philosophy is for everyone
and not just philosophers

philosophers should know lots
of things besides philosophy

Philosophical Connections

Electronic Philosopher

Feature Articles

University of London BA

Philosophy Lovers Gallery

PhiloSophos Home

International Society for Philosophers

Aristotle on man as a political animal


To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Aristotle on man as a political animal
Date: 22nd April 2010 11:38

Dear Sachiko,

Thank you for your email of 17 April with your essay for the University of London BA Political Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'What did Aristotle mean when he said that humans are political animals? Was he right?'

As you effectively demonstrate in your essay, there is more to Aristotle's assertion that man is a political animal than merely a claim about nature or what is natural. If this really were all Aristotle was concerned with, then it would be reasonable to conduct an empirical investigation into the varieties of human life, with the aim of discovering whether human beings 'naturally' form a state or not.

The evidence from anthropology seems to be that human beings are perfectly capable of living at the 'village' level, in the absence of outside forces. Moreover, this is a perfectly satisfactory life, not the life of beasts but of men and women who have a culture and a language, who think about the meaning of life and death, who express their views about the universe in art, have developed a significant grasp of psychology and a respect for wisdom.

Whereas, to a Greek, such a life was the epitome of the barbarian -- so called, because when they spoke it sounded like, 'ba ba ba'.

Aristotle was hardly in a position to conduct such an investigation, nor did he perceive that it was necessary. Why?

The clue lies in the example which Aristotle gives and which you justly criticize: the idea that the relation between an individual man and the state is like that between a hand and the body. The obvious difficulty with this analogy is that the hand is not a substance, it cannot exist as a 'hand' while disconnected from the body, whereas a man is a substance. It follows, therefore, that the unity of the state is not the unity of a substance, as a genuine substance cannot be composed of other substances.

The unity of the state is organic. It is an essential part of the nature of man, according to Aristotle, to occupy a place in the social organism. You said in your email that you were originally hostile to Aristotle's view of man as a political animal but that you 'found ways in which his views are defensible'. The reason seems to be that Aristotle's view looks preferable to that of Hobbes. In my last email I expressed strong reservations about Hobbes' views about the 'state of nature'. However, I would not conclude that Aristotle is the only, or even the 'natural', alternative.

What is so wrong with the organic view? I could mention that phrases like 'the body politic' naturally trip of the tongues of extreme Right-wingers. But then a similar view is to be found in the various flavours of marxism. I recommend that you read (some time, I realize it's probably too late in view of the proximity of the exams) the famous essay by F.H. Bradley, 'My Station and Its Duties', from his book 'Ethical Studies'. Bradley is articulating an essentially Hegelian view, but he expresses it with greater clarity and persuasiveness than Hegel ever could. But he also realizes (in the same book!) that this view has serious shortcomings.

The issue also relates to 'positive liberty' vs 'negative liberty' which you have no doubt read about. Supporters of the organic/ Aristotelian/ Hegelian view would argue that man only becomes 'free' when he realizes his full potential, and to do this requires that he accepts the place assigned to him in the polis.

To live and flourish in a civilized society is to be more than just a component in the state organism or machine. It is to be a person. The concept of a 'person' is not a product of nature in any sense but a product of culture. From what I said about anthropology earlier you will gather that my view would be that human culture can exist, and exist fully, in the absence of a state -- which is not to say that human history would be as rich and as deep, or would even exist at all in the sense we would recognize, if external necessities had not given rise to the formation of states.

'Person' is also a moral concept. In his account of the virtues Aristotle says much that would be fully consistent with the view I am describing. This is perhaps the measure of the distance between contemporary 'virtue theory' and Aristotle's conception of the 'virtues' as that which makes men fit to occupy the station they have been assigned in the organic state.

One philosopher who doesn't get discussed much these days is John Macmurray. His Gifford Lectures, published as 'The Self as Agent' and 'Persons in Relation' make a powerful case for what he terms a 'personal' view of the state against the 'organic' view.

Going back over some of the other things you said, the Philoctetes objection looks far less convincing today than it would have done in Aristotle's time. It is perfectly possible, with the aid of modern technology, to live in solitude for long periods of time. The person who lives alone is a person by virtue of his or her culture. Enforced solitude can be very painful but it doesn't make you less of a person. Would it be possible to make the decision to discard civilized society, to give up one's 'personhood'? If it is possible, you wouldn't need solitude to realize that goal.

All the best,