Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.10.18

Stephen Salkever (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Greek Political Thought.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2009.  Pp. ix, 380.  ISBN 9780521687126.  $29.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Brendan Boyle, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This handsome volume is a companion to Greek political thought and not Greek political theory. This is in keeping with other recent efforts—like the magnificent Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought—to cultivate a much more catholic understanding of just which texts grapple with what this volume’s editor, Stephen Salkever, calls the “fundamental questions about politics.” This means that while about half the volume is given over to Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, the other half takes seriously the contributions Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, Thucydides, and the orators made to such questions.

Salkever doesn’t explicitly defend this more catholic understanding, but I don’t think he needs to. The results speak for themselves. Dean Hammer’s essay on Homer and Ryan Balot’s on the orators are terrific, especially the latter. So terrific, in fact, that it’s a wonder we ever had to defend the catholic approach against the claim that Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics had a stranglehold on the fundamental questions.

Salkever does, however, defend three methodological commitments that unite the volume’s essays:

1. “fundamental questions about politics in the world of ancient Greece must be pursued in texts that cross the standard modern genre distinctions among philosophy, history, and literature.”

2. “the ultimate goal inspiring these studies is to bring voices embodied in these texts into our contemporary discussions of political thought and action.”

3. “this attempt to bring ancient Greek voices into modern discussions will itself be anachronistic unless we are very careful to place the Greek texts in the which they were written.”

These three claims advance a surprisingly substantive agenda, but the exact relationship between them is not quite clear. The first more or less captures what I said above about the “catholic understanding” of which texts count, and it strikes me as exactly right. The same goes for the second half of the third claim. But the second claim—and first half of the third—are unlikely to command universal assent, and this for a couple of reasons. First, the language of “ultimate goal” is very strong, and while one might think that “bring[ing] voices...into contemporary discussions” is one aim for a volume like this—or for studying ancient political thought generally—it is probably not the “ultimate goal.” Second, this claim sits ill with other language in the volume, some of it on the very same page. Just one paragraph later Salkever says that the project’s general orientation is to “bring questions that arise in contemporary democracies” to the study of the ancients. In which direction, then, is the volume working? From the ancients to contemporary discussions, as the second claim above suggests, or from contemporary discussions to the ancients, as paragraph that follows suggests? “Both” might be an acceptable answer to the question, but I think this needs to be argued for and not simply stipulated.

I think that there is a fourth, and considerably more important, commitment uniting the essays, one that Salkever does not explicitly flag. It’s related to the second commitment listed above, but where that commitment speaks of the volume’s “ultimate aim,” this fourth, unstated commitment concerns just what Salkever and his contributors think “political thought” tries to do, where this means both what ancient writers on politics were up to and how their modern interpreters should go about their work. Political thought, Salkever suggests, does not involve “discover[ing] principles, whether formal or substantive, that will solve our deepest political problems.” Rather, it involves “broadening the ‘modern political imaginary,’ our sense of what is politically normal or possible.”

This sort of language—“broadening” the imaginary, opening possibilities, and like phrases—appears very frequently. Salkever describes the volume’s two essays on the Greek historians as “explor[ing] the possibility that the work of political the project of opening the imagination beyond the limits of the prevailing culture.” He says that Norma Thompson’s essay shows how Herodotus’ Solon and Thucydides’ Pericles are “open to continuous reinterpretation,” while Gerald Mara’s essay on Thucydides explores how Thucydides’ “artful logos is anything but directive and conclusive” and rather offers a “provisional” account of “the inevitable open-endedness of political life.” He says that Plato and Aristotle are united by a commitment to a “non-doctrinal and non-systematic mode of philosophizing about political life.” So non-doctrinal and non-systematic, in fact, that Salkever, in describing his own essay on the relationship between the Politics and Nicomachean Ethics, claims that Aristotle’s “distinctly naturalist approach to politics” is not intended to serve as a “fundamental first premise from which political principles can be deduced” but merely “to supply a point of view—a conceptual space—from which our particular political deliberations may be more successfully undertaken.”

The adverb “merely” in the last sentence is mine, but I think it’s merited if Salkever’s description of Aristotle’s aims is correct. That is, if Aristotle is only providing a “point of view” or “conceptual space,” is he really providing all that much? This is what worries me about the volume. All the talk about “broadening the social imaginary” does seem to considerably lower the bar as an account of, first, what the ancients took the task of writing about politics to be and, second, what Salkever and his contributors take their task of writing about the ancients to be. I think I understand how Salkever and the contributors arrived at such talk—they are understandably wary of treating the ancients’ project in too analytic, too theoretical, a fashion. That’s fair enough and, as I said above, I think Salkever is entirely right to have included Homer, Herodotus, and Sophocles as serious—though not, properly speaking, “theoretical”-- investigators of the “fundamental questions about politics.” But this commitment to “broadening” the set of contributors seems to have been yoked a commitment to “broadening” in this entirely different sense—the sense that the project of ancient political thought and contemporary commentary on such thought should be conducted with an aim to “broadening the political imaginary.”

