We’re All Political Animals – and That’s a Good Thing

Josiah Ober

The description of humans as “political animals” dates back 2,400 years, when it meant something deeper and more challenging than it does today. Nowadays, when I describe someone as “political” or “an animal”, I am not offering praise. Calling someone a “political animal” is likely to be either a reproach or a backhanded compliment; and, in either case, the label presumes that only a few people truly belong to the category of full-time political animals. Claiming that humans in general are political animals is now a way for cynics to describe human behavior as competitive and manipulative rather than as altruistic rule-following. Although modern readers will resist some of its implications, the more positive ancient understanding of political animals can help us to understand ourselves better.

In the first sections of the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics, Aristotle (384–322 BC) asserts that “the human being (anthrōpos) is a political animal (politikon zōion).” Indeed, according to Aristotle, we are the most political of all animals. This was not a cynical put-down, but a foundational claim with immense implications. The Politics holds an important place in the vast corpus of Aristotle’s writing because political science was, for Aristotle, the master science. He believed that the science of politics should be concerned with describing how a human community comes into being, with explaining how such a community is sustained over time in a dangerous and mutable environment, and, most importantly, with how it enables our highest aspiration ­– complete human flourishing.

The community that Aristotle had in mind was the state – polis in Greek – the root term from which we take our English word “politics”. Humans were, for Aristotle, by nature, “state-dwelling animals”. He believed that states emerged through an organic process that began with biological imperatives that led to the formation of nuclear families. Families conjoined to create kinship groups and villages. The process was completed when several villages aggregated into a territorial state ruled by a legitimate government. Aristotle recognized that the process of state formation entailed individuals making choices, but he also regarded the process as natural. The impulses that led people to make their choices in building states arose from innate human capacities, and the process aimed at the creation of an environment well suited for human existence.

Aristotle argued that, once the state had come into existence, any individual person who could flourish outside the framework of a state must be either less or more than human: either a beast, i.e. a non-human animal, or a god, i.e. a super-human, immortal being who possessed capacities different from those of humans and had no need of the environment required by mortal humans. In his ethical and political works Aristotle sought the answer to the question, how can we humans – as natural beings that are neither non-human beasts nor super-human gods, live the best lives available to us? His answer was that we must recognize, and learn to build and sustain, the right environment for the kind of being we naturally are. Since our natural environment is, he supposed, the state, that meant discovering, through scientific inquiry, the essential features of the best possible state.

Aristotle employed the term “political animal” as a scientific description of humans as a part of nature. His phrase was intended to remind his readers that, despite our highest aspirations to be in some ways “god-like”, we are not gods. Unlike gods, we are mortal animals, caught in a natural web of necessity that makes us dependent on a particular kind of environment.

Political Animals Swarming

The Call of Nature

Aristotle’s scientific inquiry into politics was intertwined with his account of ethics as the development of character ­– and specifically the kind of character that would allow us to lead a life of genuine value. Ethics and politics were also intertwined with biology. Aristotle’s conception of humans as animals possessing certain innate capacities meant that his views stopped short of Isaiah Berlin’s ‘value pluralism’, which stressed that different individuals had different values and ends. For Aristotle, what is good for us as humans, and therefore what is right for us to value and to pursue if we wish to live well, is not just a matter of personal opinion. The human good cannot differ in all relevant particulars from person to person, or from culture to culture. Rather, Aristotle supposed that what is good for us, just as what was good for the individual members of any other species, is determined (at least in part) by our nature. If we really are part of nature, then only some things are naturally good for us.

One essential and highly distinctive aspect of our human nature, one that set us apart from all other animals, is the capacity to reason, to relate causes to effects and so to choose to carry out some actions rather than others. But if we are to be in a position to pursue the human good, if we are to live lives that have the best chance of going as well as possible, we need to understand what kind of animal we are and act accordingly. Using reason allows us actively to pursue common goods: to build an environment that will allow each to live as well as is possible. Rationality, though, is a double-edged sword: it also allows each of us to identify narrowly selfish interests and to pursue them in ways that degrade our environment, undermining our chance of living well.

