Posted by: Joel Britton | January 24, 2009

Why Suburbia Isn’t a Bad Thing, or the State of Nature According to Aristotle

As some have recently noted, living in the city can get a bum rap. This is nothing new in the history of thought. Rousseau argued that the city was a false and stultifying construct that served to separate man from who he really was. A common view in popular culture, this idea relies on the assumption that man is at root a solitary creature. In modern circles a ubiquitous phrase is, “Do it if it makes you happy.” Consider the assumptions of that statement: the actions of an individual have no real affect on others, or if they do they are not something to be considered; fellowship and community among humans is neither essential nor particularly desired; and the pleasure of the individual is king.

Some disagree. Aristotle writes,

Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always acts in order to obtain that which they think is good…he who thus considers things in their first growth and origin, whether a state or anything else, will obtain the clearest view of them. In the first place there must be a union of those who cannot exist without each other; namely, of male and female, that the race may continue…when several villages are united in a single complete community, large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing, the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life. And therefore, if the earlier forms are natural, so is the state, for it is the end of them, and the nature of a thing is its end. For what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature, whether we are speaking of a man, a horse, or a family.

In Aristotle’s state of nature, man is properly considered as a social being. Why? Because he cannot and does not exist alone. To consider what man is as an individual is similar to considering a hand detatched from a body. While some value may come of such a train of thought, it is ultimately more sensible to think of man as properly existing within a societal context — otherwise, he cannot function or even exist.

If his argument is successful, this means that the city and living in community is as natural to man as walking on two feet and digesting food. Rather than the city being a force for evil that we should strive to escape or mitigate, it is the hallmark of man and a great source of strength. In practical terms, the city allows for such innovations as the division of labor. Within the state of nature, each man would be responsible for constructing shelter, gathering food, crafting clothing, and so on. As we live in a city, we are able to focus our efforts on a task or tasks at which we excel. I couldn’t sew a pair of pants to save my life, but I’m quite good at statistical analysis — this lets me spend my effort in one arena, and reap good results from others around me.

However, this puts previously mentioned modern tendencies in a sobering light. If an individual is concerned primarily for his own well being at the expense of others, he acts directly against what is natural to and good for man. To see a friend or coworker or child, “Just be happy,” is to see him alone, miserable, crippled, and dehumanized.

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