Lesson 1: Man Is Social and Political by Nature

1.1 Introduction to Political Philosophy as a complement to ethics

Aristotle envisioned political philosophy to be the culmination of the study of ethics; this he indicates at the very outset of the ethics and at its very close. At the outset Aristotle refers to politics as the architectonic science, not ethics. Further he says that while securing the good for an individual is a tall achievement, securing the good for the city is "divine." At the end of the ethics Aristotle talks about the need for legislation to bring about the education of character. Clearly, ethics and politics belong together as a unified account of human affairs, or of the human good. It is troubling that the two books have been read apart by so many. I recall Mortimer Adler praising the Ethics to the skies, while vilifying the Politics as the work of an elitist. One wonders how well he had read the Ethics.

1.2 Aristotle; Aquinas; Maritain; Simon

Aristotle, the master of all who know, excels in the area of politics as he does in so many areas of inquiry. In this area also, Aristotle, the Philosopher, wrote "the book." Although his writings on the topic are sparse, St. Thomas left a rich legacy for political philosophy.1 Some of the great themes of Aristotelian political philosophy were transmitted and developed by Aquinas, such as the social and political nature of man, the importance of the common good, the role of virtue. In addition, Thomas developed the classic formulations of natural law philosophy by which human reason could appeal to a standard higher than positive human law. Finally, mention must be made of the development of Catholic social teaching which owes much to the theology of Aquinas.2 This rich legacy has been appropriated and transformed by two of the chief Thomist philosophers of the Twentieth Century, Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) and Yves R. Simon (1903-1961). These two French philosophers, who spent much time in the United States, developed a very persuasive and influential philosophy of democratic government. Their work helped to shift the axis of Catholic social and political thought away from tradition and monarchy to support for liberal democratic regimes.3

Because the development and exposition of the political thought of Thomas Aquinas has been virtually identified with the work of these two authors, it is important to examine the use that they make of Aquinas in their justification of democracy. We propose in this course to understand the Arisotlean account of politics, Aquinas's developments, and intersperse this with the case that Maritain and Simon make for liberal democracy and the warrants they claim for it in the legacy of St. Thomas.

The great achievement of Maritain and Simon was to provide a Thomistic defense of liberal democracy in the face of a crisis rooted in the mutual antagonism of the Catholic Church and western liberal democracy dating back to the French Revolution and conditioned by the dramatic rise of totalitarian states of the right and left. As French expatriots living in the United States, both men were deeply disturbed by the trauma and treachery of Vichy. They came to believe that western liberal democracy contained the principles of right order and that it must be defended against the onslaught of totalitarian regimes. Both were devout Catholics and committed to the philosophy of St. Thomas; yet both were sharply criticized by conservatives and fellow Catholics.

The regime they sought to defend includes popular elections; commitment to freedom, i.e. civic rights and structural pluralism; a commitment to social justice, i.e. the equal dignity of all and respect for the working class. In addition, they had to come to terms with the modern technological and economic infrastructures. And yet both were not simple apologists for western liberal democracy. They sought that elusive goal of much contemporary religious political thought, the third way between liberal individualism and totalitarianism. Their defense of liberal democracy is a qualified one; it is qualified by their roots in the philosophy of St. Thomas and the ideal of a new Christendom. Their philosophy of democratic government combines freedom and authority, natural law and natural rights, and equality and excellence.4

1.3 Outline of Aristotle's Politics

There is much scholarly debate about the writing and ordering of Aristotle's writings on politics. We shall follow the standard division into Eight books as follows:

Chart 1.1 Outline of the Eights Books of Aristotle's Politics
  1. The Household and Pre-Political Rule
  2. Aspects of the Best or Ideal Regime
  3. Citizenship and Political Regimes
  4. Actual Constitutions and Their Varieties
  5. The Problem of Faction and Revolution
  6. Building Political Stability
  7. The Best Regime and Education
  8. Education

