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The following sentence by Artistotle is well-known:

Man is a political/social animal.

His original words are:

διότι δὲ πολιτικὸν ὁ ἄνθρωπος ζῷον πάσης μελίττης καὶ παντὸς ἀγελαίου ζῴου μᾶλλον, δῆλον. οὐθὲν γάρ, ὡς φαμέν, μάτην ἡ φύσις ποιεῖ (source)

This is in ancient Greek. Which words refer to "a political/social animal"? Which word has been translated as either political or social? Which do you think is the better English equivalent?

1 Answer 1

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πολιτικὸν ὁ ἄνθρωπος ζῷον

The above is the basic statement. ὁ ἄνθρωπος is "man" (as in person, human being, not particular a male), and πολιτικὸν ζῷον is "political animal."

It should be noted that πολιτικὸν is the adjective derived from the Greek πόλις, which means "city." While it can mean "political" (as in related to politician), Aristotle here is likely referring more to the idea that people naturally congregate and create shared living spaces (i.e. cities). That's why he compares us to bees (μελίττης) or herd animals (ἀγελαίου).

Of course, a Greek would understand some of the various nuances that accompany such a use.

Which word is better is a matter of opinion. Using "political" keeps to the etymology of πολιτικος, but using "social" is perhaps more accurate here.

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    It's worth noting that there's an even more explicit statement of this earlier in the Politics in 1153a1-3: "ἐκ τούτων οὖν φανερὸν . . . ὅτι ὁ ἄνθρωπος φύσει πολιτικὸν ζῷον. . . ."
    – brianpck
    Jan 16, 2023 at 16:26
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    @brianpck May you type the English translation?
    – Juya
    Jan 16, 2023 at 16:27
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    "From these things it is clear . . . that man is by nature a political/social animal."
    – brianpck
    Jan 16, 2023 at 17:16
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    @terdon To my ear, man without an article and in the singular always refers to humans as a whole and not specifically to males. If I said "men are political animals" or "the man is a political animal", I'd hear that, in Modern, as specifically referring to males. But in the singular and without an article it's gender neutral to me.
    – cmw
    Jan 17, 2023 at 13:43
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    I'm also a fan of etymology, and etymologically speaking, man used to be that gender-neutral term for both weras and wīf in Old English. An alternative approach to shunning it and using a Latin borrowing is to reclaim it in its original sense and argue for it. That aside, it's also fairly standard in other sentences, too, such as "man is the measure of all things" (πάντων χρημάτων ἄνθρωπον μέτρον εἶναι).
    – cmw
    Jan 17, 2023 at 13:44

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