Reimagining American Community

aristotle“Man,” said Aristotle, “is by nature a political animal.”

Wait.  No, he didn’t.  What he said was, “anthropos phusei politikon zoon,” and you might just as well translate that as “man is by nature an animal that lives in cities.”  We read it as saying something about– oh, voting, or constitutions, or Robert’s Rules of Order, or something like that, and it may well be, but that’s secondary.  What it is primarily is an observation about habitat.  The man was a biologist, after all.  Man lives in cities as birds live in nests, is what he was saying.  A bird might be able to survive in a cage in a cave, but it wouldn’t be expressing its essential birdiness, if it were doing that.

We might have some kind of a problem with this, if we are, for example, agrarians, fond of Wendell Berry and Russell Kirk.  We might also be a bit baffled.  Athens, to which the seventeen-year-old Aristotle went go to school and possibly to get away from his father’s high-society medical practice in Stagyra, was not a city that was part of an urbanized world– not like our world, where more than fifty percent of us do live in cities.

Indeed, the whole batch of them– Socrates-and-Plato-and-Aristotle– come only two or three chapters from the beginning of your world history textbook, and the first chapter was about people schlepping around in nomadic tribal groups and eating berries and… antelope and things.  And there were, one gets the impression, still lots of these antelope-eating schleppers around when Aristotle was writing– weren’t they the ones he called “barbarians?” Didn’t he know that he was only a couple of dozen pages away from the time when everyone lived like that, including his own ancestors?  Would he have said that his own ancestors weren’t human?

That’s not the kind of “by nature” he has in mind, though.  One’s nature could fail to be fulfilled– and this was very frequently the case, for Aristotle.  Men who lived outside cities were… not really men, because they were not living into the telos, the purpose, of their human nature.  “The nature of a thing,” he explained, “is its end. For what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature, whether we are speaking of a man, a horse, or a family…”

Well, can we agree with that?  That what human beings are when they are fully developed, are creatures that live in cities?

There’s something true, something right, but also something mysteriously alien here, which comes into sharp relief when he begins to talk about slavery.  And the subtle alienness of his ideas about slavery ought to make us question the more familiar ideas that sound more correct to us: for example, that a state whose citizens take it in turn to rule is a “higher” type of state than a kingdom ruled by a king.  We read something like that and nod happily– but how can the same man say something like that, who also says that some men are born to be ruled by others, which must, by his definition, mean that it is in the nature of some men not to fulfill their own natures?

As you read this snippet from one of the foundational works of Western political philosophy, let the following questions rattle around in your brain:

  1. Is it true that, as Aristotle claims here, that the “state or political community” is the highest of all communities, and aims at the highest good?  If it’s not true, what is the highest community?
  2. Can you be a properly fulfilled human being if you don’t live in a city?  Is there a kind of good life that you can have in a city that you can’t have elsewhere?
  3. Is there some kind of connection between Aristotle believing that there is no higher community than the state; that really in order to be properly fulfilled person you have to be a citizen of a state that is definitely not a monarchy; and that some people are naturally born to be slaves?


From Politics, Aristotle, c. 350 BC (trans. Benjamin Jowett)

Book One, Part I:

Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always act 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.

 Some people think that the qualifications of a statesman, king, householder, and master are the same, and that they differ, not in kind, but only in the number of their subjects. For example, the ruler over a few is called a master; over more, the manager of a household; over a still larger number, a statesman or king, as if there were no difference between a great household and a small state. The distinction which is made between the king and the statesman is as follows: When the government is personal, the ruler is a king; when, according to the rules of the political science, the citizens rule and are ruled in turn, then he is called a statesman.

 But all this is a mistake; for governments differ in kind…We must therefore look at the elements of which the state is composed, in order that we may see in what the different kinds of rule differ from one another, and whether any scientific result can be attained about each one of them.

Part II:

He who thus considers things in their first growth and origin, whether a state or anything else, will obtain the clearest view of them. In the first place there must be a union of those who cannot exist without each other; namely, of male and female, that the race may continue (and this is a union which is formed, not of deliberate purpose, but because, in common with other animals and with plants, mankind have a natural desire to leave behind them an image of themselves), and of natural ruler and subject, that both may be preserved. For that which can foresee by the exercise of mind is by nature intended to be lord and master, and that which can with its body give effect to such foresight is a subject, and by nature a slave; hence master and slave have the same interest. Now nature has distinguished between the female and the slave. For she is not niggardly, like the smith who fashions the Delphian knife for many uses; she makes each thing for a single use, and every instrument is best made when intended for one and not for many uses. But among barbarians no distinction is made between women and slaves, because there is no natural ruler among them: they are a community of slaves, male and female. Wherefore the poets say,

 “It is meet that Hellenes should rule over barbarians; “

 as if they thought that the barbarian and the slave were by nature one.

 Out of these two relationships between man and woman, master and slave, the first thing to arise is the family, and Hesiod is right when he says,

 “First house and wife and an ox for the plough, “

 for the ox is the poor man’s slave. The family is the association established by nature for the supply of men’s everyday wants, and the members of it are called by Charondas ‘companions of the cupboard,’ and by Epimenides the Cretan, ‘companions of the manger.’ But when several families are united, and the association aims at something more than the supply of daily needs, the first society to be formed is the village. And the most natural form of the village appears to be that of a colony from the family, composed of the children and grandchildren, who are said to be suckled ‘with the same milk.’ And this is the reason why Hellenic states were originally governed by kings; because the Hellenes were under royal rule before they came together, as the barbarians still are. Every family is ruled by the eldest, and therefore in the colonies of the family the kingly form of government prevailed because they were of the same blood. As Homer says:

 “Each one gives law to his children and to his wives. “

 For they lived dispersedly, as was the manner in ancient times. Wherefore men say that the Gods have a king, because they themselves either are or were in ancient times under the rule of a king. For they imagine, not only the forms of the Gods, but their ways of life to be like their own.

 When several villages are united in a single complete community, large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing, the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life. And therefore, if the earlier forms of society are natural, so is the state, for it is the end of them, and the nature of a thing is its end. For what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature, whether we are speaking of a man, a horse, or a family. Besides, the final cause and end of a thing is the best, and to be self-sufficing is the end and the best.

 Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either a bad man or above humanity; he is like the

 “Tribeless, lawless, hearthless one, “

 whom Homer denounces- the natural outcast is forthwith a lover of war; he may be compared to an isolated piece at draughts.

 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 whereas mere voice is but an indication of pleasure or pain, and is therefore found in other animals (for their nature attains to the perception of pleasure and pain and the intimation of them to one another, and no further), the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and the unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the like, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.

 Further, the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part …The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole. But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state. A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature, and yet he who first founded the state was the greatest of benefactors. For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all; since armed injustice is the more dangerous, and he is equipped at birth with arms, meant to be used by intelligence and virtue, which he may use for the worst ends. Wherefore, if he have not virtue, he is the most unholy and the most savage of animals, and the most full of lust and gluttony. But justice is the bond of men in states, for the administration of justice, which is the determination of what is just, is the principle of order in political society.

About the Author
Born and raised on Manhattan, a small island in the Atlantic, Susannah Black received a degree from Amherst College and another one from Boston University. She has written for The Distributist Review, Front Porch Republic, Amherst Magazine, The L Magazine, and (in her young and foolish libertarian days) National Review. Having moved back to the New York area, she is now taking her stand in Central Queens, helping to run a sort of boarding facility/rental commune/household for her relatives and friends out of her great-grandparents’ big old house. She is also obsessed with tall ships and in the summers can be found helping to sail a schooner in New York Harbor. She blogs at