1.4 Great Theme: Man Is Social and Political by Nature. Three Arguments

In Book I, Chapter 1 of the Politics Aristotle lays out the subject of this study - it is the polis, or political society. There is debate how to translate this term. It is emphatically not "the State." It is literally the city. It is often translated "city state." Perhaps Maritain's term "body politic" or simple "political association" is best. Here is how Aristotle describes a polis: The polis is an association. All Associations aim or are instituted for some good. Thus polis aims at some good. Which or what good(s)? The polis is distinctive because it aims at the highest or most inclusive good for humans in community. The polis is the most sovereign and inclusive association because it aims at the most sovereign and inclusive good. Note that "sovereign" primarily means highest or best, and not simply the most "powerful." The polis is the completion of the other associations, and this is why it is best - it perfects them as a final cause. The term "inclusive" means comprehensive, by way of embracing other associations. The political association affects the tone and order of other associations. And the first confusion to clarify according to Aristotle is that of reducing political association to some other type of association thereby missing the distinctive good of the political as such. It was a common mistake then, as it is now. The polis is an irreducible human association and good, being neither the association of the family, the association of business partners, or the association of master and servant. Thus the political statesman is not a king, not a householder, not a master. Difference of rule brings out difference of political and pre-political things -- family and economics primarily. What is at stake in this issue? If economics is the norm, then despotic rule may well be just. Question of rule is at stake, and ultimately freedom. Also, the question of the good life; the forms household rule are based on what is necessary for mere life. Is this the highest good? We shall see. Aristotle must protect the integrity of the political good, and by the same token to protect the integrity of the pre-political (such as family and economics) from the political.

Aristotle calls his method in Book I an "analytic method." He does not mean by this an analysis of political terminology nor does he mean a reductive method to mere parts or quantitative analysis. He rather means to proceed by analyzing whole complex into its parts or elements and thereby to see those parts in terms of growth to a final end. It is thoroughly teleological. Thus in this Book I he takes the polis and views it from the perspective of parts - family, village, and human individual and these parts in relation to the whole. We are discovering the "material cause" - in Book III we will look at the formal and final cause of the political as such. The outcome of the analysis is a deeper understanding of the great thesis of Aristotle (and Plato) - that men are social and political by nature. It is the great antithesis to modern individualism which begins with the isolated individual in dissociated by nature; or the atomism of the individuals pitted against each other in conflict and with no loyalties or attachments formed by nature. Thus it is important to grasp Aristotle's beginning point, arche, not so much for the detail of his philosophy of economics and family (which is incomplete and deficient in many respects) as for the overall dynamic of human nature in its social context.

BOOK I, CHAPTER 2 begins with a description of the "household." It exists for the sake of life. Thus he says that two relationships developed for the sake of human life. First, male/female - for the sake of REPRODUCTION, or generation of human life. Aristotle observes the great desire throughout living things for generation which indicates a "desire to leave behind same nature as themselves" or an image of themselves. Thus implicit in the male/female bond is a second relation - parent/child - more of which on Lecture 2. Let us focus on Aristotle, the proofs for the great thesis that man is social and political by nature. Sexual attraction is in some way the basis for the naturalness of political society, although politics is not in its way an "erotic" endeavor, but to the contrary a work of spiritedness and reason. But there is a second relationship which Aristotle observes to be part of the "household" -- master/slave - which comes into being for the PRESERVATION of human life. It takes foresight (mind) and strength (body) to provide for oneself and stay alive and healthy. What is this shocking reference to slavery? Let us hold off for now and wait for Lecture 2- it will come up again soon enough. Let's just remember that we do have something Aristotle did not doesn't have - great technology -without which many more us would be assigned to great drudgery (and some still are). Aristotle is clear that most slavery is unjust . But see now the natural concern of the human being for the preservation of his life and the combination of shrewdness and labor demanded by it. These activities are not political. So why dwell on these pre-political relationships? To show the natural development, and differentiation within nature, of politics. For the pre-political associations result from natural concerns - the reproduction and preservation of life. The HOUSEHOLD results from two relations named above and it is an association aiming at the satisfaction of daily, recurrent needs. Through the household we deal with the necessities of life. It has an obvious basis in human nature, and the neediness of our nature. The POLIS perfects or completes this natural association into a household: the polis is instituted for the good life after growing out of households and villages in their quest for mere life. In this way the polis is a perfect and final association, and the aim of the others. It finishes or completes what other relationships or associations have started and cannot finish or complete. Aristotle elaborates this argument in three forms.

Let's view a chart for the three arguments and then briefly elaborate.

Chart 1.2 Arguments for Political Nature of Man
  • (1) Polis completes and fulfills natural associations

    The final cause is a natural cause - in fact it is most natural

    Family and villages are not enough, not complete. Functions generated by the family are incapable of being fulfilled by the family, hence politics arises to complete and perfect them.

      A. Reproduction of life, bringing into being another human being, requires EDUCATION (good life).

      B. Preservation of life requires division of labor, commerce and also trade and war - all facilitated by polis. Requires JUSTICE.

  • (2) Human nature is political

      A. Man is neither beast nor god: without the polis man is either higher or lower than man. Usually he is a bad man, with a passion for war.

      B. Man has speech by nature and speech has a political function; speech does more than signify pleasure and pain as in other animals - human speech signifies what is advantageous and good or what is disadvantageous and bad. Also it can signify what is just and unjust. Such articulation of good/bad and just/unjust makes a political association, an arrangement by which goods and burdens are distributed

  • (3) The polis is "prior" to the individual (combines 1 and 2)

    The part cannot function without the whole. man cannot fully function as man without polis - i.e. man cannot practice full virtue without polis.

