BMCR 2006.11.14

The Household as the Foundation of Aristotle’s Polis

, The household as the foundation of Aristotle's polis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xii, 352 pages : illustrations, map ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521849349. $80.00.

The title of this book belies its more compendious content. It ranges well beyond both Aristotle and the household. A better title for the book might have been ‘The Making of A Citizen’, for one half of it covers the household resources—both people and property—required for a citizen’s political participation, while the second half of the book considers the education of the citizen. The author, D. Brendan Nagle (N.) draws on work in history, archaeology, anthropology, political thought and philosophy to present a comprehensive description of the material and cultural conditions of the ancient Greek citizen. The work will be of great interest to those seeking an economic and cultural background to Aristotle’s political theory and will provide scholars with a greater sensitivity to the practicalities of ancient economic and civic life.

In the introductory chapters (1 and 2), N. explains that the polis is different from other forms of community in that it makes military and particularly political affairs possible. In poleis, citizens must “be prepared to subordinate themselves to a thoroughgoing social, political and moral structuring” (21). Thus, N. writes, ” oikoi were expected to internalize and reproduce in the their own micro-environments the ideology that characterized the constitution or politeia of their individual cities” (6). N. returns to the difference between polis and non-polis, and later still is concerned with the inculcation of civic culture. Before that, however, he presents his findings on the physical components of the polis and oikos.

N.’s point of departure for the first half of the book is that the terms ‘polis’ and ‘oikos’ in the mind of Aristotle were informed by his familiarity with a wide range of poleis and not just the atypical case of Athens with which we are most familiar today. In the Politics, Aristotle makes reference to almost 300 different poleis and only one in ten of his references to actual poleis is to Athens. N.’s task, then, is to provide a realistic picture of the more typical city and household of the time. He then suggests that Aristotle’s ideal versions of oikos and polis are akin to these.

Chapters 3 and 4 draw upon historical and archaeological scholarship to claim that the polis typically had between 230-910 male citizens, on 25-100 square km. of land. Aristotle’s ideal state falls in this range, with 500 to 1000 households, on 60 square km. of land. This is a tiny fraction, 2-3%, of the size of Athens. The ideal size of an individual’s property, however, is about 30 acres (12 hectares) and enough to support a slave. In this respect Aristotle’s oikos is atypical, as the majority of Greek poleis were comprised of small farmers, without slaves (83). The discussion of household slavery (in the first half of 4.2, 4.3 and 4.5) is the most interesting aspect of the work. N. argues that ideal households will have slaves, rather than relying on neighbors or on hired labor on the grounds of self-sufficiency. A slave belongs to the master; a hired laborer does not and so would indicate that the household is incomplete. I shall return specifically to this section of the book below.

Chapter 5 considers non-polis forms of household, as found in authoritarian regimes and in pre-political communities, such as the Cyclops’. Neither of these, N. claims, provides for the proper development of citizens, in the latter case because there is no joint action at all and in the former because the males are treated like slaves.

The remaining chapters (6-9; 10 is the conclusion) turn to the connection between good households and good states and the theme of the household as locus of cultural upbringing. The starting point for this investigation is Aristotle’s remark that human beings’ partnership in speech concerning moral qualities makes a household and a polis. A further piece of textual evidence, from the Eudemian Ethics, indicates that the origins of political friendship, justice and organization are found in the household. Based on these leads, N. sets off to investigate the proper relationships between father and child and between husband and wife.

In Chapter 6, N. maintains that the household provides the moral basis for the polis, in that relationships between the male and the other members of the household provide models of the various political regimes. N. goes on in Chapter 7 to claim that philia is the moral connecting link. In dysfunctional households it is impossible for the household to “discharge its civil and military obligations to the larger community” (178). Children experience and observe different forms of philia in the household and so “are empowered to take on their responsibilities in the household” (189), that is, to exhibit “something a good deal stronger” (185) than use-friendship to their fellow citizens.

