Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.05.38

Arlene W. Saxonhouse, Fear of Diversity: the Birth of Political Science in Ancient Greek Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. Pp. xiv + 253. ISBN 0-226-73553-2. $29.95.

Reviewed by Martin Ostwald, Swarthmore College.

What makes this book interesting and, to some extent, original is the attempt of its author to view the origin of political science in the light of the familiar problem of the One and the Many, which runs like a thread through much of Greek thought. The "fear of diversity" is formulated as "fear that differences bring on chaos and thus demands that the world be put into an orderly pattern;" "for the Greeks in particular, this <feared diversity> was the female, sexuality, and the family ... only Aristotle who, accepting the centrality of sight for understanding, is able to overcome the fear and welcome the diverse" (x). It is, therefore, only with Aristotle that Greek political science is born.

The notion of political science here assumed as shorn of abstract and theoretical considerations is not universally shared; but even those who have no trouble accepting it may be bothered by its assumption of the centrality of sight (rather than any other of the senses or of sense perception in general) in Aristotle's system. The path by which Saxonhouse reaches her conclusion opens, somewhat surprisingly, with a chapter on Praxagora's scheme in Aristophanes' Ecclesiazusae, which, in illustrating "the inadequacies of any political world that tries to transcend all boundaries in order to be a complete, undivided whole, ... reminds us of the need to preserve rather than eliminate differences" (3). "<A>s a result of the transformation of the city into a household ... we begin to feel the unease and in a sense move from an exuberant comedy to a more troubling tragedy" (15). To what extent this interpretation does justice to Aristophanes remains a moot point.

Part One correctly sees the "fear of diversity" in Presocratic thought primarily in Heraclitus' search for the logos and in Parmenides' quest for the Oneness of Being. The discussion is clear, excellent and unexceptionable, except that it is difficult to detect any "fear" in what are, after all, no more than attempts to rise to a challenge, imposed by nature, to "comprehend" in one view the confusing and often contradictory data provided by the senses. It is also not self-evident to what extent the cognitive endeavors of Parmenides are relevant to thought about social and political organization, which, the author believes, appears first in tragedy: "by bringing the fear of diversity into the city, the tragedians present in dramatic and highly problematic terms civil ideologies, captured in the words and actions of tragic heroes, that create a unified polity by denying the 'other' and what appears to be dangerously diverse" (22).

As examples of the "diversity" "feared" in tragedy, Saxonhouse adduces Aeschylus' Seven against Thebes, Sophocles' Antigone, and Euripides' Ion under the title "Women and the tragic denial of difference." An emphasis on autochthony and on the motherhood of Earth in these plays is interpreted as excluding females from a significant role in society: they are denied their natural role in reproduction. All three plays are seen as "portray<ing> men who wish to deny their dependence on women and who wish to build a political order where women are not only, as Pericles desired, closeted away from view, but missing and unnecessary because of the threat that they pose as that which is other" (53-54). As a result, "tragic endings occur as the tragic heroes, in their search for the perfection of a unified, ordered whole, are themselves never complete. Mired in a world of multiplicity and opposites, the heroes aim for an unattainable, rational and social simplicity" (52). Her discussion is illuminated by many keen observations on dominant views of women taken unselfconsciously by male tragic characters. However, it seems to be going too far to say that in any of these three plays, even in the Antigone, women are "feared" as being other. A significant element of "fear" was seen in all tragedy already by Aristotle; that women are treated as "other" is true in the sense that they often present an aspect of a given situation which the tragic hero, preoccupied as he is with "political" concerns, neglects to his peril; but in cases where they are feared -- e.g., Clytaemnestra in the Agamemnon, Medea, and in a sense also Antigone -- their feminity is incidental to other qualities and concerns that make them fearful. But no case comes to mind in which their feminity represents fear-inspiring diversity. Clytaemnestra and Antigone assert claims of the family over against political considerations, and in Medea an inscrutable foreign element has been offended. Women exist, and the male has to take them into consideration as an element to be coped with in public life, not as a threat to be feared. Their "multiplicity" or "diversity" and the tensions it causes is, from the tragic point of view, no differerent from that of slaves, children, foreigners, and even the gods.

In the second part of the book, "Plato and the ambiguous pursuit of unity," the theory of Forms, which is usually thought of as comprehending the many sense data into one view, is hardly mentioned. Diversity is treated in the Euthyphro not as an attempt to unify the various acts that are "dear to the gods" under the single aspect of "piety," but rather as making Euthyphro simplemindedly look for unity in the laws of the city, neglecting the multiplicity of norms which apply differently to the treatment of different people. Socrates, it is claimed, contends that a father should not be treated like any other citizen, whereas Euthyphro embraces the view that whoever violates the law should be brought to justice regardless of his relationship to the accuser (93-101). To corroborate this strange approach, Saxonhouse interprets Meletus' analogy of education with the care of plants -- rarely remarked on by other commentators -- as regarding all students as unitary and as neglecting the diversity of individuals, which she regards as the hallmark of Socratic education (101-7).