Aristotle saw that every species of animal ­– including humans­ – is suited, by its nature (today we would say, by its evolutionary adaptation), to living in a certain way: fish were adapted to living in water, antelope were adapted to a life on the open plains, crocodiles to swamps, and so on. And every species of animal likewise possesses certain distinctive and inherent capacities that are specifically suited to enabling the animal to carry out its life in its own particular environment: swimming for fish, running for antelopes, and so on. As a corollary, the exercise of its inherent capacities is an essential part of every animal’s well-being. A fish that has no opportunity to swim, an antelope that cannot run is, by definition, not flourishing. When Aristotle said that humans have an inherently “political” nature, he meant that we humans possess certain distinctive capacities – reason, language, and sociability – that render us uniquely well suited to living in states, and that the exercise of those capacities is an essential part of our well-being. But these capacities must, he supposed, be used in the right way and not in the wrong way.

Fish, antelope and crocodiles are born into what is for them more or less the right environment. Some animals add to their environment by building things: birds make nests, octopodes assemble “gardens”; bees and ants construct very complex structures in which they live out their lives. But the constructions undertaken by non-human animals, while often elaborate and wonderfully well-suited to their purposes and local conditions, are not self-consciously designed by their builders. Instinct does all the work. As a result, each hive or nest of a given species of bee or ant is similar in its essentials. For humans, as political animals, it is different: the things that we do have the potential to degrade the states that are our natural environment. And as our states are degraded, our opportunities for living well, for exercising our capacities in healthy ways, are likewise diminished.

Do humans behave as if in a beehive?

States of Flux

Although Aristotle supposed that the impulse to create a state was inherent in human nature, he also recognized that there were many different kinds of state; in addition to the city-states familiar to his original Greek readers, there were kingdoms, empires, and ethno-national polities. Even within the general category of city-state, there were multiple kinds of government – ranging from democracy, through oligarchy and aristocracy, to monarchy and tyranny. Moreover, the government of a given state could change over time: an oligarchy could become a democracy; that same democracy could become a tyranny, and so on. With the change in regime, the state itself changed. If we suppose that humans have a distinctive, specifiable nature, then not every kind of state will be equally good as an environment for exercising our innate capacities, nor is every form of government equally conducive to human flourishing. Unlike non-human species, whose nature is fulfilled and whose well-being achieved by exercising their capacities in the environment into which they were born, nature takes humans only part way on the path to the best possible life.

As humans, we need to make choices: our inherent capacity for reasoning demands choice, just as it enables us to choose. But choose what? What is the best kind of state and government? How should we go about building and sustaining an environment in which we can exercise our powers? Political science, according to Aristotle, was intended to show us the way. And so, political science is the master science, because it is the branch of knowledge that aims to discover and explain the fundamental conditions of existence that enable humans to flourish.

Given that Aristotle described humans as the most political of all species, he obviously supposed that some non-human animals were political, if only to a lesser degree. Surprisingly, for a modern reader, used to imagining other primates as the species closest to humans, Aristotle’s prime examples of non-human political animals are social insects, especially bees and ants. Unlike modern biologists, who are often more concerned with genetic relationships, Aristotle divided the animal kingdom according to a taxonomy of social behaviors. Humans are, he suggested, behaviorally (not genetically) similar to social insects, to bees and ants. Bees, ants, and humans are, as Aristotle saw, highly social creatures whose sociability leads to the production of goods that are common to and shared by the members of a defined community. The relevant community is a state in the case of humans, and a hive or nest in the case of bees or ants.

Social insects are, for Aristotle, political, not only because they build collective homes, but because they create and share common goods: harvester-ants collect and share grain; bees collect pollen and make and share honey. Humans also create and share public goods – and we are ultra-political because the goods in question are not only the material goods of security, welfare, and infrastructure, but also moral goods – justice, deliberation, the opportunity for contemplation. Taken together, these add up to an overall condition of “blessed happiness” – eudaimonia – and that condition is the end to which we, as humans, ought to aspire. Humans are the most political of animals because of the excellence of the public goods that we are capable of producing and sharing among the members of our community. But some of us are also political in the modern sense of selfishly seeking only our private advantage, meanwhile free-riding on the good behavior of others.