In Chapter 8 N. considers education according to Plato and in the typical Greek state. Here N. emphasizes the phratry and deme, as well as civic and religious festivals which centrally involved women. The final full chapter (9) focuses on Aristotle’s paideia. N. argues that mimesis shaped the character, particularly of those performing, but also of all present, which included women. In particular, he argues that tragedy evoked fear and pity, which causes deliberation. This extended argument will be of great interest to those working on the Poetics and its interface with the Politics.

To conclude this summary of the book’s contents, it is worth mentioning that N. is careful to consider the role of women throughout the work, as mothers of future citizens, as lacking formal education, as participants in religious ceremonies, and as spectators at the theatre. He takes on the thorny question of the deliberative capacity of women in Chapter 6. Chapter 8, which is misleadingly entitled only “Plato’s Paideia”, is the most detailed discussion, illustrated with 11 prints, of women’s roles in civic life.

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, the book’s title does not do it justice and this is a cause of some confusion. In my alternate title—’The Making of a Citizen’—I am hesitant to include the word ‘household’, for much of the second half goes beyond the household. The sections on non-household communities, such as phratry, deme, religious and theatrical events, appear only tangentially related to the given title. The Preface does little to help the reader on this score, as it foreshadows mainly the half of the book on the material culture of the citizen. A related gripe is that the transitional sections of each chapter, where one would expect to receive some help in fitting together the different pieces of the work, are too brief to be of assistance; the structure of the work is unclear.

Moreover, the book, in general, presents a lot of data, but not as much comment as one might like. This is not simply to wish that N. had written a different book; to my mind, N. does not live up to his own promises. We are told at the beginning of the work that it is important to have a realistic conception of the size of the oikos and polis, but we are not told what the importance is. Accuracy is itself important, of course, but N. does not explain how, for example, using Athens as our exemplar of Greek poleis has led to incorrect or biased interpretations of the Politics. Nor does N. explain how the smaller polis population (or the larger oikos) fits in to the rest of Aristotle’s political thought, save for a hint at one point that the small population adduced from historical evidence meshes with Aristotle’s demand that the citizens be able to know one another’s characters.

(One might also have a slight reservation about the role of the non-Aristotelian material in this book. The sections on Plato and typical Greek culture are introduced for purposes of comparison—Aristotle, N. claims, preserves typical paideia as opposed to Plato’s radical proposals in the Republic —but they are treated in a depth disproportionate to the time spent on the comparison. For example, there is no comparison of the system of formal paideia in the Laws to Aristotle’s in the Politics.)

That N. goes well beyond the household to consider metropolitan and localized social groupings can be explained by the difficulty of making the connection between the household and the polis. In the summary above I commented on N.’s starting points for each half of the book, each of which is sound. But, where paideia is concerned, beyond the inference that households ‘must’ pass on civic culture, passages bearing on how the household in its own right educates citizens are sparse. For example, N. spends a lot of time (chapters 6 and 7) going over Aristotle’s descriptions of the various relationships within the household, but has trouble making a link from these relationships to the education of citizens, except to say that the relationships are just and exhibit philia. As N. realizes (175), the share of political rule is nowhere illustrated in the household, except perhaps the ‘political’ but still unequal relationship between husband and wife. N. does not attempt to explain how it is that (in the words of the EE quote mentioned above) in the household “are first found the origins and springs of friendship, of political organization and of justice.” N. does not attempt to argue that witnessing these just forms of relationship is evidence of a wider concept of justice that can be applied outside the household. Nor are brothers mentioned as a possible example of domestic equality. In a section on private vs. public ownership in chapter 1, N. touches on Aristotle’s claim that experience in running a household provided valuable experience in managing the city. There is no discussion of this claim, here or elsewhere. Similarly, chapter 9 mentions only briefly the fact that the father is a citizen and because of this is said by Aristotle to be better able to make others—in particular his children—good. There is no discussion of the development of reason within the human being and the similarities between the forms of phronesis are mentioned only in passing.

