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  • Political Animals Revisited
  • Josiah Ober (bio)

In what ways (if any) might Aristotle's political thought be relevant to contemporary political theory or practice—or is "making Aristotle relevant" a quixotic enterprise doomed at the outset by arguments that are pernicious, implausible, or both?

It goes almost without saying that there are aspects of Aristotle's political thought that are not relevant, at least in any positive, theory-building sense: Aristotle's defense of the claim that some persons are, by dint of an inborn psychological flaw, "slaves by nature," along with his military doctrine that asserts that it is just to employ organized violence to enslave a foreign population of putative natural slaves, is an obvious case in point.1 Aristotle also asserted that all women suffer a psychological disability that prevents them from reliably deliberating about public goods and that this disability debarred women from active citizenship.2 Aristotle further contended that the civic virtue essential for the effective performance of active citizenship is necessarily corrupted when an individual acts as an instrument of another's private advantage (whether that meant laboring under another's direction,3 or expert musical performance enjoyed by another).4 It follows that everyone who works for a living is rendered, ipso facto, slavish by habit and thereby unsuited for political action. I will call these three claims "Aristotle's useless arguments."5

I will argue in what follows that certain of Aristotle's other central arguments are far from useless: they are plausible, useful for contemporary theorizing—and separable from his useless ideas about slavery, gendered [End Page 201] moral psychology, self-corruption, and also from what I will call, below, "extra baggage arguments" about the priority of the state over the individual, teleology, and the unity of the human good. Aristotle's "useful arguments" can, I argue, be built into the foundation of a contemporary theory of democracy as collective self-governance that is recognizably Aristotelian, even though it might not be endorsed by other theorists who draw on Aristotle's thought or, for that matter, by Aristotle himself.

The primary useful argument that grounds Aristotle's ethical and political thought, and that can be deployed as the foundation for an Aristotelian (as opposed to Aristotle's own) theory of democracy as collective self-governance, is the famous claim that the human being (anthropon) is a political animal (zoon politikon).6 This means, in the first instance (by reference to Aristotle's works on biology),7 that humans are social creatures. We typically live in conspecific groups (like, say, chimpanzees or lions), rather than "sporadically," as isolated individuals who come together with their kind only occasionally for the purpose of mating (like, say, leopards or orangutans). Moreover, unlike some social animals (say, zebras) that live in herds but do not produce or share in the consumption of public goods (other than the enhanced security against predators produced by multiplying sense-organs), we humans live in groups that are highly organized, have defined memberships, and are concerned with the creation, distribution, and consumption of vital public goods.

According to Aristotle, humans are taxonomically similar to other highly social (i.e. political) animals that work cooperatively in communities to produce public goods that are shared in common. His primary example is honey-bees, who work together to build hives and to produce honey. While the comparison with social insects leads to some puzzles (below), the taxonomic (as opposed to genetic: humans are obviously genetically closer to orangutans than we are to bees) description of humans as falling into the category of animals that are social in the special and strong sense that we typically live in organized societies and produce complex forms of essential (to us) public goods, seems reasonable on the face of it.

Humans are, however, quite different from honey-bees (or ants, termites, or other social animals) in the diversity of the kinds of social organizations we create and inhabit—and thus also in the diversity of our patterns of production, distribution, and consumption of public goods. Whereas every hive produced by honey-bees of a given species will be much the same as every other hive produced by members...


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pp. 201-214
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