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Aristotle and Aquinas on the Nature of Man


The nature of man often requires him to be in some form of union or collaboration for the realization of a common good. This has led to discussions concerning the reasons why man often chooses to live in the form of community rather than in solitude. Aristotle, an ancient philosopher and Thomas Aquinas, a mediaeval philosopher, was inspired by the desire to understand the nature of man. Throughout his deliberations Aristotle was led to the conclusion that man is a political animal. Thomas Aquinas upon an elaborate and additional investigation on Aristotelian work was also led to the conclusion that man is a social and political animal. The main objective of this paper is to conduct a comparative study on the assumptions made by these philosophers. This will be channeled towards the validation of the thought that the political and social nature of man is often geared towards the realization of a common good.

Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle on the Nature of Man and the Natural Law

Aristotle on Natural Law

Aristotelian view of politics and the nature of man are largely derived from his understanding of the natural law. Man in his view is always destined to live as a socio-political being considering that numerous aspects of political behavior are innately inherent in him. This is largely derived form the assumption that his urges are propelled by the innate desire to exist in the company of other beings similar to him. Aristotle notices the differences that existence between the political nature of man and those of other animals (Arist. Pol. I.1253a2-3). This is based on his assumption that man does not exists as a political animal to share in common activities as in the case of bees. The political behavior of human beings is relatively richer and complicated. Human nature unlike other animals is not limited to specific behavior that is driven by instincts but by other attributes that necessitate rational thinking (Arist. Pol. III.1278a8-25)

            The approach to natural law and its relationship to politics in the view of Aristotle can only be understood by delinking the nature of man from just belonging to a jurisdiction or a polis as in the case of animals belonging to a heard or a swarm of bees. From this perspective it is notable that Aristotle emphasizes on the essence of linking the political nature of man to his social being. Through this link, Aristotle affirms that the political nature of man cannot allow him to live in solitude even if he had all the necessities in the world. In addition, this political nature of man lays emphasis on the need for other human beings to enhance the formation of a society (Arist. Pol. III.1280b29- 1281a8).

For man to be considerd as fully human Aristotle argues that he must be engaged in a process that requires some form of association with other men. Failure by man to fulfill this requirement may also lead to the failure of the society considering the inability of man to unite forces with other men with the objective of realizing a common agenda (Arist. Pol.III.1281a8). This agenda which is largely derived from his understanding of the society gives value to the life of man. Naturally, it is also the nature of man to develop governing principles that dictate his association with other men. Through these principles, which form part of the law, may is able to limit his behavior as a way of ensuring some form of peaceful coexistence with other man in the society. This view can only be realized through rational thought of that which is best for the society (Arist. Pol. 1.1252b29-30).

Thomas Aquinas on Natural Law and the Nature of Man

The views of Aquinas and those of Aristotle concerning the nature of man share in numerous similarities. Man in the view of these political philosophies does not have the ability to exist in solitude even if they had the desire to do so. This is an indication that there is need for some form of association for a society to be formed. In his endeavors to provide an elaborate thought on the nature of man, Aquinas was of the desire of identifying the point of reconciliation between the Aristotelian approach to political philosophy and the Christian faith (Aquinas 47). According to Aquinas developing an understanding of the natural law could only be possible in situations where there was just leadership inspired by the desire to administer common good for the society (Aquinas 51) From the teachings and writings of Aristotle, Aquinas notices that there was no relationship between the roles of gods and religion in controlling the operations of the people in the world. Instead, his writings concerning the natural laws were driven to the conclusion that nature was in itself purposeful and it is largely driven by natural law, which could be understood by human reason. Through these laws, it was possible for Aristotle to explain the nature of man and his place in the universe (Aquinas 51). The assertions by Aristotle that people by nature are designed to live in groups led to the development of the claim identifying the relationship between man and politics. Aristotle just as Aquinas views this as necessitating the presence of a single ruler who could provide direction on different issues seconded by advice from other members of the polis (Aquinas 51)

