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Aristotle vs. Hobbes: Equality

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Aristotle vs. Hobbes, constitutes a debate between two great thinkers from two profoundly different periods of time. Whereas Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) had been a part of the Greek’s and more precisely, Athens’s Golden Age, Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) had lived through the English Civil War of 1640s to become one of the most influential philosophers. Based on their own personal experiences and surroundings, both Aristotle and Hobbes had developed a view of what human equality should sustain. However, Hobbes’ understanding of natural equality is preferable, as he provides society with the extra room for equality and opportunity that the subjects of a good sovereign would experience to be available to them, in comparison to Aristotle’s hierarchical division of people into natural superiors, inferiors and slaves, who are given very limited achievements and opportunities.

Aristotle’s idea of equality would have applied to all citizens who participate in the political life of the city-state in which they live. By doing so, they would have acquired the human virtues and excellences, as well as achieve their natural telos as a “political animal” (Aristotle, p. 4). Only within a city-state, citizens are able to participate and enhance their political and practical reason, thus reach their human telos. As such, the city-state is “among the things that exist by nature” (Aristotle, p. 4), and living in one is the only possible natural outcome for humans. However, the term citizen in Aristotle’s perspective would not have applied to everyone, but it would have been rather limited within the city-state.

The city-state had been formed as a household, a partnership between “persons who cannot exist without one another” (Aristotle, 1252a27) and had later developed into a community of households, villages, the telos of which results in a chain of villages, city-state. It had come into existence to sustain our basic needs and it had stayed in order to support a better way of life. The household is the main structure in the city-state, which in fact provides citizens with the opportunity to perfect their human virtues. Not only is the household a subordinate to the political institution, but also within itself it is entirely formed by unequal relationships – natural ruler vs. natural slave, husband vs. wife, parent vs. child, “The slave is wholly lacking the deliberative element; the female has it but it lacks authority; the child has it but it is incomplete” (1260a11).

Women had not been allowed to vote during Aristotle’s time and as such their natural telos would have been different from that of the men. Together with the natural slaves, they would have in different ways from one another, provided the men with the needed basic necessities to sustain life and thus have more time to achieve their telos as a “political animal” (Aristotle, p. 4). However, natural slaves would have had no rights in comparison to the women, since the idea of an enslaved person means that they are naturally lacking the rational powers and practical reason and thus ought to be enslaved in order for them to fulfil their natural telos as providing for the natural ruler and devoting their lives to menial duties (Aristotle, p. 15). Natural slaves are creatures that are naturally inferior to citizens, who would provide the citizens with enough time to enhance their lives and apply themselves towards achieving their telos – political enrichment. The man of the household, the natural ruler, is in fact the citizen, someone who “shares in administration of justice and in offices” (Aristotle, p. 66), has the leisure time to participate in the political life of the city-state.

In fact, the good life for a citizen, described with Aristotle’s ideas, would have focused on developing oneself as a “political animal” (Aristotle, p. 4). Providing monetary supplies for the household by the means of using the exchange value of the products should be only to sustain the basic necessities and satisfy human life. Luxuries items and style of living did not quality as fulfilling of one’s telos in the mind of Aristotle. In fact, people would never be satisfied with what they have, since the need for more would increase with the possessions owned (Aristotle, p. 17-20). That is why the only way for people to achieve their higher virtue would have been through politics and practical reason. It is only natural to think that, as Aristotle points out, because no other being posses the ability to reason. Thus, it is the citizens’ main goal in life, to achieve the natural telos, the good life, by enhancing more upon his political participation (Aristotle, p. 3-5).

The natural slaves, however, cannot achieve any such telos due to their natural impairment and inferiority to the citizen. Their natural purpose in life is to serve the ruler and provide for them, since the natural slave lacks such capabilities as reason, “For he is a slave by nature who is capable of belonging to another – which is also why he belongs to another – and who participates in reason only to the extent of perceiving it, but does not have it” (1254b16-23). Usually, as Aristotle points out, natural slaves bread other natural slaves, although, sometimes superiors are known to have natural slaves as well. However, he struggles to determine whether the natural slave is in fact completely rationally impaired and upon what reasons he should be enslaved. Thus, this creates difficulties when trying to differentiate who should be enslaved, why and how to distinguish between a natural slave and a natural ruler.

Aristotle seems to believe that the task of distinguishing natural slaves is far easier than thought, since all people have a natural inclination to be best in a certain task that may not always be politics. Thus, he believes that not all people should participate in the realm of politics, since they would benefit more to society and themselves if they concentrate on their sphere of knowledge instead.

Hobbes’ ideas of the equality, inequality and the good life, differs tremendously from Aristotle’s idea of natural slaves and natural telos for citizens in the political life. For Hobbes, however, the idea of equality applies to everyone in the physical sense of the word. He views human beings as equality vulnerable to die or be killed, and equally eager to determine their desires and attempt to achieve them (Hobbes, p. 169-170). Through the study of Epistemology, the knowledge of what we know, which we acquire thought our sense impressions, and Metaphysics, the idea that the only things that exists in the universe are material and have mass, Hobbes is able do depict a very clear picture of what human beings are like and where their motivations originate.

