The political animal… or not


‘Political: that’s a shady word,’ said a fourteen-year old pupil innocently. He had been taught by his prep school teacher to call shady any words that can be used in malam or bonam partem as well as in denotation: words therefore that have to be used with caution.

Politics, political and politician are shady words, as the OED confirms. Indeed the first definition it gives for politician is:
‘A schemer or plotter; a shrewd, sagacious, or crafty person. In later use also (esp. U.S. derogatory… ): a self-interested manipulator, whose behaviour is likened to that of a professional politician.’

The first recorded use in this sense is in 1586.


Benjamin Jowett might have benefited from a few sessions with this prep school teacher. Near the beginning of his translation of Aristotle’s Politics (itself a bad translation of Πολιτικά) he found the words:
ἐκ τοὐτων οὖν φανερὸν ὅτι τῶν φύσει ἡ πόλις ἐστι, καὶ ὅτι ὁ ἄνθρωπος φύσει πολιτικὀν ζῷον…

and translated this as:
‘From these things therefore it is clear that the city-state is a natural growth, and that man is by nature a political animal…’

Those last few words are quotable and have been quoted ever since; whιch is unfortunate, because they are not what Aristotle says. πολιτικὀς is not a shady word, nor is the word πὀλις translatable into English: an essay would be required to explain it.

A closer rendering might be:
So from all this it is clear that the polis is one of the things of nature, and that by nature man is an animal that belongs to a polis.

‘Political animal’ will not do.

Next post: What is a polis?