Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.08.18

Ronald Weed, Aristotle on Stasis: A Moral Psychology of Political Conflict.   Berlin:  Logos Verlag, 2007.  Pp. 236.  ISBN 978-3-8325-1380-1.  €37.00.  

Reviewed by Steven C. Skultety, University of Mississippi (
Word count: 2427 words

Anyone who does much reading in the history of political philosophy is familiar with the following, frequently drawn, contrast: modern societies are highly diverse, non-uniform, pluralistic spaces of clashing interests and ultimate philosophies, while ancient societies were homogenized, regimented communities, based on shared conceptions of the good. Of course this distinction is handled more or less responsibly by this or that writer -- but the upshot is clear: if you hope to produce a political theory that is relevant to the modern world, you must drop ancient political assumptions and come up with a response to the problem that pluralism presents.

Liberalism, clearly, has been the most widely celebrated solution to this problem -- but it is a solution that has not pleased everyone. There are some who believe that key aspects of modernism itself were fundamentally misguided and that liberalism is little more than a clever way of enshrining deeply flawed and selfish habits. However, in the last thirty years or so, the critique of the liberal solution that has made the most impact upon academic discussions has come from so-called "communitarians" -- a group of thinkers who, while not rejecting modernism, nevertheless raised a series of questions that challenged the sharpness of the distinction between pre-modern and modern. Are societies in the modern world truly pluralistic, all the way down? Are there not some shared values necessary for the existence of any sort of community? If people are not only to enjoy but to preserve their liberty, are there not political virtues that need to be inculcated in the practice of citizenship? In short, communitarians complicated the distinction between homogenized ancients vs. pluralistic moderns by trying to emphasize the ways in which even successful contemporary societies rest upon some common commitments.

Liberals answered these questions in many different ways, and the subsequent liberal/communitarian debate generated much fanfare both in and outside the academy. However, at the same time, another kind of challenge was being made to the ancient/modern distinction in some quarters of classical studies, albeit one that runs in the other direction: while communitarians were asking if modern societies are (or should be) more homogenized than commonly recognized, a few scholars of ancient thought were making arguments that suggest that the putatively "thick" themes of social cohesion found in ancient thought are actually shot-through with far more pluralism and disagreement than is often appreciated. In particular, in the realm of Aristotle studies, Bernard Yack and Jill Frank have argued that Aristotle never conceived of nature, friendship, or even justice as somehow providing extra-legal standards that could rescue citizens from political problems; from a very different perspective, Fred Miller Jr. argued that Aristotle had a conception of rights that, while not exactly identical to the rights posited by Hobbes or Locke, showed that he conceived of political society as a place in which citizens regularly cited this or that claim-right as a way of solving disputes.

None of these interpretations of Aristotle seems to have been successful. But they do raise a really interesting question: how much difference, disagreement, fighting, and conflict did philosophers of the ancient world imagine there would be in "well-ordered" and "harmonious" cities in which citizens were "friends"? Moreover, if we hope to address that question in a responsible and careful manner, there is another, even more fundamental question to answer first: how do these philosophers think about conflict as such?

I write all of this as a way of explaining my gratitude to Ronald Weed for giving us Aristotle on Stasis, a full, book-length treatment of conflict in Aristotle's ethical-political thought. Over ten years ago, in Problems of a Political Animal, Yack expressed justified astonishment that so little work had been done on Aristotle's treatment of conflict. But, since then, only Kostas Kalimtzis, in his 2000 work Aristotle on Political Enmity and Disease, has really tried to explore this terrain in a systematic way. Regardless of the reservations I'll describe below, this new book is surely a testament to how much sophisticated analysis is required to deal adequately with the subject of conflict -- and to how much praise-worthy labor Weed has put into his project. In the last two chapters of this book, for instance, which develop an elaborate taxonomy to track Aristotle's description of how a hierarchical network of vices play themselves out in three different political scenarios in a way that needs to be combated with seven distinct remedial principles, the author deploys 490 footnotes, nearly all of which refer to primary material!

