[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]
This handsome volume is a companion to Greek political thought and not Greek political theory. This is in keeping with other recent effortsâlike the magnificent Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought âto cultivate a much more catholic understanding of just which texts grapple with what this volumeâs editor, Stephen Salkever, calls the âfundamental questions about politics.â This means that while about half the volume is given over to Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, the other half takes seriously the contributions Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, Thucydides, and the orators made to such questions.
Salkever doesnât explicitly defend this more catholic understanding, but I donât think he needs to. The results speak for themselves. Dean Hammerâs essay on Homer and Ryan Balotâs on the orators are terrific, especially the latter. So terrific, in fact, that itâs a wonder we ever had to defend the catholic approach against the claim that Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics had a stranglehold on the fundamental questions.
Salkever does, however, defend three methodological commitments that unite the volumeâs essays:
1. âfundamental questions about politics in the world of ancient Greece must be pursued in texts that cross the standard modern genre distinctions among philosophy, history, and literature.â
2. âthe ultimate goal inspiring these studies is to bring voices embodied in these texts into our contemporary discussions of political thought and action.â
3. âthis attempt to bring ancient Greek voices into modern discussions will itself be anachronistic unless we are very careful to place the Greek texts in the context…in which they were written.â
These three claims advance a surprisingly substantive agenda, but the exact relationship between them is not quite clear. The first more or less captures what I said above about the âcatholic understandingâ of which texts count, and it strikes me as exactly right. The same goes for the second half of the third claim. But the second claimâand first half of the thirdâare unlikely to command universal assent, and this for a couple of reasons. First, the language of âultimate goalâ is very strong, and while one might think that âbring[ing] voices…into contemporary discussionsâ is one aim for a volume like thisâor for studying ancient political thought generallyâit is probably not the âultimate goal.â Second, this claim sits ill with other language in the volume, some of it on the very same page. Just one paragraph later Salkever says that the projectâs general orientation is to âbring questions that arise in contemporary democraciesâ to the study of the ancients. In which direction, then, is the volume working? From the ancients to contemporary discussions, as the second claim above suggests, or from contemporary discussions to the ancients, as paragraph that follows suggests? âBothâ might be an acceptable answer to the question, but I think this needs to be argued for and not simply stipulated.
I think that there is a fourth, and considerably more important, commitment uniting the essays, one that Salkever does not explicitly flag. Itâs related to the second commitment listed above, but where that commitment speaks of the volumeâs âultimate aim,â this fourth, unstated commitment concerns just what Salkever and his contributors think âpolitical thoughtâ tries to do, where this means both what ancient writers on politics were up to and how their modern interpreters should go about their work. Political thought, Salkever suggests, does not involve âdiscover[ing] principles, whether formal or substantive, that will solve our deepest political problems.â Rather, it involves âbroadening the âmodern political imaginary,â our sense of what is politically normal or possible.â
This sort of languageââbroadeningâ the imaginary, opening possibilities, and like phrasesâappears very frequently. Salkever describes the volumeâs two essays on the Greek historians as âexplor[ing] the possibility that the work of political thought…is the project of opening the imagination beyond the limits of the prevailing culture.â He says that Norma Thompsonâs essay shows how Herodotusâ Solon and Thucydidesâ Pericles are âopen to continuous reinterpretation,â while Gerald Maraâs essay on Thucydides explores how Thucydidesâ âartful logos is anything but directive and conclusiveâ and rather offers a âprovisionalâ account of âthe inevitable open-endedness of political life.â He says that Plato and Aristotle are united by a commitment to a ânon-doctrinal and non-systematic mode of philosophizing about political life.â So non-doctrinal and non-systematic, in fact, that Salkever, in describing his own essay on the relationship between the Politics and Nicomachean Ethics, claims that Aristotleâs âdistinctly naturalist approach to politicsâ is not intended to serve as a âfundamental first premise from which political principles can be deducedâ but merely âto supply a point of viewâa conceptual spaceâfrom which our particular political deliberations may be more successfully undertaken.â
The adverb âmerelyâ in the last sentence is mine, but I think itâs merited if Salkeverâs description of Aristotleâs aims is correct. That is, if Aristotle is only providing a âpoint of viewâ or âconceptual space,â is he really providing all that much? This is what worries me about the volume. All the talk about âbroadening the social imaginaryâ does seem to considerably lower the bar as an account of, first, what the ancients took the task of writing about politics to be and, second, what Salkever and his contributors take their task of writing about the ancients to be. I think I understand how Salkever and the contributors arrived at such talkâthey are understandably wary of treating the ancientsâ project in too analytic, too theoretical, a fashion. Thatâs fair enough and, as I said above, I think Salkever is entirely right to have included Homer, Herodotus, and Sophocles as seriousâthough not, properly speaking, âtheoreticalââ investigators of the âfundamental questions about politics.â But this commitment to âbroadeningâ the set of contributors seems to have been yoked a commitment to âbroadeningâ in this entirely different senseâthe sense that the project of ancient political thought and contemporary commentary on such thought should be conducted with an aim to âbroadening the political imaginary.â
But the first commitment in no way entails the second. That is, there is no reason why we couldnât broaden the set of contributors while, at the same time, maintain that the ancients did not takeâand their contemporary interpreters should not takeââbroadeningâ the political imaginary as the ultimate goal of thinking about politics. We can put the point slightly differently by saying that while âpolitical thoughtâ is a distinct improvement over âpolitical theory,â this does not entail that the ancients avoided thinking about politics in a systematic, theoretical manner or that we should avoid doing so. Indeed, the flip-side to the âbroadeningâ language that I cited above is language that is almost hostile to thinking about politics in such a systematic, theoretical way. Iâve already mentioned a couple of examplesâSalkeverâs reluctance to countenance a central place for âformal or substantive principlesâ in political thought or his particular description of Aristotleâs refusal of a âfundamental first premiseâ in favor of a mere âpoint of view.â Individual essays contain a good number of others. The thought seems to be that principles in and of themselves are to be avoidedâIâm tempted to say avoided at all costsâon the grounds that they (and the systematic, theoretical thinking that goes with them) are unacceptably constraining.
