Philosophy Phriday: Political Antimals

The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the forty-first contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Sukaina Hirji. We apologize for the Monday posting – a mistake on our end, not Dr. Hirji’s!

Political Antimals

Aristotle famously asserts that ants are, by nature, political animals. Anthusiasts of this blog might find it surprising, however, that ants are not the only animals that Aristotle countenances as naturally political. In the History of Animals, Aristotle explains that political animals are “those that have as their function (ergon) some single thing that they all do together”; amongst the animals he thinks engage together in some common work or function are ants, but also bees, wasps, cranes and human beings (HA 1.1 487b33-488a14). Indeed, Aristotle insists that human beings are more (mallon) political, or political animals to a higher degree, than any of these other animals including the noble ant (Pol 1.2 1252a7-18). Does Aristotle have good reasons for relegating ants to this secondary status, as lesser political animals? Or is his privileging of human beings here just another familiar manifestation of the anti-invertebrate biases that run through the history of political thought?

Political animals. Photo: Alex Wild

Consider three arguments Aristotle seems to offer for thinking that human beings are political animals to a higher degree than ants. First, human beings are political not just in the biological sense of having some shared work or function, but also in a more literal sense: they tend to live in actual cities or poleis (Pol 1.2 1253a1-4). Part of what makes human beings especially political, so this argument goes, is that they are suited to, or naturally disposed to, living in cities. And, Aristotle denies that other “lower animals” such as ants can form true cities: though they live together in organized communities, they do so for the sake of survival and not for the sake of living well. Indeed, Aristotle goes so far as to claim that ants and other “lower animals” have no share in well-being or a purposive life (Pol 3.9 1280a32-34). But even if we grant Aristotle the idea that ants cannot “live well” in the same sense that human beings can, it isn’t clear that political communities are always organized for the sake of living well. The end or telos of a political community depends on its constitution according to Aristotle. It is only the very best constitution that aims at living well or eudaimonia for its citizens. So it cannot be the case that what makes an organized community a polis is that it in fact aims at the wellbeing of its citizens. Even if the best polis is only possible for human beings, Aristotle seems too quick to deny that ants and other “lower animals” cannot form poleis of a lesser sort. And so, it seems, he is too quick to deny that ants are political animals in the literal sense of living in poleis.

Aristotle’s most explicit argument for why humans beings are mallon political animals is that, unlike other animals, they have language (Pol 1.2 1252a7-18). Language, according to Aristotle, equips human beings to communicate about what is good and bad, as well as what is just and unjust. The thought here seems to be that political communities are, in their truest form, organized around some conception of what is good and just, and human beings, in virtue of language, are uniquely able to organize political communities around some shared conception of goodness and justice. Suppose we grant Aristotle the idea that other animals are unable to perceive and communicate about what is good and just. Why is this ability to grasp and communicate moral concepts an argument for human beings’ superior status as political creatures? After all, most human beings, notwithstanding their ability to use language, fail to correctly identify and communicate about what is good and just. Indeed, language often stands in the way of human beings organizing political communities for the sake of their own well-being: as Hobbes famously argues, language is often used to create dissension and strife in political communities. The upshot is that, while ants naturally form social organizations that are best suited to the realization of their nature, human beings, in part in virtue of their ability to use language, often go astray, forming political regimes that are contrary to their nature. It is only with careful upbringing and education that human beings use language to form political communities conducive to their own flourishing. Why then is their possession of language a reason to think that human beings are more political by nature than ants?

Allomerus octoarticulatus
What words of wisdom are these? Photo: Alex Wild

Turn now to Aristotle’s final, third argument for why ants are lesser political creatures relative to human beings. Aristotle claims that ants form social organizations without rulers, while human beings tend to form political communities with rulers (HA 1.1 487b33-488a14). Aristotle assumes that the best political regimes for human beings all involve relationships of ruling and being ruled, and that the best achievable constitution is one where equal citizens take turns ruling. But, setting aside the surprising assertion that ants don’t have rulers, what is it about being ruled and ruling that is supposed to make humans political animals to a higher degree than ants? If it is really true that ants can form highly sophisticated social arrangements without rulers, isn’t this a remarkable political achievement? Might we not think that it is only in virtue of our imperfectly political nature that we require a system of ruling and being ruled whereas ants do not? Perhaps, pace Aristotle, the political communities of ants provide us a kind of ideal that human beings ought to strive to approximate. Despite his remarkable and lasting intellectual achievements, Aristotle’s views on ants, like his views on women and slaves, reveal a regrettable and disappointing parochialism. One wishes Aristotle could have heeded his own advice when he urges us, in a somewhat different context, though in language strikingly apt for describing the noble ant: “not to follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human beings, and being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything”.

Dr. Sukaina Hirji is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Virginia Tech. She received her PhD from Princeton in 2016. Most of Dr. Hirji’s work is on Aristotle, though she also has interests in contemporary virtue ethics and the philosophy of well-being. She is significantly better at making dog puns than she is at making ant puns. Hey, speaking of which, have you seen pictures of her dog Nala, who is really cute and fluffy? You’re welcome.