Weed deserves these and other accolades for entering neglected terrain. Unfortunately, I have deep misgivings about the way in which he has decided to approach this subject. The thesis that Weed devotes this work to defending is that stasis must be explained as being primarily driven by character flaws. His main line of argument for this thesis can be broken into the following four parts:

(1) By "stasis," Aristotle means a condition of a city in which inhabitants form factional associations -- that is, associations in which members aim at something that is not good.

(2) The first few chapters of Politics V show that there are three "immediate" causes for the formation of such factions: (a) mistaken beliefs about justice by democrats and oligarchs, (b) the taking of honor or gain as the highest good by democrats and oligarchs, and (c) eleven "occasioning" causes that will trigger actual action by partisans.

(3) In Aristotle's moral psychology, beliefs, desires for ends, and proclivities to provocation are determined by character states.

(4) Only the character flaw of envy can ultimately explain the mistaken beliefs, ends, and proclivities of democrats; only the character flaw of vanity can similarly explain oligarchs.

There are other considerations besides these that Weed offers to support his thesis: in particular, during the last part of the book (to which I have already alluded), he argues that Aristotle's proposals for moderating democracies and oligarchies only make sense if he is worried about the nest of vices that motivate factionalists. However, even if we set aside these other elements, what should leap out from my sketch of Weed's main argument is that his account is almost entirely oriented toward the activities of vicious democrats and oligarchs. From the outset, he takes it as more or less given that stasis is the manifestation of a partisan disease, and he devotes most of his energy to showing the reader how Aristotle thinks about oligarchs, democrats, and the regimes they control. Now, if this book had been entitled, "The Vices of Partisans: a Moral Psychology of Oligarchs and Democrats," and Weed had gone on to devote a chapter to explaining how stasis can often arise from the hostility between the arrogant rich and envious poor, this project would have been quite successful. Indeed, against scholars who think that Aristotle is optimistic about creating kinder and more enlightened oligarchs and democrats, I agree with Weed in thinking that, for Aristotle, these particular partisans are rather nasty folks who can only be kept at bay by being swamped by a middle class or by having their assumptions appeased in this or that mixed or moderated regime. Thus, despite a worry that he overstates the case in (3) by attributing nearly every aspect of an agent's psychology to character, Weed's attempt to define oligarchs and democrats in terms of major character flaws in the last two steps of the argument strikes me as being quite plausible.

But, instead of an analysis of partisanship by rich and poor, Weed promised to give readers an account of stasis, and it seems to me that he makes a mistake in the very first step in his argument (1). By linking stasis so tightly to people with deeply misguided aims, Weed largely ignores the fact that people with proper goals, beliefs, and desires can also engage in stasis: Aristotle unambiguously declares that "those who would be most justified in starting stasis... are the outstandingly virtuous" (Pol. 1301a39-40). Of course it is true that the virtuous never get much of a chance to start stasis in most times and places because "they are few against many" (1304b4-5). But this practical concession will not save Weed's argument: even though political scientists will rarely have the opportunity to witness truly flourishing humans beings storming corrupt citadels, this is not sufficient reason to maintain that Aristotle conceptualizes stasis as being anything like the manifestation of political disease (as suggested on p.28).

The fact that perfectly upstanding and virtuous individuals can engage in stasis not only problematizes the first step of the argument but implies that there is something wrong with the second step (2) as well -- that is, with Weed's interpretation of the general account of stasis articulated in Politics V.1-4. If Aristotle believes that virtuous people can engage in stasis, we should expect that he has designed his general account of this political phenomenon in such a way that it can accommodate properly motivated actors as well as those with character flaws. And, in fact, when we examine each of what Aristotle calls the "three causes" of stasis, this is exactly what we find: contrary to Weed's interpretation, according to which "the factions that Aristotle has in mind here are either democratic or oligarchic" (p.119), each of the three causes is every bit as applicable to ethically admirable agents as to those who are vicious. Aristotle did not set out to generate an account of stasis that links it in any essential way to oligarchs and democrats.