The family and village grow out of natural impulse, but they are lack justice, the greatest of human goods. Thus political founder is the greatest of benefactors; because justice is the highest good. Justice helps us to be our best.

Argument 1: The Polis completes and fulfills natural associations as the final cause. The final cause is a natural cause - in fact it is most natural or indeed the "cause of causes." The idea here is that family and villages are not enough, not complete, for full human flourishing (note the ethical language here). Only in polis do we find self-sufficiency, that is the completeness of life to live a truly human or excellent life. We could say that the functions generated by the family are incapable of being fulfilled by the family, hence political society arises to complete them. For example, male and female function for the reproduction of life, bringing into being another human being. But this requires more than the mere biological act but the human development or culture of the child; this requires EDUCATION for good life. But is a family sufficient to develop the full intellectual, poetic, and moral capacity of the child. Certainly not in most cases. Unless one's parents are poet, artist, public speaker, physicist, and philosopher. Second, the preservation of life requires greater social and economic complexity such as division of labor, and commerce. Indeed, these raise the possibility of trade and war. Yet it is precisely these activities which raise the political issues - what is justice and how can we achieve a just arrangement for labor and in fact distribution of burdens and benefits, and how are we to defend ourselves or shall we expand and rule others. Justice as we shall see is brought to be and facilitated by the polis. The argument then is on this line - if the family and household are by nature, then so is the polis which comes into being to complete what they aim at.

The second argument proceeds as follows: Human nature is political when understood for what human beings are. First, Man is neither a beast nor a god: without the polis man is either higher or lower than man. Usually he is a bad man, with a passion for war. Now we see why the village is not enough - the VILLAGE results from an association of households, thus aims at more than daily needs and wants. Aristotle does not say much about it. But this is significant - the association is based on kinship, something like a tribe ruled by a king/father. The reference to Homer is of utmost importance in showing the insufficiency of the village: who gives the law in the village? A man by arbitrary decree -- the cyclops - each of them ruleth over his wife and children. Thus Homer forms the imagination of Aristotle. The man without a polis is clanless, lawless, hearthless; Cyclops - even with tribes they are dangerous. The village really ignores political justice, essential to which is impersonal and impartial law. The tribe is unpredictable and open to arbitrary rule -think of James Jones or the Wild West or primitive tribes. It takes more than a village! It takes a political society. Our founders used a variation of this classic argument in the Declaration of Independence. How is it a self evident truth that all men are created equal? A self evident truth is one that is affirmed upon understanding the meaning of the terms. What is it to be human? It is to be neither beast nor god. So how are we equal. We are equally below the gods and above the beast. So as Lincoln inferred, it is not just to treat other humans a cattle or mere property. So too, should any mortal human refrain from claiming the wisdom or power of God and seek to live in cooperation with other human beings.

In addition we may see that human nature, situated between gods and beasts, is defined by the use of speech and reason, LOGOS. Man has speech by nature and the function of speech is political. Speech does more than signify pleasure and pain as in other animals. It can signify what is advantageous and good or what is disadvantageous and bad. Also it can signify what is just and unjust. Such articulation of good/bad and just/unjust makes a human political association, that is, an arrangement by which goods and burdens are distributed. Political common good is constituted by distributive justice.

The third argument brings together the first two arguments. The polis is prior to the individual and the pre-political associations in the order of final causality, the most basic cause of nature. They are related as part to whole. The part cannot function without the whole. Man cannot fully function as man without the polis - i.e. man cannot practice full virtue without the polis. Also in the pre-political association man is still a part in some significant way. The family and village grow out of natural impulse, but they are not enough, as we have seen. They lack justice, the greatest of human goods. Thus the political founder is the "greatest of benefactors;" because justice is the highest good. Justice helps us to be our best. The polis saves us from unholy savagery (the fate of an isolated man or the result of arbitrary rule). So he repeats again that man is a beast or a god, without the polis.

So here is the grand conclusion - man is social and political by nature. We could say that the material and final causes of the polis are accounted for and found to be "by nature." But of course the city does not come about by nature. It takes construction by a founder, a legislator. The "Efficient cause" is human art. But this is not to say that the city is "artificial" in the way that Hobbes would later construe it. The formal cause of the city is a principle of justice embodied in a "constitution" or arrangement of offices with a purpose in view. By this common sense of justice, embodied laws, does a political regime find its bearing. This appears to many to be conventional, but insofar as it aims at the final cause, it approximates nature. Compare with language: material, efficient, final causes are natural (sound, impulse, truth); the formal cause - grammatical arrangement is by convention - but this does not rule out all the natural factors. So we can perhaps say that Man's nature is to employ convention (art and reason) to attain his natural good.

