THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Political Animal, Part I

As Aristotle declared in The Politics, "man is by nature a political animal." We begin this new blog series by asking the obvious question, "What does this mean?" Aspects of Aristotle's statement do not seem to be considered today in all their depth. When we examine it, we are in essence asking what we are as human beings, and then trying to understand the answer — a task on which we can spend our entire lives and still leave unfinished.

Because many people today tend to paint things in black and white, most responses to the question what we are as human beings usually fall into two basic categories — once they've decided that "political" is another word for "social," with social almost always construed as collectivist. Thus, people by and large declare us — the human race — to be either 1) individualistic, or 2) collectivist.

Because human beings are clearly individuals, some people claim we are only individuals. Any organized activity is automatically "collectivism" and is contrary to nature. They conclude that Aristotle was wrong — and not for the first time, either. Aristotle's "natural slave" argument is the quintessence of collectivism, and proves that everything he said is wrong.

Nevertheless, other people claim that we are only social. Human beings have always naturally collected themselves in groups. A number of people therefore conclude that individualistic activity is against nature; all human actions are exclusively social, the collective is everything. Aristotle managed to get the fact that we are social — collectivist — right, but his over-emphasis on individual rights and virtues negates everything else he said.

As we might expect, the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. Aristotle is not wrong so much as misunderstood. He made mistakes, yes, but these mistakes were logical within his framework. They appear to have been corrected by Thomas Aquinas, for which (in part) the Catholic Church has recognized Aquinas as a "saint" (a person of exceptional holiness or "heroic virtue") and a "doctor" of the Church — someone whose learning is so great as to consider him or her an authoritative and outstanding witness to authentic Christian belief and practice.

Aristotle did not claim that humanity is either individual or social, but is both individual and social. This is a combination that the Philosopher called political. That is, individual human beings typically gather together and associate within the structure of a polis. Literally "the City State," Aristotle conceived the polis as an exemplar of human social activity, a system of consciously organized civic groups — institutions — within the common good, the common good being the network of institutions that give specific form to social life.

When this "social order" is adequately structured within the common good, it works to preserve both our individual nature and our social nature. Within the framework of Aristotle's thought, then, human beings are neither solely individualistic nor exclusively social/collectivist. We are, instead, something different. Although the concept has been around for at least 2,500 years, the fact has been around forever. Even though we see it in action every day, many people continue to be confused by the fact that the human person is something apparently unique on Earth: a political animal.

This makes the task of becoming more fully human confusing and contradictory if we focus exclusively either on strict individualism or undiluted collectivism. According to Aristotle, we become more fully human (conform ourselves more closely to our own nature) when each of us acquires and develops virtue. That is, when we build habits of doing good on an individual basis, but within a social context, we become more fully what we are as a combination of individual and social beings. Working out the conflicting demands between the individual and society as a whole is called "politics," the science of the practicable.

What confuses many people is the fact that the acquisition and development of virtue is an individual task, but done within a context that requires conformity to social norms. For its part, society cannot force virtue on anyone. Society as a whole can, however, demand that acts affecting other individuals, groups, or the common good as a whole conform to generally-accepted concepts of virtue, regardless of the personal opinion or beliefs of an individual who thinks otherwise.

The State can therefore coerce what the general consensus considers a virtuous act (though not virtue), such as paying just taxes, adhering materially to the terms of a contract, or keeping the peace. This is true whether or not the one carrying out that virtuous act is acting voluntarily and thus virtuously, or is being coerced into appropriate behavior (but without prejudice to his or her individual rights) for the common good. As important as it is for individuals personally to do good for the right motives, society is — or should be — indifferent as to whether people act in a virtuous manner (if not, strictly speaking, virtuously) out of fear of punishment, or with genuine virtue out of a desire to do the right thing and build the habit of doing good, becoming more fully human in the process.

We will begin looking at the implications of humanity's political nature in the next posting in this series.