Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.04.30 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.04.30

Eugene Garver, Aristotle’s Politics: Living Well and Living Together.   Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2012.  Pp. x, 300.  ISBN 9780226284026.  $40.00.  

Reviewed by David Roochnik, Boston University (


Eugene Garver offers what might be termed a “Talmudic reading” of Aristotle’s Politics. The Rabbis were guided by the principle that the Torah had divine authority and thus had to be treated as a perfectly composed text. As a consequence, their task was to expound upon and explain, to take seriously, its every word and to articulate the teaching or meaning that would render coherent passages that initially seem at odds with one another. While Garver of course does not think that the Philosopher was divine or his work without blemish, he does argue that the Politics, which in the eyes of many contemporary scholars is taken to be a disjointed hodgepodge, is a unified whole. The result is a challenging and extremely useful commentary, one that attempts methodically to account for the entirety of the work. (The only exception here is Book VI, which, quite un-talmudically, Garver describes as “for me the least philosophically exciting thing Aristotle ever wrote” (p. 2) and then proceeds to ignore.) This is a book that should be read carefully by every serious student of the Politics.

Garver’s overarching structural thesis is this: the first three books of the Politics constitute three prefaces to Aristotelian political science. They are “resepectively, a natural, an artificial, and a political treatment of politics” (p. 63). Only when they are completed are “we ready for the scientific treatment of politics in Books IV-VIII” (p. 105).

Book I shows that the city cannot be fully understood as natural. For it is also something that is made by human beings. As Garver puts it, “Book I shows the limits of nature in political life. Nature will only get us so far” (p. 42). In a parallel fashion, Book II shows the limits of construing the city simply as an artefact that is produced through legislation. More specifically, through its critique of the political schemes devised by Plato and Phaleas, it shows the limits of legislation that regulates the possession of property by either eliminating or levelling it. By Garver’s lights, then, Book II demonstrates that political science is neither a technical enterprise nor a form of social engineering. Book III advances the analysis by arguing that politics is an autonomous sphere that is neither fully natural nor artificial. As a result, it cannot be the subject of a theoretical or a productive science. Instead, Book III “opens up the possibility of political philosophy” (p. 105).

Garver summons three arguments to support his first claim (and the only one to be treated critically in this review); namely, that nature will only get us so far in our analysis of the city. First, while Book I clearly states that human beings are political animals, this claim is nonetheless problematic (and Aristotle believes it to be such). If human beings are by nature political, why do so few people actually live in cities? Why are so few people actually citizens? This question looms over and complicates the familiar claim that human beings are political animals. Second, “if nature were more potent, we would be able to tell natural masters and slaves apart by the respective excellence of souls and bodies” (p. 29), which Aristotle himself acknowledges we cannot do. Third, “while the polis is natural, no particular polis is…The coming to be of the polis”—that is, the genetic development sketched in Book I—“and of a particlar polis have completely different accounts, which makes practical science different from theoretical science” (p. 40). Each of these reasons suggest that a city can only partially be construed as natural.

To reformulate this point: for Garver a city is not a natural substance. For the latter “the final, efficient and formal causes are identical, while in politics they are distinct” (p. 59). Garver elaborates: “The formal and final causes of natural things are identical. The purpose of a pig is to live a porcine life. The form of a pig is its organization of flesh and bones that enables it to act like a pig. The purpose of the politics and of the polis is the good life, but that end doesn’t dictate how particular poleis should be structured” (p. 68). As a result, there is no single normative or political value that makes politics into a precise science. Given this underdetermination, Aristotelian political science, especially in Books IV and V, is required to consider a variety of imperfect and sometimes mixed constitutions.

Garver’s first argument—that Aristotle’s claim that human beings are by nature political is compromised because most people do not live in cities (and that Aristotle understands it to be compromised)—can be challenged. To illustrate why, recall the opening line of the Metaphysics: “all human beings by nature desire to know.” Knowing is the telos, the final cause, of the human animal, but surely very few people dedicate their lives to the pursuit of knowledge. Saying this, however, does not falsify Aristotle’s claim. For Aristotelian teleology is compatible with failure. Because the human animal is so complex, most individuals fall short of reaching their telos, whether that telos is political or epistemic. Unlike pigs, falling short is what the human animal mostly does. Therefore, the fact that large numbers of people do not live in cities need not imply that the city is neither natural nor the natural telos of all human communities.

Garver’s second argument is that because natural masters and slaves cannot be readily distinguished (by either their bodies or souls) the naturalness of this relationship, and therefore of the city itself, is compromised. But one possibility that Garver does not address is that Aristotle might be trying to argue the natural slave (almost) out of existence in Book I. Consider the following argument, apparently on behalf of the existence of the natural slave, that Aristotle offers: “accordingly, those who are as different [from other men] as the soul from the body or man from beasts…are slaves by nature. For them it is better to be ruled in accordance with this sort of rule…For he is a slave by nature who is capable of belonging to another…and who participates in reason only to the extent of perceiving it, but does not have it (1254b3-23).”

To qualify as a legitimate or natural slave, someone must be as distant from a human being as a beast is. This suggests that a natural slave is not human. How, then, can the natural slave exist? While it is undeniable that Aristotle’s account of slavery, not only in Book I but also in Book VII, is complex and controversial, the possibility that by his own reasoning Aristotle virtually eliminates the category of the natural slave must be considered. If so, and if in Book I he also condemns conventional or institutional slavery as unjust, then he may be offering a quiet but powerful critique of his own city in the Politics.

Garver’s third argument is that while the polis is natural, no particular polis is, and that as a result doubts should be raised about just how natural the city is. This indeterminacy emerges from the fact that, unlike animals, in which final, efficient and formal causes are identical, in cities they are distinct. This may be so, but it may also be testimony not to the nonnaturalness of the city but to the altogether peculiar nature of the human animal.

To reformulate this point: Garver maintains that for Aristotle “poleis are neither natural nor artificial” (p. 143). But he also acknowledges, as he must, that the polis is natural. This is strange. Perhaps, however, this strangeness is not reason to diminish the role of the natural in politics, but instead emerges from the core of human nature itself. Part of our nature is to generate what is nonnatural. This is arguably a decisive feature of, and even the problem with, being human. We are natural substances, albeit of a highly complex and even paradoxical sort. Our final cause may not be our formal cause. This is why there are many different kinds of cities. It is also why the city in a sense has two kinds of telos. To quote a line on which Garver places a great deal of emphasis, “a city comes into being for the sake of life, but exists for the sake of living well” (1252b29-30)). In short, indeterminacy infects political teleology. Once again, this is not evidence of the nonnaturalness of the city, but of the complexities of human nature. In other words, pace Garver, on this view the city may be natural through and through. But it is humanly natural; that is, it is also something made.

Now Garver likely would accept some of the above. As he puts it, “the polis is natural without qualifying as an Aristotelian substance” (p. 59) and he also uses the phrase “the nonnatural nature of the city” (p. 78). But what exactly the latter means needs elaboration.

In sum, Eugene Garver has written an excellent book. He reads the Politics as a unified whole, and tries to think it through from beginning to middle to end. And he consistently does so with intelligence and sensitivity to detail.

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