BMCR 2008.05.10

Aristotle’s Politics Today

, , Aristotle's Politics today. SUNY series in ancient Greek philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. 1 online resource (v, 167 pages).. ISBN 9781435626904. $60.00.

Table of Contents

Lenn Goodman and Robert Talisse have produced a slender but engaging volume of essays intended “to challenge the commonplace perception of Aristotle as a thinker planted firmly in the ‘liberty of the ancients’—and therefore irrelevant to those who seek to theorize the ‘liberty of the moderns.'” Instead, they hope “to bring Aristotle into conversation with contemporary theorists” (2). On the whole, the essays collected here succeed in doing this. They are loosely tied together by the desire to address contemporary debates, with little other effort at overall thematic unity. Though the editors suggest that “one of the themes that links the chapters in this symposium is attention to…the idea of rights in Aristotle’s political philosophy” (7), this is an overstatement; explicit theorizing about rights plays a significant role in only one of the book’s eight essays. Another theme mentioned by Goodman and Talisse, constitutionalism, figures more prominently and is the collection’s most frequently recurring topic. Since the essays approach Aristotle’s thought from different directions and seek to make use of it in different ways, however, the lack of thematic unity is not a significant weakness. A reader can usefully approach the essays as a series of attempts to suggest the continuing relevance of Aristotle’s political thought. In what follows, I offer brief summaries of the individual essays, with even briefer comments of my own about the strengths or weaknesses of each. At the review’s conclusion I comment on the volume as a whole.

Fred D. Miller, Jr. (“Aristotelian Statecraft and Modern Politics”), argues that Aristotle’s approach to statecraft remains useful for contemporary politicians, even those who accept liberal premises different from Aristotle’s own. Miller illustrates this claim with a brief discussion of statecraft in a libertarian minimal state. Central to his argument are two aspects of Aristotle’s political theory. First is the necessity for the theorist to operate on multiple levels, which Miller labels ‘ideal theory’ (identifying the best constitution possible under the most favorable conditions), ‘second-best theory’ (identifying the best constitution possible for a particular political community), and ‘ordinary political theory’ (considering how to reform an actual, existing constitution). Second is the centrality of a ranked order of constitutional regimes within Aristotle’s analysis, so that the fundamental questions of statecraft deal with the effects of various laws and policies on the underlying constitutional order. Combining these considerations, Miller suggests that the goal of applied Aristotelian statecraft is “approximation,” the attempt to nudge one’s own constitution in a more ideal direction as circumstances permit. This discussion of Aristotelian statecraft is an excellent, brief account of Aristotle’s approach and would be helpful for students. Miller’s attempt to demonstrate the usefulness of his approach by applying it to the minimal state seems to me less successful. His discussion hinges on the distinctions between ideal, second-best, and ordinary theory in adjusting libertarian ideals to actual circumstances. But since many theorists—John Rawls is a prominent example—adopt some such distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory, Miller’s illustration here does not seem distinctively Aristotelian. More basic might be the question whether a principled commitment to the minimal state is sufficiently attentive to the cultural preconditions of regime preservation to be compatible with the constitutional focus of Aristotelian statecraft.

Both Edward C. Halper (“Aristotle and the Liberal State”) and Robert B. Talisse (“Why Democrats Need the Virtues”) argue that Aristotle provides a necessary complement or corrective to contemporary liberalism. Halper focuses on liberalism’s neutrality among competing visions of the good. Liberalism permits citizens to pursue diverse substantive conceptions of the good life, provided these remain private pursuits, but it abstains from any commitment to a shared, public good. The result, Halper suggests, is to trivialize whatever goods private individuals pursue, which must not be regarded as sufficiently important to engage the community publically on their behalf. This is the “supreme irony of the liberal state: individuals are free to do nearly everything, but only because nothing that any of them could do is deemed really to matter” (39). Yet, if Aristotle is correct that happiness is possible only in association with other persons, the refusal to recognize the existence of genuinely public goods must inevitably prove frustrating. Fortunately, there is an exit from this dilemma. The institutions of American liberal democracy resemble those of the Aristotelian polity, the best regime possible for most states. We could therefore, suggests Halper, pursue an Aristotelian form of liberalism, leaving our institutions relatively unchanged but recognizing a common good that we pursue together. As a candidate for such a good he recommends the realization of important human faculties that is an essential component of personal autonomy and that political activity makes possible. Halper’s brief essay goes into little detail about what it would mean to understand the realization of human faculties as a substantive public good, and his conclusion remains vague about what actual consequences he expects should we choose “to think of ourselves differently” (42), as he recommends. The concept of autonomy is central in much contemporary political theory, but it is also controversial, so Halper’s line of argument requires further elaboration.

