Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.09.03 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.09.03

Andrew Lintott, Aristotle’s Political Philosophy in its Historical Context: A New Translation and Commentary on 'Politics' Books 5 and 6.   New York:  Routledge, 2017.  Pp. x, 220.  ISBN 9781138570719.  $140.00.  

Reviewed by Velvet Yates, University of Florida (


This translation with commentary of Politics Books 5 and 6, aimed primarily at historians and political scientists, provides a welcome contextualization of the work. The approach is particularly useful given the practical nature of these books, which not only define existing political systems and the mechanisms of change within them (Book 5), focusing on democracy and oligarchy in Book 6, but also on how to sustain or subvert the various systems considered. Lintott’s commentary offers extensive explanations of Aristotle’s plentiful historical and political references, as well as contextualization within the Politics as a whole and Aristotle’s larger philosophical system.

The translation and commentary are prefaced by several short essays that immediately situate the Politics in the context of Aristotle’s time, place, and philosophy (Chapters 2, 7, and 8), as well as spotlighting Aristotle’s preferred constitution or politeia (Chapter 4) and its deviant form, democracy (Chapter 5). (My disagreement with Lintott’s take on these two forms is detailed in the penultimate paragraph.) These essays provide important signals to the non-specialist reader (which also serve as important reminders for specialists). For example, Lintott describes “the fundamentally theoretical nature of the Politics” (p. 9), such that Aristotle can even ignore facts that do not support his general theories (e.g. he ignores Thucydides in order to treat the Mytilene secession as “a revolution deriving from a private quarrel [1304a3–10],” p. 9). Lintott also declares (p. 3) that “The Politics is portrayed by Aristotle himself as a pendant to the Nicomachean Ethics, his most complete work on moral philosophy,” underscoring the lack of distance between Aristotle’s ethical and political philosophy.

The essays are followed by the Book 5 translation and commentary, and then the Book 6 translation and commentary. The volume is rounded off by a bibliography, index of ancient texts, index of proper names, and index of subjects. The lucid translation is based on Ross’s 1957 Oxford Classical Text. Each section starts with a brief summary, and periodically includes Bekker numbers. Bekker numbers are also used in the commentary so that a reader can fairly easily pinpoint a commentary reference in the translation or look up the Greek passage in a standard edition.

Lintott’s volume caters to the Greekless reader, with most of the select Greek terms transliterated into English, but includes illuminating notes on some important vocabulary terms. For example, Lintott observes that the “good” (spoudaios) citizen is not necessarily the same as the “good” (agathos) man (e.g. pp. 5, 134, based on 3, 1276b16-1277b32); only in the ”best” political system is there no distinction (p. 6). Even the Aristotle specialist may learn something, as with Lintott’s note (p. 181) about the oligarchic history of the seemingly innocuous phrase “those capable” (tous dunamenous in 6, 1318b29-32).

The complex but essential term politeia receives sterling attention from Lintott. Broadly, it is used to mean any political constitution (p. 92); more specifically, it is the “correct” political constitution of which democracy is the deviation. This latter sense of politeia is the subject of one of the brief introductory essays (Chapter 6), claiming that it is Aristotle’s preference. Lintott observes that it sometimes denotes a “mixed constitution,” sometimes a “hoplite democracy,” explaining that “[m]ixed constitutions and virtuous hoplite democracies had, in [Aristotle’s] view, coincided in fact” (46). In a politeia, only the upper property classes are full citizens (and soldiers); it is often identified with the “ancestral” democracy of Solon (e.g. p. 115), and nearly synonymous with aristocracy (p. 47).

Another term that deserves such systematic consideration is mesoi, variously rendered as “the moderate people” (in the index of subjects and pp. 11 and 88), “the moderates” (p. 20), “moderate people in a middle class” (p. 22), “men of moderate wealth and attitudes” (p. 48), “the moderate element” (p. 52), “the people of middling character” (p. 70), and the “moderate citizens” (p. 91). They are viewed as an important stabilizing influence in any political state (pp. 11, 52, 88), and are said to be favored in a hoplite democracy (i.e. a politeia: p. 91), but who are they exactly? The imprecision (which I suspect is Aristotle’s, not Lintott’s), skirts the question of the respect in which the mesoi are “middling”: in property qualification? military training? ethical character? political participation? Or does Aristotle conflate all of these?

