Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.02.11

Robert Mayhew, Aristotle's Criticism of Plato's Republic.   Lanham:  Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.  Pp. 163, xii.  ISBN 0-84768-654-X.  $56.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-84768-655-8.  $23.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Eric Brown, Philosophy, Washington University (
Word count: 1271 words

Robert Mayhew's book concerns not the whole of Aristotle's criticisms of Plato's Republic but only those contained in Politics II 1-5, and these criticisms frequently seem to be more a riff on Republic 461e-466d than a careful sifting of the entire work. Further, Mayhew prefaces his project with the claim that "these chapters have for the most part been neglected," a claim which is immediately followed by the observation that "for instance, there has been no book-length study of them written in this century" (ix). This volume, then, is not for readers primarily interested in Aristotle's general relation to the metaphysics, epistemology, or moral psychology of the Republic, but for readers seeking a detailed "philosophical commentary" (2) on Politics II 1-5.

Politics II promises to survey esteemed politeiai, both theoretical and actual, with the aims of finding their good points and of showing the need for Aristotle's own ideal politeia (1260b27-36). But Aristotle's treatment of Plato's Republic -- longer than his discussion of any other politeia -- does less than this, and not just because it concentrates almost solely on negative points. From the start, Aristotle narrows the discussion of Politics II to the question of whether citizens ought to share everything shareable (women, children, property) or merely some of those things (1260b36-1261a4), and instead of discussing the politeia of Plato's Kallipolis as a whole, he focuses narrowly (starting from 1261a4-9) on how Plato's analysis fails to support the claim that the citizens of a polis ought to share everything.1 Hence, Aristotle first discusses three kinds of objections to the suggestion that women and children should be held in common (1261a10-16): objections to the telos of such a proposal (discussed in II 2), objections to the analysis of how communal life is supposed to support that telos (II 3), and accounts of assorted other disadvantages (duschereias, 1261a10 and 1261b25) of the proposal (II 4). Then he extends these criticisms and a few new ones against the suggestion that all property should be held in common (II 5).2

Mayhew tracks Aristotle's text closely, and in discussing each of the criticisms, he ranges far beyond Politics II 1-5 to connect them to Aristotle's political thought more generally.3 Some of the book's most interesting contributions are those that go furthest from Politics II 1-5, sometimes carefully and persuasively (as on Aristotle's general view of unity, 15 ff.) and at other times speculatively and unpersuasively (as on Aristotle's view of limitations on private property, 105 ff.). These discussions make Mayhew's work valuable to anyone engaged with Aristotle's political theory.

But where Mayhew's discussion is closest to the criticisms of Plato, it is least convincing. It is a special challenge to maintain charity toward both Aristotle and Plato here despite the fact that Aristotle is arguing against Plato in the most strenuous terms.4 But Mayhew resists this challenge. He is considerably less concerned with Plato than he is with Aristotle (cf. 8n4), and he quite consistently champions Aristotle's criticisms. In fact, Mayhew's interpretations often make Aristotle's criticisms win so easily that deeper problems and possibilities are left unexplored. And this has consequences for Mayhew's more general interpretation of Aristotelian political thought: while he very often sheds helpful light on Aristotle's project, that light is frequently colored by unconvincing characterizations of the Republic and overstated contrasts between Plato and Aristotle.

Consider Mayhew's treatment of Aristotle's final criticism of the Republic. Aristotle charges that Plato sacrifices the happiness of the guardians to the happiness of the city and thereby fails to make the city happy at all, since the producers are "certainly not (ou gar dê, 1264b23)" happy (1264b15-24). As Mayhew observes (124), many readers have complained loudly about this criticism: after all, Plato expends much energy in Book IX (and see 465e-466c) to show that the guardians are in fact supremely happy. But according to Mayhew, this criticism "misses the point. Aristotle is criticizing Plato's basic approach to political philosophy, an approach that runs throughout the Republic: that of treating the citizens of a city as mere parts ... and the city itself as a whole with an end or ends above or beyond the ends of the individuals within the city" (124).

