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Aristotelian Worms in the Leviathan

Hobbes Versus the Human Scale

Is there such a thing as the proper size of a political order?  Westerners have inherited three visions of political size and scale: the Aristotelian polis; the Christian commonwealth; and the Hobbesian modern state.  For Aristotle, the point of political order is the cultivation of human excellence.  Since virtue cannot be learned except through apprenticeship and emulation—which requires face-to-face knowledge—the polity must be small.  Aristotle thought its size should be in scale with the human body and its capacities—something that could be taken in from a hill at a single view or walked across in a single day.  This would yield a city-state on the order of 50-200,000 people.  Ancient Athens, republican Rome, and Renaissance Florence and Venice—all of which were within this range—were political orders of human excellence from which we still draw inspiration.  As Aristotle said, a great city is not necessarily a large one.  Indeed, human political order should be of this scale unless there are good reasons for it to be more extensive.

Christianity offered those reasons, while at the same time preserving Aristotle’s insight into the primacy of human scale in political things.  The Christian commonwealth that flourished from the 12th to the 16th century was grounded in Augustine’s distinction between the City of God (the Church)...

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