Parents, of course, must prepare their sons for future citizenship as much as possible, but there is a limit to what can be done within the household; immediately we are pulled outside into the wider communities. As N. notes in the chapter on philia (chapter 7) Aristotle says that social institutions maintain philia between the citizens. N. rightly notes that the “real” education of a citizen is largely incidental, taking place as part of the general culture of the polis. But it can be difficult even to connect the local and city-wide events with civic education. As N. points out, tragedies focus in particular on households. He approvingly quotes Humphreys when he says that “[T]he loves and hatreds of the oikos [were] capable of affecting man’s fate more deeply than the hazards of public life” (292 n. 77) and Henderson when he says that tragedies “treated the lives of people as individuals as opposed to civic categories” (294). But N. does not claim that the deliberation prompted by fear or pity is political deliberation, nor claim that whatever deliberation it does prompt is a preparation for civic deliberation.

Perhaps the reason for the brevity concerning the citizen-father’s educative abilities is that this fact shows one sense in which the household is not the foundation of the polis; rather, the father’s political involvement improves his paternal abilities. Indeed, there’s no clear sense, throughout the book, of what N. means when he says that the household is the foundation of the polis. More often than not, as in this case, it is the polis which influences the oikos; the issue of the priority of the polis is not addressed and Aristotle’s discussion of the abolition of the household in the Republic is mentioned only in the context of education in the latter chapters. For example, N. nicely augments book 1’s brief description of the genesis of the polis with the slightly longer version from book 3 which includes the intermediate step of social integration. N. claims that the kin networks support the households. But why not think it to be the other way around — the households support the kin networks? The matter will depend on the way in which one understands ‘supports’. Most frustrating along these lines is the fact that N. sometimes claims that household relationships are modeled on political ones (e.g. 159) but elsewhere claims that political ones are modeled on household relationships (e.g. 172). And again, it is not clear to begin with what work N. thinks is done by saying that either one is “modeled on” the other. Rather than the household being the ‘foundation’ of the polis, at best N. highlights the co-dependency of the two.

To be fair, N. does speculate at greater length about how living under certain deviant regimes might pervert the way the male relates to the other members of the household. N.’s overall idea here seems to be that the males’ lack of political power (in tyranny and tyrannical forms of democracy) translates into lack of domestic power, while the regime is attractive to the other members — as regards women, for example, the tyrant imposes no controls over them, while democracies encourage their equality with men.

For me, the most interesting and provocative specific topic in the book was Chapter 4’s distinction between complete and incomplete households and the need for complete households in Aristotle’s ideal regime. A complete household is one with a slave or slaves, and slaves are preferable to thetes because the household must be self-sufficient. The household must be a unity, and a day-laborer would not be of, or owned by, the householder, whereas a slave is someone who can belong to someone else ( Politics 1254b21-2).

This argument would have benefited further from an in-depth discussion of self-sufficiency. Moreover, N. weakens the household’s need for a slave when he remarks that leisure for political activity derives mainly from the fact that, with the exception of vines, Greek agriculture was not time-intensive. Greek farmers are described as “chronically underemployed” (77). So why, then, is the “complete household”, with slave, necessary, or preferred, in the ideal regime? (85) And on what basis can N. later claim that incomplete households provide leisure time for civic and military duties that is “nothing close to the level of excellence demanded in the best state” (100)?

But the argument is on the whole convincing, and although N. does not mention it, its conclusion is in keeping with Aristotle’s desideratum that property in the best regime be kept in private hands yet all farming (and banausic work) be undertaken by foreigners. (Indeed, N.’s discussion (in 4.7) of free non-citizens within Aristotle’s ideal reveals a limited interpretation of this separation.) This result means that slave-ownership is not only a central institution in Aristotle’s ideal regime but something to which householders should aspire and which is necessary for their own excellence. This is a result that many of Aristotle’s modern defenders/borrowers will find unpalatable and will be required to address.

In sum, this book is an invaluable compendium of information from multiple sources that will deepen any reader’s understanding of the material conditions of the ancient household and the nature of the local and city-wide institutions that inculcated the values of the community.