BMCR 2020.09.06

Rewriting contemporary political philosophy with Plato and Aristotle. An essay on Eudaimonic politics

, Rewriting contemporary political philosophy with Plato and Aristotle. An essay on Eudaimonic politics. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019. 256 p.. ISBN 9781350066175 $115.00.


Contemporary political philosophy, Paul Schollmeier tells us, has lost its way. Following the examples of John Rawls and Robert Nozick, political philosophers have become “little more than mouthpieces for the status quo” whose theories aim “to justify political societies of the kind that we presently inhabit” (ix). If political philosophy is to help us envision a more just future, it will need a fundamentally different approach. Schollmeier finds such an approach in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, especially in their conception of eudaimonia or happiness as rational activity chosen for its own sake. Of course, we cannot simply replace post-Rawlsian political philosophy with Plato and Aristotle; the ancients got some things wrong and did not face all the same challenges and obstacles that we encounter today. Rather, a contemporary eudaimonic politics will be committed to providing everyone with the opportunities and resources conducive to achieving a co-operative form of “political happiness” primarily constituted by productive labor and craftsmanship, what Schollmeier calls “artisanal happiness” (39). This philosophical perspective also illuminates the errors in the thought of contemporary “moral sophists” (xi) like Rawls and Nozick. Together, the critical and constructive aspects of this project can, Schollmeier hopes, help to “alleviate the disparities of privilege and privation so evident today” (ix).

Following an introduction, the book is divided into three parts. Part One, ‘The Cave: The Turn to the Intelligible,’ devotes one chapter apiece to our nature as rational animals and as political animals. Schollmeier draws liberally on the image of the cave from Plato’s Republic as a kind of alternative to modern state-of-nature theorizing: we do not begin political life in a state of nature, but in a state of naïveté, taking the sensible objects of experience as reality. Philosophy enables us to escape from the cave by transcending the sensible and rising to the level of the intelligible. Our escape remains limited because all human thought and knowledge must remain merely hypothetical, but we can achieve progressively higher levels of understanding when we recognize the reality of the intelligible. So, too, the intelligible is desirable for its own sake, a desirability crucial for our nature as political animals. As rational, we can act on the basis of rational desire for intelligible objects and can desire rational activity for its own sake; our reason is thus not merely a Humean slave of our passions. This capacity to desire the intelligible lies, in turn, at the root of our ability to recognize and participate in co-operative rational activities for their own sake, and so of our political nature. Modern and contemporary philosophers mistakenly adopt narrowly instrumental conceptions of both rationality and politics. The Platonic insight that our reason cognitively grasps the intelligible and can desire it for its own sake clarifies the familiar Aristotelian slogan that human beings are rational and political animals.

Schollmeier departs from Plato and Aristotle, however, in maintaining that productive activity or craft labor can be intrinsically good as a form of rational activity. This departure has major political implications. Unlike philosophical understanding or the exercise of practical virtues in political or military endeavors, excellence in craftsmanship is a goal that all or most individuals can achieve and that a political community can aim to promote for each of its members. A conception of happiness as constituted primarily by the exercise of such excellence therefore allows for a more inclusive sort of eudaimonic politics than we find in Plato or Aristotle, each of whom regards productive labor as at best in tension with virtue and happiness. Schollmeier’s notion of “artisanal happiness” enables him to avoid what is widely regarded as one of the most problematic aspects of classical Greek political philosophy.

Part Two, ‘A Eudaimonic Polity: An Opportunity Overlooked in Contemporary Political Thought,’ contains three chapters devoted to showing the superiority of Schollmeier’s artisan-friendly political eudaimonism to Rawls’ justice as fairness and Nozick’s minimal state libertarianism. Chapter 3 focuses on the notions of freedom and slavery, arguing that Rawls and Nozick both work with deficient understandings of liberty and in effect see human action in a way that Aristotle would regard as inconsistent with voluntary agency. Turning to questions about the distribution of property and wealth, Chapter 4 argues that both Nozick and Rawls offer accounts of “fairness” apart from “rightness”; otherwise put, each tries to articulate and defend principles governing property and wealth without regard to how property and wealth contribute to or detract from people’s happiness. As a result, each allows for extreme inequality and destitution. Aristotle’s superior alternative subordinates questions of distribution and property to considerations of happiness and therefore avoids these problems. Chapter 5 takes a broader perspective, highlighting different conceptions of public and private and the relation between them. Rawls and Nozick see political community, and indeed human society quite generally, as of primarily instrumental value for the satisfaction of private individual desires. They therefore inevitably rationalize political societies that meet Plato’s and Aristotle’s descriptions of corrupt constitutions, subordinating the common good to private good. By contrast, Plato and Aristotle see the shared life of a political community as an intrinsic good by no means subordinate to individual desires. So Rawls and Nozick can see justice only as “an external constraint imposed upon pleonectic and hedonic doings” (117), and hence offer “a Calliclean polity” meant to “rationalize mitigated greed” (91).

