BMCR 1999.06.17

Aristotle: Politics Books VII and VIII

, , Politics. Books VII and VIII. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. 1 online resource (229 pages).. ISBN 9780585160115 $22.00 (pb).

This excellent addition to the Clarendon Aristotle Series will be indispensable not only to specialists in ancient philosophy and political theory but also to the many classicists now writing on the politics of Greek culture and society. In outlining the optimal organization of a state and the education of its citizens, Politics 7 and 8 reprise central doctrines of Aristotelian ethics — such as the nature of human happiness and the relative value of the politically active life against the philosophical one — and fill out such fundamental and problematic ideas of Aristotle’s political thought as the dependence of citizenship on slavery. The books also constitute Aristotle’s most direct response to the cultural regime of Plato’s Republic and Laws, and as such supplement his Poetics, by discussing at length the role of art in the city and in human life. Other issues of great contemporary interest also come up, such as the limits states should put on abortion, how to deal with obscene art, and (as always) defining the ideal academic curriculum. With Kraut’s reliable translation and his commentary illuminating the larger issues raised, Politics 7-8 could now be an eminently suitable introduction to Aristotle’s thought for the classroom.

Kraut’s book fills a scholarly need by giving a philosophically up-to-date account of an argument that often digresses and doubles back on itself, sometimes uses terms without perfect consistency (see, e.g., 144, 178, 190 on diagôgê, 139-40 on phronêsis), and is textually uncertain at a good number of places. The last fifteen years or so have provided readers of the Politics with several fine monographs and collections treating its political and ethical themes but little help with going through the text step by step. Newman’s great commentary is now over a century old, and Schütrumpf has got only as far as Book I. Aubonnet’s 1989 Budé has the merit of adducing a wealth of parallel passages (especially from Plato, to whom Kraut cannot devote much space), but they come in such profusion, and sometimes with little strict relevance, that the linear development of Aristotle’s argument can remain unclear. (Aubonnet is reasonably omitted from the select English-language bibliography, but in view of the importance of commentaries in shaping the reception of this work, I think Susemihl-Hicks should have been included).

A close examination of Kraut’s translation, focused on Book 8, vindicates his hope (“Preface”) to have combined closeness to the structure of the Greek with readability. He strikes a mean between absolute literalism (as in Carnes Lord’s 1984 version, which is intelligent and provocative but gives the impression that its author would have preferred simply to transliterate) and digressive over-interpretation (a characteristic of the much-used version by Ernest Barker and, to some extent, of Jowett; the Loeb is completely outdated). For his Greek text Kraut has referred both to Ross’ 1957 OCT and the edition by Dreizehnter in 1970 (see “Note on the Text” 215-216). On the whole I found it leaned toward Dreizehnter and so was more conservative and challenging to construe. (An illustrative sample would be the stretch of editorial restraint at 1341b19-23 beginning — if indeed it is the beginning — 8.7.) Were the translation not inseparable from the commentary, one might object that the price of Kraut’s closeness to the Greek is that he will sometimes faithfully render what is ambiguous or unclear in the Greek (e.g. “tend in two directions” on p. 38 is quite as unclear about what these two directions are as the epamphoterizousin of 1337b23, but Kraut seems to point the right way on 178, as against Jowett’s translation). An admirably clear layout makes the commentary easy to consult and facilitates cross-reference.

Kraut’s primary aim in the commentary is to clarify arguments (his frequent asides that “Aristotle is not saying …” are especially helpful) and to show their implications without imposing a single answer on outstanding problems and long disputed questions. The philosophical analysis is intelligible and interesting to the non-specialist (crede experto), with frequent references to important recent (English) discussions. In addition, Kraut provides neat summary information on relevant Greek cultural institutions and abundant references to Aristotle’s other works (especially the EE and NE, with discussion of chronological problems: 75-6, 129, 180). Particularly noteworthy to this reviewer were Kraut’s treatment of catharsis, defending, against most recent interpreters of the Poetics, a modified “outlet” theory (203-212), and his defense, against Newman and others, of the end of Book 8 (212-213). Readers will, of course, demur on some points: Kraut seemed more favorable (140, 167) than I think the text warrants to speculations that Aristotle envisioned state-sponsored higher education; on certain technical matters of musicology I preferred the versions in Andrew Barker’s Greek Musical Writings I — these seem to me to militate against the suggestion that gentlemen will employ only the “practical” modes in their leisure (208: but why not the “ethical” too, at the least?), and may offer an alternative to Kraut’s overly complex interpretation of how visual arts convey character (198). But disagreement is always spiced with stimulation: I find it difficult to believe that, as the translation and commentary on 8.7 both suggest (48, 201), Aristotle envisioned his state sponsoring one kind of theatrical event for the educated and another for the banausic class; yet Kraut points out (212) that it is hard to see what the rightly educated would get out of popular entertainments.

With this volume the Clarendon Politics moves close to completion: Kraut joins Trevor Saunders’ 1995 version of Books I and II and the volume on Politics III and IV by Richard Robinson (to which Kraut contributed supplementary material in its 1995 reedition). So V-VI are still to come, and Schütrumpf progresses, but the Politics are back.