Which Came First, The Man or The State?

Madison Majors – Period 4

Man vs. State

The chicken or the egg?  The man or the state?  Although one of the previous scenarios involves a domesticated fowl often utilized for its eggs and meat, and the other, a being of the genus Homo species that lives within a functioning polis; these disconcerting conundrums have much more in common than just being intellectually perplexing.  The issue of the chicken or the egg has been argued for centuries, with both sides of the spectrum providing convincing explanations.  Some say that the chicken was the first to arrive sans egg, while others are adamant that the chicken itself hatched from the egg that had been there all along.  If the chicken arrived first, that implies the chicken did not need the egg to be its initial source of life, for the chicken can survive on its own.  On the other hand, it is plausible the chicken would not exist without having first hatched from the egg; and therefore, the chicken needs the egg in order to live.  Interestingly enough, the same analysis can be applied to the complex and overly analyzed relationship between the man and the state.  Does man precede the state and possess the natural ability to provide for himself and flourish as a human being, or does man need the state to attain the moderate lifestyle necessary to reach his final end?  These seemingly harmless ideas are the basis of discussion in Aristotle’s Nicochamean Ethics, The Politics and Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum; however, the revered Greek philosopher and the religious authority express contradicting views about man’s inherent dependence on the state.  Granted both men were speaking out amidst the headlining issues of their historic times, so it may seem as though their opinions about man and state are irrelevant in our present day lives.  Nonetheless, I still find the need to pose the question: Does the average American need the state to aid in the fulfillment of his ultimate purpose or is the polis simply an accessory to man’s preordained God-given right to administer the fulfillment of his own final end?

Let us start by comparing the praised Aristotelian views of the ancient philosopher to our very own 21st century American society.  In Aristotle’s The Politics, he boldly defines the origin of a political community, and he insists the state is “a creation of nature” that subsequently precedes both the family and the individual (The Politics).  For when man is isolated he is in no way capable of being self-sufficient, and henceforth, man needs the state to satisfy his social needs and to essentially live a good life.  Although most of us reading this can agree that our nation provides its citizens with innumerable opportunities to pursue what they believe is their purpose in life; many Americans still feel as though the government inhibits their quest for success by imposing taxes and laws that restrict their personal and financial freedoms.  With the Sherman Antitrust Act outlawing monopolies in 1890, in addition to government enforced property and income taxes, both potential and established business owners might find themselves trapped or restricted by the state.  In a country such as the United States, business owners and workers alike are required to give a portion of their earnings to the state, but is it possible that with rules and regulations such as these, government essentially deters man’s potential for success and his quest for happiness?  In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, he claims that a contemplative life is a life of true happiness because it enables man to fulfill his function by using his highest capacity.  Even though most of us would agree that a good life is one that allows man to achieve all he is capable of, it is doubtful that the average American believes that a life of happiness is purely a contemplative one.  Admittedly driven by money and power, the majority of Americans are in no way interested in pursuing a life of contemplation while living in the mecca of capitalism.  Man’s definition of happiness has inevitably changed since Aristotle’s time, and presently the object of money is now a more prized possession than the achievement of one’s telos.  If we take into consideration the average American’s power hunger mentality, it is safe to assume he feels entitled to save, invest, or spend all of his earnings at his own free will because having the freedom to do so will make him happy.  When the government proceeds to take from man, the state diminishes his funds and simultaneously diminishes his happiness; and with that said, it is plausible that the state prevents the modern man from attaining his refined yet contemporary version of happiness.

It only seems fair that man be guaranteed the right to dispose of his earnings as he pleases, but as many of you know, that is simply not the case in present day America.  In his writings, Aristotle also affirms the role of the government is to regulate and govern society with regard to the interests of the common good, but it is probable that even the truest forms of government may fail to make executive decisions for the good of the commonwealth.  In today’s political atmosphere, we find that political parties, be them democrat or republican, are more concerned with acquiring support from the masses, rather than making important decisions for the good of the country.  Moreover, the sponsoring of social welfare and disability insurance have many people feeling as though these tax funded government programs would be more effective if left in the hands of individual business owners.  These programs serve as a prime example of how the government may be a hindrance to both society and to man as an individual by unnecessarily taxing a portion of man’s wealth (Hirby).  Such taxes are to be collected and enjoyed by all, but some may argue that it is not right or just that man be forced to share his personal earnings with everyone.  With the ever presence issue of expiring tax cuts, and an impending increased taxation on the rich, many of our country’s wealthiest citizens are adamant that the government’s decision to raise taxes is not in the best interest of society.  Having evaluated a number of circumstances in which the state could be a burden to humanity, maybe we should consider just how successful man could be if left to his own devices.

