Man is a Political Animal, Says Aristotle

Aristotle’s Politics begins by emphasizing that a polis is an association and that people associate in order to accomplish some goal, or “good” — something that they value or aspire to accomplish.


Aristotle asserts that “the association which is the most sovereign among them… will aim at the highest, i.e. at the most sovereign, of goods.” This seems far from self-evident to me, but maybe he’ll add some argument later.

As to what this most sovereign of goods is, my first instinct is to refer back to the Nicomachean Ethics. In that work, Aristotle emphasized that the good life is lived by practicing the virtues, the virtues are formed by habit and education, and habit can be influenced by punishment in those oblivious to education or whose education was neglected. He ended the Ethics by suggesting that legislators can govern society in such a way as to instill good habits in people from an early age and thus to increase the virtue, and thereby the happiness and fulfillment and prosperity, of the citizens.

I refer back in this way because, skimming forward, I don’t see that Aristotle is in any hurry to define or redefine what this good is. But maybe he’ll get to that.

Aristotle contrasts his conception of the state as an association with some other possible ways of considering the arrangement. He rejects the idea that the rulers of a state are more analogous to those who manage a household or to masters who manage the work and lives of slaves. He then proposes to decompose the state (and these other institutions) into its component parts in order to examine them more closely.

Aristotle then begins to take a look at households, and at the master/slave relationship, and in doing so he immediately begins to take for granted views that on first glance seem noxious today. I want to be very careful when Aristotle uses terms that get translated as “state”, “slave”, “citizen”, etc. that I do not casually import modern connotations that attach to those terms but that would not make sense in the ancient Greek context.

Slavery for example was practiced in different ways in different cultures and times. The way we practice slavery in the United States today, for instance, is very different in some important ways from how it was practiced in the United States two hundred years ago. And that in turn is very different from how it was practiced on the other side of the world. How slavery was practiced in ancient Greece is also likely to be different in important ways, and if we react to the word “slave” (for example) without noticing this, we may miss important nuance. I want to try to carefully distinguish how Aristotle is defining terms, especially terms that in translation carry a lot of baggage.

To Aristotle, the male/female relationship that formed the core of a household was a natural one. (This natural distinction is an important one for Aristotle. He always wants to examine us to see what nature intended for us, what natural niche we seem to be meant to inhabit, and to distinguish what is natural about us from what we have tacked on by artifice.) The association of a man and a woman is necessary to the continuance of the species. Man and woman require one another and are incomplete without each other.

Aristotle believed that master and slave had a similar mutual need. The master provided the intelligence and foresight, and the slave the raw horsepower. Neither was complete without the other; together they could get things done. They have, therefore, a common interest, work better together than apart, and that work is best accomplished by the master commanding and the slave obeying.

Aristotle sees the intelligence and foresight of masters as something that has only really developed among Greeks (which makes me wonder just how “natural” it could have been under his system). The barbarians have also mimicked male/female and master/slave roles, but this only amounts to slavish people pantomiming complete relationships among each other without actually accomplishing them.

Aristotle mentions slavery pretty matter-of-factly here, but will go into the subject in more detail in the following sections, so I’ll withhold further comment for now.

A household is the association of a man with his wife and his slaves (for a poor man, his slaves might be oxen rather than people).

A village also develops naturally, as new households form by “sons and grandsons” adjacent to the homes of their ancestors. And just as households tend to be ruled by their most senior male member, so villages tend to adopt rulership by kings, and so people tend also to adopt mythologies that put a male ruler at the top of the cosmic hierarchy.

I minored in women’s studies back in my college days, so I can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth about Aristotle’s assumption of patriarchy as natural and inevitable. It certainly seemed so to him, whether it be from ignorance of alternatives or from what he was able to determine from his studies of the cultures of his time and region. For now I’ll just leave it at that.

Following along this thread from household to village, the next step is the polis or (city-)state. It is also the last step: “For all practical purposes the process is now complete; self-sufficiency (autarkeia) has been reached.” It is somewhat surprising to me that Aristotle did not contemplate the joining of states into confederations and empires, or perhaps even further developments from there, especially as Alexander of Macedonia was at the time absorbing unprecedented hunks of territory under his dominion, a dominion that included Greek city-states. Maybe he felt such a thing was unnatural.

Aristotle insists that the polis itself, however, is “natural.” Here’s how he describes it and its purpose:

[W]hile the state came about as a means of securing life itself, it continues in being to secure the good life.… This association is the end of those others [the household and the village], and nature is itself an end; for whatever is the end-product of the coming into existence of any object, that is what we call its nature… Moreover the aim and the end is perfection; and self-sufficiency [autarkeia] is both end and perfection.

Autarkeia seems then like it will occupy a similar place of prominence here as eudaimonia did in the Ethics. It is translated “self-sufficiency” or “independence” in the translation I’m working with, but a footnote carefully advises me that Aristotle means much more than that; he means a state that operates toward the promotion of the virtues.

Why does it take a state to achieve autarkeia? Why cannot a village or a household accomplish it without joining a state? So far Aristotle does not tell us. But those questions seem like good ones to keep on hand.

“[M]an by nature,” Aristotle famously asserts next, “is a political animal” — a politikon zoön, the sort of animal whose natural habitat is a polis (not, that is, an animal who practices “politics” the way the term is conversationally used in English). His main evidence for this, at least at this point, is to note our power of speech. Unlike other animals who have much more limited vocalizations, we use speech “to indicate what is useful and what is harmful, and also what is just and what is unjust.” People use this to coordinate their beliefs about justice, and in doing so they are able to form associations like households and states that have aims in common. Our power of speech implies that we are naturally meant to have people around us to talk with, which suggests that we were meant to live among people and not isolated and independent from each other.

The polis is the culmination of humanity’s drive to associate; it is the highest and “most sovereign” association. Furthermore, given that we have this drive to associate, the associations that result become superior to us as individuals: we become parts of a whole, and the whole is greater than any of its parts. Aristotle gives an anatomical analogy, saying that the parts of the body cannot function without the body as a whole (a disembodied hand is a hopeless thing) and that the parts of the body serve the body as a whole. Similarly the people who make up a polis would be unable to reach their natural potential without it, and so they properly subordinate themselves to the needs of the polis in consequence.

The state is a boon to mankind, and its inventor should be praised, says Aristotle, as the state enables us to reach our highest potential. “For as man is the best of all animals when he has reached his full development, so he is worst of all when divorced from law and justice.” With the virtues, mankind is wonderful; without them, terrible. And the important virtue of justice “is a feature of a state,” that is to say, our sense of justice only comes into fruition when it is embodied in the processes and structures of the polis.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics