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What does Aristotle's statement "man is a political animal" mean?

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Aristotle's statement "man is a political animal" reflects his belief that human beings naturally form communities and states, driven by their inherent need to congregate for the common good. He posits that this trait sets humans apart from other animals, as they are the only species endowed with the gift of speech and the awareness of concepts like good, evil, justice, and injustice. Thus, the formation of a state, for Aristotle, represents the pinnacle of human development.

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Aristotle, judging by his writings, was extremely interested in contemplating the nature of man, that most intractable of subjects. Man’s role in society and the motivations that drive him to act in certain ways under certain conditions clearly held a great fascination for him.  Indeed, his two great works, Politics, believed to have been written about 350 B.C., and Nicomachean Ethics, written about 340 B.C., include protracted and well-reasoned discussions regarding this very question. It was in the earlier of those two works, Politics, in which Aristotle penned one of his most well-known and oft-cited quotes, that “man is by nature a political animal.” In beginning his protracted rumination of politics and the nature of man, and placing Aristotle squarely in the context in which he lived – in effect, a learned citizen of ancient Greece – he first ponders the manner in which man forms communities, and how those communities are structured.  Hence, his opening comments:

“Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always acts in order to obtain that which they think good.  But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.”

Having established his position with regard to the manner in which man congregates and forms communities and their political corollary, the state, Aristotle then delves deeper into the nature by which animals in general, and man in particular, form such communities.  Animals naturally form communities; man is an animal; states, collections of individual villages, are political entities; therefore, man is a political animal.  To again quote Aristotle on this point in Book 1 of Politics:

“. . .it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. . .Now, that man is more of a political animal than bees or any other gregarious animals is evident. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech. . .And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust . . . and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.”

In conclusion, then, by his comments, Aristotle is arguing that man is an animal, albeit a more highly-developed one, and that, like all animals, is driven to congregate, and that the formation of the state represents the highest form of development.

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