Political Animals: 5 Lessons from the Opening Pages of Aristotle’s Politics

In the development of political philosophy, few works have played “such an important role in the social and political life of the Christian West” as Aristotle’sPolitics.

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Listers, Aristotelian political thought is at the cornerstone of Western Civilization. It is especially important in its articulation of the importance of the family or household, of natural justice, and of humans as naturally political animals. In the development of political philosophy, few works have played “such an important role in the social and political life of the Christian West” as Aristotle’s Politics.1 The following list serves to articulate five basic lessons from the opening pages of Aristotle’s Politics. A glossary of terms may be found at Understanding Aristotle: 22 Definitions from the Politics. The natural justice presented by Aristotle laid the foundation for St. Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of Natural Law. For an introduction to the Angelic Doctor’s teachings, see 3 Steps to Understand How Humanity Participates in Natural Law and The 6 Step Guide to Aquinas’ Natural Law in a Modern World.


1. Partnerships

In Chapter One of Book One of the Politics, Aristotle makes the following observation:

Since we see that every city is some sort of partnership, and that every partnership is constituted for the sake of some good (for everyone does everything for the sake of what is held to be good), it is clear that all partnerships aim at some good, and that the partnership that is most authoritative of all and embraces all the others does so particularly, and aims at the most authoritative good of all. This is what is called the city or the political partnership.2

As Book One continues, Aristotle observes how these natural political partnerships come together to form the state or the polis. He will speak of the household, the collection of households – the village, and finally the collection of villages – the polis. In his commentary on Aristotle’s Politics, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that for Aristotle, politics is a practical science that contains ethics or the moral sciences. The two cannot be separated. Second, Aquinas notes that Aristotle holds politics to be the “architectonic science” of the practical sciences. In other words, in the well-ordered polis, other sciences are allowed to flourish; however, if a polis is disordered, e.g., corruption, war, poor education, broken households, etc., then all the sciences will suffer.3 As stated above, for Aristotle, the political partnership – the polis – is the “partnership that is most authoritative of all… and aims at the most authoritative good of all.” For Aristotle, the science of politics is the highest practical science.


2. Natural Relations of the Household

Aristotle begins with humanity’s most fundamental political partnership: the household.4 He observes “there must of necessity be a conjunction of persons who cannot exist without one another.”5 He posits two such conjunctions or partnerships. First, the primary partnership of the household is the natural partnership of reproduction between male and female; and the second partnership is the relation between what Aristotle calls the “naturally ruling and ruled.”6 In his commentary on the Politics, St. Thomas Aquinas observes that both partnerships of the household are for preservation: in the partnership between husband and wife, “nature aims” at preservation through the “generation” of offspring, while in the latter parternship of ruling and ruled, nature aims “at the preservation of things generated.”7 While Aristotle uses slavery to exemplify the ruling/ruled relation, the fundamental principle at work is a reciprocal relationship of survival. Aquinas comments that the master (the ruler) “by reason of his wisdom can foresee mentally” what must be done to survive, and the slave or subject (the ruled) “who abounds in bodily strength” would not be able “to survive if he were not ruled by the prudence of another.”8 Aristotle observes that “poor persons have an ox instead of a servant.”9 Thus the twofold natural association of the household exists for the “needs of daily life.”10


3. The Polis & the Political Animal

What is the relation between different households? Aristotle submits the village as “the first partnership arising from [the union of] several households and for the sake of nondaily needs.”11 For Aristotle, the partnership between the different households cannot be reduced to mere proximity; rather, it is an interactive relationship of commerce. The partnership of the village becomes “above all an extension of the household.”12 As suspected, the polis then is the union of several villages.13 The polis “reaches a level of full self-sufficiency, so to speak; and while coming into being for the sake of living, it exists for the sake of living well.”14 Aristotle teaches that the thing “for the sake of which [a thing exists… is what is best.”15 Thus, for the polis, it is best for the polis when it exists in a state of self-sufficiency where all persons may live well.

Aristotle observes that “the city belongs among the things that exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.”16 Man, the rational animal, is also political. Persons will always naturally gather together in families and form societies for the goal of living well. Note that Aristotle is not advocating a certain regime, e.g., democracy or aristocracy. Underneath all regimes is nature, and nature states that the polis is a natural partnership entered into by naturally political animals.