Talisse focuses specifically on debates over deliberative democracy. He argues that both liberals and communitarians have become defenders of deliberative democracy, but in ways that replicate their own initial disagreements. Liberals support deliberation but hedge it in with restrictions designed to ensure only liberal outcomes; communitarians support deliberation but assume unreasonably that it will reveal a previously existing moral consensus. Genuine deliberation, by contrast, must be truly open and will not necessarily result in consensus. Such deliberation requires that its participants possess certain “epistemic traits,” or in Talisse’s phrase, “deliberative virtues” (51). These include various qualities such as an “open mind,” the willingness “to change our opinions or preferences because others persuade us,” and a “disposition to listen to others [and] treat them with respect” (51; Talisse is here quoting political theorist Iris Young).1 In developing an account of such virtues, and of the cultural and political institutions necessary for their cultivation, Talisse suggests that deliberative democrats might usefully turn to Aristotle. In this essay he remains content only to make the suggestion and does not attempt to develop it further. A fuller account would have to defend the turn to Aristotle by engaging theorists such as William Galston, Stephen Macedo, and Richard Dagger, who have argued that liberalism itself can produce an account of the virtues sufficient to undergird liberal practice.2

May Sim (“Virtue-Oriented Politics: Confucius and Aristotle”) takes a significantly different approach, contrasting Confucian and Aristotelian ethical and political theories. The bulk of Sim’s essay identifies important differences between these two virtue theories. Aristotle distinguishes sharply between familial and political rule, while for Confucius the state is modeled on the family; Aristotle discusses and recognizes the legitimacy of a wide range of constitutions, whereas Confucius appears interested only in “the benevolent rule of a sage-king” (59); Aristotle emphasizes the rule of law, Confucius the cultivation of ritually appropriate behavior without relying upon legal sanctions; Aristotle restricts the possibility of acquiring and exercising full virtue to a small group of people, whereas Confucius considers it achievable by a larger circle. This comparison of the thinkers is clear and informative, though I confess to knowing very little indeed about Confucianism. (I confess also to thinking that Aristotle emerges from the comparison looking much the better, at least from the standpoint of political theory.) Sim concludes by suggesting that when these two traditions engage in dialogue and, despite their substantial differences, recognize one another as traditions of virtue, this experience should prompt an attitude of mutual respect and an acknowledgement that each tradition” is somehow entitled to explore its own vision of political virtue” (69; emphasis in original). This acknowledgement thus involves recognizing the alternative tradition and its followers as bearers of rights. Sim hypothesizes that such an encounter could therefore give rise to a more general virtue-based account of human rights, in which people are held to have rights to whatever goods or practices are the necessary means for developing virtue. I remain skeptical about this proposed synthesis of rights and virtues and indeed regard the provision of a contemporary alternative to rights theories as among the chief attractions of a virtue ethic. Sim’s concluding discussion of rights is, furthermore, only loosely connected to the preceding comparison of Aristotle and Confucius, since the suggestion that we might reinterpret rights in terms of the prerequisites for virtue is an entirely plausible contention quite apart from any such comparison.

By turning to the realm of international relations, Lloyd P. Gerson (“The Morality of Nations: An Aristotelian Approach”) takes Aristotle in a different direction. Gerson employs two important Aristotelian concepts, those of moral agency and of association, to develop an argument that nations should not be regarded (as they commonly are) as moral agents. Moral agency, Gerson claims, requires intentional action accompanied by awareness of one’s own purposes and the ability to reflect upon whether one indeed wishes to have those purposes or ought to change them. And while the members of a group can each of them possess this sort of self-awareness about their own and their group’s actions, the group itself cannot. Nations are therefore indeed agents, but not moral ones, and cannot bear moral responsibility in the way individual persons do. Instead, Gerson proposes, nations should simply be regarded as Aristotelian associations—”group[s] of persons or moral agents who unite voluntarily for some purpose” (85)—existing for the benefit of their members and in order to promote their members’ happiness. Gerson’s argument here is intriguing, not only for its uncommon attempt to apply Aristotelian principles to international relations,3 but also for suggesting that the attempt leads to what is essentially a classically liberal, even Hobbesian, description of the international order and international law. His argument does, however, seem to require a fuller account of the relationship between the individual and the community. If states are expected to represent their citizens, for instance, would they not in practice be responsible for acting on whatever moral obligations those citizens have (even if we think it philosophically inappropriate to label the states themselves “moral agents”)? Similarly, without some thicker understanding of the community as itself a moral agent of some sort, it becomes difficult to explain some common intuitions about collective responsibility across time—about why I, for example, might reasonably feel shared responsibility for (say) a past American history of racial discrimination (or pride in America’s successful cultivation of liberty over the course of centuries).