The chapter on the Republic is preceded by a discussion of the Menexenus and the Statesman as two dialogues in which unity is presented as due to autochthony, confined to the city in the case of the Menexenus, and applied in the Statesman to all mankind, but relegated to the pre-political Age of Cronos. Aspasia's speech, Saxonhouse believes, is deliberately designed as a response to Pericles' Funeral Oration: whereas for Pericles unity comes from the incorporation of the individual into the community and eroticism is reserved for the city, Aspasia's unity comes from feminized understanding of autochthony, not from the creative intellect of a male politician. "Pericles' city exists in the realm of speech, ... Aspasia's city is the product of the generative, creative act of the female body, the land that has borne the Athenians and nourished them" (114; 121). The purpose of introducing autochthony into the Statesman is to depict imaginatively a paradisiacal condition, in which the gods cared for men, making it unnecessary for them to find food and shelter, and enabling them to live without conflict and diversity. Only after Cronos had let go the rudder of the universe were men differentiated into male and female and had to make provision for their own unity through a statesman, who would weave together opposite temperaments into one society. In short, while Aspasia's speech did not allow for differences within a given state, the Statesman makes allowance for differences and their resolution into a unity in his scheme. The politically most significant attempt to "unify" the "diversity" of temperaments, that of the statesman-weaver, is given rather short shrift (130-31); there is no discussion of the Laws at all.

In the discussion of the Republic less attention is given to the division of labor, on which the unity of Glaucon's City of Pigs is predicated, than to the criticism of poetry in Rep. 2 and 3. Saxonhouse censures Plato for a peculiar paradox: while he makes Socrates reject all dramatic poetry as "imitation" detrimental to education, and, while he admits into his Callipolis only narrative poetry geared to producing the model warrior, he himself "imitates" in making Socrates talk like Polemarchus, Thrasymachus, Glaucon et al. (141-45). The conclusion implied is hardly cogent: Plato does not treat his own art as traditional poetry; in making Socrates report the speeches of his interlocutors in the Republic, he does not "imitate" in the same sense in which he attributes imitation to Homer and to tragic actors.

Plato draws the author's most severe fire for advocating common possession of wives and children. By endowing women with the same basic abilities (physis) as men, he glosses over physiological differences between the sexes and establishes a "nature" attainable only through the mind and logos (150); he makes women function as males. "The heroic city Socrates has created has a deathlike quality. There is no creativity within it, no art, no birth; it is a world in which neither male nor female exists, in which the masculine model of rational omnipotence has reigned to create a vision of monistic simplicity...." (157). This is measuring Plato against a standard not applicable to him. He is not interested in "creativity" of the kind worshipped ever since the Romantic age, but wants to achieve insight into a reality of a different sort. Evidently, the author is not very sympathetic to the philosophical element in political science.

Discomfort with Platonic philosophy is evident also in what are regarded as three modifications of the perfection and unity of Callipolis in the Symposium. Aristophanes' hermaphrodites are regarded as parodying the unity sought in the Republic as an extreme: complete unity, which requires no eros, can only be achieved through the death of the individual. Second, Diotima's metaphor of a heterosexual eros of begetting achieves a unity which ignores the senses and eventually transcends body and the city, leaving the viewer with true virtue, not merely its sensible eidola. And third, the speech of Alcibiades shows Socrates as not having any place in the world Alcibiades inhabits, but as an agent that makes Alcibiades see beauties beyond those which the city can bestow. "The Socrates of Alcibiades' speech makes him feel uncomfortable <in the world of unity>, but once he can escape from the spell of Socrates, he can stay in that world and report to and warn others about the dangerous and obscure beauty of his satyr" (183). Little is said of the love which leads to "the organization of cities and settlements" and to the creation of laws (as it did in the cases of Lycurgus and Solon) (209a-e). Theoretical considerations seem to have no place in what the author views as "political science."

That explains why Aristotle, to whom the third and final part of the book is devoted, is regarded as the first Greek political scientist. Diversity is built into the state from the beginning in that the family is based on differences such as male-female and master-slave. "Aristotle observes the world around him in its great multiplicity of forms, and from that observation, political science emerges" (187). It is in this chapter that the author finally comes into her own. The observation that Aristotle substitutes hierarchy as the unifying social bond for the Heraclitean logos is incisive and valuable, as is its corollary that the sharing of goods (rather than the process of ruling over one another) is the bond that unifies the whole and makes diversity become the very source of unity. There is no need to follow in detail the very intelligent reinterpretation of the nature and range of "sharing", "equality", "philia", and other crucial concepts, which follow from these perceptions.1

The value of Fear of Diversity consists in the new insights it gives into classical treatments of the social position of women; it is not a contribution to the development of political science.2


  • [1] It is perhaps on one point only that a corrective needs to be applied to Saxonhouse's discussion: Aristotle was not the first to perceive that a human being not only is a composite of body and soul but also plays a variety of different roles (205-6). The limits of the one-person-one-job principle are already defined in Republic 1 (345e-347a), when Socrates makes Thrasymachus agree that the same shepherd is not only the expert practitioner of the care of sheep, but also a wage-earner.
  • [2] One could have hoped for better editing and/or proofreading from a distinguished university press: p. 10: "if only men like he could demand clothing"; p. 14: "commited"; p. 30: "reknown"; p. 62: "nourished by the mother, who he calls ..."; p. 77: "ad nauseum".