Zoon Politikon

When reading about the opening of Aristotle’s Politics one comes across the following assertion frighteningly often: the definition the Philosopher gave of man, the political animal “excluded women and slaves from politics”. The very familiarity of this charge can make one forget that it is neither what Aristotle said nor intended. As is undisputed, Aristotle said that humans are the zoon politikon: they are distinguished by reasoned speech (logos) and a moral sense of right and wrong, just and unjust, which other animals, for all their gregariousness and cooperation, do not share (I leave aside the question exercising many a zoophile mind today – minds which seem to take Timothy Taylor’s parody (see below) in earnest – as to whether animals and things are actually the more wronged by Aristotle’s definition). Yet for Aristotle being a political animal is not the same as being a citizen, and it was from citizenship that women and slaves were excluded in his time. A citizen (politēs) is a subset of humans (zoon politikon); whether one is a citizen or not Aristotle says will depend on the polity of which one is a member, the particular rights ascribed by particular constitutions; he is explicit that an individual who in one polity counts as a citizen, may in another not (1275a2). It is here that the exclusion from politics of women and slaves is relevant, a historical fact rather than something inherent in Aristotle’s definition or something condoned.