Aristotle coined the term political animal – politikon zoon – in his work Politics in which he puts forth his belief that citizens must actively participate in politics if we are to be happy. To Aristotle, we are creatures intended to live in community. He understood us to be social animals. Aristotle reasoned that humans build society and flourish in it through discourse and responsible government. We can do things that we cannot do alone. We benefit from the things we can do with others.
I am with Aristotle on this one. He notes that like bees and herd animals, we are best together working as a tribe. We gain good from the corporate mind. Unlike other animals, however, Aristotle notes that we have speech and thus logic or reason. These two things afford us benefits not to be found among other animals.
There are other things about which I believe Aristotle is wrong, and thus this may be the first time since high school when I have referred to him in writing. For example, he argued that slavery was a just institution that was not always justly applied. His point was that not all enslaved people should be enslaved, and not all people not enslaved should be free. In this, Aristotle used the words and logic of the world of his time. This does not excuse his “logic,” but explains it. He also believed that women were inferior to men in the social hierarchy of his time. It seems that he pins this notion on a perception that women cannot get men to do what they want while men can get women to do what they want. Each of these issues is troubling, but both have this in common — they persist today. Around the world people are still enslaved at the beginning of the 21st Century and male domination is widespread. We might decry both, but they persist and have their proponents.
Despite this, I think we are indeed social animals, beings who operate best and most happily with others. Many times each week I observe us doing this social animal thing well. In the past seven days I have enjoyed
- Walks with a friend
- Safety on the roadways
- Shared transportation to another city
- Food and services in exchange for money tendered
- Safe produce
- Affordable housing
- Ticket purchases online
- Neighborhood sanitation
- A variety of food for my dog
- Shared understanding of road safety
- Conversations with distant friends
- Enjoyable meetings of the mind
- Shared printing services
- A clean and organized classroom
- Interesting and committed learners
- A system to contribute to the common good
- Lighting on streets
- Paved roadways
- An intelligent and attractive first family to emulate
- Debates among equals
- Clothes delivered to my home by pleasant and hard working men
- Opportunities to speak my mind
There is so much more that I have enjoyed than these things that immediately come to mind. Because these things are part of society, however, they are frequently overlooked or taken for granted until they are not working well or are absent. Our political upsets in the US are frequently annoying and frustrate us. However, the ongoing atrocities in Pakistan and Nigeria perpetrated by Taliban and Boko Haram show what can happen in the absence of robust political systems in civil society. The absence of these systems traces to colonialism and profiteering, then and now.
Isolation will neither help those in countries experiencing this extremism, nor will it help the US. Our inability or unwillingness to address social ills at home and elsewhere contributes to these outcries. Further isolating ourselves will do even more harm.
I applaud my friends and colleagues Jan, Chris, and Sandy whose political engagement and aspirations are working for good. Good luck next week, keepers of the zoo.