Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.10.48
Kevin M. Cherry, Plato, Aristotle and the Purpose of Politics. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xiii, 232. ISBN 9781107021679. $95.00.
Reviewed by David J. Riesbeck, Dartmouth College (firstname.lastname@example.org)
[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]
Aristotle’s Politics opens with a rejection of the claim that all forms of rule or authority are fundamentally identical. The view Aristotle rejects is prominently developed in Plato’s Statesman, where the Eleatic Stranger holds that kingship, statesmanship, and household management are merely different names for a single sort of theoretical expertise. Commentators on the Politics routinely observe its opening echoes of the Statesman, yet there have been few sustained efforts to set the two texts in dialogue with each other. Kevin M. Cherry’s Plato, Aristotle, and the Purpose of Politics does just that, identifying a set of deep disagreements between the Eleatic and the Stagirite on the nature of politics and promising to enrich our understanding of both thinkers. Though some of the book’s arguments are underdeveloped and its interpretive approach is bound to frustrate some readers, it is on the whole an engaging and highly readable treatment of some irresistibly interesting problems of political philosophy.
After a brief introduction, Cherry opens Chapter One by considering the Statesman’s identification of all forms of rule with a single sort of theoretical knowledge. All three elements of this claim are perhaps counter- intuitive: that all forms of rule are in fact one thing, that they are all a kind of knowledge, and that they are all a kind of knowledge that is exercised through thought alone rather than through action or production. Cherry finds this view prima facie unattractive and poorly defended, and he explains its easy acceptance as a product of the Young Socrates’ enthusiasm for mathematics. The Eleatic Stranger approaches the study of politics with an excessively mathematical model of knowledge, seeking to reduce the heterogeneous phenomena of politics to merely quantitative differences, abstracting too readily from the realities of political life, and deploying an allegedly value- neutral method of division that neglects the hierarchical distinctions of quality so central to ordinary political discourse. Aristotle rejects these tendencies in his critique of the Stranger’s identification of the varieties of rule. For Aristotle, communities differ in kind and not merely in size because they aim at different ends and are made up of different sorts of people. Because a person’s character is crucial to the kinds of community in which he can participate, Aristotle also denies that knowledge is a sufficient qualification for rule. Finally, Aristotle appreciates that political knowledge is concerned with action and with the assessment of complex particular circumstances. It is therefore an essentially practical sort of knowledge that requires experience, not a merely theoretical expertise that can be acquired and exercised through study alone.
In Chapter Two, Cherry extends his account of the disagreements between Aristotle and the Eleatic Stranger with a consideration of their respective visions of humanity’s place in nature. As he reads it, the cosmological myth of the Statesman presents a pessimistic view of human beings’ prospects in the Age of Zeus. Humans, left to fend for themselves without divine aid in a cosmos marked by increasing disorder, must devote their energies to preserving their lives against the threats posed by the natural world and by human nature itself. This dismal view of the human condition helps to explain the Stranger’s limited ambitions for politics: political communities, like all others, are directed primarily to preserving life, and considerations of the citizens’ virtues are strictly subordinate to that goal. Aristotle, by contrast, regards political communities as distinctive because they uniquely aim at the good life as a whole. Aristotle acknowledges that politics must attend to the needs of preservation and stability, but he treats these only as necessary conditions for the achievement of the highest good. Cherry links this comparatively ambitious conception of politics to Aristotle’s relatively optimistic view of nature as an ordered whole conducive to the overall flourishing of its parts. Though the world does not exist for the sake of human beings, it is hospitable to us and has provided us with the means to live well provided that we observe nature’s limits.
Following these broad contrasts between the two philosophers’ conceptions of politics, Cherry moves in Chapter Three to their evaluations of specific political arrangements and their opposed views of the relationship between knowledge and power. The Stranger, by taking a robust theoretical expertise as the sole qualification for rule, finds existing regimes defective by comparison and advocates the rule of law as a safeguard against the abuse of power by rulers lacking that knowledge. Where Aristotle assesses regimes as more or less conducive to the common good, the Stranger ranks them as more or less protective of stability and safety. Because the ignorant are no more likely to make their laws better than worse by changing them, the Stranger insists on a radically conservative policy of unquestioning obedience to unchanging laws, and because he regards political knowledge as beyond the reach of most human beings, he prefers lawful regimes that concentrate power in the hands of a few. Aristotle’s alternative conception of political knowledge tends in the opposite direction. Because political knowledge is a kind of practical knowledge, citizens can acquire a level sufficient for participation without becoming theoretical experts. The practical nature of politics also allows individuals to exercise a level of political knowledge collectively that none could exercise alone. Since participation in collective deliberation and judgment is itself an important component of the good life, the inclusion of the multitude in rule also promotes the good for which the city exists. Aristotle therefore makes a strong case for political inclusion against the Stranger’s inclination toward a narrow concentration of power.
