Aristotle said that "man is a political animal." How do men achieve such a status? How does understanding the "political animal" help us to understand Aristotle's theory of men and society?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Aristotle's suggestion that "man is a political animal" arises from his assertion that the political life is intrinsically superior to all other forms of existence. Aristotle's analysis as to how men achieved such a status rests in some basic tenets.  The first is that Aristotle concludes that a significant and differentiating aspect of human nature is the refinement of self- sufficiency: "Again, the object for which a thing exists, its end, is its chief good; and self-sufficiency is an end, and a chief good."  Self- sufficiency is seen as its own intrinsic good and something that man is able to achieve, making him different from all other organisms.  The establishment of self- sufficiency supports a larger definition of autonomy, the ability to self- determine one's being in the world through civic and political discourse.

Once Aristotle has claimed to establish the self- sufficient ends to which man aspires as part of his nature, political activity becomes a logical extension.  It is in this regard where "man is a political animal," making him different from the other animals:

From these things therefore it is clear that the city-state is a natural growth, and that man is by nature a political animal, and a man that is by nature and not merely by fortune citiless is either low in the scale of humanity or above it (like the “ clanless, lawless, hearthless” man reviled by Homer for one by nature unsocial is also ‘a lover of war’) inasmuch as he is solitary, like an isolated piece at draughts.

This is a significant element to Aristotle's construction of the political identity of man.  Aristotle does not see men as alienated and forlorn.  Rather, he believes that human beings are inherently part of communities and this communitarian setting is a political one.  

Aristotle views the political bonds that connect human beings as a reflection of how men are fundamentally different than animals. The need to establish political communities through speech, law, and legislation are what differentiates human beings from all other life on the planet:  "And why man is a political animal in a greater measure than any bee or any gregarious animal is clear. For nature, as we declare, does nothing without purpose; and man alone of the animals possesses speech." Aristotle asserts that the political life, the spirit of the political community, is where this distinctive nature of speech comes alive through its moral and political elevation.  Man is a political animal because of how this spirit animates the polis, making "the city-state is prior in nature to the household and to each of us individually."

Aristotle believes that "man is a political animal" through these arguments.  He sees human beings as intrinsically part of a community.  Through this, Aristotle defines consciousness through the ability to construct laws and legislation.  This ability to transform what is into what should be is why man is superior to all other creatures and how man is a political animal.

Aristotle's analysis concludes that the political life is superior to all other forms of life because it sees human beings in their true connected condition as opposed to being isolated and atomized.  Aristotle's view of politics helps us understand his theory of men as naturally inclined to do good through civic participation.  It helps encapsulate his view of society as organized through the public life centered around the polis, or "political community."  

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