Aristotle’s Politics Book I: “Man Is A Political Animal”

Since Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics can be said to address the question of the good as it pertains to a private person, and the Rhetoric is Aristotle’s teaching for a public person intent on persuasion, the Politics (literally meaning ‘things pertaining to the polis‘) can be said to represent a middle ground. Accordingly, politics occupies the space between private and public man. This space is highlighted in the tension between the city and man in Plato’s Republic. The lens through which we experience politics is the city, as Aristotle declares in the opening lines of Book I of the Politics:

“Since we see that every city is some kind of association, and every association is organized for the sake of some good (since everything everyone does is for the sake of something seeming to be good), it is clear that all associations aim at something good, and that the one that is most sovereign and encompasses all the others aims at the most sovereign of the goods. And this is the one called the city, the political association” (1252A 1-6).

In Aristotle’s writings we frequently receive imagery of ‘aiming’ and of ‘missing the mark’ (such as people trying to do good, or of people worthy of ridicule). Particularly at the beginning of his writings we proceed from commonly held beliefs (or doxa, “opinions”) and gradually we rise to a more rarefied perspective. In the Politics, we see at the outset a connection between Plato’s famous turn from the search for justice in the individual man to justice in the city (Book II of the Republic). It appears that every action is done in an effort to be good, and so the highest action, which is the aim of the city, must be aimed at the highest good. The city is an association that has been created by people, and since all associations aim at something good (per the Ethics) and the city is the most sovereign association, the city must aim at the most sovereign of the goods: justice. Note: the city is the most sovereign human associations, perhaps more sovereign than the temples and churches, and thus the city aims at a higher good. However, this does not mean that a city cannot miss the mark. The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany both aimed at the good (as far as modern nation states go) but both greatly missed the mark, as far as achieving the goodness and virtue for their people. Who is the legislator or lawgiver who is taking aim for the city?

Aristotle offers a polemic against those claim household management is akin to political rulership, or kingship (it is clear that he argues against Plato and Xenophon in this respect but does not reference either of them by name). Thus, to answer our earlier question regarding rulership, and who takes aim for the city, Aristotle suggests it is necessary to observe the broken down “components” of a city, to watch as they “grow” in order to “study them most beautifully.”

As he begins Aristotle notes a natural “pairing together” of people that are lacking. For example, male and female pair together for the sake of generation (without the whole created by both components, progeny is impossible). This happens by a “natural striving” (1252A 30). Similarly, Aristotle sees a nature to ruling, and those who are ruled for the sake of preservation. It follows that hierarchy is natural, as is human politics. There is no “state of nature” theory wherein pre-political man is imagined as if alone in the wilderness. So what is “natural” (or that which exists by nature) in Aristotle?

Rulership and hierarchy are natural. Rulers are those who have the power to “foresee by thinking” and the ruled (or slaves) are those that have the capacity work with their bodies. It is advantageous for both to “pair” together with one another, as each lacks what the other offers. Note: Aristotle says the female is different from a slave (i.e. not necessarily someone to be ruled), though this fact is true among the barbarians (recall the descriptions of foreign customs, like the bridal markets of Babylon, in Herodotus’s ‘Inquiries‘). At any rate, the household preserves this symbiotic relationship between the ruler and the ruled, followed by the “village” which is a colony of households, and also mirrored by cities and nations. Aristotle says this is why kings emerged, as a result of hereditary rule among households. So early man lived according to the Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey -isolated and lawless, like monsters and criminals. Aristotle says that for this reason “all people” claim the gods are ruled by kings (notice Aristotle does not, himself, make such a bold claim about the gods, though an argument can be made that he is included among “all people”).

Thus, the city emerges as a collection of villages. The city “gets to the threshold of full self-sufficiency” (1252B 30) because it comes into being for the sake of living, but exists for the sake of living well (in this passage Aristotle points to his delineation of the four causes as elsewhere in the Physics and the Metaphysics. Both the first, or material cause and the final or teleological cause of the city -as he notes some causes may blend into one another- is for the sake of living, while the third or efficient cause of the city is for the sake of living well). The natural city (in echoing the Metaphysics) is not the materials from which it is formed, but rather the composite whole of the form for which it is striving to grow into. The prior imaginary genesis of the city from a certain fabled “state of nature” is ancillary the question of what the city is striving to grow into becoming. For Aristotle, this natural striving for a human association is for “full self-sufficiency.” This is akin to the “True, or Healthy City” described by Socrates with Adeimantus in Book II of the Republic, before Glaucon interrupts and demands luxury for the city, and thus it needs to grow beyond its means. Self-suffiency, or perhaps what Nietzsche would call the strength to endure and overcome itself, is the final and also best cause of the city.

