BMCR 2006.02.22

A Democracy of Distinction: Aristotle and the Work of Politics

Jill Frank, A democracy of distinction : Aristotle and the work of politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. xiii, 199 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0226260186 $19.00 (pb).

The more we understand about human genetics, the less our behavior seems to be a mere acting out of our genetic scripts. It turns out that our environment not only affects whether a given gene gets turned on but also influences the genetic material itself. Accordingly, the nature-nurture question which has for so long been at the center of behavior debates is finally being abandoned. Certainly there is a giveness to human nature, but that giveness is now being viewed through a less deterministic lens, as a giveness that is highly vulnerable to experience and environment. Simply put, the relationship between human beings and their environment is dynamic and reflexive. But this insight did not require twentieth century genetics: according to Jill Frank, it is at the heart of Aristotle’s political philosophy and what it has to offer current understandings and practices of politics.

In her important new book, A Democracy of Distinction: Aristotle and the Work of Politics, F. argues that Aristotle’s political thought offers a way past the binary opposition between individuals and institutions stalemating contemporary political debates. Specifically, she contends that his conception of activity ( energeia) as the crucial conduit between individual character and political constitutions allows us to reject the modern debate between liberalism and communitarianism. Instead of exclusively focusing on one term of a binary opposition, the individual or the community, character or constitution, Aristotelian activity is an “in-between.” Although activities emerge from an individual’s character — habits and settled dispositions — activities also work to produce character. Accordingly, individual identity is not static but rather is being continually determined by the individual’s activities. Similarly, individual activity is both shaped by and shaping of political institutions and constitutions. Thus, although Aristotle’s political thought is not a corrective for modern politics, F. argues that by shoring up the dynamic and reflexive relationship between individual character and political structures it offers the tools for us to rethink and organize our own political practices and ideals (16). To show how this is the case, F. analyzes key elements of Aristotle’s political thought, elaborating the interconstitutive relationship between ethics and politics and between individual characters and political constitutions.

In the first chapter “The Nature of Identity,” F. offers an interesting, innovative, and controversial interpretation of Politics I. One of F.’s core claims is that Aristotle’s political thought is not incompatible with democracy because the virtue he makes necessary for citizenship is available to every human being, irrespective of class, ethnicity, or gender. Aristotle’s discussion of the virtues may in fact point in this universalizing direction. Yet, in Politics I Aristotle notoriously excludes women and so-called natural slaves from citizenship and its necessary virtue because of their supposed deliberative deficiencies: they lack the ability to engage in the kind of prohairetic activity that conduces to virtue. To make the case that these deficiencies are not permanent or essential for Aristotle, F. argues that we need to understand nature ( phusis) as “how a thing grows”, rather than (from natura) “how a thing is born” (20). According to F.’s argument, women and slaves are unfit for citizenship because of their habituation — how their customary practices have shaped them — not because of their inborn natures.

At this juncture, women drop out of the discussion as F. elaborates the striking parallels between Aristotle’s definition of the citizen and the slave. Just as a citizen is defined through the activity of being a citizen, so too, she argues Aristotle defines the slave in terms of activity. In emphasizing activity as the lynchpin of citizen identity, Aristotle rejects the notion that citizens can be “made” (as after a revolution) and definitions of citizen identity based on accidental attributes like “birth, ancestry, parentage, or location” (23). So too in his discussion of slave identity, Aristotle pushes to the side considerations of parentage, ancestry, force, and accident, focusing instead on activity. For Aristotle, acting like a slave is ultimately what makes one a slave; accordingly he warns citizens not to engage in crafts and not to make a habit of performing the activities of slaves (26-27). For this reason, F. concludes that “Aristotle’s account of slavery in Politics I … serves not to describe and set apart a domain that is pre- or nonpolitical but to warn his audience of free citizens of their vulnerability, not only to accident and force but, more important, to the power of acting in shaping their political destinies” (27).

