of politics. The “good politics,” fosters virtue, because virtue helps achieve the good life and bring happiness (he devotes time to this in Nicomachean Ethics). Since the polis serves to achieve the same purpose, Aristotle makes the case for political arête, that is – a good politics will necessarily and naturally lead to its citizens cultivating virtue and excellence from among themselves. The State does not cultivate virtue for us, in fact, Aristotle argues that the nature of the State should be one of limitation because a limited State is one that allows its citizens the highest degree of possible happiness – long before Locke, who really isn’t the father of limited government anyways, Aristotle makes the case for limited statism based on natural and teleological philosophy. Thus, as Aristotle writes, “a city is excellent because the citizens who participate in the political system are excellent” (Politics, 7.13.1332a).
But now we should devote time to what Aristotle means by advocating for a limitation to the State. For Aristotle, this is reflective of teleology and his doctrine of the mean (or the happy medium). Aristotle is not some libertarian minarchist as some contemporaries like to claim him as. No, his understanding of the proper role and size of the State is related to his understanding of human nature and what it means to be a political animal.
For Aristotle, a State that is too large becomes inefficient, often oppressive, and slips into decay and corruption. All these things result in the abuse of citizenry, and the limitations of happiness. Yes, too big becomes a barrier for human nature. At the same time, a State that is too small also fails to achieve the consummation of happiness. An ineffective State, one that is too small, is unable to fortify natural law, defend itself from attack, and is prone limitations on happiness – but not for the reasons of a too large of State, which is more top-down limitation, but bottom-up limitation, i.e. too much work and labor, and too much worry, prevents the possibility of leisure, arts, and literature, things which also bring us happiness and needed avenues of releasing stress and other built up problems we accrue over time. Aristotle understands that too much limitation also prevents full flourishing. Thus, the size and nature of the State itself is reflective of the good life and helps advance the good life.
Thus, when reading Aristotle, one should understand that when he proclaims man to be a political animal, what he really means by that in today’s language is that humans are a social animal. In Aristotle’s time, to be social was to be political – that is, to be a member of the city, the polis, which is the highest community association possible. Politics, in Aristotle’s account, is not about ideology, it is not about the achievement of an end of history utopia, and it is not about “political activism” to achieve a socially engineered result that some people think is what is good and should be universally imposed over all members of society. Instead, it is a naturally occurring and growing process that is related to humanity’s natural desires: sociality and want for happiness. Political community is related to the pursuit of the good life. Everything, for Aristotle, reflects natural law and right – nothing is conventional or socially constructed or agreed upon, it is the natural, organic, and spontaneous reflection of the most basic elements and instincts of human nature.
Lastly, Aristotle’s community that forms from man’s political/social animus is pluralistic in the hylomorphic understanding. That is, the community is made up of a composite of persons who each have specific talents or roles to play that will allow them to flourish and the city to flourish. It is like a body that has many parts. For a fully functioning body to flourish the eyes, ears, legs, arms, and heart all must be healthy and working together. The same applies for the polis. Each person is like a different part of the body. Part of one’s vocational excellence, wherein they are fulfilled as farmer, laborer, or manager, etc., is by becoming excellent in that specific vocation. That is the arête that Aristotle speaks of and what I outlined earlier. When taken in totality, not only do we fulfill our social animus in the city, we become happy through a fully functioning, healthy, and excellent city. Virtue, therefore, becomes an important theme in Aristotle.
This was originally published on Hesiod’s Corner, July 27, 2017.