A recurrent theme in Schollmeier’s critique of Rawls and Nozick is that they wrongly see human beings as “passional animals” (25) for whom reason and sociality ultimately function solely or primarily as instruments for the satisfaction of non-rational desire. Part Three, ‘The Cave Again: the Daunting Prospect of Political Tragedy,’ presents a single chapter, ‘Poetical Animals,’ that elaborates this theme. Plato’s cave has a “theatrical aspect” (7), and as a model for ordinary social life it suggests that political society is a “theatocracy” (9, 126). Theory, too, is a kind of poetry, and as such it has the potential to go wrong in the same way as poetry and all forms of imitation, by appealing to and cultivating the non-rational aspects of our nature at the expense of the rational. Theory can do this no less than tragedy, and it is in this sense that political philosophy can become tragic. Rawls and Nozick offer tragic political theories in just that sense: their theories appeal primarily to our non-rational passions rather than our reason. In so doing, they rationalize polities that may promote the satisfaction of some people’s desires, but not justice or happiness rightly understood.

In broad strokes, this picture of Schollmeier’s philosophical project might seem familiar. Its main features are these: (1) a perfectionist account of the good as the exercise of our natural capacities, in contrast to various subjectivist accounts on which the good consists in or depends on a subject’s desires or other attitudes; (2) a perfectionist account of politics on which the goal of politics is to promote the good so understood, in contrast to various neutralist accounts on which politics properly aims instead at protecting rights, autonomy, or some other more limited end; these are buttressed by (3) a rationalist moral psychology in which reason plays a constitutive and not merely instrumental role in our motivational economy. Each of these views is commonly attributed to Plato and Aristotle and has played a prominent role in contrasts between ancient and modern political philosophy. Moreover, each of these views has significant contemporary support, and theoretical packages including some version of them are standard options on the menu of contemporary Anglo-American political philosophy: so-called ‘communitarian’ critics of liberalism, liberal perfectionists, natural law theorists, and proponents of the ‘capabilities approach’ all endorse claims like these; all critique at least some central aspects of the theories of Rawls and Nozick; and many cite Aristotle, at least, as inspiration.[1] The familiarity of such views poses one significant problem for Schollmeier’s book: it presents a distorted picture of contemporary political philosophy as dominated by theories like those of Nozick and Rawls, where one in fact finds a much greater theoretical diversity, prominently including theories that significantly resemble Schollmeier’s own.

Schollmeier’s depiction of Rawls and Nozick as representative of contemporary Anglo-American political philosophy therefore misrepresents the field and its critical character. No more apt is the characterization of Nozick and Rawls as simply rationalizing the status quo. A Nozickian minimal state will dispense with most or all taxation, economic regulation, and redistribution of wealth; there is room for debate about how exactly that would look and whether it would be a good thing, but there is no question that it would look very different from most polities today. Likewise, no existing or historical state has satisfied Rawls’ two principles of justice; some contemporary states may come considerably closer than the U.S., but Rawlsheld that neither welfare-state capitalism nor state socialism can do so.[2] Beyond this mischaracterization of Nozick’s and Rawls’ general aims, Schollmeier’s treatment of them often borders on caricature, and many of his objections appear to rest on misunderstandings. Nozick’s view of the narrowly limited scope of enforceable morality, for example, is mistakenly presented as a view about what people should care about (79, 83-4, 132). Similarly, the limited motivations of the parties in Rawls’ Original Position are mistakenly conflated with the motivations of citizens in a well-ordered society, and the Rawlsian ‘primary goods’ are apparently misconstrued as ends (62, 90, 105-9, 133). Neither Rawls nor Nozick is plausibly interpreted as a hedonist, as Schollmeier repeatedly describes them; Nozick’s famous experience machine indirectly illustrates a distinction between hedonistic and preference-satisfaction theories that Schollmeier does not adequately recognize.[3] The distinction helps avoid obscuring the ways in which Rawls and Nozick, quite unlike Plato’s Callicles or Thrasymachus, operate with a powerful moral ideal of the person as a source of value and worthy of respect; we give our ends value by choosing them, but our ends need not be, and often are not, pleasures or any other subjective states of ours. This ideal conflicts with the perfectionist eudaimonism that Schollmeier rightly finds in Plato and Aristotle, but it is a moral ideal and not simply a device for the gratification of base self-interest. In his insistence on treating Rawls and Nozick as “moral sophists,” Schollmeier misses the opportunity to set up a fruitful dialectical encounter between Platonic-Aristotelian perfectionism and liberal ideals of the autonomous self.

The book’s positive arguments do not fare much better than its critiques of Rawls and Nozick. In fact, the book offers little in the way of argument for its central positive theses, opting instead to “defer to Plato and Aristotle for an exposition and defense” (ix) of happiness as rational activity and of human beings as rational and political animals. That deference does not take the form of responding to the many serious objections raised to the various features of their perfectionist eudaimonism. Nor does the book offer much defense of its sometimes eccentric interpretations of Plato and Aristotle, instead disavowing interest in “the minutiae of scholarly commentary” (xiii). Specialists in ancient philosophy will therefore likely find the book’s limited engagement with primary texts and recent scholarship disappointingly meagre. Perhaps the best thing about the book is that it might encourage readers to read (or re-read) Plato, Aristotle, Rawls, and Nozick for themselves.


[1] Communitarianism: Michael Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, 2nd ed. (Cambridge 1998), Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals (Chicago 1999); Perfectionist liberalism: Joseph Raz, The Morality of Freedom (Oxford 1986), George Sher, Beyond Neutrality (Cambridge 1997). Natural law: John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford 1980), Mark C. Murphy, Natural Law in Jurisprudence and Politics (Cambridge 2006). Capabilities approach: Martha Nussbaum, Women and Human Development (Cambridge 2000).

[2] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge MA, 1999), xiv-xvi, 228-51.

[3] Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York 1974), 42-45.