BMCR 2021.12.35

Conflict in Aristotle’s political philosophy

, Conflict in Aristotle's political philosophy. SUNY series in ancient Greek philosophy. Albany: SUNY Press, 2019. Pp. xviii, 284. ISBN 9781438476575 $95.00.


Steven Skultety’s Conflict in Aristotle’s political philosophy attempts to (1) give a nuanced view of conflict in Aristotle’s political thought; (2) systematize that view; and (3) begin a conversation between that systematized Aristotelian view of conflict and contemporary democratic theory (pp. x-xiv).

In the first chapter of Part I, Skultety uses a thorough exploration of the Greek word stasis in Aristotle’s works to argue that for Aristotle the term means exclusively “civil war” (5). Despite the word’s broader Greek usage, Skultety argues that Aristotle refers to stasis only when referring to armed combat between competing factions in which, usually, at least one of these factions desires to overturn the existing constitution. More specifically, Skultety analyzes Aristotle’s discussion of the material and psychological causes of stasis and how they differ from the causes in Plato’s outline of revolution in the Republic (other comparanda include historical narratives such as those of Thucydides, Polybius, and The Athenian Constitution). Drawing such strict boundaries around stasis, Skultety argues, allows one to reexamine Aristotle’s broader approach to conflicts involving smaller stakes than those of full-blown civil war.

The second chapter explores the conflict generated by extreme partisanship in the polis (albeit the sort of conflict that still falls short of civil war). Skultety begins by rejecting both Marxist class-conflict interpretations and more nuanced pluralist readings of Aristotle. Instead, Skultety argues that partisan conflict in the polis is for Aristotle a matter of competing visions of the good that in turn affect or even shape each side’s definitions of happiness, justice, virtue, and politics. Because of their deep devotion to these competing visions, democrats and oligarchs cannot be reconciled with each other in their emotions or judgments and instead live in a constant state of what Skultety labels “discriminatory elitism.” The result is that the best possible circumstances in such a state involve a slow-burning tension between the competing partisan groups.

Having deescalated from stasis to extreme partisanship, the third chapter—“Managing Mistrust in Average Cities”—explores what might be considered the normal level of discontent to which every state will be subject and which must be handled by the governing authorities. Skultety calls this “managed mistrust” (58). As we might expect from Aristotle, each form of government has a form of mistrust unique to it which the government must manage. Rule by one person, for example, runs into the problem of optics. Regardless of the inherent ability or virtue of the sole ruler (that is, without regard to whether the individual is a tyrant or a monarch), the individual will have to take actions that have the appearance of arrogance and oppression. Consequently Aristotle offers suggestions as to how these appearances may be offset, or “managed”, by the ruler.

Likewise the “partisan” governments (cf. again Chapter 2) of oligarchy and democracy have their own forms of mistrust that likewise must be managed. Counter to our expectations, “Aristotle believes that these constitutions possess surprisingly common congenital defects, share systematic threats, and even require similar solutions to address their problems” (67). Oligarchies will have poor democrats who (correctly) see themselves boxed out of power; while democracies will have wealthy oligarchs who despise the disorder of rule by the many poor. In either case, hostility between the factions is the source of the mistrust in question which must in turn be managed and, ideally, mitigated by the government.

Even the best form of government, “polity” or “mixed government”, has its own structural issues that lead to mistrust among at least some of the populace. In this case, it is that a government has been formed that incorporates both the oligarchs and the democrats in a way that might technically result in good government, but which also results in both sides despising it as giving too many concessions to those awful partisans on the other side. The answer—possibly the only answer given how unlikely Aristotle thinks this form of government is—is to have such a large “middle” that the two sides of the debate are squashed by the energy of a contented middle class.

The second part of Conflict in Aristotle’s Political Philosophy begins (Chapter 4) by pointing out that, contrary to Plato’s perfect polis where the political powers are united in their perception of the good and subsequently always act in harmony, Aristotle sees space for disagreement even between the elite ranks of virtuous citizens. Drawing heavily from the Nicomachean Ethics and the Rhetoric, Skultety argues that Aristotle’s understanding of logic and debate allows for, and even requires, circumstances with imperfect knowledge wherein good-faith debaters can reasonably come to different conclusions. This can certainly be the case before formal public deliberation in a government body, but it can also be the case during and after government action. In other words, even “perfect” citizens are working in an imperfect world and with imperfect materials which can affect the outcome of legitimate reasoning.

The weakness of Skultety’s argument in this chapter is the question of whether this kind of “political disagreement” is really what we mean when we use a word like “conflict.” Skultety is aware of this weakness, and simply responds that Aristotle understands the perfect state to be one that can resolve meaningful disagreement by its own methods, rather than a Platonic state that is always unified. This distinction affects the overall view of citizenship—and of conflict—in Aristotle’s philosophy and so must be accounted for.

In Chapter 5 (“Contending for Civic Flourishing”), Skultety argues that the ‘best’ citizens do not just compete with each other in collapsing states—such competition (especially political competition) is a feature of even healthy states. Not only will conflict happen between such citizens but, in Aristotle’s view, this conflict is a good and necessary part of a flourishing state. Certainly there are ways in which the competition of the elites can go wrong both for the individuals involved and for the state as whole, just as there are ways in which athletic competitions can be bad for the athletes and bad for the spectators alike (144). But a healthy state with virtuous leadership and virtuous citizens will have virtuous competition as one way in which policies are decided and leaders are chosen.

In Part Three (Chapters 6 and 7), Skultety brings Aristotle into the modern world by placing him in conversation with the tradition of political philosophy. Specifically, he argues that Aristotle is as concerned with both the nature of conflict and its political results as more recent thinkers like Machiavelli and Hobbes. Skultety’s point is not that Aristotle is a crypto-liberal in ancient garb. Rather, he argues that Aristotle is wrestling with the same ideas and conflicts with which later liberal writers would engage. What is more, Aristotle is wrestling with these ideas and conflicts in a way that has a sort-of anticipation of contemporary democratic theory—especially the contemporary democratic theory known as “plebiscitarianism.”

Overall, this book is a thoughtful and thorough analysis of exactly what the title identifies: conflict in Aristotle’s political philosophy. The primary weakness of this book is that Skultety relies heavily at times on the later books of the Politics, which are notoriously incomplete. And yet, by drawing on the wider Aristotelian canon, Skultety offsets this weakness in a way that is consistent and coherent. Conflict in Aristotle’s political philosophy will be of use and interest to any who want a deeper understanding of Aristotle’s political thought or who want to see how ancient philosophers are relevant to contemporary affairs.