If activity makes the slave for Aristotle, F. must explain why Aristotle sees some people as naturally suited to this activity. To answer this question, however, F. points to places in the text where Aristotle acknowledges how difficult it is to be sure that someone is a natural slave. She argues that Aristotle rejects the evidence of the physical body because he claims that although nature wants to distinguish slaves from non-slaves on the basis of appearance, it often fails to do so by giving slaves the bodies of freemen (28). Most scholars contend that Aristotle distinguishes natural slaves from freemen on the basis of the soul; following Aristotle, ( Pol. 1254b22-23, 1260a12-13), they point out that it is the soul’s lack of a deliberative element that makes slavery natural for the natural slave. According to F., however, Aristotle does not think that the state of a person’s soul can be used reliably to determine whether or not they are fit for servitude because the beauty of the soul is unseen. Furthermore, she contends that Aristotle equivocates on this point because his remarks elsewhere suggest that slaves can share in the capacity to reason (29). Rather than seeing Aristotle’s doctrine of natural slavery as incoherent, as some scholars do, F. argues that Aristotle’s imprecision matches his subject matter. She sees Aristotle’s discussion of natural slavery as a warning meant to signpost the difficulties in identifying the natural slave.

Aristotle notoriously identifies certain barbarians or non-Greeks as natural slaves. According to F., Aristotle bases this claim not on a culturally conditioned xenophobia but rather on his observation that some foreigners act as a community of slaves (30). In other words, it is their actions, specifically their failure to exercise their deliberative capacity (rather than their ethnicity) that makes them natural slaves. This, of course, raises the question as to why certain non-Greeks forfeit their ability to engage in prohairetic activity? The answer, according to F., comes toward the end of the Politics when Aristotle discusses the effects of climate on character. Like the Hippocratic author of Airs, Waters, Places, Aristotle attributes certain key characterological differences between Europeans and Asians to climate. Whereas the cold European climate conduces to freedom, the hot Asian climate produces lethargy, encouraging people to act indolently and without spirit. Accordingly, F. concludes that Aristotle calls Asians natural slaves because of their “apparent tendency to forget how to act on their own initiative,” a condition produced by external conditions rather than an immutable defect of soul. According to F., “[t]hose who are morally and deliberately deficient owing to their consistent failure to use what they have are, for that reason, worthy of slavery and are, therefore, in Aristotle’s terms, natural slaves” (37).

I have devoted extra space to unpacking F.’s claim that Aristotle’s doctrine of natural slavery rests on contingent characterological features of slave identity because her multilayered and complex analysis deserves careful treatment and because I am sympathetic to revisionist interpretations. Although I find much in her analysis that is compelling, I remain less than fully convinced. If Asians are natural slaves merely because of climate and custom, why does Aristotle recommend “hunting” Asians, importing them to Greece where they can be enslaved as they supposedly deserve? Given F.’s reasoning, the effects of the new, less hot climate, coupled with new political structures and institutions, ought to undo the effects of the Asian climate and regime. That is, the climatological conditions that produce natural slaves do not exist in Greek cities and many of the coercive institutions that exist in Asian regimes are also absent (though not the institution of slavery itself). What then justifies the servitude of foreigners in Greek cities? The answer might be that Aristotle thinks the effects of the Asian climate on their souls are permanent. If this is indeed Aristotle’s view, however, he does not explicitly state it and F. does not consider the possibility. According to F., the answer seems to be that the slave must learn new habits, specifically to engage in prohairetic activity, in order to acquire the virtue of the free person. The problem, however, is that Aristotle does not actually say this when discussing natural slavery in Politics I. He does not recommend hunting Asians to enslave them in order to prepare them for freedom. Thus, although F. may be correct to insist on the mutability of Aristotle’s concept of human nature, the institution of slavery nevertheless appears to be a permanent fixture in his political philosophy.

In the second chapter, F. analyzes the place of property in Aristotle’s political thought. Although Aristotle’s conception of property seems familiar to modern readers, F. emphasizes that it should not be assimilated to our own: “With no word in Greek for property as such, Aristotle describes his preferred mode of ownership as holding things as one’s own for common use” (54). With this dual orientation, Aristotle’s conception appears to represent a middle way between public and private, between common property and purely private ownership (55). Aristotelian property, according to F., should also be understood as both a noun and verb, and as an external good and a characterological good (71). She explains that Aristotle sees property not only in terms of things but also as the activity of their use. When property is used properly, it “disappear[s] into use: by being consumed to the end of living in the home or by being handed over or used to benefit others in the polity” (59). Aristotle describes using things in this way as “preserving” them. According to F., this type of use preserves the thing by allowing it to be what it is (61). Property, however, can be used inappropriately, as when, for instance, it is abstracted from its use and theorized in terms of exchange value. When property is theorized, when exchange value is the focus, it ceases to be an activity for common use and instead becomes solely private, rather than an activity crucially connecting individuals to their collectivity (69). Hence, theorizing property erodes its political function, preventing individuals from the holding for common use that generates greater equality and concord in the polity (76).

