The Great Conversation:
By Gabriel Blanchard
If man is the measure of all things, how are we to understand man? And if not, how are we to understand anything?
In our previous installment in this series, we discussed two major answers to the question What is man? These answers, “man is Homo sapiens” and “man is a rational animal,” are the sort given by disciplines like biology, anthropology, psychology, and metaphysics—because the answer you get to any question depends strongly on how you define the terms of the question. This week, we will consider two other answers to the question, one of which again hails from the pages of Aristotle:
III. Man is a political animal.
The idea here is not that we are all so fascinated by hot-button issues that they define our very being, nor that we all have a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order secretly locked away in our minds. “Political” here should be read with an eye to its origin in the Greek word πόλις (polis), meaning city or city-state: man is being defined as a communal creature; today we would probably express it as “man is a social animal.” This may seem almost insultingly obvious, as we all have parents, families, and communities; but in truth, there are plenty of creatures that are solitary by nature—some do not even tend their young, like sea turtles. By contrast, not only do human young depend on the care of adults, but the health of adult humans requires ongoing interaction with other humans, as indicated by grim studies of solitary confinement.
This may seem like it clashes with the practice of eremitic reclusion, more commonly called “being a hermit,” especially since reclusion arises independently in multiple religious traditions.* However, as a rule, hermits have not entirely given up contact with society: if they had, they would instead be called “missing persons.” Moreover, hermits themselves are known to express the contrary. T. S. Eliot’s Choruses from “The Rock” includes the line “Even the anchorite,* who meditates alone, / For whom the days and nights repeat the praise of God, / Prays for the Church, the body of Christ incarnate”; and the Apophthegmata (a collection of sayings mainly from early Egyptian monks) records one of the Desert Fathers telling his disciples that “Your life and your death are with your neighbor.”
Aristotle’s original assertion that man is by nature “political” is advanced in Book I of the Politics. The passage is worth quoting in full.
The object for which a thing exists, its end, is its chief good; and self-sufficiency is an end, and a chief good. From these things therefore it is clear that the city-state is a natural growth, and that man is by nature a political animal … And why man is a political animal in a greater measure than any bee or any gregarious animal is clear. For … man alone of the animals possesses speech. The mere voice, it is true, can indicate pain and pleasure, and therefore is possessed by the other animals as well … but speech is designed to indicate the advantageous and the harmful, and therefore also the right and the wrong; for it is the special property of man … that he alone has perception of good and bad and right and wrong and the other moral qualities, and it is partnership in these things that makes a household and a city-state.
This account of things suggests the interlocking topics of history, law, and ethics—with a touch of whimsy, we might explain these as the studies of what people have done, what they have been told to do, and what they ought to do. All three of these depend heavily upon social context to be comprehensible. For example, if we read that a Miss Smith in Scotland was fined for turning a loaf of bread upside down in front of her guest, we have technically learned a few historical and legal facts: namely, that all those things happened, and that Scotland apparently has some kind of law punishing some aspect of this behavior; but without full details, it will merely seem bizarre. But our comprehension and power to analyze will increase if we learn that Miss Smith’s guest was a man from the Menteith family, that the thirteenth-century Barons of Menteith betrayed William Wallace (according to legend), and that the signal for the betrayal was one of the Menteiths turning a loaf upside down. This context gives Miss Smith’s action meaning, and suggests that perhaps Scotland imposes a fine on people who insult their guests or something of that kind. That, in turn, allows us to discuss whether Scotland should have such a law, passing from the historic to the legal to the ethical.
But context does not depend solely on facts. It also depends on perspective: as mentioned in the opening paragraph of this very post, the way you frame a question is a big part of what answer you will get to it. (In fact, if you frame a question badly enough, it can become unanswerable. Is yellow square or round?) This is the background for another answer to our topical question in this series.
IV. Man is male.
This is the answer pertinent to some fields, and some movements, associated with the name of feminism (or that are widely called political in an insulting sense).** This can create a misleading impression that the idea of “gender studies” is not only recent in the sense that you couldn’t have chosen it as a college major a hundred years ago, but recent in the sense that nobody paid any attention to the topic before. In truth, the relative political, social, and religious positions of women and men have been part of the Great Conversation for almost as long as we have any record of it; nor has the uniquely feminine perspective, or the fact that it differs from the masculine, been wholly excluded from polite discussion.
It can be an interesting exercise to take a given topic and try to think about it from a gender-free standpoint, or find out by reading the ways in which gender can affect our perspective. Some differences are immediately obvious: reproductive health care, for example, is clearly a more involved issue for women than it is for men, quite apart from a person’s moral convictions about any of the issues that relate to it. Other differences are more subtle, and might not be suspected without the “inside information” we can obtain only from authors of the opposite sex. A good instance of this—for the male reader, at least!—can be found in Dorothy Sayers; in her introduction to Dante’s Purgatorio, she makes the following remarks about the conventions, psychology, and history of romantic love:
The doctrine of Courtly Love† is so far realistic that it assigns all the amorous fuss and to-do, all the tormented philosophy of love, to the male. He presents his pierced and burning heart upon a plate, wreathed round with elegant devices: the lady (who has a pretty taste in such matters) considers it critically and either approves it or waves it away. … And art and literature, as well as experience, bear witness that on the whole woman’s preoccupation is not with the subtleties of love but with the practical problems of marriage and household. Women are are interested … not in man but in men. Whether this difference between the sexes is organic or merely occupational has yet to be proved. But it is very observable that whereas there has been from time immemorial an Enigma of Woman, there is no corresponding Enigma of Man. … If we search the pages of serious literature for the woman-made counterparts of Helen and Cleopatra, Dido and Delilah, of Salome, of Clytæmnestra, of Guinevere, Isolde, and Morgan le Fay … and all the devouring women who have pursued their devastating way through a shambles of broken hearts and broken lives, we shall find but a brief list, almost beginning and ending with the comparatively harmless figure of Mr. Edward Fairfax Rochester.
But the topics of feminism and chivalry alike point us toward other answers we must give to the question “What is man?”
Part III to come!
Æschylus, The Oresteia
Tacitus, The Annals
Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
Karl Marx, Capital
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
*Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism are probably the best-known sources of eremitic traditions (anchorites are a specific type of Christian hermit). However, hermits can also be found in Daoism, the Sufi branch of Islam, Judaism (rarely), and Jainism.
**The feeling behind the insults seems, as a rule, to be that it’s all a lot of obnoxious bother about nothing. No doubt activism of that kind exists. In any group who advocate for or against something, there will always be a percentage of members who are more invested in having a problem than in fixing it; having a problem feels important. But it’s equally true that humans are naturally lazy and don’t like feeling bad about ourselves; not having a problem is comfortable. Thus, we are also apt to resist fixing problems or even hearing about them.
†Courtly Love is the name of a set of aristocratic conventions that ostensibly governed how romances were properly conducted (though there is some debate how far these norms were meant to be more than an artistic device, at least at first). We associate them mainly with Arthurian literature; Dante’s love for Beatrice belongs to the same tradition.
Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore.
If you want to hear more from the Classic Learning Test, take a listen to our podcast, Anchored—one of the fastest-growing podcasts around! You might also be interested in some of our other brief introductions to the Great Conversation, like the family, liberty, and matter.
Published on 16th March, 2023.