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“The Man with Arms” at Aristotle, Politics 1.2.1253a34

E. Christian Kopff

    Aristotle’s reference to “man with arms” at Politics 1.2.1253a34 has usually been taken as metaphorical. I shall argue that it is best understood literally.

     “For as man is the best of all animals when he has reached his full development, so he is worst of all when divorced from law and justice. Injustice armed is at its harshest; man is born with weapons to support practical wisdom and virtue, which are all too easy to use for the opposite purposes.” So Saunders, who comments, “The identity of the ‘weapons’ is obscure.”

     Scholars agree that the weapons of 34 are meant as a metaphor, but disagree about what it stands for. Victorius suggested that the weapons are practical wisdom and virtue. Newman objected that the nouns should then be accusatives, not datives, and asked how wisdom and virtue can be used for bad purposes. Bernays cited a fragment of Aristotle at Seneca, De ira 1.17.1 to argue the weapons are the emotions. Newman suggested language and was followed by Barker and Aubonnet. Aristotle has just discussed language (1253a7-17). Unlike other animals, only man has speech (logos), which can declare advantage, virtue, justice and their opposites. Schütrumpf explains, “Humans have by nature from their wisdom and characteristic virtues weapons that can be used for opposite goals,” citing PA 4.10, “For the hand is talon and hoof and horn and spear and sword and any other weapon or tool.” Simpson suggests “intellect and the passions.” Saunders refuses to choose: “probably a man’s total natural capacities, both mental and physical.” There are problems with these explanations.

     There is a disturbing lack of parallelism between “armed injustice”, where the arms are literal, and “man with arms,” where they are metaphorical. As PA 4.10 shows, man is the only animal that is not born with weapons, but with the less specialized hands, which can employ different tools and weapons. The context does not support a casual reference to the passions or the hands’ capacity for wielding tools and weapons. Aristotle has discussed language, but he never calls it a weapon. Aristotle is describing a fulfilled man. In a political context for Aristotle this means an active citizen. 

     I suggest Aristotle means quite literally, “Man, when armed, is naturally fitted to exercise wisdom and virtue.”  For phyo as “be naturally prone or inclined to,” see LSJ, s.v. B.ii.3. Aristotle comments (Pol. 3.7.1279a39-1279b4), “It is hard for most people to reach the peak in every kind of excellence, except for military virtue, which occurs in a large group. Therefore fighting for your country is supreme in [the politeia or good rule of the many], and men who possess arms share in it,” or “are the citizens.” (Ross) Tyrants disarm citizens (Pol. 5.10.1311a12-13) and discourage a citizen militia (Pol. 5.11. 1313b19-20). Good rulers do not disarm citizens (Pol. 5.11.1315a38). In the Aristotelian “Constitution of the Athenians” Peisistratus (15.4) and the Thirty (37.2) do.

      The observation is an endoxon, for which Aristotle does not need to argue. This view has a distinguished history. Compare, e.g., the positive figure of Cincinnatus in Livy 3.24-29 with the tyrant Aristodemus of Cymae in Dionysius Hal., A.R. 7.8.2-3. It holds an important place in Renaissance humanism. See J. G. A.  Pocock. The Machiavellian Moment, p. 271:  “The thought of Guicciardini diverges from that of Machiavelli at the point where each man assesses the role of armed virtù and of arms themselves as a cause of virtù: a problem closer to the ultimate concerns of Western political thought than has always been understood.” A literal interpretation of arms referring to an active citizen makes most sense of the passage and best fits Aristotle’s political thought.

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