The third chapter, “The Virtue of Justice” examines Aristotle’s treatment of distributive, corrective, and reciprocal justice. F. gives special attention to Aristotle’s account of reciprocal justice, aiming to redress its neglect by most contemporary legal and political philosophers. Although all three forms of justice involve the proper treatment of people and two standpoints, the doer and sufferer of justice, only reciprocal justice is practiced exclusively between members of a polity; in other words, there are no mediating polis officials or institutions involved. Reciprocal justice is also unique in that it is the only case in which “the practitioner and the subject are both doers and sufferers at the same time” (83). For this reason, there is a kind of equality between practitioners of reciprocal justice that is absent from distributive and corrective justice. According to F., the practice of reciprocity teaches an equality that respects difference because it equates but does not assimilate its objects. She suggests that it operates as the bond of the polis for Aristotle because it teaches its practitioners to use phronesis, practical wisdom, to make equivalences between things. In arguing for a link between phronetic judgment and practices of reciprocity, F. contests views that see phronetic judgment as a mode of deductive reasoning. Rather, phronetic judgment, like practices of reciprocity, involves apprehending particulars in their differences and comparing them under a common term, as in analogical thinking (95). For this reason, phronetic judgment is essential to practices of justice and to the other virtues. Emphasizing the bidirectional relation between the virtues and phronetic judgment, F. argues that justice is akin to the other virtues rather than set apart from them in Aristotle’s thinking. According to F., justice and the other virtues “guide and inform our treatment of particulars in the world, be they things or people. And, like the virtues of character, justice must regard the good of the self. This means that to do justice, the practitioners of justice … must exercise virtue in the form of good judgment. It also means that, to do justice, distribution, and correction, like reciprocity, require virtue” (102).

In the fourth chapter, “The Rule of Law,” F. argues that for Aristotle the rule of law and the rule of men must be understood together. In so doing, she shows that Aristotle’s understanding of the rule of law differs from positivism and natural law theory, dominant paradigms in contemporary Western jurisprudence. Aristotle’s treatment of the controversial figure Theramenes (assuming that the Ath. Pol. records Aristotle’s views) is key to F.’s interpretation. Theramenes was a leading figure in the oligarchic coup of 411 and a leading figure in reinstating the democracy less than a year later. According to the Ath. Pol., at the end of the Peloponnesian War, Theramenes was one of a number of aristocrats urging that the ancestral constitution be reinstated, against others rallying for oligarchy pure and simple. The Thirty Tyrants eventually had him executed, apparently in response to his criticisms of the unlawfulness of their rule. What is important here is not whether Theramenes actually acted as reported in the Ath. Pol. and the Politics. Rather, what matters is that Aristotle views Theramenes as a model citizen because of his actions, despite the fact (or rather precisely because of the fact) that he disobeyed and undermined the laws in both democratic and oligarchic regimes. Aristotle praises Theramenes because he did not simply follow rules but rather, relying on his good judgment, supported only lawful or just policies. Because of this, F. argues that Aristotle understands the rule of law dynamically, as a practice made and remade in the everyday practices of citizenship. Accordingly, F. concludes that Aristotle’s endorsement of the rule of law should not be seen as opposed to popular sovereignty. “Insisting that both the rule of law and the rule of men take their guidance from the constitution does not contradict popular sovereignty because the authority of the constitution, as the way of life of the people, lies in citizens’ participating as makers and subjects of their own law” (137).

F. contends that one of the central questions behind Aristotle’s Politics is how Athens can become a good regime. Accordingly, to determine how Aristotle recommends remodeling Athens’ constitution, chapter five (“The Polity of Friendship”) examines the kinds of friendship and class relations that would enable the “so-called aristocracy”, the polity that F. argues best satisfies the presuppositions for Aristotle’s “city of prayer” and the political future he imagines to be possible for Athens (142). A polis obviously needs unity if it is to flourish and survive, a lesson F. argues that Aristotle learned well from the instability and stasis that plagued Athens during the final years of the Peloponnesian War. Yet, he rejects Plato’s emphasis on the elimination of difference as the key to political and social unity. Instead, Aristotle holds up harmony — difference organized by a shared mode, which in political life means something like “a shared set of practices and a common mode of interaction” as what produces and safeguards political concord. The form of individual friendship Aristotle calls “use” friendship provides a model for a political friendship conducive to harmony. Although participants in use friendships act for reasons of self-interest, they also must have virtue to moderate their self-interest in light of the factors underlying their friendship (155). Among political friends, the thing representing their mutual advantage and motivating their alliance is the constitution or way of life (162). Political friends also must have virtue. “Like use friends but unlike virtue friends, political friends do not need to be fully virtuous. Instead, they need to practice good judgment and moderation only with respect to the particular goods motivating their coalition, namely, in a political life, the fundamental terms of their cooperation” (162).