Chapter Four further explores the contrasting views of political knowledge in the Statesman and the Politics by concentrating on their accounts of political inquiry. Where many scholars have seen the second half of the Statesman as anticipating Aristotle’s account of practical wisdom, Cherry instead emphasizes the apparent ethical neutrality of the Stranger’s appeal to the notion of “the mean”. The Stranger’s science of measurement more closely resembles Aristotle’s notions of technical knowledge (τέχνη) or mere cleverness (δεινότης) in its severance of intellectual competence from a concern with the ethical propriety of the ends that it serves. Cherry links the purported value-neutrality of political knowledge to its non-practical character, and he argues that the Stranger’s pessimistic conservatism renders political inquiry all but useless. Because political life is so fragile, non-ideal regimes should resist innovation and tolerate no questioning of their laws. Furthermore, even someone who managed to acquire full-blown political expertise would be resisted as a would-be tyrant. Political inquiry is worthwhile not because it will lead to action, but because it affords an opportunity to sharpen one’s skills in dialectic. For Aristotle, political theory exists for the sake of political action, and because political action aims at the good life rather than preservation alone, Aristotle has a favorable view of inquiry into political innovation. Provided that it respects the demands of stability, Aristotle is willing to accept the risks involved in efforts to improve a city’s laws and policies. Politics is a peculiarly valuable subject for theoretical inquiry because of the distinctive value of its practical aims.
With his account of the dialogue between the Politics and the Statesman complete, Cherry turns in Chapter Five to its implications for our understanding of Aristotle’s relationship to Plato and Socrates. As he explains in the Introduction, Cherry rejects the assumption shared by developmentalists and unitarians alike that the Eleatic Stranger speaks for Plato and expresses views to which Plato hopes to make his readers sympathetic. Unlike unitarians, Cherry stresses what he sees as the fundamental contrasts between the Stranger and Socrates. Yet unlike developmentalists, he does not take these differences to reflect a change of mind on Plato’s part. Rather, the Eleatic Stranger is Plato’s spokesman for a certain sort of sophisticated theoretical alternative to Socratic politics. Where Socratic politics consists in highly individualized philosophical encounters intended to make others aware of their ignorance, Eleatic political science is an impersonal expertise in managing human herds. Cherry positions Aristotle in the mean between these two extremes: against the Eleatic Stranger, Aristotle shares Socrates’ view that “politics exists primarily for the sake of the good life of the soul” (163). But with the Stranger, Aristotle takes politics to be essentially “about communities . . . whereas Socrates understands politics to be about individuals” (166). Cherry contends that this understanding of Plato’s relationship to his characters helps to make better sense of Aristotle’s relationship to both.
The book’s final chapter considers the relevance of Aristotle’s dispute with the Eleatic Stranger for contemporary political theory. He finds parallels between the political theory of the Statesman and the thought of early modern thinkers like Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke. Like the Stranger, these thinkers had limited aspirations for politics and posited security and stability as its chief aims at the expense of a concern for virtue or the good life. Similarly, they conceived of politics as an artificial means for coping with the pressing necessities of nature. For Cherry, these analogies between the Statesman and the early moderns tell in favor of Aristotle’s continuing relevance as a resource for critics of modernity. Since Aristotle himself confronted a surprisingly modern conception of politics in the pages of Plato’s Statesman, it is not mere anachronism to turn to his writings for an insightful alternative to dominant modern political paradigms. Nor, Cherry argues, can Aristotle be dismissed as an adherent of a pre-scientific metaphysics or an anthropocentric worldview. On the contrary, a careful and critical appreciation of Aristotle’s view of nature shows it to be fundamentally consonant with important strands of contemporary environmentalist thinking, which share Aristotle’s view that “nature is hospitable toward human beings, provided they do not transgress certain natural limits” (192). Cherry’s conclusion suggests that Aristotle’s thought can also help reorient contemporary political theorists from a reductive conception of politics as power to a more nuanced and illuminating view of politics as shared, reasoned discourse about the good and the just.
As my summary suggests, this is a book with broad vision. Its admirable breadth is unfortunately not always matched by a comparably impressive depth. On the contrary, its treatment of many issues is disappointingly superficial, and its arguments at times somewhat thin. Cherry’s interpretation of the Statesman is bold and controversial, rejecting a tendency among scholars from different interpretive traditions to find a more optimistic, liberal, and inclusive account of politics in the dialogue. Though he is helpfully detailed in documenting his disagreements with earlier readings, his defense of his own interpretation is surprisingly abbreviated at important points, such as his dismissal of the three-stage view of the cosmological myth (39), his rejection of the common view that Eleatic politics cares for citizens’ souls (53-4), and his resistance to the claim that the second half of the dialogue anticipates Aristotle in important respects (121-6). Most pressingly, his interpretive approach to the Statesman leads to a preference for readings that emphasize problems that more charitable scholars would seek to resolve. By contrast, when discussing Aristotle, Cherry occasionally resorts to mere paraphrase, eschewing any attempt to explore apparent problems and tensions or to tease out the implications of Aristotle’s views. Thus despite the centrality of Aristotle’s distinctions between practical, theoretical, and technical knowledge to Cherry’s argument, we are not treated to any discussion of the problems that philosophers have faced in making sense of them. Readers who come to this book puzzled about these distinctions will not find their aporias resolved therein.
Despite these shortcomings, Plato, Aristotle, and the Purpose of Politics is a valuable addition to the literature on both the Statesman and the Politics. Students of Greek political thought can be grateful to Cherry for his clear and careful statement of the major interpretive issues surrounding the relationship between these two texts and for his provocative attempts to answer challenging questions that continue to deserve further study.
I discovered only two editorial oversights: a missing period after “situation” on p. 106 and a misplaced accent on εἴδη on p. 120.
Table of Contents
1. A place for politics: the household and the city
2. The beginnings and ends of political life
3. Political knowledge and political power
4. Political inquiry in Aristotle and the Eleatic Stranger
5. Philosophy and politics in the Eleatic Stranger, Socrates, and Aristotle
6. Modern politics, the Eleatic Stranger, and Aristotle