Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.1.21

Peter L. Phillips Simpson (trans.), The Politics of Aristotle. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Pp. xliv, 274. ISBN 0-8078-2327-9 (hb), 0-8078-4637-6 (pb).

Reviewed by Michael Pakaluk, Department of Philosophy, Clark University,

This handsomely produced new translation of the entirety of Aristotle's Politics has two features that distinguish it from the many serviceable translations already available.

The first is Simpson's analytical notes, inserted at regular intervals, which are intended to sketch the argument and give help to readers not familiar with Aristotle. Simpson explains in a preface that he has included the notes in a kind of division of labor: if the burden of interpretation, inescapable for a translator, can be shifted largely to the notes, then, he thinks, the translation itself is free to become much more literal, without overall loss of intelligibility.

The notes are not overly intrusive, as might be feared -- perhaps because they are set in a restrained italic script, over which the eyes can pass effortlessly -- yet they are frequently much too brief to be useful. Here is an example. At the beginning of 1.6. 1255a3ff, Aristotle's presentation of arguments against slavery, Simpson gives this analysis:

"Against Those Who Altogether Condemn Slavery.

Those who condemn slavery as unjust are right up to a point, because there is also slavery by the law of conquest. But those versed in the laws say it is terrible if what is forced into submission is to become slave of the stronger. Among the wise some agree with them and some do not, but the wise allow, contrary to those versed in the laws, that mastery by conquerors who are superior in virtue is just." (17).
Clearly, a gloss of this sort will be unsatisfactory: Aristotle's Greek is concise enough; and English that is even more compressed can hardly prove illuminating and is likely to be unintelligible. (What does it mean to say that, "it is terrible if what is forced into submission is to become slave of the stronger"?)

Another difficulty is that sometimes the vocabulary of Simpson's analysis differs unaccountably from that of the text. For instance, the note preceding 1.7.1255b16 begins,"'Mastery as Rule and as Science. Mastery is not the same as the other kinds of rule, nor is it a kind of science, for master and slave differ by character of soul, not by knowledge", etc. But the translation reads, "The above conclusions also make it evident that despotic rule and political rule are not the same thing," etc. Both "despotic rule" and "mastery" render DESPOTEI/A, yet their equivalence will be missed by most readers -- especially given that DESPOTEI/A does not occur in the glossary. (It seems misleading, additionally, to use "mastery" for the control of a master over his slave.)

The second distinctive feature of the book is Simpson's placement of the books normally numbered 7 and 8, concerning the best regime, between the usual books 3 and 4. Many scholars believe that that is where they belong; Simpson's translation is unique among contemporary translations in actually placing them there. This transposition, as Simpson argues plausibly in his preface, does much to vindicate the Politics as coherent both in doctrine and structure.

One consideration against such transposition, however, which appears weighty at first glance, is that an apparent outline of the contents of the Politics at Ethics 10.9.1181b15-23 seems to say that the discussion of the best regime comes last in order. Simpson rejects this argument: "it can be shown," he remarks, "that that outline says the opposite and that, properly interpreted, it requires 7 and 8 to be transposed between 3 and 4 and not left where they are (I point to the evidence for these claims in the notes to the translation)" (xx). It would be good to see such a view defended; but it should be said that Simpson's notes at that point1 at best establish that the transposed order is consistent with one plausible reading of the passage -- there is no question of his providing us with a demonstration or proof of the stronger claim, or even with evidence thereof.

So much for the distinctive features of the translation. What of the translation itself? Simpson tells us that he aims at a translation that "is literal or tends to that extreme (without, however, being so literal as to cease to be readable English)" (xv). Yet the translation does not, I believe, reach the degree of accuracy that has come to be expected in modern translations tending to the literal. Looking just at books 1 and 2, one can find various instances of the problems that typically bedevil translations:

(I) non-translation of emphatic, inferential, and qualifying terms, e.g. 1252a24 [DH/]; 1253b23 [OU)=N]; 1253b32 [TI]; 1254b10 [PA/LIN]; 1255a3 [KAI/]; 1261a32 [E)PEI\];  

(II) under- and over-translation, e.g. 1252b1-3, the unwarranted personification of nature (FU/SIS) 1252b9, 'supposing' for W(S;  

(III) unjustifiable interpolation, e.g. 1261a19, "it will shrink to a household";

(IV) unaccountable variation, e.g. 1252b25, "ruled monarchically" rather than "ruled by a king", as neighboring texts require, for BASILEU/ESQAI; 1254a28 which has "fashioned ... from the combination of several parts" for E)K PLEIO/NWN SUNE/STHKE, yet nearby, at a34, we find "composed ... of body and soul" for the same verb;

(V) gratuitous change in word or phrase order, e.g. 1252b17-18; 1261a21-22;  

(VI) phrases suggesting the wrong sense, e.g. 1254b20-21, "the slave by nature is someone who has the power of belonging to another [O( DUNA/MENOS A)/LLOU EI)=NAI]"; 1261b21, "each separately" for W(S E(/KASTOS.

As regards naturalness of the English, Simpson's translation, although certainly readable, and in some cases quite fine, does not in general represent any marked improvement over other available translations. There are not a few phrases that are hardly English, or that amount to solecisms, (e.g. 1260b28-29, "... who can live as much as possible according to prayer"; 1260b38, "share ... everything in common"). Moreover, the translation is flawed by Simpson's attachment to certain awkward renderings of some important terms. For instance, KALO/S gets rendered uniformly as 'noble', without regard to context, viz. its use in idiomatic expressions or as a simple equivalent of A)GAQO/S: e.g. "in one sense noble but impossible" for W(DI\ ME\N KALO/N, A)LL' OU) DUNATO/N, 1261b31; "nobly [KALW=S] managed cities", 1263a32. (Of course, KALO/S is an important term in Aristotle when used to account for the motivation of ethical actions, but it is not so in clearly idiomatic contexts, and its occurrence does not need to be thus flagged.) Similarly, KU/RIOS is always rendered as involving 'control', e.g. "laws based on custom, as opposed to those that are written down, have more control and concern things that have more control [KURIW/TEROI KAI\ PERI\ KURIWTE/RWN]", 1287b5.

The glossary seems quirky, omitting many arguably important terms (FU/SEI, KATA\ FU/SIN, A)DIKI/A, A)NA/LOGON, A)CI/A, A)CI/WMA, I)/SON, E)PIQUMI/A, E)PISTH/MH, TU/XH, O( QEO/S, MAKA/RIOS, O(/ROS, SUMPHE/RON, TROFH/, TU/PWi, TRO/PON, U(PEROXH/, FILI/A, XREI/A, XRH=SIS), as well as common terms having special senses (e.g. BOU/LETAI as meaning 'aims at' or 'tends to', as at 1261b12), while including others that seem less necessary (e.g. XORHGI/A, DRAXMH/, KO/SMOS, QH/S).

The text unfortunately does not include marginal Bekker numbers; hence students will generally be unable to cite passages from it with precision or compare this translation with others.


1. Simpson sensibly includes a translation in its entirety of Nicomachean Ethics 10.9, a passage which, it seems, is meant to bridge the Ethics and Politics.