Aristotle Response

Aristotle Response


Aristotle Response

"The state is thus prior by nature to the household and to each of us."

(Bk. I, Ch. 2, 1253a20).

DCE Aristotle Response

"The state is thus prior by nature to the household and to each of us."

(Bk. I, Ch. 2, 1253a20). JUSTICE

When Aristotle claims in the above passage that the state - the political and social collective contract which binds and governs a society - takes priority and precedence over the individual, he is succinctly summarizing the most fundamental tenet of social contract theory as viewed through the paradigm of Locke's state of nature. At first glance, Aristotle's position seems not only contrary to Lockean and Jeffersonian ideals of egalitarian self-determination; his position also seems paradoxical to his own views on the role of democratic freedoms. Aristotle notes explicitly that "Republican government controls men who are by nature free"; in other words, freedom is the natural state of man, regardless of his inclination to enter into social contracts that curtail his freedom in the interests of governance. But how can man be fundamentally free, yet simultaneously have his freedom superseded by the primacy of the state? The answer, according to Aristotle, is that the formation of the state involves a partnership of free men, in which the collective state comes before individualism, specifically in order to overcome the chaotic barbarity that is inherent in Locke's hypothetical state of nature.

The key to understanding this seeming paradox is to understand the basic purpose of Aristotle's social contract theory. It is not his explicit intent to denigrate the philosophical significance of the individual; instead, he suggests that from a broader perspective, social contact theory permits the ascension of the state over the individual specifically to protect the individual. As he notes, the state represents a partnership: "Every state is as we see a sort of partnership, and every partnership is formed with a view to some good (since all the actions of all mankind are done with a view to what they think to be good). It is therefore evident that, while all partnerships aim at some good the partnership that is the most supreme of all and includes all the others does so most of all, and aims at the most supreme of all goods; and this is the partnership entitled the state, the political association." The argument here is based on the balancing of competing goods that is at the heart of social contract theory - and which by definition serves as a counterpoint to Locke's state of nature. In that hypothetical state of nature, the individual holds primacy. Thus, individual desires and motivations take priority over any shared or collective concerns. The inevitable result is anarchy, as each individual works for his own interests.

Aristotle argues here, however, that by entering the partnership of the state, by surrendering to the greater authority of the collective political organization, the individual is actually working more efficiently towards his own self-interest, in a way that by definition dismantles the Lockean state of nature. In that state of nature, the strong or the clever survive and the weak perish; the only imperative is personal survival. By entering into a social contract, however, the preservation of the broader society becomes the greater good - but not for the sake of society, but for the sake of the individual. Aristotle notes that only one who is more than or less than human can function outside of this social contract: "It is clear therefore that the state is also prior by nature to the individual; for if each individual when separate is not self-sufficient, he must be related to the whole state as other parts are to their whole, while a man who is incapable of entering into partnership, or who is so self-sufficing that he has no need to do so, is no part of a state, so that he must be either a lower animal or a god." The implicit message is clear: each individual enters into the social contract not to give up freedoms but ultimately to retain them, to protect himself from the anarchy of the state of nature.

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