Debate: Is Man a Political Animal?
Yes. Written by Ellie Neves. Edited by Matthew Byatt. Additional Research by Phil Wells.
Human nature: Some would argue that defining this is an impossible endeavour; surely humans are far too complex and unpredictable creatures to fit any rigid definition or label? Tensions have existed for years between those who see humans as self-interested, calculating individuals, or in fact social creatures with an in-built instinct for co-operation. These instincts are what drive us to survive in a world of limited resources, which throughout history has evidently to lead to either co-operation or conflict.
Aristotle’s famous words ‘man is by nature a political animal’ have attracted widespread debate and controversy for centuries. Standing the test of time, the statement draws on the uncomfortable debate surrounding individualism and collectivism, ringing uncomfortably in the ears of those who believe in ‘every man for himself’.
Understanding Aristotle’s words requires first an understanding of the ‘political’. The word ‘politics’ is derived from the Greek “polis” meaning city-state, so it is ultimately linked to society and communal living. For Aristotle, living in the city-state and thus engaging in the political activities is vital to the smooth running of that state is the inevitable end to mankind’s journey towards ‘the good life’. The nature of mankind for Aristotle is to strive for ‘the good life’, and thus humans form inevitable social ties which help secure this goal. They naturally form couples, then families and the household. These multiple households gradually form villages and then finally the city-state, or in other words the ‘polis’, whereby ‘politics’ occurs as the resolution of conflict through rational debate and argument. This view sees humans as rational creatures of co-operation, deliberation and striving for the common good.
Not everyone is convinced by Aristotle’s account of mankind however, arguing that a communal view of humans is far too narrow. Indeed, not everyone lives in a deliberative society, and perhaps not all humans would choose to live with others. Critics may also argue the view that all humans strive for the same common goal and share the same interests is incredibly flawed. It would seem that to question Aristotle’s view is a dilemma similar to that of the ‘chicken or the egg’; in other words, it is perhaps difficult to tell whether ‘politics’ is the man made solution to the clash of individual interests, or if ‘being political’ is the driving force behind man’s actions.
The answer perhaps lies in the striking observation that politics is undoubtedly a universal phenomenon. Human interests, traditions and values differ hugely across cultures and territory; striking environmental and cultural differences indeed make the case for the diversity of human interests. Yet the tendency to be political remains consistent; where language, climate and lifestyle are so diverse, all humans have in common is the instinctive desire to socialise, bargain, debate and compromise.
A simple glance at the modern world offers us vast amounts of evidence to support the case for our political roots. The sheer fact that government, tribes, monarchs and militaries have even formed is proof enough that humans operate politically. We are essentially bargaining beings; making deals and weighing up costs and benefits, because by doing so is the best means to survive in a competing world. Thus, just as the Acorn will only become an Oak, man is an inevitable political machine.
No. Written by Will Vittery. Edited by Matthew Byatt. Additional Research by Anna Dewhurst.
When justifying his claim that ‘man is by nature a political animal’, Aristotle argued that, ‘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’. This is a mistaken take on what is ‘natural’ to a human being. It suggests that simply by living in society is a political act, and argues that society is in itself natural – that man is almost biologically pre-determined to live in societies. Living in society does not necessarily make man political; it merely puts them in a political situation. Rather, society itself is completely man-made, the result of a rational human logic to improve chances in life. It started with early man recognising that by pooling resources and manpower life would become easier, and society has evolved and adapted through time and by culture since; societies differ greatly and should not be taken to be a completely uniform function of man. The development of societies can be seen therefore, historically as something that has evolved slowly out of the realisation of a rational need for them to do so, on man’s behalf. When Aristotle argues that man living in societies makes them naturally political, he is actually confusing natural instinct with rational logic. And whilst it can indeed be argued that rational logic is itself natural to man, it is, this does not in itself make political activity a natural act, it is only a secondary consequence of man’s nature and not therefore directly attributable to it.
Besides semantic and ontological issues, there are other faults with the notion of man as naturally political. The definition of ‘political’ is in itself important. Aristotle’s assessment of man as political is justified by his definition, but a deeper definition of ‘political’ is needed in order to avoid making the definition of the term so broad, rendering it meaningless. By ‘political’ we should mean the desire of man to take an active part in social affairs in society, not merely choosing to live in an environment in which political actions occur. This brings in other elements of man’s nature, such as whether we are predisposed to care and take an active interest in others, or whether we are naturally selfish and self-obsessed, with no natural altruistic tendencies. Whilst it is indisputable to argue that altruism does not exist amongst humans, it is not a natural tendency, but something that springs only from those gifted with greater compassion. Such is the diversity of human characteristics that it is hard to argue that virtually any of them, save perhaps the basest of human characteristics such as the ability to love, are omnipresent, and the existence of selfishness in human society makes it impossible to call all humans altruistic enough to have a political tendency.
Indeed, whilst politics is an interest or even fascination of many in modern society, there is a far greater population of those that are disillusioned or plainly uninterested in political events. There is nothing here to suggest that man is naturally political, merely that some sections of society hold an interest in it. Even then though, it is hard to claim that those interested or engaged with politics do so because they are biologically attuned to it, rather that they are interested in politics because they believe that the way that society and the economy is governed is of high importance and would like it to be done better. This again then is a rational decision; they believe that mankind’s lot could be improved and decide to engage in political action to help make those visions become reality. This feature of a person’s personality could by no means be called universal, however, and it is therefore not possible to ascribe to the whole of humankind a biological ‘political’ trait.