4. Temporal and Ontological Primacy

Aristotle begins to reflect upon how all these political parts are related to the political whole. He teaches:

The city is thus prior by nature to the household and to each of us. For the whole must of necessity be prior to the part; for if the whole [body] is destroyed there will not be a foot or a hand…

The manner in which a part and a whole related to one another is important in philosophical inquiry. When speaking of the relation of a whole to its parts, there is an chronological ordering and there is an ontological ordering. For example, in building a house, the architect may erect certain parts of the house, like walls. The walls come first in the chronological ordering of the house; however, it is due to the idea of the house that the walls have come at all – thus, the house comes first in the ontological ordering, because it gives the walls purpose. Aristotle applies this logic to the polis. In the chronological ordering, individual persons, households, and villages come before the polis; however, in the ontological ordering, the polis comes first. He teaches, “that the city is both by nature and prior to each individual, then, is clear.”17 Just a wall finds purpose in the whole of the house; so too does the political animal find purpose in the polis. In fact, Aristotle states that if a person – who should be a part within a polis – attempts to live without the polis, that individual must be “either a beast or a god.”18


5. The Virtue of Justice

Aristotle praises the individual who “first constituted [a city]” as the person “responsible for the greatest of goods.”19 He states that humans “are the best of the animals when completed, when separated from law and adjudication he is the worst of all.”20 He goes on to state, “without virtue, he is the most unholy and most savage [of the animals], and the worst with regard to sex and food.”21 Note that Aristotle’s comments move further into the discussion of how the parts relate to the whole. He mentions lawadjudication, and virtue when speaking of the individual political animal’s relation to the polis. What then is the proper order between all the parts – individual, household, village – and the polis? Aristotle answers, “the virtue of justice is a thing belonging to the city. For adjudication is an arrangement of the political partnership, and adjudication is judgement as to what is just.”22 The proper ordering of the polis is the natural virtue of justice.23

  1. Guerra, Marc. Christians as Political Animals: Taking the Measure of Modernity and Modern Democracy (Wilmington: ISI Publishing, 2010), 124. []
  2. Book One, Chapter One. []
  3. Commentary on the Politics, St. Thomas Aquinas, Medieval Political Philosophy, 298-300. []
  4. Aristotle, Trans. Carnes Lord. The Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1984), 35, 6. []
  5. Id., 36. []
  6. Id., 35. – Hierarchy is Nature to Man: Aristotle does not advocate an egalitarian view of reason, as will be shown below. []
  7. St. Thomas Aquinas. Eds. Lerner, Ralph & Mushsin Mahdi. Trans. Fortin, Ernest & Peter O’Neill. Medieval Political Philosophy: A Source Book, Commentary on the Politics (New York: Cornell U. Publishing, 1972), 304. []
  8. Id. []
  9. Politics, 36. []
  10. Aristotle, 36. []
  11. Id. []
  12. Id. []
  13. Id. []
  14. Id., 36-7. []
  15. Id., 37. []
  16. Id. []
  17. Id. []
  18. Id., 37. []
  19. Id. []
  20. Id. 37-8. []
  21. Id. []
  22. Id. []
  23. Plato: The following seeks to bring Aristotle’s thought alongside his predecessor, Plato. They are not explicitly in Book One of the Politics. Moreover, they set the stage for understanding the political contributions of both St. Augustine and St. Aquinas. Turning to Aristotle’s tutor, Plato records in The Republic Socrates stating, “the question of who should rule is to some extent identical to the question of the best regime.” As the aforementioned partnership between the ruled and the ruler in Aristotle, Plato agrees that men differ in their ability and capacity to reason. Ergo, it stands that the philosopher, who “knows best what is needed for the perfection of each human being and therefore can best judge what is due to each human being,” should rule. Here Plato’s Socrates advocates the Philosopher-King. It is only the philosopher who has the wisdom and time to discover and reflect upon nature in order to correctly order the polis by the natural virtue of justice. However, there develops a certain antagonism between the philosopher and the polis, or more particular the citizens, insofar as the philosopher is isolated in his understanding of justice. Nature is not intelligible to everyone in the same capacity. In an attempt to have everyone participate in a polis whose foundations they could not fully understand, Plato’s Socrates posits the Noble Lie. He says, “Could we somehow contrive one of those lies that come into being in case of need… one noble lie to persuade, in the best case, even the rulers, but if not them, the rest of the city?” He goes on to explain an elaborate myth that could encourage people to live by certain standards. However, it stands that the “quest for the best political order” or rather the “establishment of the best regime depends necessarily on uncontrollable, elusive fortuna or chance.” According to Platonic thought, the antagonism between the philosopher and the polis revealed the “unlikely coming together, of philosophy and political power.” Man as a natural political animal, the natural polis as ordered by justice, and fortune’s role in the best regime lays the foundation for political thought in the West. []