Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.06.24

Andrés Rosler, Political Authority and Obligation in Aristotle. Oxford Aristotle Studies.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2005.  Pp. 312.  ISBN 0-19-925150-9.  $74.00.  

Reviewed by Ran Baratz, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (
Word count: 2310 words

The overall objective of Andrés Rosler's Political Authority and Obligation in Aristotle1 is to establish that even though Aristotle did not systematically or explicitly refer to the seemingly modern issues mentioned in the book's title, he did contemplate them and they may have had a significant impact on his political thought.

The first two chapters set the stage for Rosler's main argument. In chapter 1, 'The Explanatory Power of Ethics in Aristotle's Theory of Politics and Law', Rosler argues that even if statesmen and legislators were the intended audience of the Politics, political obligation still plays a significant role in Aristotle's political doctrine because good statesmen and legislators must adopt the civil viewpoint. Thereafter, Rosler introduces an argument according to which the premises behind Aristotle's political thought are ethical and normative and relate to a free and rational human agency. This is indeed the major theme of his interpretation, and it resounds throughout the entire work. Rosler also examines the connection between fact and value in Aristotle's 'social science', in which, he maintains, description and prescription may coincide, as rational choice can procreate habit and become 'second nature'. On the other hand, civic virtue may run counter to practical reason, thereby paving the way for civil disobedience.

In chapter 2, 'Nature and Normativity', Rosler attempts to formulate a normative interpretation of the concept of nature in Aristotle's political and ethical works. The author claims that Aristotle accurately perceived the connection between value and world and constructed a sound normative theory, which outlines the relationships between the polis, citizen, and practical reason ('not at all that different from [...] the Kantian type' [p. 43]). According to Rosler, Aristotle's 'political naturalism' is decidedly not 'conceptual, biological, or metaphysical in character, but basically practical or ethical' (p. 85). In fact, he claims that such misconceived notions are liable to undermine all the efforts to render Aristotle's political theory a moral one and, a fortiori, debunk any normative theory of obligation.

Other important aspects that are dealt with in this pivotal chapter include the following: Aristotle's doctrine of well-being and practical reason; the ergon argument; the fact-value distinction; and the relation between virtue and the highest good. Rosler also acquits Aristotle of having committed either the 'naturist fallacy' ('we have a natural function f, so we ought to encourage f-ing') or the 'peculiarity fallacy'. In addition, he challenges several of the prevalent interpretations of some of Aristotle's best known statements. For example, he claims that in the statement 'man is political by nature', 'nature' has a 'practical or justificatory' sense, and in 'the polis exists by nature', 'nature' means 'rationality'. Moreover, according to Rosler, the priority of the polis to its members refers to 'moral perfection', and therefore it merely suggests that subordination of the citizens to the polis is 'in their best interest' (that is, moral interest). Much of Rosler's overall case relies on subordinating the natural and political to the ethical.

In chapter 3, 'The Concept of Political Authority', Rosler argues that the lack of a corresponding Greek word for auctoritas does not necessarily rule out the existence of a political concept of authority. Drawing on the work of legal philosopher Joseph Raz, Rosler offers a brief review of the modern notion of authority and the rationale behind abiding by it. This part is highly contemporary, as it distinguishes between first- and second-order deliberations and concludes that the acceptance of another person's authority entails willingly acting in a manner that contradicts one's own beliefs. Therefore, it is actually the subjects who empower the bearer of authority. Rosler proposes that Aristotle's concept of authority is quite similar, on the basis of the following premises: Aristotle would have found consenting to authority as a means to a civil end to be rational; his discussion of the virtue of courage is an example of a virtuous deliberation wherein authority is an obvious factor; and the analogies that he draws between the political and the military spheres also suggest that he was thinking along the lines of authority. Several issues and passages are subsequently interpreted in the same spirit, whereupon the chapter concludes with a discussion of Greek words that Aristotle used to denote authority, mainly arkhê, kurios, and krisis.

Chapter 4, 'Morality and Political Obligation', focuses primarily on the Nicomachean Ethics. Obligation is defined as 'a moral requirement or necessity to act in accordance with the dictates of political authority' and corresponds to the concept of moral duty. Rosler again refers to Kant, maintaining that there is a close similarity between Aristotle's and Kant's concepts of the morally good, as both refer to the interests of others, disregard desires, and designate what is chosen for its own sake. This, then, implies that a notion of duty exists in Aristotle's work as well. Aristotle's optimism vis à vis Kant's pessimism constitutes the main difference between the two insofar as the prospects of harmonizing the rational with the emotive are concerned. Over the next few pages, Rosler dwells on the occasions in which the notion of political obligation can be inferred from the Aristotelian text. The chapter ends with a discussion of the difference between duty and obligation in Aristotle's system.

