Aristotle’s Foundation for Political Life

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“It is clear then that a state is not a mere society, having a common place, established for the prevention of mutual crime and for the sake of exchange. These are conditions without which a state cannot exist; but all of them together do not constitute a state, which is a community of families and aggregation of families in well-being, for the sake of a perfect and self-sufficing life. Such a community can only be established among those who live in the same place and intermarry. Hence arise in cities family connections, brotherhoods, common sacrifices, amusements which draw men together. But these are created by friendship, for the will to live together is friendship. The end of the state is the good life, and these are the means towards it. And the state is the union of families and villages in perfect self-sufficing life, by which we mean a happy and honorable life.”

(Politics Bk. III Ch. 9)

Aristotle’s conception of the state is very much at odds with modern universalism and provides powerful support for ethnic-nationalism. His argument that political society is the natural state for man runs counter to arguments made by social contract theorists of the Enlightenment like Locke and Rousseau, who taught that the state was conventional. Aristotle believed that the foundation for the state could never be a mere contractual agreement, but that rather the state must be founded upon neighborly love and friendship. A state can only exist among people who have natural affection for one another, speak the same language, have common experiences, and who share the same customs. This sort of state is impossible in a multi-cultural or even a civically nationalistic society. Aristotle’s state is only possible among an ethnically uniform people.

Aristotle referred to man as the Zoon Politikon or political animal, he taught that man was different from all other animals in that he was political by nature. That is not to say that man has a natural urge toward political life, like the desire to eat or reproduce, but that because man is gifted with logos (speech and reason), he can live in community with other men. Logos ties us to those of our own kind and through speech we can share a common moral language. To quote Yale professor Steve Smith, “Logos entails the power of love. We love those with whom we are most intimately related and who are most immediately present and visible to us. Our social and political nature is not the result of political calculation, but love, affection, friendship and sympathy are the ground of political life. It is speech that allows a sharing in these qualities that make us fully human.” Families and villages are smaller political associations in which man can exist, but to form the apex of political life, the state, these must come together and live in a harmonized unity. The purpose of the state is to provide for man an environment in which he can fulfill his telos or his function as a human being. In this environment, he can achieve virtue, noble action, and excellence. According to Aristotle anyone who lives as an atomized individual outside of this kind of society must either be a beast or a god. Man, being political by nature, can only live out the good life and reach his full potential in the context of the state.

The political unit for Aristotle’s state is the polis (city-state). It should be noted that Aristotle’s polis is limited in size and scope. The polis is a closed society and must be small enough for bonds of trust, friendship, and comradery to develop among the citizenry. Only a society governed by this mutual trust can be political in the Aristotelian sense. There could never be a cosmopolis or a global society that incorporates all of mankind, because the polis is by necessity particularistic. An empire, for example, can never be political because it cannot be governed by trust. It can only be ruled through despotism. A universal state does not allow for self-perfection; it is impossible for man to fulfill his telos. This can only be achieved through the small self-governing polis. Furthermore, the polis will always exist in a world amongst others unlike it. Each city-state will have a different set of values, the good citizen in one regime might not be a good citizen in another. Aristotle recognizes the diversity that exists among humankind and the impossibility of reconciling these vast differences. Partisanship for one’s own kind and one’s own way of life is necessary for a healthy city. A certain amount of provincialism and spirit for one’s own polis is a fundamental part of what it means to be a human. The friend-enemy distinction is a natural ineradicable part of reality. Just as an individual cannot be friends with every person, the city-state cannot be friendly with all others. War is therefore inevitable and the virtues that it necessitates are as natural to the city as the virtues of friendship and love.

The modern nation-state, even those that are ethnically uniform, are a far cry from Aristotle’s tightly knit city-state. The small, self-sustainable, and agrarian Amish (their pacifism excepted) fit his conception of political life much more so than does say, modern Japan. However, an ethno-state would of course be much closer to achieving the high-trust Aristotle deems necessary for functional society. Also, keeping this in mind, we should envision the future of Western nations with an emphasis on localism and regional self-sustainability. This will encourage the preservation and development of a variety of sub-cultures and sub-groups within a larger ethno-state. We want to encourage friendly tribalism and competition within our nations as well as among other European nations.

We have gotten so far afield in terms of common sense; it is time we get back to very basic political questions. What is the foundation for political life? Aristotle’s answer to that question vindicates our own conclusions and provides a solid philosophical foundation on which we can build.

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