BMCR 2000.04.17

Aristotle “Politics” Books V and VI

, Aristotle "Politics" Books V and VI. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. $19.95 (pb).

The Clarendon Aristotle Series of translations and commentaries of the Politics is now complete. This detailed and learned edition fills the only remaining gap left by those of Saunders (Books I and II Robinson (III and IV) and Kraut (VII and VIII; reviewed. in BMCR 99.6.17).

The organization of the Politics belies the economy of this four-part division. Books V and VI belong thematically with book IV as a discussion of less than ideal constitutions and the causes of revolutions that threaten them. But the harshness of the division is mitigated by this commentary’s concentration on individual passages and by cross-references to passages throughout the entire Politics. Keyt’s comments on the work’s organization are cursory, for his is really a philosophical commentary. Explicit philology and historical contextualization, while present and very competently done, has been kept to a minimum. There is no discussion, say, of Aristotle’s reliance on his collection of political materials or of the relationship between his discussion here on the maintenance of political systems and Theophrastus’ work on politics Πρὸς τοὺς καιρούς though Keyt is certainly familiar with the evidence for such texts. For discussions of these matters we must turn to the commentaries of Schütrumpf (now up to book VI), Newman and Susemihl/Hicks, the last of which is missing from Keyt’s bibliography.

The translation is very readable, and the attempt to translate key terms consistently is a very good one. There is a Greek-English glossary, which is curious in an English translation (I would have expected an English-Greek glossary), but its brevity limits any confusion. Some readers would carp at any single translation of some of the terms: my demurrals were against “supreme” for κύριος, which results in “most supreme” (1321a32) (Saunders uses “sovereign”; I’d prefer “authoritative”) and “constitution” for πολιτεία (Kraut uses “political system”).

Keyt sees the Politics as a whole as a handbook for statesmen and lawgivers, which can lead to some over translation, as at 1319b37 (“lawgivers must draw on our earlier studies”), where there is simply an impersonal construction in the Greek. Moreover, it hardly seems plausible that Aristotle actually envisioned such people as his readers. His approach is far more analytical and theoretical than practical. But it matters little here. Keyt directs his commentary much more toward the sort of readers/listeners that Aristotle really seems to have had in mind, his students and colleagues at the Peripatos, who studied and discussed politics as a set of problems not unlike many others, such as in poetics, rhetoric, ethics, or even metaphysics, which they studied.

Keyt’s interest in engaging such readers in a modern context will lead some classicists to complain that his comments stray quite widely from interpretation of Aristotle’s text. He comments on the Prussian constitution, the outbreak of World War I, Stalin, Hitler, Göring, the White Rose resistance movement against Nazism, and the Cold War, among other things. But many of us will be greatly thankful to him for this sort of material when we lecture on the Politics to undergraduates. Indeed, classicists may have wished for more parallels to be drawn with figures like John Rawls, with whom many are doubtless not as familiar as they might be.

The gulf between Keyt’s philosophical approach and a philological one is perhaps widest in his reading of 5.9 1309a33-b14, where Aristotle deals with the problem of various individuals, offering a range of personal qualities for the offices that have authority, like the generalship. Aristotle defines three qualities: friendliness to the established political system, great ability for the tasks of the office, and virtue (in particular justice), and Keyt rightly points out the difference between virtue and justice in general and the virtue and justice of a citizen. Aristotle then details an aporia with regard to which of the three criteria is most important when no individual possesses all three. Keyt starts by correcting his own translation — the aporia is a problem, not a puzzle and goes on to detail why Aristotle’s solution to the problem, which entails seeking out the rarer of the qualities with regard to each office, is no solution to the problem he has stated. Keyt very helpfully explains that Aristotle’s “solution” amounts more to a principle of searching rather than of selection and that, despite the exclusivity of qualities stated in his aporia, Aristotle assumes their overlap in his solution. What Keyt does not explore, or even mention, which might have interested a philologist, is the occurrence of the same triad of personal qualities, friendship, ability, virtue, in Thuc. 2.60, [Xen.] Ath. Pol. 1.7, Arist. Rhet. 2.1, and Theophrastus, FHS appendix 7, which suggests that it may even have played a role in the Athenian dokimasia for higher offices from sometime in the fifth century.

No commentary will satisfy everyone. The particular strength of this one is its ability to apply the rigors of modern philosophical thinking very undogmatically to Aristotle’s reasoning. Many of us, I fear, are too hesitant to challenge Aristotle in this way.