Aristotle on Political Community

It’s been a week since we had a new post here, and I vaguely remember making some gesture toward an intention to help keep up regular posts while Irfan is off taking pictures in Palestine and Israel. Since I currently find myself bereft of thoughts that are sufficiently interesting and complex for a blog post that would not take me hours to compose, I’ll resort to my usual strategy for moments like these: self-promotion.

As of July 31st*, you will be able to purchase my book, Aristotle on Political Community, published by Cambridge University Press and guaranteed to be the single best monograph on Aristotle’s political philosophy published on the final day of July this year. Well, I suppose you already can buy it, since it is available for pre-order, but let’s not worry about those kinds of details. None of you will buy it anyway, because like so many academic books these days it is outrageously overpriced. But perhaps you’ll be able to check it out from your library, should you find yourself with a library that purchases such books or makes them available via interlibrary loan. In any event, I do hope that some of the four or five readers of this blog who are not regular contributors will manage to read it. I’ve been trying to write books for over twenty years and I finally managed it, so it’d be a shame if the only people who read it are people who get free copies in order to review it.

One virtue of the book is its handsome cover:

A further virtue is that it is, by some standard at least, well written and interesting, but will probably provoke you to disagree with it. As an anonymous referee for the press put it:

It is rare to read something so beautifully written and argued, especially about the Politics, and especially something so technically sophisticated and theoretically aware and accomplished. I may have some disagreements with it on particular issues, but overall it is a great achievement, I think, and should make a major impact on work on the Politics, and on Aristotle, for whose way of arguing the author has an unusual sensitivity.

But it won’t have any impact unless you read it. So why should you want to? After all, there is more enchanting prose outside the world of Aristotelian scholarship, and you can appreciate the cover without opening it. So what is this book about?

In one way, the book is as ambitious as its title suggests: it aims to develop and defend an interpretation of what Aristotle thinks political community is. But of course we all know a thing or two about what Aristotle thinks political community is: it is a kind of community in which citizens take turns ruling and being ruled for the sake of living well, sharing together in the intrinsically valuable activity of participatory citizenship that is central to a fully flourishing human life. Except that, according to this book, that’s not right.

Despite its ambitious aim, the book begins and ends with an interpretive problem that most readers of the Politics have taken to be a fairly minor, localized puzzle: Aristotle defends kingship, and yet kingship seems blatantly inconsistent with his general claims about what political community and membership in it are. It turns out, though, that the problems that arise with Aristotle’s defense of kingship apply much more broadly. The general problem of which kingship is just the most extreme manifestation is that Aristotle seems to endorse two inconsistent theses: (1) participatory citizenship is an intrinsically valuable component of a good human life, and political community exists to foster it; (2) justice demands that political participation be distributed to those who are best able to exercise it, and in many cases those best able to exercise it are a small minority. This is bad enough, but it gets worse; suffice to say that if Aristotle’s defense of kingship really follows from his theory of justice in the way he seems to think it does, then a great deal of what he says about what political community is and why it is valuable is inconsistent with his theory of justice.

Simply put, the book’s thesis is that Aristotle’s theory of justice is in fact consistent with his views of the nature and value of political community. To simplify a very great deal, there are two reasons why the the charge of inconsistency fails and prominent traditional interpretations of Aristotle are mistaken: (a) citizenship — which Aristotle takes to be a matter of sharing in political rule — is consistent with hierarchy, and (b) political participation is neither an intrinsic good nor strictly necessary for living a flourishing human life.

The latter thesis has been held by some prominent scholars, but has not been adequately defended. In particular, those who have denied that Aristotle regards citizenship as an intrinsically valuable component of a good human life have failed to show convincingly why he nonetheless regards it as an important good that every free person should, ceteris paribus, want. The former thesis has not, so far as I know, been defended at length, at least not in a very plausible way. Standard views of what it means to share in rule do not allow for some citizens to hold higher positions of authority except temporarily and by turns with all other citizens. I try to show not only that this is definitely not what Aristotle means, but that what he does mean is quite sensible and, even in a kingship, gives ordinary citizens a greater share of rule than what ordinary citizens of modern representative democracies actually possess.

So it’s a book about how to interpret Aristotle, and people who go in for close textual analysis and philological detail will be richly rewarded whether or not they accept its conclusions. But it’s also a book about the big picture of what Aristotle thinks politics is and what it’s for. I’m not sure that it has any grand insights or lessons for contemporary politics or political philosophy, but I do think that anyone who takes Aristotle to provide an important perspective for thinking about human life and action ought to find it somehow interesting in one way or another, even if only as a detailed elaboration of an alternative that cannot really get any purchase in modern political life.

In any case, I hope you read it, or at least add it to your impossibly long list of books that you’d like to read someday, provided you survive long enough.


[Update 7/22/16: Apparently now the release date will be August 31st. We’ll see about that. Some day there will be physical copies of this book for sale.]

2 thoughts on “Aristotle on Political Community

  1. Pingback: Enticement | Policy of Truth

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