Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, August 10, 2012

ARISTOTLE: Politics (Book 1, 1-7)

Look at a map and notice how people tend to cluster together in and around towns and cities.  Why is that?  What’s so great about living around other people?  Aristotle says we do it because it’s good for us.  We live better in a “political community” than we could do on our own.  Aristotle says 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. For example, many people move close to a city so they can find work.  They work so they can make money.  Then they use the money to buy the things they need to live.  That’s why people tend to cluster around towns and cities.  It seems like a reasonable way to live and most of us are content just to work, make money, and live out our lives enjoying the comforts a city can provide.  Aristotle wants to push this philosophy further: ...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.  Money can buy us many things: breakfast, a house, tickets to the ballgame, shoes, insurance; the list goes on.  But money can’t buy us things like love, friendship, respect, good conversation…  For those kinds of things we need other people.  We also need opportunities to develop our social skills and fulfill the need for a higher purpose than just mere survival.  Political communities (such as cities) give us better opportunities to develop all these things.  And Aristotle doesn’t think political communities come about by random chance.  He believes communities develop organically through the natural development of the family unit: The family is the association established by nature for the supply of men's everyday wants…  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 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.  So there you have it; families, villages, and cities all form for the sake of the good life.  That’s why for Aristotle the city is an entirely logical and even biological process.  The city is an integral part of nature because 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 example, the nature of a man is not to be a baby, but to be a man.  The nature of a horse is not to remain as a colt, but to become a horse.  For what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature, whether we are speaking of a man, a horse, or a family.  Of course it’s easy to see how an individual person or a horse has been produced by nature.  We can see them with our own eyes.  But how do we know that an abstract concept such as a family or a city has been produced by nature?  For Aristotle, that’s easy too: 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.  Someone who lives totally alone is like a fish out of water or a creature out of its habitat because 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…  And this is another reason cities continue to stay in existence; because we don’t really want to be separated from law and justice.  We need law and justice in order to be fully human.  In Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad shows how bad things are without civilization.  We would live like beasts or be like the mob of soldiers in Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis.  It may sound strange to us these days but Aristotle thinks politics actually lets us live more like fully-developed human beings and less like beasts. 


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