Reply To: The political animal


Dear Brendan,

You wrote “I find the philosophy of Aristotle to be particularly fascinating. However there are certain aspects that I seem to stumble over. Firstly the concept that man is a political being or animal. He says that the polis is prior to the individual. I understand by this not a desire to subjugate the individual or make the individual unimportant but rather merely to state that man is a social creature who associates by nature in societies, families, villages and other agreements. Man naturally moves towards some kind of society rather than living as an isolated hermit or individual. Would you say that that was a fair understanding of political Animal?”

GC. You have it pretty much correct. To say that man is a creature of the polis is to say that only there, in association with other human beings, can he be fulfilled.

You wrote: “The rule of this should not be done by a democracy but by a kind of aristocracy, but, if I understand correctly, we are not talking about an aristocracy by birth but really a class of people who are educated and able to reason effectively. ‘The aristocracy’ therefore refers to people who are effectively living the good life as Aristotle sees it. These are the ones who are to rule over the polis. Yet Aristotle speaks of people ruling in turns. I Don’t really follow this. How does he suggest that we rule in turns without going back either to a despotism and nepotistic ruling class, or falling back into democracy once again… Mob rule.”

GC. Aristotle believes that free men (Athenian citizens) should rule themselves. However, certain administrative tasks have to be undertaken so responsibility for these is taken by means of a kind of rota. Of course, some will want to perform these tasks, others will not; some will be qualified by expertise and ability to perform them, others will not. What Aristotle has in mind is a delicate balancing act, always in danger of falling off the wire to one side or another, into either despotism or mob rule.

You wrote: “By ‘slaves’ Aristotle does not refer to people that just happened to be working under the title ‘slave’ as many of them in Athens at the time could have been captured soldiers who are perfectly able to govern their own lives. A slave for Aristotle is a certain kind of person who is not capable of ruling themselves. How would this person be identified? Does anybody really walk around telling everybody that they are a slave? This sounds more than reminiscent of Friedrick Nietzsche and his concept of the slave and the master. The human being far from being honest with himself or about himself will never claim to be a person incapable of ruling. Somebody else must therefore lay that category upon the rest of the populous. Is this not a despot? is this not a dictator… A tyrant.”

GC. As I indicate in the lectures, Aristotle seems to have painted himself into a corner on the issue of slavery. It seems just too good to be true to suppose all those who are actual slaves in Athens are slaves by nature. The idea that society could function without slaves was practically inconceivable to our ancestors, just as to most people today the idea that we could survive without a tax-extracting state is similarly inconceivable.

You wrote: “Another problem I seem to have with Aristotle is the idea of the common good versus the individual using his own rationality in order to discover the good life. If the Purpose of the policy is to ensure the good life or the common good then how restrictive would it be upon the individual trying to discover for himself the good life? Am I to understand then that there is one good life that we are all to discover rather than a good life for each individual? An objective rather than a subjective good life? If this be the case would that not be a justification for the imposition of one particular kind of life… A tyranny that forces people to live the one, sacred, good life? I in fact, get the feeling that Aristotle is not saying this and that I am barking up the wrong tree I wonder if you could straighten me out here.”

GC. Some commentators on Aristotle take him to be saying that there is just one ideal type of life. This is, in a sense, correct, but it is not a matter of material detail but a matter of living one’s life according to reason which can, in the instance, practically differ from person to person.

You wrote: “Perhaps indeed he could be even hinting towards a libertarian idea of a polis leaving men free to rationally choose and providing a structure of law and order and respect of property and contract. If this is the case he doesn’t specifically say it does he?”

GC. No, he doesn’t come right out and say it but while his views would in certain respects be unacceptable to libertarians, in other respects they could find them quite congenial. In modern (and anachronistic) terms, his position would be reasonably close to a kind of minarchism, with elements of social conformism added to it.

Your questions are all very good and they, or variants of them, have occupied the attention of scholars for thousands of years.

Thank you for your Christmas good wishes. I hope you had a good break and that you come back to your studies (which you don’t seem to have left!) with renewed energy.

Best wishes,

Gerard Casey