BMCR 2006.04.11

Aristotle’s Politics: Critical Essays

, , Aristotle's Politics : critical essays. Critical essays on the classics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005. xviii, 256 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0742534235 $27.95 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This is a useful collection of essays, particularly for graduate students and high-powered undergraduates cutting their teeth on Aristotle, because it reflects a diversity of contemporary approaches to his political philosophy. All have been penned by scholars with impeccable credentials, and almost all have appeared previously. The chapters are not hagiographic, even when they agree with Aristotle’s approach. The editors point out that the implicit conversation among the contributors is whether Aristotle’s thinking has “some applicability to ongoing debates in contemporary political philosophy” (ix).

The volume gets off to a brisk start with Stephen Holmes’ “Aristippus In and Out of Athens.” Holmes argues that contemporary approaches to political legitimacy that rely on classical Greek underpinnings are anachronistic. Aristotle’s claim that the polis is prior to the individual has been rendered obsolete by historical changes such as the differentiation of imperium from sacerdotium in medieval Christendom, the separation of economy from polity beginning in the 1700’s, or liberalism’s distinction between state and society. Modern society’s compartmentalization should lead us to abandon Aristotle’s claims about the relationship of political parts to the whole. As a political thinker, he is not so much dangerous as useless.

In this reviewer’s opinion, the second chapter is the most provocative in the volume. Stephen Salkever argues that Aristotle’s distinctive approach to social science successfully avoids the difficulties in both empirical and interpretive approaches. In contrast to the reductionism and non-evaluative character of strict empiricism, Aristotelian social science proceeds from the lived sense that every society organizes itself around certain goals, discovered partly through common speech reflecting on practice. However, in contrast to the usual value-neutrality of interpretive approaches, Aristotle’s philosophic method provides revisable standards for judging social practices.

John Cooper’s classic essay makes the case that flourishing political communities require civic friendship. Cooper’s Aristotle claims that human beings have the natural tendency to develop conceptions of the good and organize their social life in pursuit of a common good. By contrast, Malcolm Schofield argues in Marxist fashion that Aristotle’s high-minded claims to philosophy serve as ideological justification for a set of class interests. This is most apparent in his argument for natural slavery. Schofield says that appeals to human nature construct that concept in the image of some “contingent, historically situated, and conditioned view of man” (98). The concept of human nature in play for Aristotle was the “racist” notion that barbarians deserved to be enslaved (110).

Fred D. Miller takes up the question of property in Aristotle. He inquires into such central problems as how property is justified, how property acquisition is limited by a concern for flourishing, and the quasi-public nature of property in Aristotle’s political thought.

The next three chapters revolve around the question of the relationship of Aristotelian political philosophy to various dimensions of contemporary liberal democratic practice. Jeremy Waldron’s chapter seeks to uncover some hidden implications of Aristotle’s doctrine of the wisdom of the multitude for contemporary democratic practice. What can we tease out of Aristotle’s claim that as a body, the people “may make better, wiser, and abler decisions” that the one “best man” (146)? Waldron extrapolates from Aristotle’s insight to justify the kind of pluralism of opinion that he thinks characterizes the best sorts of democratic practice. Dorothea Frede investigates Aristotle’s conception of citizenship in order to disrupt the view that his political philosophy is a corrective to Platonic elitism. For Frede, despite his “democratic-sounding language,” Aristotle is “far from being a liberal” (171). His functionalism reduces the status of citizens to the kinds of work they perform in the polis. In turn, Aristotle’s insistence that certain sorts of people must perform the lower functions on which politics partly depends, and his argument that such functionaries neither possess practical reason in the full sense nor are eligible for full citizenship, renders him just as much a proponent of class as his teacher. Frede ends her criticism on an incisive note: that we may not be as far from her Aristotle as we would like to think. Life in modern societies can render invisible the fact that our comfort “depends on the hard labor” of the less fortunate (82). Aristotle can be criticized for his class politics but not for his honesty. Finally, Jonathan Barnes inquires into the status of Aristotle’s conception of political liberty. Barnes thinks that Aristotle’s political thought tends toward totalitarianism insofar as he defines all manner of questions as political, thus subsuming too wide a swath of human life into areas the legislator can legitimately claim to control.

