The stated goal of Bates’ book is “to make the case for the centrality of what Aristotle called ‘the politeia’ and contemporary political scientists call ‘the regime’ in any attempt to have a science of politics” (7). To do this, Bates makes an argument for a shift in how we understand the relationship between the idea of the politeia and the idea of the state. Instead of equating the polis with the state, and finding imperfections in that comparison, Bates argues that scholars should compare the politeia to the state. He goes on to argue that the concept of the state is an outdated and static (and European) model, and that Aristotle’s concept of the politeia offers a means for thinking about regimes that is more flexible, dynamic, and without some of the biases present in current scholarship. Overall, Bates is successful in making his argument, but his means of getting there and some specific elements of his argument undermine his goal.
In his first chapter, Bates addresses the idea of man as a political animal, and shows how later political philosophers have rejected the idea of both human sociability and a natural political community. He challenges those claims by exploring what Aristotle means in his claim that the polis is prior to the individual and the household. He concedes that Aristotle does not explain this well, but that Aeschylus’ Oresteia shows it clearly. The fundamental elements of Bates’ argument here are sound—the Oresteia does show the shift from individual- and family-oriented justice to a more civically minded justice. Athena is able to successfully navigate the tension present because the system she puts in place allows for a diversity of opinion that concludes with a resolution. What is frustrating here are the details of his argument. Bates relies primarily upon Meier (1990), Euben (1990), Hogan (1984), and the introductory essays in the various translations he consulted. He seems unconcerned with any more recent attempts to grapple with the politics of the Oresteia addressed by scholars in either Classics or Political Science. He occasionally presents his own observations in a way that doesn’t acknowledge that they are in fact well-established arguments with long scholarly histories (22, fn 9: “In one sense, Clytemnestra’s desire to revenge Iphigenia’s death, makes her a Fury or at least Fury-like”). Likewise, he sweepingly rejects without argumentation approaches he does not like (25-26, fn 13: “Far from being the male sexists which most feminist interpretations assert they are, the jurors’ outcome is too close to justify such a view.”). He barely engages with the interpretive problems that tragedy presents for those analyzing how it reflects Greek political thought. For example, he erroneously applies Aristotle’s description of Argos and Athens to his analysis of Argos and Athens in the Oresteia (22).
Bates’ seeming lack of interest in the expertise of Classicists is even more apparent at the beginning of his second chapter. In his praise of Mary Dietz’ article (“Between Polis and Empire: Aristotle’s Politics,” 2012), he says, “Dietz generally does a good job showing how Aristotle’s political thought is not confined to the polis and thus something of the past to be relegated to the departments of history or classics” (33). Later, in his critique of Vlassopoulos (2007), he complains that “his work focuses much too narrowly on the debate within the classics and historiographical scholarship, and does not recognize that there is a larger, more theoretical, issue underlying the debate” (34). Bates’ argument, rather, is that the Politics should be studied “on its own terms” (35), by which he means without historical context or broader questions about Aristotle’s philosophy. In part, I appreciate Bates’ goal here – he wants to look at Aristotle’s approach to politics without bringing in outside assumptions – but this should be the first step of his analysis, with a later consideration of how his conclusions fit within our understanding of Aristotle’s works as a whole and within the world of Ancient Greece.
The second chapter explores what Aristotle means by politeia. He discusses the traditional translations of it (constitution or regime) and sides with “regime,” although he generally leaves it as politeia in his analysis of Aristotle’s text. Bates’ choice here signals his alignment with a strand of political theory that originated with Strauss. He goes on to chart a history of misinterpretation of the Politics that is based upon the focus upon Aristotle’s typology of politeia (offered in Book 3) without the exploration of that typology offered in Politics 4-6. He claims that “the model of the politeia found in Politics 4-6 gives one account of Aristotle’s politeia that offers students of politics a complex tool to access and understand the political behavior of any existing political community at any given time.” Bates argues that because Aristotle focuses not on the powers of government, but rather on its functions, his method of analysis survives the polis itself.
The next two chapters shift in focus from an analysis of the Politics to an extended discussion of its reception. His analysis of the political context of Greece and Rome is confusing and riddled with errors typographical and otherwise. For example, he claims that the idea of the mixed constitution is applied to Aristotle by Aquinas, and that it arose as an idea to handle the separation of civil and religious power in the Middle Ages. I agree that the Politics does not necessarily put forth the idea of the mixed constitution per se, but this does not mean that the idea of the mixed constitution was absent from the ancient world (Thucydides Book 8, Polybius Book 6). Where Bates’ book really shines is in his discussion of the difference between concepts of the state and concepts of regimes, and how this difference (or lack of differentiation by thinkers) has affected the reception of Aristotle by political thinkers. Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Hegel all develop the idea of the state as a product of human will rather than natural, and as unitary rather than as a coming together of discrete parts. Bates argues that the motivation for this shift away from Aristotle’s position is historical, because the concept of the state allowed for a clear separation from the power of the church, and a competitive advantage.
Bates goes on to argue that the development of the state into the nation-state provided more reasons to reject Aristotle. The nation-state pushes an idea of the body politic as a unified whole, which does not reflect Aristotle’s idea of the state as a mixture of different parts. Bates argues here for scholars to make a distinction between the European nation-state and the American state. For Bates, the nation-state is defined by its cultural features first (history, language, religion, culture, and ethno-racial makeup, 69), and then its political organization, whereas the state is primarily defined by its political organization, or regime. He claims that the American Revolution was formed independent of the development of the nation-state, which allowed the nation to remain more heterogeneous in intent, until Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address, redefined the United States as a nation state (75). He goes on to attack the Progressive movement for failing to understand or embrace the philosophical ideas of the framers of the U.S Constitution (make the country a state, not a nation-state), and associates the movement with fascism. Bates poses an intriguing avenue of inquiry into an American model of the state as opposed to a European one, but the rhetoric of this section made this reader uncomfortable. Bates seemed to be using key phrases directed at a specific set of scholars (most notably, his reference to J. Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism 2012).
The fourth and last chapter addresses the state of contemporary comparative politics and why Aristotle’s understanding of the politeia might be useful. Bates argues that the attempts to develop new typologies of the state to allow for comparison both globally and historically is both biased and unnecessary. It is biased towards democracy and democratic ideals, which often distort our understanding of how societies are actually organized. It is unnecessary, because Aristotle’s typology and method allows comparative political scientists to evaluate states in “a generally undistorted manner” (91).
This book has a sense of urgency to it; Bates is concerned about the lack of political theory classes required in doctoral programs in political science, and he is concerned that the ideology of the (democratic) state is complicating and even damaging modern politics globally. This sense of urgency, however, also leads to poor editing, incomplete sentences, repetition, and errors of fact that are too many to cite in this review. As a Classicist, rather than a Political Scientist (the obvious intended audience of this book), I was especially attuned to these mistakes in his discussion of the ancient world. That being said, the book is worth reading, for it makes a compelling argument for how an ancient model of thinking about comparative politics might offer new directions for political thinking and diplomacy in the modern world.