This seems to me doubly wrong. It both ignores the plain meaning of Aristotle's words at 1264b15-24 and approvingly attributes to Aristotle an interpretation of Plato that is at best controversial and at worst flatly mistaken.5 The point is not just that Mayhew is plucking Aristotle from the frying pan and tossing him into the fire. Mayhew is here not sensitive to Aristotle's climatic problems at all, for he is not attempting to explain how Aristotle's plain meaning might be a justifiable criticism.

Mayhew's analysis is similarly stopped short by an uncharitable reading of Plato in what is probably the book's most original chapter, a discussion of Aristotle's quick but suggestive remarks about how more unified communities are less self-sufficient (1261b10-15). Mayhew argues that the self-sufficient city is one which possesses "all the required parts" doing "the necessary activities efficiently and properly" (51). Among other things, the rulers must know about the business affairs and interests of the non-rulers, and Mayhew asserts that the rulers in Plato's Kallipolis cannot know these things. Plato's guardians might spend fifteen years holding various offices before ascending to the status of philosopher-ruler (539e-540a), and Plato might make clear that the guardians are to regulate economic activity (421d-422a, 425ce, 433e) -- and presumably the education (cf. 414d2-5) -- of the producer class in such a way that the producers' appetites are optimally harmonized (590c-591a) and the producers hail the rulers as saviors (soteras, 463b1). But Mayhew says that the rulers' knowledge "consists primarily of the knowledge of the Forms" (52) and that Plato "probably" had in mind for the guardians' fifteen years of office-holding the sort of offices that would give them "nothing like the experience they would need to rule fully once they turned fifty" (53). So Plato's Kallipolis cannot function and cannot be self-sufficient.

This seems impossibly unsympathetic to Plato, filling in details in such a way as to make Kallipolis manifestly impossible. Furthermore, with this account of Aristotle's criticism, Mayhew stops short. His account of civic self-sufficiency remains strikingly economic. Perhaps with more sympathy for Plato, Mayhew could have thickened the connection between the self-sufficiency of the city and the eudaimonic self-sufficiency of the good citizen. Perhaps the city is self-sufficient if it provides everything a non-philosophical person needs for eudaimonia, and one such good which the city can provide but which no more primitive form of a community can provide is political activity. So perhaps political activity deserves more emphasis in the story of how Aristotle's political ideal is more self-sufficient than Plato's.6

I have focused on just two points at which Mayhew clearly offers a one-sided picture of Aristotle's criticisms of Plato that clouds his interpretation of Aristotle. While there are, I believe, other such points, this book will nevertheless prove valuable to many scholars. There should be no rush to dispose of the commentaries by Newman, Susemihl and Hicks, Saunders, or Schuetrumpf, for Mayhew often refers to these other commentaries, skips on many points of philological or historical detail where a comprehensive commentary cannot be silent (as at, e.g., the last phrase of 1262a29, a controversial one manhandled without comment on p. 64), and proves unreliable where he does allow himself some philological point.7 But Aristotle's Criticism of Plato's Republic stands now as the most thorough philosophical commentary on Politics II 1-5, and anyone grappling with those chapters will most certainly want to consider the thoughtful analyses and extended discussions that Mayhew provides.


