Friday, June 3, 2016
animals, solitary, social, and political
This is the second post presenting the elements that will be included in my paper for the IPSA in Poznan, Poland. See The Human Thing for the first.
Perhaps the most famous quote from Aristotle is found in the Politics, 1253a following:
It is evident that the polis exists by nature and that man is by nature a political animal, for he who exists outside a polis because of his nature and not by luck is either worse or superior to man. He is like the man denounced by Homer as “clanless, lawless, and hearthless. Moreover such by nature desires war inasmuch as he is solitary, like an isolated piece on a game board. It is clear, then, why man is more of a political animal than a bee or any other gregarious animal; for nature, as we say, does nothing in vain, and man alone of all the animals has the power of logos.
What does it mean to say that the human being (anthropos) is a political animal? To understand this, we must distinguish between three possible types of animals: solitary, social, and political. As is usual with Aristotle, these are not mutually exclusive categories but instead represent stages of development. A solitary animal is not, in any but the most primitive way, social; however, a social animal may remain, in certain significant senses, solitary. Likewise, an animal can be social without being political, but not vice versa.
For examples of solitary animals, we could consider a male polar bear. He spends most of his life alone, hunting on the ice. His social life will be limited to the time he spent with his mother and, if he is lucky, his mate. We could also consider social amoebae, like the slime mold organisms. In one stage of their existence they crawl around like individuals, without interacting much with their colleagues. Some of my colleagues are like that.
What does it mean to say that these amoebae are social? When food runs low, they crawl atop one another and form a slug with lumbers around looking for a meal. If that doesn’t work, they form a stalk and bulb structure. This is designed so that a passing insect or something else (L.L. Bean hiker shorts) can burst the bulb and carry the spores to greener pastures. This latter business requires that a lot of amoebae sacrifice themselves to make the stalk. Only the lucky ducks in the bulb will have a future.
Social animals are not animals that dwell together. You can find lots of grizzly bears at the salmon spawn. Social animals coordinate their behavior so that all of the contributors benefit. In most cases this means that a solitary organisms or animal has a repertoire that includes both solitary and social behavior. A wolf kicked out of his group will hunt on his own until or unless he finds a mate and founds a new pack.
Aristotle recognized that there were many social animals, including bees. He does not say that human beings are the only political animal; he only says that we are more political than all the other animals. What exactly does it mean for an animal to be political?
An answer is provided elsewhere in the Politics, where Aristotle discusses the evolution of the family.
The ruler of a household, as a husband and a father, rules both his wife and his children, who are free, but not in the same manner. He rules his wife politically, but his children royally.
However offensive this view may be today, it was remarkably liberal for its time. He thought it barbaric for a man to treat his wife the same way as one would treat a slave or a beast of burden.
That aside, what does it mean to treat the children royally but the wife politically? The answer is that the father must explain his decisions to the mother and try to persuade her and thus gain her consent. In this respect it reflects politics in so far as citizens rule and are ruled in turn. Aristotle says that the relationship between the father and mother is like this, except that there is no change of office. So the father must treat the mother as if she would one day rule over him, just as he must treat his fellow citizens while he is in power.
By contrast, he gives his children commands and expects that they will obey them. He may explain, but he doesn’t need to. He knows more than they know about what is proper and safe. Whatever happens in the future, he won’t be ruled by children.
Politics is possible because all social organisms must obey rules that are morally logical. A honey bee worker may be tempted to rear her own offspring; however, if she does, that would threaten the interests of the hive. The worker is offered genetic success through the flourishing of the queen. In that sense, the bees are political.
Human beings are much more political because we possess logos. Logos is the power to distinguish between what something looks like and what it is. This includes the power to distinguish between what looks good but isn’t, and what looks bad but is really the best choice. We anthropoi are political animals because we can attempt to persuade one another regarding the good and the just.