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July 15, 2015



I don't know, Justin; I would like to establish the anthropological difference so that I can point to the human and declare this being here the most savage and unjust of animals. We read in Aristotle that "Injustice is harshest when it has weapons..." (Politics 1253a30) and that humans are the "worst of all." Maybe that makes me provincial.

Stephen Menn

Aristotle, and Plato before him, do talk of other kinds of political animals: at Phaedo 82b5-8, bees and wasps and ants are mentioned as types of political animals into which the souls of non-philosophically virtuous humans might transmigrate. Humans may be the *most* political animal, but it would never have occurred to Aristotle to call us the *only* political animals. The most interesting discussion is at Historia Animalium 487b33ff (and here, at 488a9-10, he repeats Plato's list of examples and adds cranes). He is clear here that not all herd-animals are political, but only those which have some cooperative ergon. But that includes the bees and wasps and ants and cranes. (Which suggests that "belonging by nature to the polis" is an overtranslation of "politikon.") We still speak of "social insects," even if the adjective "political" has gone out of fashion for them since Purchas' time. When Plato speaks of bees and ants as political animals, this is a compliment only up to a point; it is also a put-down to politically virtuous humans (and to Protagoras who had claimed to teach "political virtue," and had perhaps invented the term) to say that they are inwardly like bees and ants, and may as well manifest that disposition in their next incarnation.

Ognian Kassabov

A couple of loci in (sort of) classical texts of modern political philosophy seem to take a strategy in drawing the anthropological difference that diverges from the “rational deliberation” -> “political deliberation” argument.
(1) In De Cive V.5 (and Leviathan XVII.6-12) Hobbes takes issue with Aristotle (the passages quoted above) to make precisely the point that humans are the only political animals (and not merely the most political). It's not only how he draws the anthro diff, but also that he in effect uses the distinction as a tool for defining the very meaning of “political”. Hobbes notes that humans indeed have language, but he singles out its distinction in its being “a trumpet for war and sedition” (similarly reason results in “mere distraction and civil war”). Furthermore, there is no violent competition amongst gregarious beasts of the same species, each individual naturally desiring the “common good”; whereas humans’ conception of the good is only per contrast with the possession of others. In all, the anthro diff can be summed up by the claim that humans are essentially more conflictual than animals and this is what makes their union political. Finally, Hobbes’ argument relies on the basic distinction between nature and artifice that is so pivotal for much of his thought: animal union is mere consensus, political consensus among humans is artificial. (A weird, if somewhat tautological, implication is that brutes turn out to be natural communists, while what Hobbes terms the communitas rerum in the human state of nature leads to a life that is notoriously brutish.)
(2) In Ethics IV P37 Schol.1, Spinoza asks whether we have a duty to form a political union with animals. Of course the answer is in the negative, but the very fact that he raises the question is astonishing (on reasons for sympathy with animals, IV App.13, IV P35 Schol). Furthermore, the proximate reason given for the no answer is not that humans are rational, but that their affects “are different in nature” from those of animals (this might have to do with reason, but it is not immediately clear). Another striking point is that Spinoza places animals in the sphere of “right”, writing that they have rights against us (prima facie equal to our rights against them). So in effect he paints a picture of extra-political intra-species conflict, in which we have the duty to bond with our own species. This is not only so as not to be destroyed by animals, but also so as not to become like them (viz. IV P68 Schol). It might be a bit forced, but the anthro diff here turns out a matter not only of correct metaphysical definition, but also of very practical effort.
(3) A side note: In Moralists IV.iv, Shaftesbury wants to make fun of Hobbes’ war of all against all by drawing attention to the social virtues of wolves (and even of the “swinish kinds”). If creatures that we suppose harsher (or baser) than us are able to be social, we have no good reasons to suppose that we are not social by nature, either. The argument seems facile, but Shaftesbury is building on Cudworth’s criticism of the political implications of Hobbes’ nature/artifice distinction (from the last sections of the True Intellectual System). Hobbes maligns nature to construct his “gothic” political philosophy (Sensus Communis II.i). The earl further jokingly suggests the war argument could fare better off if it were built on inter-species conflict (wolves/sheep), which would be only an image for conflict among human beings of differing dispositions. But the passage could also be read in the light of the kind of universal harmonistic ecology Shaftesbury sketches in Inquiry I.ii.i and elsewhere.

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