The Ultimate Political Animal
December 1, 1997
Much time has been devoted to the study of how and why governments exist. This effort is required to understand America’s political and philosophical roots. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle pursued and ultimately answered this question in his work The Politics. Although written circa 335 B. C., the lessons taught about the natural state of politics reveal the immensely complex system of an organized civil government. To fully understand how a civilized city functions, it is important to look at the lessons great minds have taught us through their profound writings. Perhaps one of the most profound thoughts revealed in The Politics concerns the origin and nature of basic government–cities. "From these things it is evident, that the city belongs among the things that exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal" (1253a1-3).
Aristotle’s line from The Politics exemplifies two distinct but related points. The first part states that the formation of cities is natural; and the second deals with the idea that man is by his own nature a political being.
When Aristotle says, "…the city belongs among the things that exist by nature…" (1253a1-2), he is including the formation of cities along with other natural elements of mankind– such as the individual, the household, and the partnership. Each city begins as a collection of partnerships. These associations are the bonds that men create between each other as a result of their natural tendency to be social and interact. Aristotle explains this tendency in that "there is in everyone by nature an impulse toward this sort of partnership" (1253a29-30). The exception to Aristotle’s view is that of the man who is not inclined by nature to be part of the city or a partnership. "He who is without a city through nature rather than chance is either a mean sort [beast] or superior to man [god]…" (1253a4-5). This man is regarded as bloodthirsty, vengeful, and dangerous (1253a6-7). Further, the man who is without a city is either above or below other men for th
e reason that his innate difference poses a threat to the welfare of the city. That is to say, this man’s anti-social nature does not allow him to be a part of the city; and because it is the city that makes human beings, he will never be a complete human being. His tendency for war and violence is harmful to the purpose of the city which is to make men, not destroy them. The man who is without a city by nature thereby cannot be associated in any way with the city. This leads him to be regarded as not being human and is therefore either a beast or a god.
Partnerships are natural because man is not inclined to be self-sufficient on his own merits. A man cannot exist merely for his own sake and expect to be a functioning member of the city but must be supplemented through the thoughts and ideas of other men. To be sure, a man must experience interaction with others to more fully complete his existence. This supplementation is the essence of partnerships because dealing with other men increases each man’s own wholeness. Furthermore, by listening to the thoughts and ideas of other men, he is furthering his own proclivity, enabling him to be active in the city and therefore, becoming a human being. It is only through the city, however, that man can truly be complete because it "…reaches a level of full self-sufficiency, so to speak…" (1252b29). That is to say the collection of partnerships that comprise the city serve to keep it productive. It makes men into complete human beings and assists them on their way to happiness.
As Aristotle puts it, "Every city, therefore, exists by nature, if such are the first partnerships" (1252b30-31). Aristotle asserts that the city, because it is made up of different partnerships which are natural, becomes self-sustaining without outside help. "The partnership arising from [the union of] several villages that is complete is the city…" (1252b28-29). The completeness of these partnerships refers to every man joining together to produce the city. No one can be excluded. In Aristotle’s opinion, cities are not created, they already exist; it is just a matter of forming the partnerships to find it and its rewards.
Men need each other to form the city, and in turn, live a good life. Aristotle articulates this idea about the city as "… while coming into being for the sake of living, it exists for the sake of living well" (1252b29-30). Aristotle asserts that although the city functions to sustain life, it also exists for man to live a good and worthwhile existence. The good life, or as Aristotle puts it, living well, is defined by man reaching his ultimate goal–achieving happiness. This is a level of excellence for man because it means that he will not only survive but will thrive after becoming fully human and therefore happy.
Since the natural purpose of man is to be as comprehensively human as possible, and the natural purpose of the city is to make men human, Aristotle says that this process of making the city is natural. The difficulty of this process is the nature in which the city goes about developing the human. It is difficult because it relies on the relationships men have with each other. They must come together and complete each other to fulfill their purpose just as individual pieces join together to complete a puzzle. In Aristotle’s world, the importance of the individuality of men is not initially significant because everyone lives to be part of the city. In other words, because the city makes human beings, man must exert all of his efforts to participate and interact in the city. It is only after being part of the city that man, becoming a complete human, will be able to reap the rewards of total excellence in life and happiness.
Another reason that the city is natural is that "the city is thus prior by nature to the household and to each of us" (1253a20). The city is above the individual or the household in importance because only the city can make men into complete human beings. The individual and the household do not provide man with the wide range of experience that he can acquire through being part of the city. This is because reason and thought are exercised more often in the city. Man must use his reason more frequently in the city to be able to contend with the other men so as to fully participate. Reason cannot develop and flourish in the household because man is the household’s sole ruler. Contrarily, in the city, man rules and is ruled in turn. "In most political offices, it is true, there is an alteration of ruler and ruled, since they tend by their nature to be on equal footing and differ in nothing…" (1259b2-6). Aristotle says that man is ruled and ruler alternately becau
se in the city, unlike the household, every man is usually equally capable of taking a leadership position. In the household, the man alone rules, thus he has no competition or adversary to contend with and does not need to exercise his reasoning as readily as in the city.
The city is also natural because "…nature does nothing in vain…" (1253a8-9), or in other words, everything created naturally serves a specific purpose. Even if the individuals, the men, seem to live simply to complete their lives and achieve happiness, they can only do so by contributing to the city’s perpetuation, which will develop their humanity. Thus, since the city exists for men to become human, that is its specific purpose. It is considered natural.
Man is said to be a "political animal" naturally because of his innate inclination to take part in the affairs of the city and become a human being. Because the word "political," in this case refers to all things public, being a political animal means that man is innately drawn to dealing with other men when it comes to the city and what should be done within it. Nature, because it does nothing in vain, naturally equips man with a distinct quality that animals lack–the ability to speak. Speech differentiates man from animal because it gives men the capacity to think, reason, and "…reveal the advantageous and the harmful, and hence the just and the unjust…" (1253a14-15). That is to say, the ability to speak serves to enhance the process of becoming human. Man can share ideas, thoughts, and feelings in reference to what is good or bad, right or wrong. By talking about what is held to be just or unjust, man defines the limits and tolerances of the c
ity and establishes rule. This discussion enables men to reach consensus on these issues. Thus, these agreements set the standard for what is acceptable and good for the given city. By listening to and discussing the thoughts of others, and coming to agreement, men form the essence of the city and household: partnerships. Aristotle supports this by saying "… and partnership in these things is what makes a household and a city" (1253a18-19). Speech, while distinguishing man from animals and thereby confirming his rule over them, furnishes men with the capability to make prudent decisions for themselves and those they rule. Without communication, the city would not function, resulting in chaos. "For just as man is the best of the animals when completed, when separated from law and adjudication he is the worst of all" (1253a31-33). Aristotle is maintaining that nature’s gift of speech to men prevents them from wreaking havoc upon themselves and the natural world.
Despite its age, the insight The Politics commands regarding the logic of the formation of cities is certainly relevant in today’s complicated political world. Aristotle assessed what he deemed to be the true purpose of human beings, achieving a level of utter happiness. Although seemingly contradictory to the modern perception of politics, Aristotle looks upon the nature of the affairs of the public as a means to an end. This end concentrates on the outcome of each man as opposed to the recent viewpoint that politics is a struggle for the benefit of institutions, ideas, and organizations. Perhaps if modern governments adopted Aristotle’s school of thought, the world would be a more serene place to live.
Mindy McLaughlin is a freshman from Ontario, Ohio majoring in Political Science.