Bees and ants are not aware of themselves as individuals; they do not form factions or interest groups. Because humans are like social insects, in that we cannot flourish without producing and sharing public goods, but unlike social insects, in recognizing individual and subgroup interests that are different from the common interest of the community, living together is hard work. Citizens of a given state must struggle to create and to maintain the social conditions in which we can live well. Politics determines who gets what, and therefore how we fare collectively: we may fare well, through fairly sharing benefits and costs. Or we may fare poorly, as each struggles to seize as much as possible from the common pool while giving back little or nothing. Unlike instinct-driven animals, humans must consciously devise rules for ourselves, and then interpret and enforce them: law and civic education are essential features of the state environment we must seek to build.

Anty Establishment Issues

States Made to Order

As we have seen, Aristotle believed that living well was not possible for humans outside of a well-ordered state. The right kind of education and the right laws would guide the choices and actions of individuals toward habitual pro-social, cooperative behavior and away from the self-seeking, manipulative behavior that reduces the chance of true flourishing for each and all. There were various conditions that Aristotle imagined would push us towards the natural optimum: the state must be large enough to provide the basic goods of material welfare and security for its residents. It must not be so large, however, that citizens would be ignorant of one another’s merits and faults. Citizens, responsible for choices that affect their environment, must know who is most knowledgeable and skilled in various domains relevant to collective interests. They must know who is most courageous, and who is likely to fall short of the moderate self-control that enabled each to attend to the legitimate interests of others and to their voices when they have something valuable to contribute. Aristotle thus envisioned a moderate-sized city-state, with a population in the thousands, as our ideal environment.

It was imperative that we know one another’s merits because, in the best possible sort of state, the citizens govern themselves. Aristotle knew perfectly well that there was a range of forms of social organization among political animals. Bees, he claimed, had a king (he was thinking of the queen, who is the mother of all the other bees in the hive, but never serves as their monarch). But within a given nest, ants “are every one his own master” – there is no “boss-ant” running the show. In this Aristotle was mostly right: he got the gender of the worker-ants wrong, but the complex business of building and defending the ant nest, gathering and storing food, attending to the queen, her eggs, and the immature ants, is all done by a process of sharing simple bits of widely distributed information.

So what about humans? While Aristotle toyed with the thought that monarchical rule might, under some conceivable conditions, be well suited to human flourishing, when he came to describe the best possible state in Book Seven of the Politics, he referred to a community in which citizens “ruled and were ruled over in turns”. The government most conducive to the achievement of fully flourishing human lives was, in Aristotle’s view, collective self-government by citizens ­– what we would now call democracy.

Although Aristotle does not lay out the argument in these terms, I believe that collective self-government, “ruling and being ruled over in turns,” should be regarded as best for humans because it provides us with the fullest opportunity to exercise our natural capacities in the fullest way and at the highest level. The three fundamental capacities that Aristotle supposed together distinguished humans from other animals (the equivalent of swimming for fish, or running for antelope) were the use of reason, communication through language, and the “ultra-political” tendency to create and share public goods, material and moral, with the members of our community.

Under the right conditions, combining those three capacities produces participatory, deliberative democratic citizenship: when the community is faced with a difficult choice, human nature urges each individual to join with others in seeking the best solution. Each citizen employs reason to decide on the best alternative from among the available options. Each citizen exercises a natural capacity for using language in a process of giving and taking reasons for and against various options. The conjoined use of reason and language in situations of judgment adds up to a general “deliberative capacity”; humans make use of that capacity in collective (as well as individual) judgments.