But the first commitment in no way entails the second. That is, there is no reason why we couldn’t broaden the set of contributors while, at the same time, maintain that the ancients did not take—and their contemporary interpreters should not take—“broadening” the political imaginary as the ultimate goal of thinking about politics. We can put the point slightly differently by saying that while “political thought” is a distinct improvement over “political theory,” this does not entail that the ancients avoided thinking about politics in a systematic, theoretical manner or that we should avoid doing so. Indeed, the flip-side to the “broadening” language that I cited above is language that is almost hostile to thinking about politics in such a systematic, theoretical way. I’ve already mentioned a couple of examples—Salkever’s reluctance to countenance a central place for “formal or substantive principles” in political thought or his particular description of Aristotle’s refusal of a “fundamental first premise” in favor of a mere “point of view.” Individual essays contain a good number of others. The thought seems to be that principles in and of themselves are to be avoided—I’m tempted to say avoided at all costs—on the grounds that they (and the systematic, theoretical thinking that goes with them) are unacceptably constraining.

How might we respond to such near hostility to thinking about politics theoretically? First, we might say that Salkever is just wrong about, for example, Aristotle’s aims, which may be far more robustly theoretical than his “providing conceptual space” line suggests. I happen to think that they are, but I don’t have space to make that case here (while also conceding that Salkever’s essay has led me to rethink my position). If the robust reading is true, Salkever’s “conceptual space” reading loses a good bit of its power. (It also loses much of its attractiveness for beginning students, at whom I imagine the volume is aimed.)

Second, we might leave aside the individual case of Aristotle (or any other allegedly non-systematic thinker, for that matter) and ask how someone like Salkever—someone invested in reading the ancients in order to “broaden the political imaginary”—should position his own project with respect to the ancients’. The obvious approach—and the one Salkever and his contributors mostly pursue—is to treat the ancients as if they, too, were invested in such a “broadening” of the imaginary. But another approach would take seriously the idea that the ancients—a good few of them, at least—are engaged in deeply systematic, theoretically rigorous project; that the ancients are not at all after “broadening the social imaginary,” but are instead interested in putting together a clear, comprehensive, and fairly detailed picture of political life.

In other words, it might have been better for Salkever to treat the ancients’ project as orthogonal to, not continuous with, his own. Importantly, this need not mean that Salkever and his contributors would have to abandon their own “broadening” aim. Indeed, I think that the conceptual friction generated by such an orthogonal encounter might actually have done more to “broaden the imaginary” than an encounter in which the ancient and modern vectors are essentially pointing in exactly the same direction. Salkever might respond that an orthogonal encounter isn’t possible because the ancients just weren’t systematic, explicit thinkers about politics. But surely there are enough indications of systematic, explicit theorizing in, say, the Politics or even Thucydides’ History, to sustain my suggested approach. (I’ve been helped in my thinking on this problem by Patchen Markell’s excellent review of Raymond Geuss’s Philosophy and Real Politics [Political Theory 38.1, pp. 172-7]).

This criticism does not mean that individual essays—or the volume as a whole—are unsuccessful. I enjoyed very much Hammer’s piece on Homer, Saxonhouse’s on Sophocles, Bickford’s on Plato, Brown’s on natural law Stoics, and, especially, Balot’s on the orators. This last essay lucidly demonstrates just how fertile that corpus is for students of ancient political thought. Balot argues that the orators offer an account of how Athens’ thriving, mostly-non-dominatory, mostly-egalitarian polity could, at the same time, cultivate the virtues in the citizenry. Indeed, the thriving, mostly-non-dominatory, mostly-egalitarian quality of the polity might well have depended on the cultivation of the virtues in the citizenry.

Salkever seems to suggest that Hannah Arendt is the volume’s presiding spirit, for it was she, he says, who first “suggested...that the job of political theory is to prepare citizens to make the best possible judgments by encouraging us to discern and reflect on the central problems of political life; not to tell us what we must do, but, in Arendt’s phrase, to help us ‘think what we are doing.’” Hers is as good a spirit as any to have, but in order to “think what we are doing” we need a clear view of what the political landscape looks like. Arendt knew this—witness the essay “What Is Authority?”, emphatically not an attempt to “broaden the imaginary” but an attempt to get a clear view of just what authority—as opposed to force, violence, or power—was. I think a large portion of the ancient project was similarly directed—around questions like What is citizenship? What is the best regime? What is political leadership? What destroys polities? and scores of others. This volume, though very fine, might have been even better had this aspect of Arendt’s spirit been given equal attention.

Stephen Salkever: Introduction

Dean Hammer: Homer and Political Thought

Arlene W. Saxonhouse: Foundings vs. Constitutions: Ancient Tragedy and the Origins of Political Community

Norma Thompson. Most Favored Status in Herodotus and Thucydides: Recasting the Athenian Tyrannicides through Solon and Pericles

Gerald Mara: Thucydides and Political Thought

Susan Bickford: “This Way of Life, This Contest”: Rethinking Socratic Citizenship

David Roochnik: The Political Drama of Plato’s Republic

Catherine H. Zuckert: Practical Plato

Stephen Salkever: Reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics as a Single Course of Lectures: Rhetoric, Politics, and Philosophy

Jill Frank and S. Sara Monoson: Lived Excellence in Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens: Why the Encomium of Theramenes Matters

Ryan K. Balot: The Virtue Politics of Democratic Athens

Fred D. Miller, Jr.: Origins of Rights in Ancient Political Thought

Eric Brown: The Emergence of Natural Law and the Cosmopolis

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