Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.02.13

Judith A. Swanson, The Public and the Private in Aristotle's Political Philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992. Pp. xiv + 244. $32.95. ISBN 0-8014-2319-8.

Reviewed by Sara L. Rappe, University of Michigan.

In this work S. sets out to challenge modern liberal interpretations1 of the Politics. At issue is whether or not Aristotle adheres to the rigid public/private dichotomy that emerges, for example, in Hannah Arendt's decidedly negative portrait of the Greek oikos. The dreary place that Arendt envisions is both privative and violent, at best a necessary evil insofar as it makes the good life (the political life) viable. In response to this vilification S. extends the boundary of the private beyond the oikos,2 proposing that the distinctive trait of privacy in Aristotle's Politics is "virtue uncompromised by prevailing morality" (p. 5).

Most insidious, Arendt charges, is that the oikos can provide a foundation for leisure only because within its confines, citizens use violence to force non-citizens (slaves) to perform necessary labor. Consequently S. undertakes a rare contemporary defense of Aristotle's theory of slavery in book one of the Politics. S. concentrates on demonstrating "the edifying" (p.32) aspects of the slave relationship for both master and slave and emphasizes both the natural conditions and the constraints which allegedly legitimize it. Constraints include limiting the number of slaves, sharing household possessions, confining corporeal punishment to the recalcitrant, and using reason and especially the reward of freedom in order to foster compliance. S. shows that Aristotle is not utterly indifferent to humane treatment of slaves, but left unaccounted for is the obvious incoherence of describing slavery as beneficial to the slave while at the same time holding out freedom as a reward for service (1260b7).

When it comes to justifying the institution, S. seems to rely heavily on the previous work of Fortenbaugh, who tried to rescue Aristotle from the charge that, in denying them the capacity for deliberation, he effectively turns slaves into a separate species. Fortenbaugh argues that although the slave lacks the capacity to reason on his own (1254b22), he nevertheless is able to follow his master's reason. Thus only when enslaved by a virtuous master can a slave participate in this distinctively human faculty. Since S. does rely upon this argument (p.42), she might have benefited by consulting Nicholas White's response to it, "Aristotle's Theory of Natural Slavery."3 White shows that the rule of reason over emotion, whether it be a case of one individual's soul or one individual ruling another, is described by Aristotle as "regal" rather than "despotic." The despotic relation only holds good between something which is entirely bereft of reason (such as an animal or the body) and rational soul. The slave on his own may be bereft of reason, but once in contact with his master's reason, the despotic relationship, that of ownership, seems entirely unjustified.

S. takes upon herself an undoubtedly unpopular task in chapter three, that of championing Aristotle's views of women in the Politics. Here her work is cut out for her, as she confronts a veritable host of feminist critics and Aristotelians alike, including G.E.R. Lloyd, Nicole Loraux, and Susan Okin, all of whom are essentially agreed that Aristotle, largely due to the influence of cultural bias, considers women as biologically inferior to men.

There are five sections in the chapter, in which S. argues successively that Aristotle's biology is not misogynist, that the marriage relation is properly political, that household management teaches women virtue, that women can potentially be citizens, and that women can potentially be philosophers. According to S., different roles in reproduction are what primarily distinguish the sexes; there are no specific differences between them. As a summary of Aristotle's biology, this position obviously does not take into account all that Aristotle has to say on the subject, particularly concerning the weakness of the female sex, nor is her description of Aristotle's findings concerning the role of women in reproduction as "scientific" (p.48) very credible. Since this issue is widely discussed in literature, I need not rehearse the arguments here. S.'s general point, that as human beings, men and women share the same fundamental capacities and natures, seems on the whole to accord with what Aristotle says, and it is this finding which really raises the difficulty for his views about the social roles of women.

Although the political rule of husband over wife lacks reciprocity as well as equality, it is, as S. points out, consistent with what Aristotle maintains about other forms of aristocratic rule. Yet to call the marriage relationship aristocratic merely begs the question, and S. seems unconcerned as to why the male should always be the ruler. Aristotle offers no explanation for it, and the only substantive remark he makes concerning the significant difference of women, namely, that their reasoning faculty is kuron (1260a12-13), could well be a nod to the realities of conventional practice. S. does not commit herself to a specific interpretation of the word used here but surely she ought to, since it bears directly upon the problem of whether women are fit to philosophize or to join in politics.

The contradictions between the constancy of male rule in the home and the possibility that women might participate in political processes are patent. Why, if women lack equal or any authority in their own home, should they be able to exercise political autonomy within the citizen body as a whole? S. fails to cite any texts in support of her claim that Aristotle hints that women might perform both civic and domestic roles" (p. 63). S. also might have discussed Aristotle's criticism of the Spartan constitution, which rests upon the fact that their women enjoy too much liberty, in connection with her claim. (Her gender-neutral interpretation on p.157 ignores the contemptuously uttered tag "rule by women" at 1269b35.)