This means that for human beings to be able to realize virtues that promote the possibility of a virtuous life such as honesty, courage and justice, it would be prudent to live in a society where there were other human beings to engage in the process of deliberation upon different natural and societal issues (Aquinas 49). Aquinas just as Aristotle believed in the existence of nature for a purposeful good. However, in his deliberations on matters related to the purposeful good of nature, Aquinas recognized the presence of God as a being responsible for the creation of nature through divine reasoning. The political and social nature of man is lacking in other animals within the universe (Aquinas 52). This according to Aquinas was because of the ability of man to act in accordance to the desires of divine reasoning which is only found at the mercies of God. This is an indication that the natural law encompasses the ability of human beings to use reason for governing their lives (Aquinas 52)

When engaged in a reasoned out dispensation, it is possible for man to exist in a world where the guiding principle and the laws are defined by reason. This explains why Aquinas argues that in situations where man must engage in a political process, his social nature of including other beings throughout the process would be a product of reason (Aquinas 50). The argument presented by Aquinas is in agreement with the nature of man as presented by Aristotle. Other than the introduction of Christianity and the role of the divine god in the development of the natural law, these philosophers agree that reason plays an essential role in the determination of the different aspect that define the society (Aquinas 51).

The development of human law, according to Aquinas in inherent in the political and social nature of man which requires him to ensure that he practices well and avoids evil. The ability to engage in a logical process as provided by reason provides man with the power to determine that which is good for human and shun those that may cause misery or pain to man (Aquinas 52)

The desire to realize prosperity for all in the society, according to Aquinas meant that he was to apply all the unchanging tenets of the natural law. The principles of natural law would guide the process of developing and implementing human laws. Human law in the view of Aquinas was perceived to be varied in relate to the time and the prevailing situation (Aquinas 55) This meant that man had the responsibility of engaging in a deliberate process of developing laws that were in agreement with the natural always and ensured the common good for all men. This could be realized with the help of leaders who envisioned the society as a platform where all issues could be addressed to realize the ultimate goal (Aquinas 17). This is in agreement with the notion of Aristotle concerning happiness as the ultimate goal of man.  

Government, common good and the nature of man

Aristotelian Approach to Government and Common Good

The association between the existence of a government, common good is perceived to as the basis of Aristotelian understanding of political naturalism. Aristotle argues that the city-state, which is the polis and the exercise of political power, are all products of nature hence naturally occurring. This argument is generated from a quasi-historical account on how the city-state was developed from simpler communities (Arist. Pol. I.12580b29- 1281a8).   

The realization of the political nature of man led individual human beings into formation of paired associations considering their inability to exist in isolation. Man and woman for example combined forces and reproduced while master and slave formed partnerships to ensure self-preservation. The master, being his nature to rule, applies his reasoning abilities to ensure order among the slaves.  The slaves in turn used their bodies to ensure the provision of sufficient labor. From the families of men and women, there arose households from primitive communities to ensure service to everyday needs. A combination of several households for the satisfaction of additional needs led to the emergence of a village. In the final stage, villages combined forces to ensure the realization and the satisfaction of additional needs to form a city-state (Arist. Pol. III.1280b6-8).  The city-state was formed to realize an ultimate good, happiness. In addition, though the formation of the city-state, man had the desire of attaining self-sufficiency considering that it existed not for the sake of life but for the realization of good life for all human beings (Arist. Pol. III.1278b21-25).   

While defending the assumptions regarding the formation of this city-state, Aristotle argued that its existence in nature was because of the formation of more primitive natural association to merge efforts that could help in serving an ultimate end. Being political animals by nature, man does not act in vain but is equipped with additional attributes such as speech for communication on matters related to justice, which is the objective of any form of government. This means that the city-state holds a higher position compared to the individual (Arist. Pol. III.1280b6-8). This is because individuals do not have the ability to perform their natural functions outside the city-state because of their inability to be self-sufficient. These factors that Aristotle uses to affirm the existence of the city-state are conjoined with the assumption that the city-state is a creation of human intelligence (Arist. Pol. XVII.1323b30-40).   

The use of human intelligence in the formation of the city-state leads to the development of the thought that every man has the impulse of being part of a community. However, the initial creator of the city-state is the cause of major benefits that are associated with the community (Arist. Pol. III.1282b16-18). The greatest benefactor is therefore the lawgiver, who through the legal process, helps in making man more virtuous by lifting them from their bestiality in which they would languish if left out of the community.  Aristotle’s understanding of the government, the common good and the city-state arises from the naturally extended sense that the inability of man to live outside the community necessitates the creation of a city-state. This is aimed at satisfying the natural ends of man (Arist. Pol. III.1278a8-25).  However, the essence of the city-state and the role of the government in ensuring common good are emphasized by the lawgiver who provides guidelines on how man is to relate with others, hence the constitution (Arist. Pol. III.1278a26-29).   

