Aristotle 26

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What did Aristotle mean by saying Man is a Political Animal?

“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 phronēsis[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 kômê, ruled by the most senior member....
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