Chapter 5 is devoted to Aristotle's treatment of 'The Question of Political Obligation'. Rosler suggests that Aristotle deliberated over 'the political question par excellence [... of] whether there should be political relations at all' (pp. 145-6). In Rosler's view, this is actually a moral question, and his argument is premised on the assumption that Aristotle recognized the possibility of anarchism or an apolitical way of life. This is followed by a discussion of Aristotle's conceptions of liberty (exousia -- 'absence of impediments') and freedom (eleutheria -- which is 'morally seasoned' and thus in harmony with authority). Rosler contends that Aristotle acknowledged the tension between liberty and authority, and this very issue prompted him to come up 'with an answer to the anarchist challenge' and 'justify the intervention of the state in the life of its citizens' (p. 167). Thereafter, he assails communitarian interpretations according to which obligation in Aristotelian thought is the natural outcome of membership in a political community. Upon concluding this critique, the author once again attempts to bolster the basic tenet of his work whereby Aristotle believed that political authority and obligation are related in a 'not purely conceptual but essentially moral' fashion, so that only a moral political community is entitled to demand obedience.

Rosler puts forward several justifications for abiding by authority in chapter 6, 'The Justification of Political Authority'. Some of these justifications rely on the premise that Aristotle believed poleis with good constitutions (which free and rational men deserve) must take into account the interests and happiness of each of their citizens, whereas other justifications are more technical and primarily concerned with securing the efficiency that obedience ensures. Rosler concludes the chapter by claiming that according to Aristotle even the best polis requires political authority.

In the final chapter, 'The Limits of Political Obligation', Rosler maintains that obligation is not absolute in Aristotelian thought, but subject to moral considerations. By dint of an examination of Aristotle's individualism and theory of education, inter alia, Rosler argues that Aristotle acknowledged the right to disobey tyrannical constitutions. The book then draws to a close with a short conclusion, which is followed by a bibliography, index locorum, index nominum, and a general index.

Rosler is well-versed in recent interpretations of Aristotle as well as modern political thought. Consequently, the book's natural audience consists of readers with an affinity for both. Rosler's arguments are lucid and his writing is eloquent, occasionally humorous, and always pleasant. I have no doubt that Rosler's school of thought will delight over the new addition to the literature.

That said, I have quite a few reservations about Rosler's work. My most significant critiques pertain to his overall interpretative spirit, which constitutes yet another example of the attempts at reconstruction that have recently become a prevalent method for interpreting Aristotle's Politics. Therefore, instead of plunging into a detailed critique, I will focus my attention on the wider approach.

The reconstruction of Aristotle's political thought essentially requires a skillful blend of historical (classical) interpretation and modern political theory. Indeed, most interpretations need to go 'beyond bare repetition',2 and many researchers find the question of 'what would Aristotle have said' about some modern issue intellectually stimulating. When conducted in a prudent manner, these sorts of studies can clearly offer interesting, instructive, and insightful contributions. Therefore, such efforts should not be written off en bloc.

However, I submit that some of these recent investigations have been carried out without the requisite degree of discretion, and consequently some doubtful speculations and methodologies have enjoyed widespread acceptance. Salient examples might be the claim that 'the very raison d'être of the polis is to attend to the well-being of each of its citizens' (p. 259) and the methodological designation of Kantian philosophy as the normative criterion to which Aristotle must conform if he is to be deemed 'interesting'.

The spirited effort to anoint Aristotle the forefather of liberal thought appears to be the root cause of this phenomenon. However, I doubt that this propensity to "liberalize" and "modernize" Aristotle by over-emphasizing his alleged (modern) liberal and democratic attitudes will produce the desired effect of bolstering his popularity amongst modern readers, for the figure of Aristotle that emerges from these interpretations is a quasi-proto-Kantian, undeveloped, and confused liberal. This interpretation is unlikely to stand the test of time.

But more importantly, I dare say that much of the theoretical aspect of this effort is simply unconvincing. Notwithstanding the cautious and conscientious achievements of some 'reconstructions', the employment of excessive interpretive liberties aimed at rendering Aristotle 'relevant' appears to have become quite commonplace. It has reached the point in which some arguments seem to fall under the category of 'purposive interpretation' (a jurisprudential coinage for attempts to reconcile the written law with some a priori moral notion by means of hyperbolical interpretative techniques). Indeed, occasional transgressions of interpretative standards appear to be inevitable when concordance with contemporary values constitutes the primary criterion and justification for an interpretation.

