State vs Society

3 01 2007

In his Politics, Aristotle confuses and shifts equivocal meanings of polis or city-state. Failing to discriminate the distinct concepts of polis1 (the state as a coercive political agency monopolizing law and force over a given territory) and polis2 (the larger community which includes both the coercive state and the various voluntary social institutions such as family, religion, schools, friendship, and commercial associations) misleads him into conflating both notions of polis. This semantic error results in the Stagirite’s faulty argument that polis1 (the coercive state) should not merely protect individual rights from force or fraud but also, confusedly assuming the functions of polis2, should make men good, moral, and virtuous—by force. Aristotle’s confusion about polis as state and polis as community blinds him to the valuable contributions to political justice and the proper limits of state activity offered by an ancient Greek version of libertarianism.
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