Front Page Titles (by Subject) State vs Society - Literature of Liberty, January/March 1978, vol. 1, No. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
State vs Society - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, January/March 1978, vol. 1, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
State vs Society
“The State and the Community in Aristotle's Politics.” Reason Papers (USA), 1 (1974): 61–69.
In his Politics, Aristotle confuses and shifts equivocal meanings of polis or city-state. Failing to discriminate the distinct concepts of polis1 (the state as a coercive political agency monopolizing law and force over a given territory) and polis2 (the larger community which includes both the coercive state and the various voluntary social institutions such as family, religion, schools, friendship, and commercial associations) misleads him into conflating both notions of polis. This semantic error results in the Stagirite's faulty argument that polis1 (the coercive state) should not merely protect individual rights from force or fraud but also, confusedly assuming the functions of polis2, should make men good, moral, and virtuous—by force. Aristotle's confusion about polis as state and polis as community blinds him to the valuable contributions to political justice and the proper limits of state activity offered by an ancient Greek version of libertarianism.
Throughout the Politics, Aristotle strives to refute the Sophists' challenge that all social institutions are merely conventional (nomos), and that by nature (physis) the strong should exploit the weak by erecting a natural and moral base for the polis and its laws (nomoi). He grounds the naturalness of the polis on his teleological theory of human nature. Man, by his own nature, requires the various institutions and relationships of the polis to achieve his proper human end, perfection and self-actualization.
Accordingly, Book I of the Politics, employing polis2 (in the sense of broader community) demonstrates that man is by nature a polis-oriented animal (politikon zoon). The polis emerges from the prior and more fundamental units of the household, and later, villages, which provide men with their natural and vital needs. The polis, as Aristotle summarizes its development, “came into existence for the sake of life, but exists for the sake of the good life” (Pol. 1252b27–34). Thus, the polis is the end of human association since it is the natural or perfecting context in which the individual can live the good and virtuous life. It is evident, however, that this moral view of the polis in Politics I cannot be narrowly identified with the political state (polis1), but is rather the broader community (polis2), which includes the intricate web of voluntary and spontaneous human relationships and activities (friendship, career, the pursuit of wisdom, etc.), which enables the individual to live and achieve the good and examined life. This meaning of polis as community is clear from its genetic roots in the voluntary, noncoercive social unit of the household.
Later, in Book III of the Politics, Aristotle's shifting definition of the polis in the dual senses of coercive state and broader community elucidates why he criticizes the early “libertarian” conception of the state as articulated by the sophist Lykophron and the famous town planner, Hippodamus of Miletus. Developing the notion of political justice, both protolibertarians defined the just state (polis1) as one limited to protecting individual rights from domestic and foreign force or fraud. Lykophron viewed the polis1 as a limited state: “an association of men in a territory with the aim of preventing them from doing injustice to themselves and of promoting commerce” (Pol. 1280b29–31). Both limited state theorists argued that law should be similarly limited in scope. Defining law as “a guarantor of mutual rights (dikaion)” (Pol. 1280b10–11), Lykophron seems to agree with Hippodamus in limiting state laws to those proscribing hubris (violent personal assault), blabe (property damage), and thanatos (homicide) (see Pol. 1280b37–39). Both Lykophron and Hippodamus imposed clear limits to the scope of state power and law, and permitted it only to defend individual rights. Aristotle opposes this libertarian limitation from his confusion that if the polis (state?) does not also enforce the virtuous life, the polis (community?) is not being moral.
The Greek libertarians' conception of political justice breaks down the influential but false dichotomy that allowed only the alternative of Sophistic “natural justice” (the “naturally” stronger should enslave the weaker) or conventional altruism (see Plato's Laws 891a2-9: serving others according to convention and law). Lykophron undermines this false alternative by his new conception of libertarian justice that obliges citizens to show mutual respect for each other's rights, and allows neither exploitation of one's fellow citizens by force or fraud nor self-sacrificial servitude to one's fellow citizens.
Aristotle's objection to this limited state, law, and circumscribed theory of political justice, follows from his conflation of two distinct notions of polis. The end of the community—the fundamental justification for its existence—is the happy life. But this is best interpreted as the motivating reason why individuals choose to live in the broader community (polis2): in order to partake of those personal, vocational, educational, and moral activities that perfect them in human virtue. Aristotle engages in a non sequitur in maintaining that it is polis1's function (the state's) to use coercive force against its citizens to make them virtuous and happy. This confuses the educative, moral, and perfecting role of the broader community (polis2) coupled with all its voluntary institutions, with the limited legal framework, which the state (polis1) supplies to enable the community to perform its voluntary and moral functions. Men cannot be forced to be happy or virtuous.