Perhaps the most obvious example of the leniency that some researchers have allowed themselves is the very starting point of such interpretations. Recent reconstructions of Aristotle's political thought are predicated on the assumption that one should not mistake 'the existence of a word [or expression] for the existence of the concept itself' (p. 88; in Rosler's case the concepts of political authority and obligation are at issue). Since this claim is neither trivial nor evident, in my estimation a convincing justification should accompany its employment in every specific field.

However, Rosler utilizes the following general argument (versions of which are employed by his colleagues as well) to justify his reconstruction: although English lacks a counterpart to the German 'Schadenfreude' (joy aroused by the misfortune of others), people who speak only English also experience this feeling and therefore comprehend the concept's meaning without having the relevant term (p. 89, relying on Knox3). This argument leaves much to be desired, for the specific conclusion regarding 'Schadenfreude' is tacitly (and if I may add carelessly) generalized to include complex theoretical political notions. Shouldn't a clear line be drawn between concepts whose objects are self-evident and those whose objects are less apparent, such as toleration, rights, humanism, and the moral limits of obedience? In order to be understood by the philosopher in question, don't such concepts require at least a working knowledge of other related modern terms and theories?4

Of course, one may contend that the specifics of such interpretations do provide the necessary interpretative infrastructure. However, in my opinion (and I have to refrain from diving into detail here), the specifics are no better off. It might be recommended, in order to fend off such charges, that Rosler and his ilk devise a conscious interpretative apparatus, which will not only give rise to a much needed meta-discussion, but will also serve as a critical safeguard. For example, I propose that the attribution of a modern concept to a classical philosopher -- and especially Aristotle, whose terminological innovativeness is quite unparalleled -- should commence by elucidating the reasons for the very absence of the relevant expression, since it is allegedly not due to the lack of a corresponding concept. Admittedly, this is a demanding task, but it should be just as difficult to attribute concepts to thinkers who have no terms for them. To conclude, it seems that in some of the more recent reconstructions of Aristotle's Politics one finds what is perhaps the gravest concern of such efforts: 'mistreating or distorting Aristotle by importing ideas or imposing structures that are inimical to his thought'.5 As a result, I cannot accept some of the more far-reaching conclusions they offer (which occasionally appear to be a-priori assumptions). Instead, I prefer to continue viewing Aristotle as a unique and sophisticated political philosopher whose work does not necessarily dovetail with the frameworks of liberal thought. Largely by virtue of his realistic and mature conception of human nature, Aristotle managed to integrate into his political thought manifold factors that have a significant impact on human beliefs and conduct. I find that these qualities of Aristotelian political thought remain largely unequaled. Therefore, instead of reinterpreting his ideas so that they may adhere to the modern spirit, contemporary scholarship should instead enrich itself with Aristotle's innovative and thorough theories, even where it rejects their morals (an example might be Aristotle's cautious and complex ideas on the relation between the political and ethical, compared to the coarse subordination of the political to the moral, which nowadays we encounter all too often). It appears to me that Aristotle hardly warrants a rescue mission, especially one that leads to the dilution and alteration of his thoughts into inordinately liberal and thoroughly democratic modern viewpoints.


1.   A revised version of his doctoral dissertation at Oxford.
2.   R. Kraut (1984), Socrates and the State, Princeton, NJ, p. 110.
3.   B. Knox (1993), The Oldest Dead White European Males, NY, pp. 41-42. Rosler came across this distinction in F. Miller (1996), 'Aristotle on the Origins of Human Rights', The Review of Metaphysics, 49:873-907, p. 881. Miller refers to another source, which Rosler prudently ignores: B. Williams (1993), Shame and Necessity, p. 34. According to Miller, Williams claims that the lack of counterparts for 'self', 'mind', and 'consciousness' does not mean that Homer 'could not have had these ideas'.
4.   The argument is certainly not universal enough to cover other theoretical fields, such as mathematics, physics or biology. For example, no one would suggest that the ancients had an inkling about the nucleus, photons, neurotransmitters, or the square root of -1, for these are clearly theory-permeated (I believe that at least some political concepts share this trait). Conversely, it is worth taking into account the great lengths to which interpreters must go to in order to explicate early Presocratic cosmological notions due to the absence of contemporaneous counterparts for concepts such as 'space' and 'matter'.
5.   F. Miller (1995), Nature, Justice and Rights in Aristotle's Politics, Oxford, p. 22.

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