Man: The Political Animal?

June 20, 2009

by Gene Callahan

I recently saw a prominent anarchist saying, in effect: “Look, we can all go wrong — after all, one of the greatest thinkers in history called man ‘the political animal.'”

This statement, I think, exhibits a common misunderstanding of what Aristotle meant here. Man is a political animal, the Philosopher held, because he is the one animal that tries to order his social arrangements according to his sense of, and rational arguments about, the justice of those arrangements. Thus the anarchist, in debating the justice of the State, is illustrating, and not disputing, Aristotle’s point.

It is, in fact, Hobbes’s position that the anarchist should dispute — if man is not naturally a political animal, then justice is just a creation imposed on the natural human exogenously, and there really is no arguing against the justice of the Leviathan — there simply is no justice in the absence of whatever it defines as just!’

35 Responses to “Man: The Political Animal?”

  1. Bogdan Enache Says:

    This is a very complicated issue, and one that fully captures the intricate relationship between a certain language and ideas/concepts/thinking.

    Aristotle describes man in “Politics” as “zoon politikon” or “politikon zoion”” which literally means “a living organism which exists in society”/”a social animal” or a “a being which lives in the polis”. However, it’s important to know that the old Greeks distinguished between “zoe” (the simple act of living or being, “life” in a rather biological sense for our system of meaning) and bios (which is the specific way life can take in the case of a group or and individual). Thus for, instance, man was not the only zoon, the Gods were also zoe, a form of life, just like the rocks, the mountains, the rivers, the mythological centaurs and so on were also zoe. The concept converd both organic and inorganic lifeforms, human, divine or mithological creatures.

    The referent of the “zoon politikon” definition of man is not politics in the modern sense, but rather society, the social sphere in its broad meaning. Moreover it isn’t even a definition whose referent is politics in the broad meaning it had for the old Greeks, which covered most of what we consider to be a separate social sphere today. Zoon politikon it’s simply a definition in which the attribute politike is the differencia specifica which distinguish man-as-zoe from the broader zoe genus.

    The same is true for the other defition of man given by Aristotle in “Politics” and the “Nicomachean Ethics”, namely “zoon logon echon”, translated in Latin as “animal rationale”. It’s just a way of logically distinguishing the specie man or human being from the genus “zoe”, through a differencia specifica, in this case “logon echon” (open to the use of language/reason) or, in the previous case, polike (existing in society, in the polis).

    But the political man for Aristotle is not simply the zoon politike. The goal of political life, of the polis, is not simply living (zen), but a certain form of living (bios), more precisely, lliving according to what is Good. Thus, in “Politics”, Aristotle directly contrasts the simple fact of living (to zen) with living politically (to eu zen – “to live according with good). The political man, the man who lives in the polis, is neither the “oikonomos” (the chief of a clan) nor the despotes (the chief of the familly) since both are simply concerned with natural living, with “zoe”.

    This is why when Aristotle distinguishes the different ways of living a good life in the “Nicomachean Ethics” he doesn’t use the word “zoe” but “bios”, life or existence of a specific qualitative form. Thus he distinguishes between contemplative life (“bios theoretikos”), a life of pleasures (“bios apolaustikos”) and a political life (“bios politikos”).

    In the case of Hobbes, the goal of politics is not living according to what is Good. The whole presumption that man is naturally oriented towards what is good which is commonplace for the ancient philosophers no longer exists. In fact, the philosophical presumption regarding man’s moral inclinations is quite the opposite. Therefore, the goal of politics in Hobbes view is simply to minimize evil. Whence the whole interest in limiting power which characterizes much of modern political philosophy. Hobbes’s anthropological pessimism is derived in turn from a different conception of political man. as Machiavelli illustrated before him, the modern political man is only concern with a instrumental calculus of power, which will later become the utilitarian calculus between pain and happiness. The moderns lost the appreciation for reason or the neotic part of our intellectual faculties. Thus political philosophy became concerned only with dianoia, the analytical intellect in the language of the classical philosophers or the instrumental rationality in the language of today. This kind of analysis was seen as more realistic and more empirical than the classical one with its methaphiscal propensities.

  2. Bob Murphy Says:

    Who’s the prominent anarchist? Is it obvious and I’m the only one in the room who doesn’t get it?

    Anyway Gene, it seems your whole case rests on equating “politics” with “justice.”

    (A) Do you agree with me that you need that equality in order for your point to work?