How might we respond to such near hostility to thinking about politics theoretically? First, we might say that Salkever is just wrong about, for example, Aristotleâs aims, which may be far more robustly theoretical than his âproviding conceptual spaceâ line suggests. I happen to think that they are, but I donât have space to make that case here (while also conceding that Salkeverâs essay has led me to rethink my position). If the robust reading is true, Salkeverâs âconceptual spaceâ reading loses a good bit of its power. (It also loses much of its attractiveness for beginning students, at whom I imagine the volume is aimed.)
Second, we might leave aside the individual case of Aristotle (or any other allegedly non-systematic thinker, for that matter) and ask how someone like Salkeverâsomeone invested in reading the ancients in order to âbroaden the political imaginaryââshould position his own project with respect to the ancientsâ. The obvious approachâand the one Salkever and his contributors mostly pursueâis to treat the ancients as if they, too, were invested in such a âbroadeningâ of the imaginary. But another approach would take seriously the idea that the ancientsâa good few of them, at leastâare engaged in deeply systematic, theoretically rigorous project; that the ancients are not at all after âbroadening the social imaginary,â but are instead interested in putting together a clear, comprehensive, and fairly detailed picture of political life.
In other words, it might have been better for Salkever to treat the ancientsâ project as orthogonal to, not continuous with, his own. Importantly, this need not mean that Salkever and his contributors would have to abandon their own âbroadeningâ aim. Indeed, I think that the conceptual friction generated by such an orthogonal encounter might actually have done more to âbroaden the imaginaryâ than an encounter in which the ancient and modern vectors are essentially pointing in exactly the same direction. Salkever might respond that an orthogonal encounter isnât possible because the ancients just werenât systematic, explicit thinkers about politics. But surely there are enough indications of systematic, explicit theorizing in, say, the Politics or even Thucydidesâ History, to sustain my suggested approach. (Iâve been helped in my thinking on this problem by Patchen Markellâs excellent review of Raymond Geussâs Philosophy and Real Politics [ Political Theory 38.1, pp. 172-7]).
This criticism does not mean that individual essaysâor the volume as a wholeâare unsuccessful. I enjoyed very much Hammerâs piece on Homer, Saxonhouseâs on Sophocles, Bickfordâs on Plato, Brownâs on natural law Stoics, and, especially, Balotâs on the orators. This last essay lucidly demonstrates just how fertile that corpus is for students of ancient political thought. Balot argues that the orators offer an account of how Athensâ thriving, mostly-non-dominatory, mostly-egalitarian polity could, at the same time, cultivate the virtues in the citizenry. Indeed, the thriving, mostly-non-dominatory, mostly-egalitarian quality of the polity might well have depended on the cultivation of the virtues in the citizenry.
Salkever seems to suggest that Hannah Arendt is the volumeâs presiding spirit, for it was she, he says, who first âsuggested…that the job of political theory is to prepare citizens to make the best possible judgments by encouraging us to discern and reflect on the central problems of political life; not to tell us what we must do, but, in Arendtâs phrase, to help us âthink what we are doing.ââ Hers is as good a spirit as any to have, but in order to âthink what we are doingâ we need a clear view of what the political landscape looks like. Arendt knew thisâwitness the essay âWhat Is Authority?â, emphatically not an attempt to âbroaden the imaginaryâ but an attempt to get a clear view of just what authorityâas opposed to force, violence, or powerâwas. I think a large portion of the ancient project was similarly directedâaround questions like What is citizenship? What is the best regime? What is political leadership? What destroys polities? and scores of others. This volume, though very fine, might have been even better had this aspect of Arendtâs spirit been given equal attention.
Stephen Salkever: Introduction
Dean Hammer: Homer and Political Thought
Arlene W. Saxonhouse: Foundings vs. Constitutions: Ancient Tragedy and the Origins of Political Community
Norma Thompson. Most Favored Status in Herodotus and Thucydides: Recasting the Athenian Tyrannicides through Solon and Pericles
Gerald Mara: Thucydides and Political Thought
Susan Bickford: âThis Way of Life, This Contestâ: Rethinking Socratic Citizenship
David Roochnik: The Political Drama of Platoâs Republic
Catherine H. Zuckert: Practical Plato
Stephen Salkever: Reading Aristotleâs Nicomachean Ethics and Politics as a Single Course of Lectures: Rhetoric, Politics, and Philosophy
Jill Frank and S. Sara Monoson: Lived Excellence in Aristotleâs Constitution of Athens : Why the Encomium of Theramenes Matters
Ryan K. Balot: The Virtue Politics of Democratic Athens
Fred D. Miller, Jr.: Origins of Rights in Ancient Political Thought
Eric Brown: The Emergence of Natural Law and the Cosmopolis