Aristotle on nature Notes for February 13 & 18

Main points

Aristotle held that the state and various social relations within it are natural. Plato held some similar ideas. The modern authors we will read explicitly denied that this is so. Consequently, in order to understand the difference between ancient and modern political philosophy, we need to understand this claim about the naturalness of the state.


In order to understand what Aristotle meant by the term “natural”, we drew on his discussions of physics and ethics. Natural bodies have internal sources of change and movement. Things also have natures that develop: human nature, for instance, is better exemplified in an adult than an infant. Finally, things have functions as part of their natures. These functions determine what it is for them to be good. In the case of human beings, the function is rational activity.

At least, that is so for free male human beings. As we saw in discussing the Politics Aristotle didn’t think that all human beings can be rational. And if you can’t be rational, you can’t be virtuous or good, according to Aristotle.

Finally, in the Politics we learned that the natural is contrasted with the conventional (i.e. law) and with force (Book I, ch. 5). It is this latter claim that is essential for Aristotle’s claim that slavery is not merely necessary but just to the slave.


Hobbes is a modern figure. We’re going to start with his remarks about why we need a state. Roughly, life without one would be full of conflict. In my opinion, this is a more sophisticated account than either Plato or Aristotle gave.

Here are two more minor points to look out for. First, note that Hobbes has no use at all for natural inequalities. Everyone is equal as far as political philosophy is concerned. But how does he square that with the evident inequality among people?

Second, look at what Hobbes says about how we are like and unlike the other “gregarious” animals in chapter 17. Compare it with Aristotle’s Politics, Book I, chapter 2. I think it’s a significant point for understanding what Hobbes was up to.

Enviro-crankery modified** Added Feb. 19

Despite what I said yesterday, I really do think that compact fluorescent bulbs will significantly reduce energy consumption. I don’t know what I was thinking. Every fixture that can be changed in my house has a compact fluorescent in it. And I also want a nifty hybrid car, partly because I think they do use less energy than comparable standard engines.

I stand by my assertion that there is a strange disconnect between people’s predictions of disaster and their unwillingness to give up on economic growth and high employment rates. If the earth is going to cook, let’s have a recession. If we’re not willing to have a recession, how bad do we really think global warming will be?

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2008. It was posted February 18, 2008 and updated February 19, 2008.
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