Eugene Garver (“The Revolt of the Just”) probes Politics V for insights into Aristotle’s idea of constitutionalism and its connection to our nature as political animals. He begins by puzzling in dissatisfaction over Book V’s apparently amoral advice about how best to preserve even unjust regimes. In Book IV.1, Aristotle claims that the statesman should know how to reform regimes; yet in Book V he speaks of their preservation or destruction as if these were the only alternatives. On Aristotle’s terms, this makes a kind of sense: political animals can fulfill their nature only by acting as citizens, and in seeking to overthrow the constitution, one does not act as a citizen. Is this extreme preference for stability—for preserving whatever constitution exists—ethically justifiable? Garver’s answer turns on the distinction between living democratically (or oligarchically) and ruling democratically (or oligarchically). To live democratically, for example, is simply to pursue as one’s own the typically democratic ends, in particular freedom to do as one likes. To rule democratically, however, means to pursue laws and policies that will preserve a democratic constitution. Aristotle argues that democracies and oligarchies are best preserved when they temper their characteristic impulses and the ruling party admits its opponents to a share in governance. In this sense, stability does prove to be an ethically justifiable end because acting to preserve the constitution in fact requires those sharing in government, the citizens, to become more moderate, to defend the rule of law rather than pursuing their immediate desires, to move their regime closer to the model of truly “constitutional” government, the polity, and to broaden and strengthen the bonds of civic friendship among citizens. The apparently amoral decision to aim at the preservation rather than the reform of the constitution paradoxically proves, therefore, when properly understood, to be indeed a means for achieving moral improvement. Garver’s argument here repays a second reading. It illuminates nicely (like Miller’s opening essay) the central ethical role played in Aristotle’s political theory by the descriptive concept of the constitution or regime. It thus prompts reflection also upon the relationship between normative theory and empirical social science. I am inclined, however, to think that Aristotle’s account, in spite of its emphasis on stability, is more open to the possibility of reform than Garver here suggests. In this respect one might compare Garver’s essay to Miller’s, since the latter’s distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory and his account of “approximation” imply the possibility, at least, of replacing an unjust regime with a just one.

Those who, like me, often devote a class discussion to speculation about how Aristotle would classify the American regime will enjoy Peter L.P. Simpson’s contribution to the volume (“Aristotle’s Regime of the Americans”). Simpson provides both the Greek text and an English translation of, ostensibly, a newly discovered Aristotelian text analyzing the American constitution. As for the Greek text, my own Greek is of the muddle-through variety, and I would not venture to suggest improvements to someone capable of producing such a document. (Simpson has clearly drawn heavily and freely upon Aristotle’s text in producing this one, lifting phrases or even whole sentences and re-using them, giving the account a genuinely Aristotelian flavor.) The essay contains a number of entertaining comments, such as the early observation that Americans “have an especial love for the office of the monarch” (111) or the description of political parties. The general conclusion of the essay is that the American regime is in form a democracy, but that it includes a large number of heavily oligarchical characteristics and probably tends more strongly towards oligarchy in practice. One wonders whether this ought to suggest the conclusion that America is in fact a polity, since Aristotle claims in Politics IV.9 that in a properly mixed polity, “it should be possible for the same polity to be spoken of as either a democracy or an oligarchy.”4 The greatest omission of Simpson’s essay is that he speaks entirely in terms of democracy and oligarchy, without discussing the possibility that America is a polity (the conclusion that most, though by no means all, of my students generally reach). Also relevant, but absent, would be consideration of the constitutional significance of America’s large middle class, another characteristic of the Aristotelian polity.

