Wednesday, April 10, 2024

The Political Animal

Today’s blog posting is adapted from the book, Economic Personalism, which you can get free from the CESJ website, or from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

As we noted in the previous posting on this subject, being true to oneself means conforming to one’s human nature.  By doing so, people become more fully human by acquiring and developing virtue (“human-ness”).  If done at all, this is the work of a lifetime and the hardest path to follow.


Becoming more fully human is more difficult in the modern world because so many people are powerless and have been alienated from the social order. This runs counter to a fundamental aspect of human nature. As Aristotle noted, in addition to being the animal that reasons, “man is by nature a political animal.” (Politics, 1253a.)

To explain, human beings are neither isolated individuals nor undifferentiated members of a collective. We are persons who by nature associate with one another in a consciously structured environment called the pólis, hence political.

While the pólis can be structured to encourage either virtue or vice, it is neither virtuous nor vicious in and of itself. We therefore speak of the social environment as being made up of structures of virtue or structures of vice or sin. Society may encourage us one way or another, but which way we go is ultimately our personal and joint responsibility, as is the structuring of the pólis itself.


It is important to realize that human beings are not only rational and political, but tool makers and users. There is, of course, also the irrational and emotional side of human beings, but since we are discussing personalism and the primacy of reason over irrationality, we will ignore it for the sake of the argument.

Consistent with human nature, then, we consciously structure and maintain our environment in both its physical and its social aspects to provide the opportunity and means to secure our wellbeing. Our physical environment, including the natural world around us, also consists of infrastructure, houses, factories, stores, roads, dams, bridges, and so on, that we possess individually or in association with others.

Our social environment consists of a vast network of invisible structures comprising the common good that each person as such is supposed to possess in its entirety. This network includes laws, customs, traditions, and other institutions (“social habits”), and social tools such as money and credit, tax systems, even language and the State.

Both the physical and the social environment are tools by means of which the human person carries on the process of living. The process of living consists not only of providing for one’s (and one’s family’s) survival and security, but furthermore by becoming virtuous, thereby becoming more fully human.


It is by means of these social tools that each person as a political animal satisfies not only his individual wants and needs, but his social wants and needs (i.e., domestic and civil interpersonal relationships). Preferably this is done in a way that also assists each person in becoming virtuous, that is, more fully human.

In satisfying individual wants and needs within a social framework there must also be no harm done to others or to the common good, and ideally what is done should indirectly benefit the whole of society. To participate fully in society, then, each person must have full access to those invisible structures of the common good, the tools for living in society.

Therein lies what may very well be the greatest immediate problem of the modern age. It underlies all social problems that prevent or inhibit each person developing more fully as a human being.

That problem is the inability of many people to satisfy their individual material wants and needs in a way that respects their own dignity, does not offend or harm the dignity of others, and benefits society, or at least does no harm. This is because most people have been stripped of power, and thus of control over their own lives.