BMCR 2014.11.28

Aristotle on the Nature of Community

, Aristotle on the Nature of Community. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. xiii, 239. ISBN 9781107036253. $95.00.


Adriel M. Trott’s Aristotle on the Nature of the Community examines Aristotle’s Politics by placing his understanding of nature ( physis) at the center of political life. According to Trott, the human being and the polis operate according to natural ends which allow both entities to fulfill their nature, although the political ends of both the citizen and the polis will always remain incomplete as citizens will continually deliberate among themselves over the political community’s goals. By reclaiming nature at the center of political life, the book makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of Aristotle’s political thought and how it could be applicable to contemporary political questions of citizenship, democracy, and community.

In her introduction, Trott reviews the literature on Aristotle’s account of physis and its relationship to his political thought. She also outlines her interpretative strategy of reading Aristotle in a way that seeks consistency of terms across Aristotle’s corpus, offering explanations that deny contradictions in the text, and avoiding anachronistic notions about the self, nature, and freedom. The introduction concludes with an outline of the argument which claims that Aristotle’s conception of nature is not only an internal, teleological principle that arises out of activity but plays a key role in his political thought.

In the first chapter, Trott argues that Aristotle’s principle of physis is an internal source of change whereby a natural thing organizes and orders itself toward its end from within itself. In contrast to artificial things, physis retains a relationship between its source and its end in such a way that a natural thing continues to work on actualizing its end. Physis therefore is both a natural thing’s end, as determined by its internal principle, and the activity to fulfill that end. This conception of physis offers a new insight into Aristotle’s claim that the polis is natural, with logos being both the source and the telos of the polis. The polis is natural in that it manifests itself in the activity that defines it, i.e. according to its citizens’ logos about what counts as living well.

This interpretation about the naturalness of the polis is continued in the next chapter where Trott examines the four arguments in Book 1 of the Politics that support this position: (1) the genetic argument, that the polis develops from the first communities; (2) the telic argument, that the polis fulfills its end; (3) the linguistic argument, that human beings actualize their capacity for logos within the polis; and (4) the parts/whole argument, which positions the polis as a whole as prior to its individual parts. In examining each argument, Trott illuminates how contemporary understandings of Aristotle reveal more about modern presuppositions about freedom, the individual, and the individual’s relationship to the community than about Aristotle’s assertion of the naturalness of the polis. For Trott, freedom in Aristotle does not imply individual autonomy, but is instead a reciprocal relationship between the individual and the community embodied in the citizens’ deliberative activity about living well. Thus, the four arguments that Aristotle makes about the naturalness of the polis represent the four different ways in which the polis is natural because it arises from within itself in its continued effort to achieve its end.

The third chapter explores logos as an activity that not only fulfills the end of a human being but also is fundamental to political activity. To actualize our end of having a just and good life, human beings require others as fellow citizens to share in a common logos about the ends of the polis. The communal nature of logos testifies to Aristotle’s claim that self-sufficiency ( autarkeia) is achieved only in the political life. To those who interpret Aristotle as favoring the philosophical life over the political one, Trott shows the compatibility between the two, with the theoria of the philosophical life being political in the sense that it is concerned about living well for the community as well as for the individual. Relying upon Sarah Broadie’s Ethics with Aristotle and Mary Nichols’ Citizens and Statesmen, Trott argues that theoria is not an apolitical activity but a political one, as it studies politics and requires the practical and political virtue of phronesis for its existence. Just as theoria is dependent on phronesis for securing its conditions of existence, the philosophical life is dependent on the political life to support and organize its presence. As a result, the philosophical and political lives are interdependent, and each requires the other in order to exist.

The next chapter illuminates how Aristotle’s definition of a human being as political resolves the tension between what is due to human action and what is due to nature. Human beings are both natural and rational, with the result that the polis is natural even as it is formed out of the rational activity of human beings. By denying this dichotomy between reason and nature, Aristotle conceives of political life as nature and legitimizes it as such in logos. Freedom consequently is understood as the capacity of a person or the polis to achieve its ends as determined by its logos, which is both a natural and political activity for Trott.