The last two chapters stand alone thematically. David Keyt explores dimensions of anarchism in Aristotle’s political thought. Josiah Ober employs his considerable scholarly acumen to argue that “certain features of democracy were … treated by Aristotle as emergent properties of human nature” (223). For Keyt, paradoxically, posing Aristotle’s questions about the naturalness of slavery may cast doubts on the legitimacy of all political rule. This is because the “wholesale challenge of political authority is but a short step from the wholesale challenge of slavery” (203). In the end, Keyt argues that Aristotle does not equate all rule with despotic rule; coercion is not an “essential feature of political rule” (218). Ober’s is the only essay in the volume that has not been previously published. His argument is nuanced and complex, and I cannot reproduce it here. However, his conclusion is that we can extend Aristotle’s “teleological naturalism” to argue that virtually all human beings have the capacity to become political animals. This means for him that most democratic citizens have the capacity to deliberate and that this deliberation must include a diversity of knowledge and expertise.

Of course, one can dispute particular arguments in an edited volume that tackles a wide range of issues in so complex and controversial thinker as Aristotle. Yet as a whole, the essays in this book are crisp, insightful, and representative of some of the main conventional approaches to Aristotle’s political thought. This is the volume’s strength.

My question is whether at least some of the approaches to Aristotle’s political philosophy reflected in this volume continue to be relevant. The editors claim that the aim of this book is to sharpen the issue of whether Aristotle’s Politics“has any contribution to make to contemporary debates about political life and political theory” (ix). The essays are loosely bound together. Some explore common topics, such as slavery, or the status of freedom in Aristotle’s thought. Yet they do not do so in conversation. So the editors seem correct that what unites them is their various judgments as to Aristotle’s relevance for contemporary political philosophy. Most of these excellent essays were first published in the early 1990’s. One wonders how different the question of the applicability of Aristotelian political philosophy appears post-9/11. Clearly, thinkers like Aristotle are used in various ways by people with various interests. During the Cold War, political theorists often trotted out reliable thinkers like Augustine or Aristotle to point out the proper limits of political life in contrast to communism. Since the end of that struggle, a central focus of those still interested in classical political philosophy has been its relationship to liberal democracy. Some have beaten Aristotle with the stick of individual freedom to show that his concern with civic virtue is dangerous. Proponents of classical virtue have used Aristotle to try to fill what they see as the moral vacuum of liberal neutrality. All this is very interesting — old disagreements are often the best kind. Yet if the point of the volume is to explore whether Aristotle is relevant today, one could assess the political landscape afresh since these essays were written. Perhaps September 11th forced the popular realization that liberal democracy is not self-evidently good to all, but rather rests on a set of controversial goods and virtues that are vociferously opposed by religious fundamentalists. Perhaps it also forced the realization that some of the goods that liberal democracy fosters, such as freedom and security, are in tension. Hopefully, it also forced the realization that a certain kind of zealous defense of these goods can put them in jeopardy. Finally, we may have realized that the use of power to defend and indeed, to advance, these goods has effects that are impossible to control. Taken together, these realizations add up to the kind of tragic wisdom we associate with classical political philosophy at its best. It is a rare and precious thing for tragic wisdom to become recognized as relevant, and perhaps classicists could think about ways to build upon this before the moment has passed, as it inevitably will. Finally, where does the current revival of interest in Aristotle stand in relation to our global religious divisions? It is not clear that Aristotle can provide a neutral conception of human reason that might provide the common ground for the kind of respectful inter-religious dialogue we require. Perhaps our situation resembles certain features of the Middle Ages. At that time, thinkers like Aquinas or Avicenna used Aristotle to help sharpen their understanding of their own faiths, as well as lay the groundwork for the possibility of a conversation across religious traditions. Such inquiries into the various receptions of the Aristotelian tradition would be highly relevant in part because they would give us a better sense of what unites and what divides us.


Jonathan Barnes, “Aristotle and Political Liberty”;

John M. Cooper, “Political Animals and Civic Friendship”;

Dorothea Frede, “Citizenship in Aristotle’s Politics“;

Stephen Taylor Holmes, “Aristippus in and out of Athens”;

David Keyt, “Aristotle and Anarchism”;

Fred D. Miller, Jr., “Property Rights in Aristotle”;

Josiah Ober, “Aristotle’s Natural Democracy”;

Stephen G. Salkever, “Aristotle’s Social Science”;

Malcolm Schofield, “Ideology and Philosophy in Aristotle’s Theory of Slavery”;

Jeremy Waldron, “The Wisdom of the Multitude: Some Reflections on Book 3 of Aristotle’s Politics“.