Two answers to “why do we form political associations?”

Plato says that the city arises from an individual’s inability to meet his own physical needs; Aristotle says that it arises because men are political by nature. At first glace, it seems like Aristotle’s account is facile, or even that it is no explanation at all: “men are naturally political because they are political by nature! What an insight!” But Aristotle’s explanation is the better one. In effect, he is insisting that political life is irreducible. It is not the result of a more fundamental drive or desire – political life itself is the fundamental desire, and it would remain so even if it was not as good at meeting physical needs. This is why his Politics doesn’t begin by considering the individual (and his needs) as the principle of a society, but takes communal life as irreducible.

On Plato’s account the state meets the minimal requirements of its existence when it meets the basic physical needs of the individual. On Aristotle’s account the state meets such conditions when it provides a way for man to live a political life. Now it’s certainly ridiculous to critique Plato or Aristotle after limiting their political theories to their first principle, but such a limitation helpfully shows different fundamental views of what political order should be. If political order is really based on meeting basic physical needs, it is not immediately clear that there is a role for everyone as a citizen. Strong-man or paternalistic governments – in which there are no citizens but only dependents or consumers – could have a place among just regimes. But if political life is a basic and irreducible need, then just regimes must at least strive to make the regime a place in which the citizens can exercise a political life. Again, where political order reduces to physical need, the Leviathan-state is possible and perhaps even desirable; but where an individual’s political life is an irreducible reality, the Leviathan-state is in flagrant contradiction with the first principle of politics, since no one can lead a political life in the Leviathan state. The Leviathan might meet all the individual’s physical needs, but it does not allow his political actions to make anything beyond a negligible difference.


  1. dchernik99 said,

    April 18, 2012 at 7:32 am

    Hi James,

    I have a question for you. God may be pictured in eternity and in time. Suppose God is contemplating whether to bestow grace on Smith. To arrive at the answer, He needs to compare the possible world in which He bestows the grace with the possible world in which He refrains from doing so. This is done through number-crunching simple intelligence. Once all of God’s decisions are finalized, He can go back up to eternity and see — now by vision — everything at all time periods, including the future.

    Is God’s simple intelligence as powerful as His vision? Can God foresee future effects, no matter how remote, from present causes? Are there any limitations on God’s ability to calculate in time and unravel possible worlds? Is God a perfect utilitarian, say, seeking the greatest good, rightly understood, for the greatest number and being always successful at this?

    • April 18, 2012 at 10:13 am

      In fairness, this is a whole slough of questions, most of which I don’t have much of anything to say about since I don’t take the premises that give rise to the questions as given. First of all, I don’t know how to answer any of them without either prescinding from the question of the hypostatic union of Jesus or starting from it; and there are terrific problems either way. My first response – which would not be my most reflective one – is that to say that “God knows in time” or even saying “God foresees” means to say “God knows reality like an animal” and I see no reason to say this, at least of the divine nature prescinding from certain questions. “Possible worlds” are subject to similar considerations: they seem best explained as the way a rational creature interprets possibility, and they strike me as more a metaphor than a fact, and so aren’t straightforward features of reality, even if they are only taken to have reality in thought.

      I don’t raise these questions to open up a discussion, or to call your principles into doubt. I just don’t take enough as given to raise the sorts of questions you are raising here at this point in my intellectual life. I’m radically dissatisfied with the old categories for interpreting these things, and think they need a pretty thorough purging.

      • dchernik99 said,

        April 18, 2012 at 1:35 pm

        Like, St. Thomas argues that “a man is said to be prudent, who orders well his acts towards the end of life — or in regard to others subject to him, in a family, city or kingdom. … In this way prudence or providence may suitably be attributed to God.” So, the question is meant to make clearer the nature of divine providence. How exactly does God rule the world? Knowledge of such things is part of wisdom. Or faith seeking understanding. An atheist, say, may declare that he feels that God is doing a poor job at it. Or a deist might say that God wound up the world like a clock and exercises no providence at all. Or a man might feel that God the utilitarian has decreed that his soul be sacrificed for the greater good. But I suppose providence could be called God’s business which is not for us to mind.

      • dchernik99 said,

        April 18, 2012 at 2:24 pm

        Certainly, Lk 15 can give comfort to someone who thinks he was sacrificed by God to the devils, so that others could be saved. Then again, what if there are 2 sets of lost sheep, Smith vs. Jones and Robinson, only one of which could be rescued. Would Jesus pick the latter, all things being equal, since 2 > 1? Anyway, that’s just the beginning of what might be worth knowing about providence.

  2. dchernik99 said,

    April 18, 2012 at 7:46 am

    This post is a nice argument against the federal and state governments in the US. For in the federal elections, my vote, being one in 100 million, does not matter. Hence, my political action does not “make anything beyond a negligible difference.” But it is sensible and even a duty to participate in local public affairs, such as by electing or being elected into the city council.

  3. Lazarus said,

    April 20, 2012 at 3:58 am

    Perhaps Aristotle’s Politics (121252b27-30) sums it up nicely: ‘The partnership finally composed of several villages is the city-state; it has at last attained the limit of virtually complete self-sufficiency, and thus, while it comes into existence for the sake of life, it exists for the good life [tou eu zen].’

    Plato’s view is also complicated by the leap we’ve made (Republic 372e) from the ‘city of pigs’ of bare subsistence to the city of luxuries. But putting aside the possibility of ironic nuances here, this does seem to reinforce your point that Plato (unlike Aristotle) does seem to regret the need for politics.

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