Any human being who is not a part of the city is surely lawless and bent on war, “like an unpaired piece on a checker-board.” A man without a city is either “insignificant” (as in the case of Shakespeare’s Caliban in The Tempest who is not recognized as a human and is enslaved) or he is “more powerful than a human being” and therefore without laws, other humans, and wholly unrecognizable to citizen-man like Odysseus’s encounter Cyclops in the Odyssey. In the course of this discussion, Aristotle makes his famous claim (sometimes translated as “man is, by nature, a political animal”):

“Why a human being is an animal meant for a city, more than every sort of bee and every sort of herd animal, is clear. For nature, as we claim, does nothing uselessly, and a human being, alone among the animals, has speech. And while the voice is a sign of pain and pleasure, and belongs also to the other animals on that account (since their nature goes this far, to having a perception of pain and pleasure and communicating these to one another), speech is for disclosing what is advantageous and what is harmful, and so too what is just and unjust. For this is distinctive of human beings in relation to the other animals, to be alone in having a perception of good and bad, just and unjust, and the rest, and it is an association involving these things that makes a household a city. And a city is more primary by nature than a household, and more primary than each of us, for the whole is necessarily more primary than its parts. For if the whole is done away with, there will not be a foot or a hand, except in an ambiguous sense, as if one were able to speak of a hand made of stone (for once it has been disabled it will be like that); but all things are defined by their work and potency, so when they are no longer of the sort defined they cannot be called the same things except ambiguously. So it is clear both that the city is by nature and that it is more primary than each person, for if each person is not self-sufficient when separate, he will be in a condition similar to that of other parts in relation to the whole, and one who is no part of a city, either from lacking the power to be in an association or from needing nothing on account of self-sufficiency, is for that reason either a beast or a god” (1253A 7-29).

This Aristotle’s famous and controversial claim of natural right, and it originates within a discussion arguing against a parallel between ruling a household versus ruling a city, and the discussion brought to light the final and best cause of the city as self-sufficiency, and as further justification for his claim Aristotle raises the issue of parts and wholes. Echoes of John Donne run throughout this passage as “no man is an island, entire of itself,” and similarly man is like a honey bee or a herd animal, only he is superior in his capacity for “speech” which is not the mere ‘means of communication’ (as this is the meager means by which beasts share their howling cries of pain and pleasure) but rather it points to an underlying conception of being, an articulated logos, such as good and bad, or just and unjust. This unique awareness makes man especially fit for the city, the height of political association. Thus, the “impulse toward this sort of association is in all people by nature, but the first person to have organized one was responsible for the greatest of goods” (1253A 30). Justice belongs in a city as a bringer of order. It is meaningless and chaotic elsewhere.

Next, Aristotle returns to household management which requires skill at: 1) mastering slaves (the modern world knows this to mean technology), 2) marriage, and 3) child-rearing. Later, Aristotle mentions a fourth and a fifth: possession acquisition and the ownership of tools (both are instruments of action).

Next, Aristotle addresses the question of slavery. There are many forms of ruling and being ruled. The kind of ruling is better when those ruled are better in “harmony.” It is better to examine these people who are by nature of their virtue, rather defective or corrupt people who are ruled by their bodily appetites. The first place to gain insight into a master and slave is an animal: as Aristotle relates elsewhere in the Physics, it is better for the soul to rule over the body, and for the intellect to rule over the feeling parts of a human, rather than the other way around. It is the same in humans and animals, for tame animals are better than wild ones.

What is a slave? Aristotle says: “For someone is by nature a slave if he is capable of belonging to another person (and hence also does belong to another person), and if he shares in reason only to the extant of perceiving it but not of having it” (1254B 22-26). Animals are ruled by their feelings and passions, not reason, and a slave is similar in certain respects. In light of modern notions of slavery, it is important here to note that Aristotle’s conception of a slave is of one with inferior intellectual capacities, not on the basis of racial or ethnic dominance (i.e. not the tyrannical rule of force). Aristotle’s “slave type” (as Nietzsche might refer to it) is consistent with certain aspects of modern law which require someone to be “mentally competent” to own property, enter into contracts, or otherwise permitted to control one’s own life. Nature has designated some upright men fit for political life, and others strong for necessary labors, thus it is necessary and just for some people to rule and others to be ruled. It should be noted that some people can become enslaved as a matter of law (such as conquered peoples) but this is a “terrible thing” according to many but when a master and slave rule according to their virtue, there is a kind of “friendship” but when friendship is not present, master and slave are ruled by and force. Any type of slavery that is not based upon intellectual defects it is disadvantageous for both master and slave -a source of mutual hostility and hatred.

That being said, the household is ruled like a monarchy, while the city is rulership over both free and slave peoples. A key to successful household management (in allusion to Xenophon’s Oeconomicus) is provisioning, or distributive justice, an economic concern, as wealth may gained, distributed, and balanced. Acquisition and provisioning are the natural skills needed for household management. Wealth is a quantitative measure of currency, and currency is the common language of commerce, a more vulgar and physical reflection of justice among and between citizens (and citizen craftsmen, for example, are different by nature slaves.

Thus, since the parts of the household have been discussed and delineated it is necessary for Aristotle to spell out the types of regimes in Book II, since the household is a part of the regime, and the people of the household will be educated with a view to the regime since the moral character of people (women and children) is critical to future of the city.

For this reading I used Joe Sachs’s masterful translation of Aristotle’s Politics.

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