Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.02.19 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.02.19

Thomas L. Pangle, Aristotle's Teaching in the 'Politics'.   Chicago; London:  University of Chicago Press, 2013.  Pp. 343.  ISBN 9780226016030.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by Peter C. Meilaender, Houghton College (


Thomas Pangle, author of important works on such topics as Montesquieu and the American Founding, is one of our finest contemporary political philosophers. His contributions to the study of classical political philosophy, from his widely used translation of Plato's Laws to recent co-translated editions of Aristophanes and Sophocles, are well known. The appearance of his new book on Aristotle's Politics is thus an occasion of note.

Pangle offers a detailed commentary on the Politics, similar in style to the interpretive essay that accompanied his translation of the Laws. His interpretive method is crucial to understanding Pangle's book. Readers of the Politics know that it frequently presents the reader with frustrating challenges: promised discussions that never materialize, questions raised and then dropped, new treatments of issues that Aristotle appeared to have dealt with earlier. For Pangle, these difficulties are intended by Aristotle as both tests and clues for the careful reader. Aristotle is not only a political but also a politic philosopher, who proceeds cautiously and without explicitly stating his full views. His audience consists of young gentlemen presumably inclined toward aristocracy, who may need gentle prodding if they are to consider philosophically other forms of government or ways of life. And his teaching, in the spirit of Socratic philosophy, is potentially subversive: by pointing toward a good that lies beyond political activity, it undermines the claims to justice that every city makes. Thus Aristotle proceeds with moderation, exercising a rhetorical art that is political as well as philosophical, deliberately laying puzzles in the reader's path in order to lead him (or her), if he is sufficiently thoughtful, to that degree of philosophical understanding of which he is capable, but without challenging the city directly.

This approach–inspired by the teaching of Leo Strauss, and producing, incidentally, an Aristotle who is very reminiscent of the Straussian Socrates–generates an extremely close, careful encounter with Aristotle's text, one that is attentive to its many twists, turns, and redoublings. (And also one thoroughly conversant not only with recent secondary literature on Aristotle but also with older commentaries, not to mention the Philosopher's earlier Islamic and medieval Christian interpreters.) At times–I shall offer an illustration below–this leads to a certain missing of the forest for the trees, manufacturing interpretive difficulties that may not truly exist. But it is for the most part instructive, and for students especially it provides an exemplary model of what it truly means to take a text seriously.

Pangle's specific interpretive claims are frequently left vague, or shrouded in a sequence of rhetorical questions intended to elicit from the reader not so much agreement as critical reflection. This, one assumes, is deliberate, mirroring the approach he attributes to Aristotle. Nevertheless, several general themes emerge as Pangle hunts after Aristotle's elusive meaning. Most important of these is the question “What is the best life for a human being?” – to which philosophy and political rule are the competing alternative answers. Pangle tracks this question, raised at the close of the Nicomachean Ethics and reappearing at the end of the Politics, through the entire treatise, arguing that it lies close beneath the surface of important discussions such as the early analysis of slavery, the debate over whether it is better to be ruled by law or by the one best man, and the sketch of the ideal republic at the book's close.

Closely related to this is another pair of questions. First, what is the purpose of ruling? Is rule exercised primarily as the noblest means by which rulers perfect and manifest their own virtue, and thus something desirable? Or is it rather exercised in order to serve those who are ruled, and thus a burdensome form of service that one might insist on sharing with others in rotation? Secondly, what is the goal or purpose of virtue itself? Is it primarily for the sake of one's own flourishing, or is it rather a form of noble self-sacrifice for others? This constellation of questions points toward what Pangle suggests is the book's most important lesson, about the limits of what politics can accomplish: it shows "with some precision how and why the city at its republican best, how civic virtue, is essentially or by its nature limited in its openness to the virtues of the life of the mind, the life of philosophy" (p. 267).

Pangle's method is at its most compelling in his discussion of Aristotle's analysis of regimes in Books III and IV of the Politics. (Pangle treats Book III on its own, and Book IV together with V and VI; I prefer to think of IV as belonging to and completing III's analysis of regimes.) In treating Book III's opening chapter, Pangle aptly characterizes the nature of these two books: "[W]e become aware," he says, "that Aristotle is articulating a debate, in which he adopts successively the voices and outlooks, first of an aristocrat, and then – more emphatically – of a democrat. Aristotle is immersing us, as it were, in the disputation between 'aristocrats' and 'democrats' over the meaning of 'citizenship'" (p. 102; internal citation omitted). This debate about citizenship turns out to be at its heart a debate about justice, about who deserves to rule the city. The different groups that make up the city – the many free-born, the wealthy, the virtuous, the one best man – all put forward their own characteristic claims about why they deserve to rule, claims that are, as Aristotle insists, partially correct. These competing claims are present in every city, clamoring to be heard. In any particular city, the outcome of this contest over the meaning of justice, determining which group's claim to rule wins out, is the regime; it is the particular conception of justice that, through its pervasive legislative influence, shapes that city's character and way of life. The choice of regime, Pangle says, "is a choice among the specific human types that are to lead, to be followed, to be set up as admired, to set the moral tone, to exemplify the vision of felicity and nobility that is the goal of collective aspiration" (p. 109).

