Man is a political animal: what does this mean?

ο άνθρωπος είναι πολιτικό ζώο or ‘man is a political animal’ is one of the most famous sayings by Aristotle (here in modern Greek). We assume we know what it means, yet I suspect not. Aristotle is really saying that people live in the polis or town, that we are communal.

The  quote is used to suggest that we are all into politics. But in our representative democracy many people are more interested in cooking or going to the gym. In ancient Athens if you were fortunate enough to be born a male citizen as an adult you attended debates in the public square and spoke directly. Today’s parliament is more remote if more representative.

Aristotle is saying humans are animals. It is the exercise of our reason that  lifts us above our animal appetites or desires. We are not inherently superior, but can better ourselves by developing virtue or character.

We are part of nature. When we recognise our place among the fauna and flora of the world, then we have respect for all living creatures. We have no god given right to place ourselves at the top of a pyramid. We develop our own rules and habits of living. Ironically it is the most bestial of men that tend to insist they are at the apex, the summit.

And one great test of our virtue is how we treat the animals and the plants. Do we cause unnecessary suffering? Do we live with compassion for all sentient beings? Have we a sense of wonder? Do we balance own needs with sustaining the natural world? Or are we arrogant, wasteful destroyers? The answers are uncomfortable for us human animals.

Let us then lift ourselves to be the best we can and make no self-righteous assumptions of inherent superiority to nature. Let’s prove ourselves worthy of the planet we depend upon.


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