Political Animals

by Peter Saint-Andre


One of Aristotle's most famous observations is that human beings are "political animals"; yet the meaning of this phrase is not widely understood or appreciated. Let's take a closer look.

Scholars such as R.G. Mulgan and David J. Depew have identified three core senses:

  1. Humans have a capacity for self-governance.
  2. Humans often engage in a "citified" way of life.
  3. Humans work cooperatively toward communal goals.

According to Aristotle, humans share the third, "zoological" sense with social insects like ants and bees. In all of these species, there is differentiation of activity toward a single end, which is the survival or flourishing of the community. For instance, as entomologist Thomas Seeley has described in a remarkable series of books including The Life of Bees and Honeybee Democracy, honeybees perform disparate tasks to maintain the nest (somewhat segregated by queen, male drones, and female worker bees), and even engage in a form of democratic decision-making to choose new nesting locations!

Aristotle distinguishes the "political" animals from the "gregarious" or herding animals like cattle and deer. As Depew puts it in his paper Humans and Other Political Animals in Aristotle's History of Animals:

Only political animals, among the wider array of gregarious animals, cooperate to achieve "something one and common that is the work of all" (Historia Animalium I.1.488a9).... [M]erely gregarious animals separately perform the same activities in physical proximity to others of their kind ... by contrast, political animals perform different activities in the course of engaging in and contributing to a single way of life.

An immediate illustration of this difference is the significance of shared meals in human existence. For instance, as I watch the deer that live near my house, I observe that they all chomp separately on the grasses, but don't otherwise interact much. Compare that to, say, a meal at your favorite restaurant: the employees perform multiple roles, numerous trades built the structure where you sit, and there's a vast supply chain for the food and beverages - all of which is ultimately for the sake of a convivial experience in which the repast itself is merely an excuse for conversation and the enjoyment of your relationship with your tablemates. This example (encompassing language, farming, cooking, economics, customs, forethought, friendship, and much else besides) is the merest indication of how deep sociality runs in human life.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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