Take the 2-minute tour ×
Philosophy Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for those interested in logical reasoning. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I'm having a difficult time understanding this passage:

Last paragraph in part III of book 1,

Further, the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand, except in an equivocal sense, as we might speak of a stone hand; for when destroyed the hand will be no better than that. But things are defined by their working and power; and we ought not to say that they are the same when they no longer have their proper quality, but only that they have the same name. The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole.

Forgive me, but is Aristotle suggesting that the compound exists before the individual element? Maybe it is his wording that is throwing me off. What does he mean by "prior" in this passage?

share|improve this question
1  
It is probably worth noting also, that the original word translated as "state" here is "polis," which means something very different than the modern nation-state. –  James Kingsbery May 6 at 16:46

3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

There's nothing wrong with your understanding of prior here. You've understood what he is saying correctly, though it appears you think he is wrong in claiming this.

Further, the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part

He's not talking in biological terms but in social terms. In biological terms, the family is made of individuals so that one nor the other are prior. Socially, that is in terms of relationships, all families grow up in the shade of the state, whether that be the nation or a city, the tribe or clan.

if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand, except in an equivocal sense, as we might speak of a stone hand; for when destroyed the hand will be no better than that

Its quite clear that individuals cannot be nurtured to adult-hood if separated from the state - that is left in the wilderness. (This is also an observation captured in one of the folk-tales collected by the brothers Grimm - Babes in the Wood); and also from rare reports about feral children. Its also the reason why the Ancient Greeks considered exile to be considered a great punishment.

The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing

Consider an adult, say a man, remove him from the bosom of the state - that is place him in solitary confinement - and he becomes like 'stone' - ie destroyed as a human being (often such confinement causes serious disturbance to the psyche - ie psychosis & sociopathy)

share|improve this answer
    
Hey, thank you so much for that clarification! I thought he meant that the family somehow evolves from the state. This seemed like a contradiction in the text, as he earlier stated that the family arises from the union of a man and woman, and that the state arises from the union of many families. I was thinking about this in my own terms, rather than in Aristotle's terms. Thank you again. –  Sketchyfish May 6 at 12:14
1  
You're welcome. I thought that you might be thinking evolutionally, thats why I emphasised its not biological thinking. Generally, one upvotes an answer if it is liked :). –  Mozibur Ullah May 6 at 12:44

It appears that Aristotle (or, rather, the translator — I have no idea what the passage might look like in the original Greek) is using "prior" in the sense of "more important than" or "more fundamental than", rather than in the literal sense of "having existed before".

Interpreted in that sense, the claim that "the whole is of necessity prior to the part", and the analogy following it, make perfect sense: a person is more fundamental than their hand, because the person can exist and function without the hand, but the hand cannot exist without the person (except as a dead lump of flesh), and certainly cannot function so.

share|improve this answer
    
I considered that, but I wanted to get a second opinion before I make a wrong assumption. I'm reading the Benjamin Jowett translation. –  Sketchyfish May 6 at 15:40
1  
perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/…. My Greek's not very good, but it looks like the original Greek uses "πρότερος" which according to one of the dictionaries in the Perseus project can mean either sense. –  James Kingsbery May 6 at 16:42
1  
Unfortunately, this is not correct in terms of the guess as to what is meant by prior. Aristotle does believe the whole is of necessity prior to the part but not because it is "more important" but because parts exist only insofar as they help constitute the whole. –  virmaior May 6 at 17:12
    
@virmaior: That is... sort of what I was getting at, but I couldn't find a better word than "important" for it. Maybe "fundamental" would be closer. (Edited.) Anyway, what I was mainly trying to say is just that the word "prior" is clearly not meant to imply a literal chronological sequence here. –  Ilmari Karonen May 6 at 18:53

I was just reading a volume edited by Jean Bethke Elshtain, The Family in Political Thought , which includes this useful quotation on the topic:

The role of the family in the life of the polis is determined by this transcendent purpose. Genetically, the family is in the order of history prior to the polis. But teleologically, the polis is in the order of nature prior to the family. The family exists for the sake of the polis, not the polis for the sake of the family. It exists, that is to say, for the sake of economic production and sexual reproduction--to provide the material basis upon which the spiritual life of the polis rests. (Crouch 1982 147).

To put it another way, Aristotle operates in a system where wholes are prior conceptually and by necessity to their parts (the boards of wood don't make the ready-made cabinet, they are made to become parts of it).

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.