For Hobbes, humans are ‘desiring machines’, who are driven by endeavors, internal movements or emotions, which drives the human being “toward something which causes it, is called APPETITE, or DESIRE…when the endeavor is from ward something, it is generally called AVERSION” (Hobbes, p. 140). For Aristotle, the good of any citizen would be to participate in the political life of the city-state, whereas the evil is seen as the excess desire towards acquiring more goods for monetary exchange. However, Hobbes disagrees and in fact tells us that humans are desiring machines, thus motivated by their endeavors towards certain things, as such, “the object of any man’s appetite or desire, that is it which he for his part calleth good: and the object of his hate and aversion, evil; and his contempt, vile and inconsiderable” (Hobbes, p. 141).

Such basic elements of emotions are described to exist very visibly in the ‘state of nature’, which Hobbes describes as neither historical nor realistically accurate place, but rather logically accurate as it represents the structure and problems from the nature of the human beings, a state of being outside any political system or authority. In this state of nature, all persons are physically and naturally equal to each other. All human beings share equal vulnerability to be killed and die, as well as equal hope to achieve their goals or desires. Due to this equality, however, distrust rises between two parties in a situation where they have a mutual desire for the same materialistic good, “if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to the end, (which is principally their own conservation, and sometimes their delectation only,) endeavor to destroy, or subdue one another” (Hobbes, p. 170). This leads to the state of war, which in no way is only described by battles and fighting, but “in the known disposition thereto” (Hobbes, p. 171). Indifferent to the cause of war, which can be competitions, diffidence or glory:

[T]here is no place for industry… no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation…no commodious Building; no instruments of moving…no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continual feare, danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short (Hobbes, p. 170-171, quote as written from Sparksnotes.com)

In Hobbes’ theory about the ‘state of nature’, there is nothing unjust, there are no social contracts that cannot be crossed because there is no higher power to enforce any kind of punishment. It is in fact the fear of death and desire to acquire more objects as to make life more comfortable, which drives people to achieve and seek peace. Humans’ are in fact bound by the laws of nature to sustain their lives, seek peace, contract by the way of peace and keep the covenants (Hobbes, p. 172). It is in their best interest to stay alive and be provided with comfortable lives. As such, people need laws, someone to create them and someone to enforce them. The best outcome for Hobbes would be that all people give up their rights to a sovereign, higher power given to one person who would keep his subjects alive and provide them with the basic necessities for life.

As soon as the sovereign sets in power, however, the equality equation changes immediately. Whereas all humans were to be equal to each other, they became subjects to a superior ruler, whose rule is to remain unquestioned and undisturbed, as his main purpose is to establish and maintain peace. Thus, equality for Hobbes does not necessarily mean political equality and rights for everyone. It only represents the physical similarity among humans to die and be killed, and the equal right for everyone to aim and achieve a goal. In fact, the good life for Hobbes, is within a state of inequality, under the rule of sovereign, a higher power, which can sustain order and peace among the savage-like humans, who are bound to distrust and enter in the state of war, when there is no political authority present. Humans are known to be ‘desiring machines’, looking after their own self-interest, satisfying only their own endeavors, with a main purpose to maintain their lives and sustain a comfortable way of life.

Hobbes’ idea of equality is in fact more appealing than Aristotle’s hierarchical structure within the household and city-state. Whereas Aristotle defines humans are naturally superior or inferior, Hobbes gives an equal start to everyone regarding their physical vulnerability and ability to determine their own good and acquire it. In Hobbes’ version of equality, the subjects of the sovereign do in fact give up a lot of their rights and loose some liberties. However, in the case of a good sovereign their lives would be better off under a common rule that will provide them with peace and the needed basic necessities. It would also give them the extra room for opportunities and personal development. The good life for Hobbes is described by a set of people, peacefully connected within a society, ruled by a good sovereign, where all are sustained and provided for.

Under an Aristotelian rule, the subjects would have limited achievements that would have been predestined base on their social status. As Aristotle points out, natural slaves tent to bread more natural slaves and thus the cycle of limited opportunities cannot be broken. Only citizens can participate in the political ream, although, even then some of them do not. Some have a limited ability to develop practical reason in comparison to some other sphere that they might be more interested in. In other words, Aristotle’s, equality applies only to those who experience some sort of political rule. All others are there to provide them with the leisure time and basic necessities to sustain life. Aristotle’s idea of a good life is available only to the chosen few citizens who can participate in politics. Everyone else experience a telos that is not as fulfilling.

Aristotle’s idea of natural human telos, natural slave and natural ruler provides an insight to the period of time, during which he has lived. It is an idea of social inequality that provides the good ‘ends’ only to the few citizens who can achieve it through their household and their practical reasoning. The rest of the members of that society are merely the providers and subordinates to the political realm. Hobbes’ theory on equality, however, provides all human beings with the same base – ‘We are all equal because we can all kill each other and we all want to determine what is good for us.’ He gives humans the title of ‘desiring machines’, which satisfy their own needs and self-interests. Because such behavior leads to war-like conditions, Hobbes believes that through fear of death and desire of more possessions, people would seek peace on their own, and as a result subdue their rights to a sovereign. However, Hobbes’ understanding of natural equality is preferable, as he provides society with the extra room for equality and opportunity that the subjects of a good sovereign would experience to be available to them, in comparison to Aristotle’s hierarchical division of people into natural superiors, inferiors and slaves, who are given very limited achievements and opportunities


Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Modern Political Thought – Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. Ed. David Wooton. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.: Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1996.

Aristotle. The Politics. C.D.C. Reeve. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.: Indianapolis/Cambridge.

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