Pangle's approach to the text is thus particularly useful in helping him follow Aristotle's vivid, even cacophanous, presentation of this debate over competing visions of public life. (One more example: especially interesting is his articulation of the three different and distinctive varieties of polity described by Aristotle in IV.9 and 11-13; see Pangle, pp. 186-94.) As an occasion where it is, in my view, less successful, let me offer his treatment of Aristotle's account of the origins of the polis in I.2. Here, of course, Aristotle famously describes the polis as arising from the initial association of male and female in the household, through the collection of households in a village, to the self-sufficient polity, which comes into being for the sake of mere life but continues in existence for the sake of the good life. Aristotle describes these progressive stages of human association as arising naturally, and the account culminates in his claim that humans are by nature political animals.

Pangle, intent on ferreting out any potential contradiction or puzzle in the text that might point toward a deeper, hidden meaning, reads this famous chapter as markedly ironic (see pp. 29-39). He suggests that Aristotle exaggerates the naturalness of human association by portraying a smooth process of growth from the family and household, through the village, to the city. By implying that the former are merely imperfect stages of association that are taken up in and fulfilled in the polis, Aristotle overstates the harmony that exists among individual humans and among households. This false impression of a natural, spontaneous harmony is reinforced by his comparison of the individual human without a city to a savage beast, or to a foot without a living body, images that again exaggerate the dependence of individual human beings upon their political community. But at the chapter's close Aristotle lifts the veil slightly, revealing his awareness that he has given only a partial glimpse of the truth, when he mentions that whoever first established a polis was the giver of humanity's greatest blessings. In recognizing the need for a founder and his legislation, Aristotle indicates that the polis is not simply natural, but is also deeply conventional.

Why would Aristotle proceed like this? For Pangle, this approach allows Aristotle to hint to his more philosophic readers that, rather than there being a necessary harmony between the good of any individual human being and that of the city, a gap may exist between them. Because such a realization is potentially subversive, undermining the city's claims to authority, Aristotle indicates it only gingerly. Thus he avoids arousing the suspicions of his listeners. But those who have ears to hear, and who note that the person without a city may be not merely a beast but perhaps a god instead, may begin to ask the book's underlying question: What is the relationship between the needs of the city and the best life for me? Should I aspire to something higher than the political life? Aristotle thus begins to prepare his audience for his own alternative: the life of philosophy.

Pangle's approach to this chapter obviously fits with his interpretive method and the larger themes to which he draws our attention. But it does so by presenting the text as more confusing than it actually is. The interpretive difficulties that worry him arise only if one insists on reading Aristotle's claims about "nature" in a particular way – as if the city's "natural" status means that it arose through a harmonious, organic process without the need for human intervention, or without conflicts among different individuals and households that require mediation. But no one who came to the Politics by way of the Nicomachean Ethics – as Pangle expects readers or listeners to have done (see pp. 13-24) – would think that Aristotle understands human nature in such a fashion. For the Ethics, with its rich account of human excellence as habituation in the virtues, provides our most profound account of human nature not as something in opposition to convention, but rather as that second and higher nature that is attained precisely by means of human convention. The claims of Politics I.2 about politics as a "natural" human activity appear exaggerated only if read through a non-Aristotelian understanding of "nature".

Perhaps this disagreement about how to read I.2 is of little significance, since on the crucial point – that the "natural" polis also requires human artifice – Pangle and I agree. On the other hand, Pangle's reading is not entirely without costs. For his claim that Aristotle's description of our political nature is ironic leads him to neglect an important link to the regime analysis of Book III. Aristotle's chief argument in evidence of our political nature is that we possess speech and reason, which show that we are creatures intended to debate the advantageous and harmful, the just and the unjust. This debate, of course, is precisely what Pangle describes so effectively in his commentary on Books III and IV. In other words, it is in light of, and not in spite of, the opening account of politics as natural that we understand more fully why Aristotle's focus in those later books is on the arguments about justice that determine each city's regime and that are therefore central to understanding civic life.

Different readers are likely to have their own disagreements with other aspects of Pangle's effort to work through the "perplexities" (aporiai) of Aristotle's account. (I myself would raise similar questions about his concluding discussion of Aristotle's treatment, in Book VIII, of music as part of the ideal republic's educational system.) But every reader will learn much from this painstaking and learned encounter with a text that continues to repay close attention. I predict, indeed, that readers will find themselves, as I did, provoked by Pangle's exegesis to return to the Politics itself – a result, no doubt, that would please him most of all.

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