Aristotle on natural and artificial Notes for September 4

The question

In yesterday’s class (Sept 4), I said that Aristotle held that the state is natural while Hobbes did not. Greg asked a great question in response: what does Aristotle contrast “the natural” with? Knowing that is essential to understanding what he means by calling the state natural.

Some answers

So I hit the books and have a better answer than I did. It’s someone else’s answer, but none the worse for it. Here’s C.D.C. Reeve, from the Introduction to his edition of Aristotle’s Politics (Hackett, 1998), p. xxvi.

Aristotle distinguished between things that “exist by nature” and those that exist for other causes (Aristotle, Physics, 192b8-9).

Things that ‘exist by nature’ have “an internal source of change and staying unchanged” (Physics, 192b13-5). Here’s Reeve’s explanation of what that means (with some additions by yours truly):

“Thus, for example, a feline embryo has within it a source that explains why it grows into a cat, why that cat moves and alters in the ways that it does, [why it wakes me up very early in the morning — mjg] and why it eventually decays and dies.”

Artificial things (artifacts) do not have such a source within them. Instead, “the source is in something else and external” (Physics 192b30-1). For instance, a house has its source in the builder, not itself.

And what’s so natural about the state?

Okey dokey, now what about the state? Why is that natural rather than artificial?

The state is natural because its source is internal: it is made and sustained by the people who inhabit it. And they do that because they are political animals by nature. That is, they best realize their natural function, aim, or goal (treat those as synonyms) through living in the state.

That’s what we’re supposed to gather from Aristotle’s account of the origin of the state.


Aristotle’s explanations of what it means to say that the city (state) is natural and that man is a political animal are somewhere between short and non-existent. At least for us, though perhaps not to his contemporaries.

So there isn’t any obvious answer to Greg’s question. For the purpose of understanding Hobbes, we might think of it this way. Aristotle said that the state is natural. Hobbes has an understanding of “artificial” according to which the state is artificial, namely, it’s a human creation. Whatever Aristotle meant, Hobbes’s understanding is in line with common usage. Take Hobbes as saying something like “Aristotle is wrong, at least so long as ‘natural’ means what it normally does (and if it doesn’t, it isn’t that interesting a claim — anyone can make up words).”

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2006.
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