Aquinas on Government and Common Good

While drawing much of his inspiration from the works of Aristotle, Aquinas attempts to provide logical prove of the social and political nature of man while associating it to the role of the government in ensuring common good. Despite drawing thoughts from the works of Aristotle, Aquinas perceives the selfish nature of man as driving him towards the realization of personal interests (Aquinas 15).  However, this realization drives man into the formation of a city-state, which would play the role of a governing power that would direct the population towards the realization of a common good. Man disassociates himself with political power and surrenders it to a higher authority, the state. The government, in the view of Aquinas is to help the society work towards the realization of a common agenda, which is in line with the ultimate goal of happiness (Aquinas 29). The common good as identified by Aquinas included factors such as the preservation of life, the state and the promotion of peace. This while perceived from the thoughts of Aristotle would be considerd as the good life which is only accessible through the self-sufficient nature of the city-state (Arist. Pol. XVII.1323b1-4)

            Through his understanding of the common good and the role of the government in developing this realization, Aquinas notes the challenges that might face the state if unjust rulers became kings. This would lead to the development for a tyrannical rule, which would not only violate the tenets of natural law but also direct the state towards the realization of the selfish interest of the king instated of the common good for the state (Aquinas 16). Aquinas and Aristotle despite disagreeing on the role of the church in matters of the common good affirm that a tyrannical government deprives the population of the common good while a good ruler is a philosopher whose understanding of the law and his role at the helm of the city-state is driven towards the realization of a good life for all men (Aquinas 29).

            Aquinas uses his understanding of man as a social and political being to assert their role in ensuring the presence of a system of government that supports the common good. In situations of tyranny, Aquinas argues that the subjects in such a government are not obliged to follow the existing laws considering the illegitimacy of the laws and the government. It would be prudent in the view of Aquinas to rebel and dispose such a government. However, Aquinas cautions against hasty decision making while attributing the role of reason in enhancing the decision making process. Any rebellion against a tyrannical government must be exercised only if the resulting damages do not exceed those of the tyrannical rulers (Aquinas 17)

Through the understanding of the role of man in an unjust society, Aquinas emphasizes on the relevance of a just war. He provides the basis of such a war claiming that it can only be declared by a ruler in defense of the common good. In addition, such a war can only be advanced against enemies if there is evidence of faults and wrongdoings that threaten the existence of the state. The final assertion by Aquinas in support of a just war is to avoid evil while promoting the good of the state (Aquinas 19)

            The best form of government in the view of Aquinas and Aristotle is one, which allows for some mixture in different stages of leadership. Aquinas for instance, recognizes the value of a king and a shepherd in seeking the common good of the population (Aquinas 20). This is synonymous to the assertions by Aristotle who focuses on the essence of a master and a slave in the realization of self- sufficiency. The king just as the master must be guided with reason in all his deliberations. In every decision making process, Aristotle and Aquinas recognize the essence of consulting different people within the state to ensure that the eventual law or decision is a result of an assessment by the parties making up the state. The king, therefore, does not possess absolute powers but operates in accordance with the desires of the multitude (Aquinas 18). 


The assumption by Aquinas that man is both a political and a social animal are largely derived for the works of Aristotle, which assert the political nature of man. The outstanding differences between these philosophical assumptions lie in the decision by Aquinas to incorporate God as the creator of man and author of the divine laws. Aristotle recognizes the presence of these laws but does not incline on the existence of these laws to be at the disposal of gods or divine power. Despite the outstanding difference both Aquinas and Aristotle agree that it is impossible for man to exist in solitude. This means that the only way through which man can ensure self-preservation in a self-sufficient manner is through the creation of a state, which is defined by rules and laws. Rules and laws act as guidelines that define the relationship between men and the ways through which man can realize the ultimate good in life.

Works cited

Aquinas, Thomas. On Kingship or The Governance of Rulers. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of

Mediaeval studies, 1982.

 Aquinas, Thomas. Treatise on Law. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 2000.

Aristotle, , Benjamin Jowett, and H W. C. Davis. Aristotle’s Politics. Oxford: At the Clarendon

Press, 1920. Print.