1.   This explains why Aristotle would not trouble to be more explicit about the fact that the abolition of private families and private property is limited to the guardians in Plato's Kallipolis, but it does not explain why Aristotle would go on to ask whether the Republic actually limits these abolitions to the guardians (1264a11-22). In an appendix, Mayhew argues that Aristotle is justifiably uncertain about the scope of communism in the Republic (on the strength of 1264a11-17). But Mayhew shows only that for all Plato says, the producers might have some communal arrangements for the raising of children or some shared property. While this is grounds for wishing that Plato had provided more details about the producers' daily lives, it is not grounds for asking, as Aristotle does, whether the producers have all things in common in the same way as the guardians do (1264a17-18). That question is clearly answered by the Republic, and it is difficult to justify Aristotle's use of it, especially given his apparent recognition elsewhere that producers have private families (1262a40-1262b7). (On p. 136n1, Mayhew provides a different reading of 1262a40-1262b1, but I do not see how his reading can make sense of 1262b1-7.) For similar reasons, it is also difficult to justify Mayhew's occasional assumption that communism extends to the lowest class in Kallipolis (see, e.g., his interpretation of 1263a8-15 on p. 99).
2.   My outline of II 1-5 differs from Mayhew's (8) in two significant ways. First, he thinks that II 2 is about the telos of Platonic communism about women, children, and property. While I think that this misses the import of Aristotle's words at the start of II 2 and II 5, I agree with Mayhew on the underlying point: Aristotle's discussion of civic unity in II 2 is so abstract that it is not tied to the abolition of private families as opposed to the abolition of private property. (In fact, it is so abstract that it is not obviously tied to either.) Second, Mayhew does not see a significant difference between the criticisms of II 3 and II 4, despite the distinction drawn at 1261a10-16 and echoed at the starts of those chapters. Our disagreement here has consequences. Consider, for example, Aristotle's charge that the abolition of private families will lead to impious familial violence (1262a25-32). Mayhew purges direct religious concern from this charge in order (in part) to connect it to civic unity (64-68), but Aristotle's point is introduced as the first of the disadvantages (duschereias, 1262a25) of the abolition of private families which are offered in addition to (allas, 1261a10; kai, 1262a25) the previous chapter's discussion of the relation between the abolition of private families and civic unity.
3.   The methodologically obsessed will suspect that Mayhew ranges farther and wider than he ought, as he does not respond to those who think, e.g., that Politics IV is part of a different project than Politics VII before he draws conclusions together from those two books, and he is quick to cite the Athenian Constitution or Magna Moralia without much hand-wringing. To his credit, Mayhew occasionally acknowledges such problems, but he very rarely argues for his way of proceeding.
4.   It would be very interesting to see an investigation on the model of Gail Fine's stimulating study of Aristotle's criticisms of Plato's Forms, On Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), but I am not sure how satisfactory such an investigation's conclusions could be.
5.   Mayhew seems to assume that Plato thinks of the polis as a super-individual, over and above the citizens it comprises. This assumption is not supported by argument. (In chapter two, Mayhew argues that Kallipolis is too unified because non-rulers do not have any role in the running of the city or a full role in the running of their own lives, but that does not entail that the polis is a super-individual.) Nor is there even a reference to the objections to this interpretation that have been advanced by, say, Gregory Vlastos ("The Theory of Social Justice in the Polis in Plato's Republic," now in his Studies in Greek Philosophy, ed. Daniel W. Graham [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995], 2:69-103).
6.   This would make the criticism with respect to self-sufficiency more closely resemble Mayhew's interpretation of the main criticism concerning civic unity, but there, too, Mayhew could have said much more about the good of political activity.
7.   One example will have to do. Mayhew paraphrases and translates ἐπειδὴ οὔτε κοινήν φαμεν εἶναι δεῖν τὴν κτῆσιν ὥσπερ τινὲς εἰρήκασιν, ἀλλὰ τῇ χρήσει φιλικῶς γινομένῃ κοινήν (1329b41-1330a2) by "Possessions should not be common, but should 'become common in use, in a friendly way'" (108), and he makes a point of finding "no reason for accepting Nussbaum's translation 'common by way of a use that is agreed upon in mutuality'" (119n42). But Mayhew misreads γινομένῃ, which surely modifies τῇ χρήσει and is in turn modified by φιλικῶς. Blandly, Aristotle says that "we say that possessions should not be common as some have said but common by use which comes to be in a friendly way," and Nussbaum not unreasonably construes "use that comes to be in a friendly way" as "use that is mutually agreed upon" since, as Mayhew recognizes (81), like-mindedness or agreement (homonoia) is central to Aristotle's idea of civic friendship.

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