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 use of this quote to suggest that we are all into politics is one of those twists in meaning one gets over time. Many people are more interested in cooking or the gym.

More interesting to me is that 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 destroyersToday we know that the answers are uncomfortable for us.

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

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