    (B) If so, does Aristotle illustrate that opinion elsewhere? (I have no idea if he does or doesn’t.)

  3. gcallah Says:

    Bob, but my point is that this is what Aristotle means when he says man is a ‘political animal’ — he would call an anarchist society, where people meet and reason over the rules of justice without any ἄρχων, to be a political society. (And, contra Bogdan, it seems difficult to me to reconcile his equation of ‘political’ with social when Aristotle explicitly denies that bees and ants are political.

  4. gcallah Says:

    Just to clarify: as I understand Aristotle, he is not saying, ‘If you don’t have a State, you can have no justice’ (that’s Hobbes), he’s saying ‘If you are discussing justice, then you are engaged in politics.’

    More clarification: I looked up the quote, and what Aristotle says is that man is more of a political animal than bees, etc. — not quite what I said above, but good enough to make the point, since bees and ants are clearly more social than humans, but, the Philosopher insists, less political — so clearly we cannot equate the two.

  5. gcallah Says:

    By the way, Bogdan, I can read enough Greek that if you wrote all of the above in the Greek alphabet and didn’t translate, I would get you fine, but that’s about it. And I suspect no one else who might enter this conversation has more Greek than me. So you really can’t conduct a dispute here on the level of Greek translation — that would have to be done with a society of Greek scholars. If all of the translators have this wrong, then you have to make your case to that community — here, we have to deal with the English translations.

  6. Bogdan Enache Says:

    Only human being form a polis, and the concept polis as well as the derived term politike include in their sphere both politics as we understand it today and many things that we regard today as social but not necessarily political. Consequently, I don’t see how the notion of polis or politike can have anything to do with bees or any other form of zoe (life) since by definition man is the only being (zoon) who lives in the polis (zoon politikon). The whole ambiguity of the Aristotelian definition of man as a political animal resides in the different concept of politics we have today. A better translation of zoon politikon in today’s language would be social animal.

    Whether Aristotle would have considered a society without archon or magisterium (public office) a political society is a separate question and one which has very little support in his writings precisely because the notion that politics and society are different things, two different spheres of human life regulated by different principles was unknown to the ancients. Almost anything except the most trivial things that we consider today to be part of the private sphere were back then part of the sphere of the polis. I’ve read an article by Fred Miller where he tends to argue the contrary with regard to Aristotle’s thought but I’m not convinced.


  7. Very interesting. But is there not a corollary — that justice may be thinner or thicker depending on the flow of discourse?

    I find it interesting also to consider the highly volatile scenarios — a fascist state with a robust resistance movement developing against it, a cluster of anarchists surrounded by a hive, a religious minority in a theocracy opposed to its religion.

    These are not ideal scenarios. But perhaps an ideal justice requires some degree of turbulence to keep political skills sharp.

  8. Bogdan Enache Says:

    I’m not an expert on ancient Greek either, but in this case more than in other cases an ad litteram translation doesn’t work because it betrays the meaning the terms had back then. There’s even a difference in the meaning that Greek concepts took when they were translation into Latin. The change in meaning of these concepts, on the other hand, gives a measure of the differences in societies across time. Even when they’ve adopted the same words and a clear influence can be traced from one to the other, the meaning of these words changed and the institutions these ideas gave birth to were different from the original model, as is the case for instance with the modern and the ancient democracy.

  9. Gene Callahan Says:

    “A better translation of zoon politikon in today’s language would be social animal.”

    But, no, that’s the point I’ve been making — bees and ants are more social than humans, but less political, so that is not a better translation. As for your contention that the term political simply cannot apply to animals, that is easily disproved by the fact that Aristotle calls bees, ants, wasps and cranes political animals as well.

  10. Bob Murphy Says:

    Gene wrote:
    As for your contention that the term political simply cannot apply to animals, that is easily disproved by the fact that Aristotle calls bees, ants, wasps and cranes political animals as well.
    Now you lost me. Aristotle thinks bees and ants discuss justice?

  11. Gene Callahan Says:

    “I’m not an expert on ancient Greek either…”

    Then don’t you find something a little odd in your declarations that all of these people who are experts in ancient Greek have translated Aristotle wrongly?

