The Problems of a Political Animal

Yack, Bernard. The Problems of a Political Animal. Berkeley: U. of Cal. Press, 1993.


“The shared sentiments and commitments that constitute a community are often the source of its deepest conflicts. Anyone who has lived in a family rather than merely longed for a home knows that all too well. Strangers may cheat you, but only brothers or sisters, comrades or colleagues,  can betray you. In the end, intense and ugly forms of distrust and conflict are part of the price we pay for the pleasures of communal life.

Aristotle, on like many of his contemporaries followers, is deeply aware of the special conflicts associated with human communities. The intensity of our conflicts keynotes increases with the closeness of our relationships. Anger is something that individuals “express more strongly against their companions, when they think they have been treated unjustly.… Hence the sayings ‘cruel are the wars of brothers’  and ‘Those  who love extravagantly will hates extravagantly as well.’ …  and it is reasonable,” Aristotle concludes, “that this should happen. For, in addition to the injury, they also consider themselves robbed of this companionship.”

Critics of modern liberal democracies often invoke Aristotle’s understanding of the political community when they complained that our political life is nothing but “civil war carried on by other means,”  “a war of all against all… We make for ourselves, not out of whole cloth but out of an intentional distortion of our social natures.” But for Aristotle political community signifies a conflict ridden reality rather than a vision of lost or future harmony. Is the scene of political conflict rather than its remedy. All the cruel, mindless, and selfish actions that we, sadly, associate with ordinary  political life hour included prominently among the “political things” that Aristotle sets out to study; he does not restrict his study to just the occasional  moments of warmth and heroism.  Just as there are peaks of virtue and cooperation that can be found only among citizens, so are their forms of distrust, conflict, and competition that only citizens experience. Accordingly, an Aristotelian account of politics must explain the problem of political life as well as its proudest achievements. And it must, as I tried to show, use the bonds created by political community to help explain in these problems rather than treat them as a consequence of the absence or weakening of communal bonds themselves. In other words, Aristotle insists on what we might call a communitarian accounts of political conflict and competition.”