S.'s concluding speculation, that women are perhaps suited to the life of contemplation, does not seem to accord with Aristotle's rejection of diversity in women's occupational roles. The choice between political service or philosophical activity, offered to the citizen population, is not extended to the women of Aristotle's politeia. Plato saw that women's participation in contemplative activity demanded freedom from household responsibilities. No childcare facilities are provided under Aristotle's constitution, hence leisure, gained for the citizen body through the relegation of labor to non-citizens, will not be a luxury enjoyed by women in this state. Moreover, Aristotle indicates that phronesis, the intellectual virtue necessary for moral goodness , can only be attained through the exercise of political office (1331b24).

In chapter four, S. shows that by "oikonomia" Aristotle did not just mean household economy. Rather, he extended the notion of economy into the public domain and in the process developed a conceptual apparatus capable of describing market mechanisms. While she disagrees with Finley's assessment, that Aristotle did not engage in economic analysis per se, following Polanyi she sees a distinct economy embedded in the larger political fabric. Again, I shall refrain from taking sides concerning the substantive issue of Aristotle's success in the field of economic theory, since this point seems actually tangential to her conclusion: because the economy contributes to the final end of the Politeia, self-sufficiency, neither the generation of capital nor the stimulus of demand are independent of ethical constraints, as evidenced for example in Aristotle's refusal to allow citizens to engage in commerce. Need is partly natural, but partly determined by the moral outlook of the society as a whole. This dual origin of need in turn shapes restraints upon other aspects of the economy such as price, profit, and class differences.

The chapter could have more successfully promoted the central themes of the book if S. had evaluated the grounds for Aristotle's defense of private property, his insistence that class differences (that is, the existence of the very rich or the very poor) be maintained in the ideal state, and his exclusion of the working class from the citizen franchise. Anyone undertaking to vindicate Aristotle's practice as a social scientist from the charges of cultural bias should look hard at Aristotle's attempts to justify all of these institutions before pronouncing upon his objectivity. In general this lack of a systematic review of possible breaches in Aristotle's method lends a kind of theoretical naivete to the work.

Chapter five once more documents the intersection between the public and private sectors in Aristotle's Politics, this time turning to the laws. S. well shows that Aristotle reveals a great respect for the privacy of the citizenry, especially in the areas of political involvement, religion, and personal habit. In the second best regime, she notes, restraints upon freedom have to be made to preserve stability among the citizenry which necessarily includes a demos that presumably lacks virtue. Hence Aristotle makes provisions for a penal code, police force, and the augmentation of the middle class. She concludes with a note about possible totalitarianism in Aristotle's political thought, inconclusive owing to its brevity. Moral education is the subject of the sixth chapter. In this and the following chapters on friendship and philosophy, S. substantiates the topic with which she began, that is, the private contribution to virtue, and the possible disparity between the virtues of the good person versus those of the good citizen. Virtuous people must make the best of bad circumstances (1332a19-27), and theoretically Aristotle holds out the possibility that people can still develop the virtues, despite the presence of externally corrupting values.

This is an important topic and could have been stated more emphatically by addressing the issue of the choices available in cases of extremely corrupt regimes. Indeed, it leads me to raise a question about the basic premise of her work. S. at once lauds the private as a sphere uncorrupted by popular attitudes, and yet suggests that this safeguard is only necessary in the worst regime. But for Aristotle, such corrupt regimes include radical democracies, whose insistence that freedom constitutes the final good for human beings precludes the possibility of virtue. How then is the instigation to greater virtue supposed to come about? Surely not from the private sector, since democratic values have already ruined the state. Nor from the public sector, which has already accepted the interdiction against state interference. It seems that private virtue will only flourish in the best regime, in which the good person and the good citizen are virtually one and the same.

In conclusion, S. certainly manages to sustain her thesis that Aristotle's political theory relies upon both the public and the private as contributing to the well-being of the state. She does not, however, substantiate her claim that women will be able to engage in those activities whose exercise constitutes happiness. Primarily the problem for women is that their interlocutors in the household will be people deficient in reason, slaves and young children, since discourse with their husbands will be on uneven terms. Finally I do have a doubt about how consistent the author is being in defending Aristotle's theory of slavery. Apart from the incoherence of Aristotle's theory, this attempt does little to further the secondary aim of her work (p. 8), to show how "Aristotle's political philosophy ... illuminates the shortcomings of liberalism and provides insights into how societies might ... rectify these deficiencies."


  • [1] Arendt, The Human Condition; Elshtain, Public Man, Private Woman; Okin, Women in the History of Western Thought; Loraux, Les Enfants d'Athena. We might now take Saxonhouse's recently published Fear of Diversity (California 1992) as S.'s ally in the interpretive debate.
  • [2] A drawback of this definition, however, is that once she has rejected the Greek word, idios, which she claims is a misleading guide to what Aristotle envisions as private, S. fails to tie her own conception to any specific lexical items or linguistic configurations in Aristotle's text. This procedure makes her work hard to evaluate.
  • [3] Nicholas D. White, "Aristotle's Theory of Natural Slavery" in Keyt and Miller, Companion to Aristotle's Politics. Cambridge 1991.