  12. Bogdan Enache Says:

    Let’s go back to the text. The relevenat passage for our discussion is Politics 1253a 1-18 (I’m taking it from Carnes Lord translation, Chicago University Press, 1984):

    From these things it is evident, then, that the city belongs among the things that exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. He who is without a city through nature rather than chance is either a mean sort or superior to man; he is “without clan, without law, without hearth,” like the person reproved by Homer. for the one who is such by nature has by this fact a desire for war, as if he was an isolated piece in a game of chess. That man is much more a political animal than any kind of bee or any herd animal is clear. For, as we assert, nature does nothing in vain; and man alone among the animals has speech. The voice [ of the bees, animals in general] indeed indicates the painful or the pleasant, and hence is present in other animals as well; for their nature has come this far, that they have a perception of the painful and pleasent and indicate these things to each other. But speech serves to reveal the advantageous and the harmful, and hence also the just and the unjust. For it is peculior to man as compared to the other animals that he alone has a perception of good and bad and just and unjust and other things of this sort; and partnership in these things is what makes a household and a city.

    Clearly, bees, ants or any other animal (and to a certain extent the barbarians as well – i.e. those who stammer, in the old greek)are neither more social nor more political than human beings who live in the polis – that is, in the end, civilised human beings, not least because there is in fact no difference between the social and the political sphere in Aristotle’s and the ancient Greek’s worldview: the two are inextricably fused togethered.

    As stated by Aristotle in the passage above, on the other hand, everything in nature has a purpose (telos) oriented towards the good (agathon). Consequently, there is such a thing as natural goodness and natural virtue (arete) aside from the natural good of man and the things of the polis. The bees have their own telos, and as part of that telos, they form communities, and as part of their telos other animals feel pain. But only man’s telos allows him acces to more than all this – he is not reduced to voice as the beasts/animals; he is opened to the logos, to speech and speculative reason. This is why man occupies a middle position in the world, between beasts/animals and God/s, the later being pure logos, pure reason (the common translation in other languages of the paragraph “…mean sort or superior to man…” in the second phrase quoted above is usually “…either beast or God…” as far as I know). As you can see, there is nothing special about bees or any other animal for Aristotle, no matte how much one might like bees, or dogs, or – say – horses. But man is truely special, for he is opened to the logos and his final telos, the achievement of the full good, of teleion agathon, elevates man almost besides the Gods, the Pure Logos, The Pure Reason(God in the almost completely non-theological sense the concept had for the Greek philosophers).

  13. Bogdan Enache Says:

    “Then don’t you find something a little odd in your declarations that all of these people who are experts in ancient Greek have translated Aristotle wrongly”

    No, because I have some notions of classical Greek language, even though I do not have the ability of translating an entire text, even a short one, which will qualify me as an expert, good or bad; but more importantely, what I am saying is conventional wisdom among classicists : the expression social animal might better describe today what Aristotle expressed through zoon politike; or, in any case, what we understand by political is quite different from what Aristotle understood by nthat term. The simple evidence for this is that the Greeks or the Romans for instance didn’t have a term for civil society, which we consider today to be a sp[here between the state and the private individual sphere. In fact, civils society – societas civils – was for the Romans the equivalent translation for the Greek/Aristotelian koinone politike (“political community”) and civitas was simply the translation into Latin of polis, although the term civitas took a different meaning later in the Roman context. Anyway, this inversion of meaning with regard to civitas since the Antiquity gives a pretty good measure of the hermeneutical evolution of these highly symbolic and used words as well as a good measure of their semantic ambiguity across time.

  14. Gene Callahan Says:

    “That man is much more a political animal than any kind of bee or any herd animal is clear.”

    So this proves my point, and you are wrong that ‘political’ cannot apply to bees, herd animals, etc.

    “are neither more social nor more political than human beings who live in the polis – that is, in the end, civilised human beings, not least because there is in fact no difference between the social and the political sphere in Aristotle’s and the ancient Greek’s worldview”

    So, you are trying to prove your opint that the social and political are to be equated through an argument that assumes the social and political are equated!

    Look, Bogdan, as I see it, you are just saying the same thing again and again while paying no attention to what I say — you are hear giving a lecture, not engaged in dialogue.

  15. Gene Callahan Says:

    “Now you lost me. Aristotle thinks bees and ants discuss justice?”

    Bob, there is ambiguity here, but a reasonable interpretation might be: Whiles bees and ants are to some extent political animals, the height of political activity, which is the rational discussion of justice, is never achieved by them.

    But, admittedly, he is less clear than we could wish here, which is why even interpretations like Bogdan’s are possible.

  16. Gene Callahan Says:

    “No, because I have some notions of classical Greek language…”

    Right, so your ‘notions’ top the wordings chosen by expert translators, hey?