According to F., the fracturing of Athenian political culture toward the end of the Peloponnesian War demonstrated to Aristotle that there are significant characterological factors blocking the formation of political friendships between oligarchs and democrats. Although oligarchs and democrats may cooperate for a time, their alliances are fragile because each side looks only to its own interest rather than to the common good (167). When the two groups come into conflict, “whichever side gets the better, instead of establishing a just or popular government, regards political supremacy as the prize of victory, and the one party sets up a democracy and the other an oligarchy” (167, quoting Pol. 1269a28-32). To combat this fatal tendency, Aristotle recommends a strong middle class, along with the cultivation of friendships between the many and the few. To see how such an ethos can arise, F. examines Aristotle’s treatment of the “so-called aristocracy” which is basically the same as the “the first and best” form of democracy and the democratic aristocracy (170). Given the framework of this discussion, there seems to be no possibility of reconciling oligarchs and democrats; rather, oligarchs drop out of the picture are replaced by hoi epieikeis. The fact that Aristotle sees friendship and homonoia as a real possibility between the virtuous and the many supports F.’s claim that Aristotle’s political thought harbors democratic possibilities. In Aristotle’s analysis, whereas oligarchs are fatally flawed by pleonexia, democrats have the character virtue of generosity which is essential to the formation of genuine friendships, political and otherwise (173). Political friendship between democrats and aristocrats requires that both parties want different things: “the superior, a larger share of honor; the inferior, a larger share of profit” (173). Over time, this form of friendship would allow the many to grow wealthier, reducing economic disparity in the polis, and enabling the many to meet the property requirement for citizenship (174). So understood, the democratic aristocracy is permanent a work in progress, a constitutional form that takes “human beings as they are”, allowing them to cultivate and maximize their prohairetic activity (177). According to F., the democratic aristocracy represents a “possible future for Aristotle’s contemporary Athens,” and a recipe “to improve fourth-century Athenian democracy” (177, 178).

There are really two issues at stake in F.’s concluding chapter, one concerning how democratic Aristotle’s democratic aristocracy really is, and one concerning whether Aristotle intends this polity as remedy for contemporary Athens’ political ills. F.’s multi-layered elaboration of the democratic elements in Aristotle’s democratic aristocracy is plausible. Whether these democratic tendencies are or were meant to be realizable, however, is another question. The democratic aristocracy requires the prior existence of a class of virtuous property holders committed to helping and respecting the many in their pursuit of profit and eventual citizenship. Although this might seem hopelessly utopian or nave, Aristotle’s understanding of Theramenes as an aristocrat who managed to see past the oligarchic and democratic ideologies of his time may provide a historical model for hoi epieikeis of the democratic aristocracy (assuming, of course, that Aristotle is right about Theramenes). F.’s highlighting of Theramenes’ place in Aristotle’s political thought brings the question back to Athens. Is the democratic aristocracy really meant as a remedy for the contemporary Athenian democracy? According to F., Athenian civil strife in the last decade of the fifth century demonstrated to Aristotle the impossibility of genuine friendship between democrats and oligarchs. Yet, when the Thirty Tyrants were expelled and the democracy was restored, Athenian democrats were actually able to see beyond their own narrow self-interest to the common good. Rather than seeking retaliation against all known oligarchs, they passed the first Amnesty attested in Western history, an act supporting Aristotle’s association of generosity with democracy but pushing against his analysis of democrats as severely characterologically flawed. Finally, although F. sees the Politics as engaged in the project of improving the contemporary Athenian democracy, she does not actually discuss this contemporary Athens to clarify the specific ills Aristotle is purportedly seeking to cure.

Although I am left with questions about some of F.’s interpretations, (particularly in regard to the democratic tendencies in Aristotle’s thought) this is an important book filled with nuanced, new, and richly textured readings of Aristotle’s political theory. The book is also exemplary of how ancient thought remains vitally relevant and indeed how it can energize and renew modern debates. In particular, F.’s analysis of Aristotelian activity clears a space for reconfiguring apparent dichotomies between public and private and individual and community that continue to stifle much contemporary political theory and practice. Accordingly, this book will be of interest not only to classicists and classical philosophers but also to political and social theorists.