What is Politics?



by Anonymous


In the Politics, Aristotle famously defines man as zoon politikon, the political animal. But what does it mean to say of man that he is the political animal?

It is important first to note that Aristotle has no one word for ‘life’. In Greek, zoē designates life in the sense common to all living beings, while bios specifies life by way of the form in which it is lived — the type of life, or way of life. To say that man is the political animal is before all else to say that life for man is always a qualified life. It is to say that of all animals man alone leads a kind of life.

And the kind of life proper to man is, specifically, the good life. Politics concerns not what it is simply to live (zen), but what it is to live well (eu zen). In its concern for how life is qualified, politics concerns itself with what is essential to the life man calls his own.

To define man as the political animal is therefore to recognize that politics is what is common to all men, as men, and is coextensive with any life they might lead.

Politics begins with the recognition that the life of man is the life that is lived in common, and that only in common may the good life be lived.


But what life is lived in common? What makes of life among men a life in common?

Marx took that question as his point of departure. In the 1844 Manuscripts, Marx expands and refines Ludwig Feuerbach’s notion of Gattungswesen, species-being.

The animal is immediately one with its life-activity. It does not distinguish itself from it. It is its life-activity. Man makes his life-activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life-activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life-activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life-activity. It is just because of this that he is a species-being. […]

In creating a world of objects by his personal activity, in working-up inorganic nature, man proves himself a conscious species-being, i.e., as a being that treats the species as his own essential being, or that treats itself as a species-being. Admittedly animals also produce. They build themselves nests, dwellings, like the bees, beavers, ants, etc. But an animal only produces what it immediately needs for itself or its young. It produces one-sidedly, whilst man produces universally.

Feuerbach, according to one commentator, “argues that man is to be distinguished from animals not by ‘consciousness’ as such, but by a particular kind of consciousness. Man is not only conscious of himself as an individual; he is also conscious of himself as a member of the human species, and so he apprehends a ‘human essence’[1] which is the same in himself as in other men.” Marx, however, stresses “that since this ‘species-consciousness’ defines the nature of man, man is only living and acting authentically (i.e. in accordance with his nature) when he lives and acts deliberately as a ‘species-being,’ that is, as a social being.”

Life is lived in common among men because the life of man is produced universally between them.


What, then, is politics? Politics is the attempt of man to come to terms with man. More specifically, it is the attempt of man to come to terms with the fact that the life of man is that life which is lived in common. That commonality alone is what gives politics its cast. And that that commonality is held in common is what makes commonality the problem of politics par excellence.

That problem is nicely encapsulated by Heinrich Heine, a contemporary and friend of Marx’s in Paris of the early 1840s. “If I cannot refute the premise that all men have the right to eat, then I have to accept all that follows from it.”[2]


[1] David Graeber, Direct Action: An Ethnography (Oakland: AK Press, 2009), 525-6: “One could well argue that if there is any human essence, it is precisely our capacity to imagine that we have one.”

[2] Heinrich Heine, quoted in Mary Gabriel, Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2011), 65.