    “in any case, what we understand by political is quite different from what Aristotle understood by that term.”

    Which was the very point I was making in the first place — so thanks for taking up ten screens of text to say it again.

  17. Bogdan Enache Says:

    I’m sorry for giving the impression of giving a lecture – I wouldn’t be qualified; I’m also sorry for trumpeting my vague notions of classical Greek acquired in religion and Latin classes during secondary school and high school, especially for doing so in a discussion about Aristotle for whom, at least some people think so, suspecting motives was an inexcusable substitute for giving larguments. Mea culpa, and let’s forget about this.

    However, please show me the evidence – textual or exegetical, for such the following interpretation you wrote above of the paragraph about bees and zoon politikon in “Politics” 1253a, which, it seems to me, makes a very clear-cut distinction between political and social in Aristotle’s thinking, while I – it’s true – obsessively hold that for Aristotle there’s no difference :

    “But, no, that’s the point I’ve been making — bees and ants are more social than humans, but less political, so that is not a better translation. As for your contention that the term political simply cannot apply to animals, that is easily disproved by the fact that Aristotle calls bees, ants, wasps and cranes political animals as well.”

  18. Gene Callahan Says:

    No, but thanks anyway.

  19. dg lesvic Says:

    Since the free market is a self-regulating, self governing process, interference with it is not itself government but anti-government.

  20. dg lesvic Says:

    In other words, the free market is not anarchy but the only real government, and, what we call government, anti-government.

  21. dg lesvic Says:

    And, there is no politics in the free market.

    So, political man is really an anarchist.

  22. Gene Callahan Says:

    dg lesvic:

    1) Three one sentence comments can usefully rolled up into one;
    2) How will the rules for what is allowed on “the free market” be set?

  23. dg lesvic Says:

    The free market implies communities as businesses, competing like any others, and, public administration, business administration, the rules of the community the rules of the business, subject to the democracy of the market and “sovereignty” of the consumers, choosing one community over another as one business over another.

  24. gcallah Says:

    But, dg lesvic, communities are quite obviously not businesses, any more than a family is a business. Furthermore, within a community, how are the “rules” adopted to be determined? If that is done via rational discussion amongst the members of the community about which rules are just, then, for Aristole, those communities are polities.

  25. dg lesvic Says:

    To say that communities are not businesses is not to say that they could not be.

    I submit that in a completely free market they would be.

    Rather than a municipality of Los Angeles, there would be The Los Angeles Land Holding Corporation, the Van Nuys Land Holding Corporation, the Burbank Land Holding Corporation, all competing for residents, like any other private businesses.

    Each company would make its own rules. And just as you had the options of a PC or a Macintosh, And if you didn’t like those of one community, you would have the options of others, just as you have the options of a PC or a Macintosh.

    We see some competition among localities now, with residents of California moving to Nevada, and of Asia to Amerioa.

    But that is competition only among states.

    Suppose there was competiton between states and private entities.

    Which would you be likely to choose?

    Could any socialistic “business” compete with a private one for your patronage?

  26. gcallah Says:

    Could any socialistic “wife” compete with a prostitute for your patronage?

  27. Subhadip Roy Says:

    The world’s greatest thinker is Karl Marx. He said that “people have tried to describe the world in different ways, however to change it for the better is the question.” I completely agree to this point. Aristotle says that state is the natural culmination of the desire for mankind to be superior to the rest of organisms. This is true but he did not go into any solutions. So one who gives the solution is also to be respected. Its application still may not be possible but time may come when we will get there.

  28. cashmill Says:

    all arguments here, are null and void

  29. Taukir Says:

    Hello Friends,

    Can anyone tell me or explain it,that, what is diffrence between man is a social animal and man is political animal ?
    Explain it asap.
    thanks

  30. will Says:

    Given, that humans are a political animal, 1253a, it does not follow that they are essentially parts of a political entity. Hypothetically, given that most humans cannot lead a good life without something, the conclusion that humans are essentially part of any particular entity does not necessarily follow, viz. it should no more lead to another conclusion.

  31. Kangwa Bwalya Says:

    Indeed man is a political animal as he is born for the state which is political in its nature due to the social contract that is created in the state, polis

  32. zloynn Says:

    why ANIMAL….??


  33. Homan is not a political animal. It is only political member that are seen as political animal


  34. According to the prospective aspect of my own view or see,the human are not political animal, so i disprove the say of human being a political animal . I remain Daniel Ilesanmi a native of igarra


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