As a result of this compatibility between reason and nature, Aristotle’s polis is not based on what it excludes but on what it manifests in activity, with the final cause of the polis determined by the logos of its citizens. In Chapter Five, Trott explores how this final cause is determined by looking at the relationship between deliberation and the polis ’ constitution. The constitution is the form of the polis insofar as it is the order and fulfillment of the polis and its citizens seek to preserve it through further involvement in ruling it. This strategy for preserving the constitution shows that the deliberative process actually makes the polis what it is rather than any law or pronouncement about it. The constitution is not a rigid structure, but is the activity of the citizens directing the community to preserve itself in light of the determination of its ends. Thus, the polis is grounded only in itself while simultaneously aiming to fulfill and preserve itself, making its citizens vigilant about its community and conscious of threats against its stability.

However, Aristotle’s treatment of slaves and women is potential cause of instability for the polis. This topic is treated in Chapter Six where Trott argues that the exclusion of women from political life is not a necessary element of Aristotle’s political theory and that the good slave who fulfills its end is actually no longer a slave. According to Trott, Aristotle’s treatment of women and slaves is really Aristotle’s critique of despotic rule and distinguishing it from political rule. Aristotle’s criticism of those who refuse to share in ruling implies that women and slaves, who are excluded from political life but have deliberative capacity, should partake in it. The inclusion of those excluded in political life results in a more stable polis for both those marginalized groups and the political community as a whole.

The conclusion provides practical examples of how Aristotle’s political thought can aid us in understanding contemporary political reality. In contrast to social-contract theory and nation-state politics, Aristotle’s theory of citizenship defines one as a citizen according to one’s political action rather than formal recognition by a state. The Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement are two examples of how the dual work of deliberation and constitution are needed to perpetuate political life in the community. Aristotle’s account of deliberation, of what constitutes a practical end and what actions best achieve it, and his understanding of authority as grounded in physis offers an alternative to a view of political communities that stresses the relations between rulers and ruled.

Aristotle on the Nature of the Community is a fresh account of Aristotle’s theory of politics as an alternative to how political communities are conceived today. Versed in the latest scholarship about Aristotle and providing a judicious use of textual evidence, Trott’s account of Aristotle is stimulating and original. My only concerns about the book are Trott’s interpretation of Aristotle’s views on women and on slavery. Although Trott admits that Aristotle’s cultural limitations are more apparent in his treatment of women than in his understanding of slavery, her reliance on interpreting Aristotle’s references to poetic metaphors in his writing on women rather than addressing his non- metaphorical comments on them seems to obscure rather than clarify his account of women as a group excluded from political life. Trott’s case for including women as participants in Aristotelian political deliberation is wanting in this respect.

Regarding slavery, Aristotle recognizes that it is contrary to the nature of all human beings; yet, there are certain people, Aristotle maintains, whose disposition can only be accurately described as slavish ( Politics 1254b14-18 ). These people are able to participate in logos only to the extent they can perceive it but do not possess it, thereby making slaves by nature (1254b21-4). Thus, it appears that slaves, whether good or bad, are deficient in some way according to Aristotle, and that slavery is more than an empty concept, as Trott claims. It would seem the simplest way to make sense about Aristotle’s account of slavery is to not to deny it but just recognize that Aristotle accepted it.

In spite of these two concerns, Trott’s Aristotle on the Nature of the Community is a thought-provoking book that hopefully will encourage debate not only among Aristotelian scholars but also among contemporary political thinkers about questions of citizenship, democracy, and political life. Her work provides a blueprint of how to make Aristotle relevant in today’s world in addressing existing problems like political organization, civic participation, and the purpose of politics itself. Instead of being tucked away in the corner of the ivory tower, Trott brings Aristotle out into the public square to deliberate about what sort of political life citizens want and could have in common with their communities.