As a direct adversary of Aristotle’s pro-state point of view, we must now analyze the idealistic and pro-Man opinions of Pope Leo XIII expressed in Rerum Novarum.  The religious patriarch quickly points out that “Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body”; and therefore, God has bestowed upon man the gifts to be self-sufficient without the presence of the state (Rerum Novarum).  Pope Leo classifies man’s right to private property as a natural born right that all men are entitled to because a working man’s wages and purchases are to be “at his full disposal” (Rerum Novarum) This idea of man taking control of his private property only seems appropriate when we take into account all of the time, effort, and labor man rendered to amass his wealth.  If nature can provide man with a “source that is stable and remaining always with him” then there is really no need for the state at all, right (Rerum Novarum)?  While yes may seem like the surefire answer, we must first acknowledge all that would be impossible without government mediation.

We have already established that human beings have an inclination to be possessive, especially when it comes to money because we often feel entitled to maintain and protect what we have produced ourselves.  With this in mind, it only makes sense that Pope Leo stresses how it is only right that man and man alone possess and enjoy the results of his own labor.  However, if man were left to his own devices without a state to enforce laws or to collect taxes, one can certainly expect man to give up only so much of his personal wealth.  In this case, the 21st century man may need the state to force him to share his earned wages so that a portion of his wealth be filtered back into the economy and used to improve the infrastructure of his own state.  In the presence of an absentee state there would be no regulated taxes, and without the acquisition of taxes the common good would have to solely rely on the spontaneous generosity of its people.  Currently, the state collects taxes to benefit the general public by establishing welfare programs, hospitals, and public schools.  Without the state would man still be inclined to practice distributive justice out of the kindness of  his heart to promote the “administration of the commonwealth”, or would man’s greedy nature lead to his own demise and to the demise of his fellow inhabitants?  Although we would like to think man’s moral compass would drive him to do what’s best for all of society, the state may be the only way to guarantee the well being of the common good.  While many of us complain that the role of the state is to restrict its people’s lives, we rarely take the time to realize how the state often facilitates man’s ability to live.

Living in a country such as the United States, it is highly unlikely that we will ever experience life without the presence of the state, but one can only imagine all that man could accomplish if left alone to reign free with all that he has acquired.  On the contrary, it is possible that without the state we would not have the same quality of life that we do now, and the security of the general welfare could plummet in our midst.  So having analyzed the complicated relationship between man and the state, it is time for us to once again ask ourselves that looming question we may never be able to answer.  Which comes first, the man or the state?

Works Cited

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Aristotle. The Politics. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

“Chicken.” The Free Dictionary. Farlex, n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2013. <http://www.thefreedictionary.com/chicken&gt;.

Hirby, James. “What Are the Pros and Cons of Government Intervention in the Economy?”The    Law Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2013. <http://thelawdictionary.org/article/what-     are-the-pros-and-cons-of-government-intervention-in-the-economy/>.

“Man.” The Free Dictionary. Farlex, n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2013. <http://www.thefreedictionary.com/man&gt;.

Pope Leo XIII. Rerum Novarum. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg? Digital image. Google Images. Open Matters, n.d.      Web. <http://www.openmatters.com/2012/01/3534/#prettyPhoto&gt;.


One thought on “Which Came First, The Man or The State?

  1. A very contemplative post! I like how you argue both sides thoroughly. I think, however, that you may be going to far in declaring Aristotle as the “pro-state” and Pope Leo as the “pro-man” advocate. For those who consider Aristotle as much of the source for the humanism of the Renaissance, calling him anything other than “pro-man” would be very surprising. On the other hand, while I definitely think Pope Leo was “pro-man,” he at the same time clearly sees a very important role for the state, as the second half of Rerum Novarum makes clear. I think taking note of that is important to understand both thinkers well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s