First, it is quite right to say that a belief about justice plays a causal role in stasis; as Aristotle puts it, "people generally engage in stasis in pursuit of equality" (1301b28-9). But, contra Weed, there is nothing in the text which suggests that factionalists must be working from a mistaken notion of equality. On the contrary, "sometimes these desires are just, sometimes unjust" (1302a28-9). Again, Aristotle identifies the following as the second cause of stasis: "The things over which [factionalists] start stasis are profit, honor, and their opposites. For people also start stasis in poleis to avoid dishonor and fines, either for themselves or for their friends" (1302a31-34). Because Weed focuses so exclusively on vicious partisans, he takes this statement as evidence that factionalists must be people who treat honor and/or wealth as a final cause -- a trait which, he believes, identifies factionalists as democrats and oligarchs . But the text does not bear out that reading: the quoted sentence only says that each act of stasis needs to be explained as an attempt that aims at honor or wealth; it does not say that anyone who engages in stasis adopts profit or honor as the overarching human good; nor does it suggest that all the changes factionalists are attempting to make in the constitution are done for the purpose of getting more money or honor.

Third, and finally, there is no evidence to support Weed's claim that the eleven causal factors Aristotle lumps together as the third cause of stasis are "occasioning causes" that "trigger or provoke" factional conflict (p.118) by oligarchs and democrats. Weed takes these eleven factors to be the sorts of things that would provoke the trigger-happy partisan into action, or at least make such provocation more likely. But this gloss of the third cause is misleading in at least two ways. On the one hand, this description overlooks the fact that three of those eleven factors (electioneering, carelessness, and gradual alteration) are said to make constitutions change without any sort of stasis at all (1303a14 ff.). But, more worryingly, Weed's analysis reverses the temporal order of Aristotle's explanation: the eight stasis-causing factors are identified as causes and starting points "from which people become disposed in the manner discussed" (1302a34-36); that is, these factors are the sorts of things that lead people to feel that they live in an unjust regime, not eight sorts of straw that will finally break the partisan camel's back. In fact, Aristotle has a rather robust discussion of triggering events which he begins with the statement, "factions arise from small issues, then, but not over them" (1303b17-8). But this discussion of how small issues touch off city-wide conflict takes place in V.4, not during the V.3 description of the eleven causal factors as Weed's account would lead us to expect.

These criticisms in no way detract from the value of Weed's careful, incredibly detailed, commendable research on Aristotle's apprehensions about democrats and oligarchs. His character-based explanation of these actors is impressively exhaustive, and I'm sure other readers will benefit from his encyclopedic approach. However, because of the way he attempts to package the larger project, Weed is forced to reshape Aristotle's general account of stasis so that it fits squarely within the box of a unique kind of partisan antagonism. Of course, anyone who reads the Politics can sympathize with the author: Aristotle is acutely aware of the fact that oligarchs and democrats are, by far and away, the most frequent factionalists. But this correlation should not lead us into transforming the concept of stasis into something it is not. Stasis is an activity by which (vicious or virtuous) actors try to alter a constitution by force or fraud, and each stage of Aristotle's tripartite account of the causes of stasis can accommodate actors whose beliefs are correct or mistaken and whose desires are appropriate or deviant.

By way of conclusion, perhaps I can suggest a general lesson we might want to take away from Aristotle on Stasis. Instead of adopting a Platonic model of conflict in which all intra-polis trouble is effectively reduced to an expression of viciousness (Weed even argues that Aristotle's conceptualization of stasis is Platonic on pp. 99-103), scholars of ancient political philosophy may do better to retain the rich conceptual palette Aristotle uses when dealing with issues of conflict, including legal disputes, policy disagreements, competitions for office, commercial haggling, and the host of other types of conflict we find described in the corpus. Just as Aristotle's concept of stasis needs to be analyzed on its own terms without being confused with the problems that haunt oligarchs and democrats (however much their antagonism or viciousness increases their potential to engage in stasis), so do other types of conflict deserve their own treatment as well. To the extent that we overlook these distinctions, as I fear Weed has done in this book, I believe we will miss a great opportunity to see how Aristotle is still relevant in a world that remains stubbornly fractious.

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