Whatever the ultimate decision procedure, the democratic process of using reason and language to the pro-social ends of building and sustaining the state enables citizens to exercise each of their distinctively human natural capacities to the full, and in reference to the most salient matters of collective concern. By contrast, if the decision were made in closed meetings among a small elite (even a meritorious one), or by a monarch (even a wise one), the many other political animals who make up the community would be denied the chance to exercise their natural capacities to the full. As passive subjects, rather than active citizens, they would suffer, like the fish not allowed to swim, even if the decisions of their masters were good. Taking this Aristotelian argument to one possible conclusion (which is not quite Aristotle’s own), political animals are democratic animals. Autocracy is bad for us, because it stunts our natural capacities.

Awkward Conversations

Meaningful Dialogue with the Past

Does Aristotle’s view of human animals hold up in modernity? Certainly not, if we take his thinking on politics as an unedited whole. Aristotle was committed to the peculiar view that women were somehow handicapped in respect to deliberative capacity and could not be relied on to employ judgment. Moreover, he supposed that some people were entirely devoid of deliberative capacity; such persons were, Aristotle claimed, slaves by nature – defective political animals whose best lives were lived as servants controlled by non-defective others. Obviously, all of this is simply false. It was based on a faulty description of human psychology. While some fully human persons do live with severe intellectual disabilities, that is not what Aristotle seems to mean by deliberative deficiency. And, needless to say, intellectual disability is not gendered, and certainly ought not doom anyone to a life of servitude. Finally, even though it is not morally repugnant, Aristotle’s preference for the state to be (by modern standards) tiny is no longer viable. So, if we were required to take Aristotle’s philosophical work on politics as a whole or not all, we would have to throw it all out.

But we are not required to take Aristotle’s views on politics as a whole. We are free to pick and choose, learning from what we find valuable and leaving the rest aside. If we abstract from his culturally blinkered views of women, his idiosyncratic (even among his Greek peers) doctrine of natural slavery, and his teleological notion that nature itself is purposeful; if we add in the technological and institutional advances of modernity that have made large democratic states possible, then a modified “Aristotelian” conception of humans as political animals is possible. It would have the virtue of treating humans as part of nature, rather than as isolated from nature, by dint of our distinctive capacities for reason and use of language.

By describing us as political animals, Aristotle offers his modern readers a deep and challenging conception of what it is to be human. It is deep because it is a profound truth that we are indeed a distinctive species of animal. It is a fact about our species that it is only in political communities that we can flourish. We can choose among a multiplicity of political options (we can choose to live under an autocracy), but we ought not pretend that all options are equally good for us, in the sense that each option offers us full use of our powers. When, as democratic citizens, we exercise our capacities for reason and language to the highest pro-social ends, we contribute actively to the common flourishing of our communities. And in so doing we are acting in the way that is best for us because complete flourishing is the best thing for any natural being. Aristotle’s conception is challenging because, by frankly acknowledging the human tendency to act in selfish ways that degrade our communities, he explains why building and sustaining democratic states is hard. He shows us why we so often fall short in our attempts to create sustainably decent social environments and why it will never be easy to do so.

Aristotle got many things wrong. His philosophy is certainly not a panacea for the ills of modernity. The antiquity of an idea is no proof of its value. But Aristotle’s vision of humans as political animals is valuable today because it encourages us to recognize that we live in nature (rather than as its master or its victim), because it reveals connections between human and non-human behavior, and because it allows us to identify and cultivate our unique capacities as humans. A suitably modified Aristotelian theory of humans as political animals offers us plausible and (in my view) attractive arguments for the value of active citizenship. It points away from the unconstrained multiplication of inalienable group and individual rights, and towards the duty to participate in making, interpreting, and enforcing the rules by which we live together.

If we start from Aristotle’s insight that humans are indeed political animals, beings who further our own true interests by contributing to public goods and by seeking common interests, we may be more able to find a way to move forward as democratic citizens. And by the same token, we might be able to back away from the prospect of a world reduced to the vain emptiness of globalized consumerism, away from the divisive pathologies of identity politics, and away from the dangerous arrogance that attends the notion that, through human will and technology, we might be “as gods”.

Josiah Ober is Mistotakis Professor of Classics and Political Science at Stanford University.