Lenn Goodman’s concluding essay (“Aristotle’s Polity Today”) reflects broadly upon five Aristotelian “political maxims that…hold enduring value for our own political understanding, and enduring usefulness for our own political practice” (131). The five maxims are as follows: (1) A state is not the same as a business, for it aims not at the efficient use of resources but rather at the achievement of human values, goods, and aims. (2) The state is also not an organism; it is a community, but one that preserves and brings into harmony its diversity of members, rather than collapsing (or coercing) them inappropriately into a unity. (3) Despotism divides and weakens society, whereas justice and virtue, liberty and law, are sources of stability and strength. (4) Critical to just, constitutional government are the rule of law, which promises fair treatment to all citizens, and participation in governance, which heads off the resentment fostered by exclusion and leads citizens beyond their individual interests towards shared responsibility for the common good. (5) Because constitutional engagement of this sort is difficult, it rests ultimately upon political education, the fostering of a constitutional “ethos…the inculcation of certain basic virtues, values, habits of mind, and dispositions of character that will enable citizens to live together, work together, fight together when necessary, and deliberate together about the means by which to optimize the quality of their lives” (143). These maxims are broadly stated, but they encourage one to consider, in a somewhat different manner than the previous essay by Simpson, how Aristotle might evaluate our own regime. How do we sustain the rule of law in an age when political decision-making is increasingly the task of courts or unelected bureaucrats? Or ensure citizen participation when campaigns and elections are so expensive, and when our young people are receiving such poor instruction in American history and politics? Do we remain attentive to the importance of cultivating a common ethos? Do we believe that freedom is stronger than despotism, and how should this shape our relations with other nations? Goodman remains for the most part content to sketch out his five maxims at a broad level, only occasionally dropping hints of his views on questions such as these (cf. pp. 136-8, for example, or p. 140); one wishes he had dropped a few more.

As I indicated at the outset, the essays in the volume have relatively little thematic unity, though the idea of constitutionalism in one way or another plays a role in almost all of them, so that it does provide something of a ground bass for the book as a whole, albeit a faint one. Readers may find this frustrating or not, depending upon what they are hoping for. I enjoyed the diversity of topics touched on in the collection and found the range of ideas provocative. Miller, Garver, and Goodman deal with broad questions of Aristotelian statecraft, with Miller’s attempt to apply them to libertarianism being somewhat unexpected; Halper and Talisse, as well as Miller, seek in different ways to bring Aristotle into conversation with contemporary liberal political theory; Gerson tackles the difficult task of applying Aristotelian ideas to the international realm; Simpson offers an engaging discussion of the American regime; and Sim provides a comparative perspective by exploring the Confucian tradition. The volume thus attempts to shine an Aristotelian light on all the standard subfields of political science.

I read, too, with an eye to the volume’s classroom usefulness. Since my students are undergraduates, I had that audience especially in mind. Finding essays in the secondary literature that the typical undergraduate can both understand and perceive as relevant (which for most students means not focusing simply on textual interpretation) is not always easy. Most of the essays here would work, I think, with my students. I will certainly use Simpson’s piece on the American regime, since it lends itself so readily to class discussion. Miller’s description of Aristotelian statecraft is concise, clear, and helpful. Goodman’s essay would make a useful foil to Stephen Taylor Holmes’s essay “Aristippus In and Out of Athens.”5 The contributions by Halper and Talissse, since they explicitly deal with debates about liberalism/communitarianism and deliberative democracy, would be more useful for graduate students who have some knowledge of that literature. In general, this volume is probably more accessible to undergraduates than another recent collection with a similar purpose, Aristide Tessitore (ed.), Aristotle and Modern Politics;6 graduate students might find more to chew on in the latter.

If the book’s essays suffer from any pervasive weakness, it is perhaps a tendency to suggest lines of thought that are left underdeveloped, as a number of my comments above indicate. This is especially true, I think, of the essays by Halper, Talisse, and Sim, and to a lesser extent those by Miller and Gerson. At times, therefore, one wishes that the authors had pushed their analyses a bit further. In fairness, however, the purpose of the book is largely to be suggestive, opening up potentially fruitful lines of inquiry by demonstrating the continuing relevance of Aristotle’s political ideas. And though I was no doubt predisposed to sympathize with the editors on this score, I think that in this respect the volume successfully accomplishes its goal.


1. The specific qualities I have listed here are drawn from a passage that Talisse quotes approvingly from Iris Young, Inclusion and Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

2. See William Galston, Liberal Purposes: Goods, Virtues, and Duties in the Liberal State (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991); Stephen Macedo, Liberal Virtues: Citizenship, Virtue and Community (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990); and Richard Dagger, Civic Virtues: Rights, Citizenship and Republican Liberalism (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997).

3. See, however, Hans Morgenthau, Political Theory and International Affairs: Hans J. Morgenthau on Aristotle’s The Politics, ed. Anthony F. Lang, Jr. (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2004).

4. I have quoted from Carnes Lord’s translation of The Politics (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984).

5. Holmes’s essay is collected in Richard Kraut and Steven Skultety (eds.), Aristotle’s Politics: Critical Essays (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005), pp. 1-26.

6. Aristide Tessitore (ed.), Aristotle and Modern Politics: The Persistence of Political Philosophy (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2002).