1.5 Maritain on sociability: By Deficiency and by Perfection

Maritain has a very useful account of the proposition that man is social and political by nature. He traces our natural sociability back to two root causes. First human beings are needy; so by way of deficiency and dependency human beings must rely upon other human beings to attain their full stature. But also human beings are excellent; so by way of perfection or generosity human beings seek to be with and work with others. See Maritain, Jacques. The Person and the Common Good. Translated by John J. Fitzgerald. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966, pp, 47-48 and Maritain, Jacques. The Rights of Man and Natural Law. Translated by Doris C. Anson. New York: Scribners, 1943, chap. 1.

Chart 1.3 Maritain on the Two-Fold Root Human Sociability

1.6 Plato's Republic: Three Cities in Speech

Plato also has an account that confirms Aristotle and Plato (or rather, Plato is the ultimate source for Aristotle and Maritain). In the Republic Socrates and his friends build a city in speech in order to discover the nature of justice. The root of human sociability lies in neediness or the lack of self-sufficiency. In this plain or basic city men work out a division of labor so as make work more efficient and supply for their basic needs. Already the seeds of politics are sown in the division of labor and the question of end or purpose for life. Glaucon objects to this simple city as one "fit for pigs." There is no relish and no beauty. Human nature surmounts beyond the strictly necessary and the merely utilitarian. Does this entail a feverish city based upon appetite alone, unlimited desires and acquisition. Even in this case a further sign of political life breaks in - the need for guardians, warriors, to acquire and then defend the land for expansive desire. But the education of guardians reveals another dimension to human nature - the spirited capacity, and beyond it the rational capacity. Suffice it to say the spirited capacity functions like Maritain's sociability by way of generosity. As Walter Berns once said, anger is a generous emotion if properly formed. It attaches the citizen to a particular city and serves as the basis for service and sacrifice.

1.7 Hobbes as Counter Point

For a counterpoint to the basic axiom of ancient philosophy, that man is social and political by nature, one must read Thomas Hobbes. Certainly Leviathan, especially the chapters 1-14 culminating in the claim that the state of nature is a state of war. In addition, one must read De Cive; in this work Hobbes explains all higher capacities of social service, friendship, and education itself as rooted in selfishness or desire for glory and domination.


1. The chief writings are the unfinished Commentary on Aristotle's Politics, the treatise On Kingship, portions of theological writings pertaining explicitly to politics and law, and remarks scattered throughout works related to matters of metaphysics, ethics, etc. For judicious selections of key texts see your textbook Saint Thomas Aquinas, On Law, Morality and Politics Edited, with introduction by William P. Baumgarth and Richard J. Regan (Indianapolis: Hackett: 1988); also useful is Saint Thomas Aquinas, On Politics and Ethics Edited, with introduction Paul E. Sigmund (New York: Norton, 1988).

2. See Janko Zagar, "Aquinas and the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church," The Thomist 38 (October 1974): 826-855.

3. See Paul Sigmund, "Maritain on Politics," Understanding Maritain edited by Deal Hudson and Mancini (Macon, Ga, 1987): 153-155; Idem, Natural Law in Political Thought (Cambridge, Mass: Winthrop Press, 1971). Heinrich Rommen,The State in Catholic Thought (St. Louis: Herder, 1947).

4. The success of this achievement I have evaluated in the following articles and reviews: "Approaches to Democratic Equality" in Freedom in the Modern World, ed. Michael Torre, (American Maritain/Notre Dame Press, 1989), 237-252; "Jacques Maritain and Yves R. Simon's Use of Thomas Aquinas in Their Defense of Liberal Democracy." In Thomas Aquinas and His Legacy, ed. David M. Gallagher, 28, 149-172. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1994. review of Natural Law and the Rights of Man, by Jacques Maritain, Crisis 5 (July/August 1987): 51-52; review of Theology of Freedom , by John Cooper, Crisis 4 (December 1986): 32-33; "Maritain and the Intellectuals," This World 5 (Spring 1983): 164-168; and "Maritain and America," This World 3 (Fall 1982): 113-123. I have taken leads from Leo Strauss, review of Philosophy of Democratic Government, by Yves Simon in What is Political Philosophy (New York: Free Press, 1959), 306-311 and Ernest Fortin, "The New Rights Theory and the Natural Law," Review of Politics 44 (October 1982): 590-612; See also Brian Benested, "Rights, Virtue and the Common Good," Crisis 1 (December 1983): 28-32.


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