The Death and Life of the Polis

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Middleton, Ryan
aristotle's politics , ancient political philosophy
Aristotle argues in Chapter 2 of Book I of the Politics that the polis exists by nature. I argue that this notion of a natural polis, what I call the Naturalness Thesis, is fundamentally important to Aristotle's political philosophy. The Naturalness Thesis is discussed in only one place by Aristotle, and it is found alongside two further claims—the claim that humans are the most political animal and the claim that the polis is naturally prior to the individual. Together these three ideas constitute Aristotle's political naturalism. I begin by examining the relationship between the Naturalness Thesis and the other two claims. I argue that the Naturalness Thesis is the central idea in Aristotle's political naturalism. I then proceed to defend the argument Aristotle gives in support of the Naturalness Thesis from David Keyt's critique of it. Keyt argues that Aristotle's argument is unsuccessful and that, furthermore, Aristotle himself has reason to believe the polis exists by art rather than nature. Because of this, Keyt believes that there is a blunder in Aristotle's political naturalism. I argue that it is Keyt, and not Aristotle, who blunders. Keyt makes the mistake of interpreting Aristotle's account of the rise of the polis out of the village and household as an account of three distinct social arrangements. As I see it, Aristotle is instead suggesting that village, household, and polis are three stages in the development (or growth) of one thing, namely the polis. That is, households and villages are essentially the same (they contain the same form) as the polis, though they are underdeveloped. Finally, I expound on the Naturalness Thesis by interpreting Aristotle's account of the rise of the natural polis from a number of perspectives. First, the account is sociobiological: Aristotle's polis is literally a naturally living thing. Second, the account is historical: it alludes to other accounts of prehistory and reveals Aristotle's ascription to the theory of a perpetual rise and fall of civilization. Third, the account is ethical: it seeks to break down the distinction between nomos (=law) and phusis (=nature) to ground politics in nature.
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