Lintott’s volume provides some welcome historical and political context in which to situate recent collections of specialist essays.1 His characterization of the Politics as an extension of the Nicomachean Ethics is also a useful contextualization of this work and its aims within the Aristotelian corpus. Lintott converses much with Keyt’s 1999 commentary on Books 5 and 6, sometimes simply referring the reader to Keyt’s discussion of a passage or noting agreement (e.g. pp. 99, 127), sometimes disagreeing (e.g. pp. 125, 136). He also brings in many Roman examples to illustrate Aristotle’s claims (unsurprising in light of Lintott’s previous publications). Ancient historians and political scientists may find these helpful, but those focused on the pre-Roman Greek world will consider them irrelevant.

While Lintott’s contextualization is commendable, it should be extended further in one area: to consider the “practical” political constitutions of Books 5 and 6 in the light of the “ideal” state of Books 7 and 8. Aristotle declares that all existing political forms are deviations from this ideal (4, 1293b25-30), even the nominally “correct” forms of kingship, aristocracy, and polity (politeia), of which tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy are the corresponding deviations (3, 1279a22-1279b10; see p. 105). Furthermore, the citizen body of Aristotle’s ideal state is very exclusive: no farmers, no craftsmen, no laborers, no merchants; in short, no one who has to work for a living (7, 1328b-1329a). As previous scholars have pointed out, Aristotle probably envisioned a city-state in the recently conquered Near East, where a Hellenized elite would rule over an enserfed barbarian population. 2

The realization that Aristotle’s ideal city-state, from which all existing political forms deviate, is severely oligarchical (he would say aristocratic) in nature, and very likely not even envisaged to be in Greece, should destroy any optimism about Aristotle’s regard for democracy. It renders democracy a deviation of a deviation. Optimism is sustained only by casting sidelong glances at the oligarchic elephant in the living room of Books 7 and 8, when it needs to be confronted head-on. Lintott occasionally acknowledges such unpleasantries as the fact that “even the ‘correct’ systems known to Aristotle from history are in his view far from ideal” (p. 123), and that only in the best system will there be “no distinction between the good man and the good citizen” (p. 6). But otherwise he maintains that there are three correct political systems and three corresponding deviations, with no hint of the larger picture. He furthermore refuses to confront head-on the fact that Aristotle’s “best” democracy in Book 6 is so precisely because of the lack of democratic participation; this democracy is ostensibly dominated by farmers, but “they cannot take time off from work and thus do not frequently attend the assembly” (p. 160 on 6.4).3 On the other hand, the “worst” democracy is the most participatory (p. 115): “the final (most extreme) in which all citizens have the right to participate without qualification, including the poor, because there is pay for attending the assembly (4, 1292b41-1293a10).” Pay allows undesirables such as craftsmen, merchants, and laborers to participate (6, 1319a26-30); Lintott, however argues that “this is not snobbery towards those who have to work for their living but results from [Aristotle’s] belief that they assisted the demagogues to corrupt Athenian politics and society” (p. 183). With these blinders in place, Lintott sustains the attitude that Aristotle’s preferred constitution is a politeia, and that Aristotle approves of democracy, at least the “best” one. As Aristotle himself makes clear, however, this is a democracy in name only.

Apart from this erroneous but widely-shared determination to fashion Aristotle into a champion of democracy, I find this volume to be very satisfactory. It will be helpful not only to Lintott’s target audience, but also to philosophers, who will appreciate the assistance in unpacking Aristotle’s many historical and political examples. The translation and commentary, though not providing basic grammatical help, will also serve as a helpful resource for students and others attempting to read these books in Greek.


1.   Notably, M. Deslauriers and P. Destrée (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle’s Politics (Cambridge, 2013); T. Lockwood and T. Samaras (eds.), Aristotle’s Politics: A Critical Guide (Cambridge, 2015).
2.   J. Ober, “Aristotle’s Political Sociology: Class, Status, and Order in the Politics” in Carnes Lord and David O’Connor (eds.), Essays on the Foundation of Aristotelian Political Science (Berkeley, 1991), 134: “Aristotle seems to be anticipating the developed Hellenistic cities of Asia and Africa in his attempt to create a new form of polis that would preserve the politês/politeia linkage for a narrow and socially homogeneous citizen elite of Greeks who would be supported by the labor of naturally slavish barbarians.” Cf. Peter Brunt, Studies in Greek History and Thought (Oxford, 1993), 349 n. 16: “[Aristotle] has in mind the possibility that the model city might be established in a non-Greek land in which the existing barbarian population would be reduced to serfdom, like the Mariandyni of Heraclea Pontica.”
3.   In fact, this “best” democracy lines up with Lintott’s own description of a hoplite democracy, which differs little from an aristocracy (see above), but Lintott glosses over the deeply anti-populist character of Aristotle’s hoplite democracy as well.

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