- Paperback: 289 pages
- Publisher: Hackett Publishing Company (March 15, 1998)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0872203883
- ISBN-13: 978-0872203884
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 82 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #71,352 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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. . . this is an accurate translation which is well-presented and written in reasonably natural English. It makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the Politics. . . . of the complete translations I have seen, I would regard this one as first choice for Greekless students at the postgraduate and more advanced undergraduate levels. For these students accuracy is of prime importance, and they should be able to make good use of the introduction and other supporting material that Reeve offers. I would also recommend this version to anyone lacking Greek who wants to do serious scholarly work on the Politics. --R. F. Stalley, in Polis
This is an admirable translation, meticulous in its attention to Aristotle's Greek and judicious in its phrasing and choice of terms. It should prove invaluable to beginning students and scholars alike. --Richard Kraut, Northwestern University
The beautifully crafted English of Reeve's translation is as crisp and lucid as Aristotle's Greek. One is constantly impressed with Reeve's instinct for the right word in rendering the rich vocabulary of Aristotle's thoughts about politics and for his ability to capture the subtleties of Aristotelian syntax. Highly recommended. --David Keyt, University of Washington
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Greek --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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The idealist tradition inaugurated by Plato led to the rise of universal, all-encompassing theories. That is, those which assert that there is a single unifying principle tying up together economics, politics, ethics, and social organization, and that this principle (whichever it may be) is suitable for any society at any time and place. Hence, Rousseaunianism, Socialism, Communism.
The "realist" tradition springing from Aristotle simply says that human problems can not be resolved by magical formulas or recipes. Social situations can not be severed from their immediate environment. Aristotle, then, classifies possible types of systems and defines their advantages and disadvantages for different types of societies. His approach, then, is that there can be no universal and general solutions or organizing principles. Aristotle is absolutely practical in his approach, as opposed to the theoretical systems imagined (as opposed to observed) by Plato. Hence: liberalism, Realpolitik, capitalism, democracy (or I should say "capitalisms" and "democracies", since there are very different varieties of these systems). Aristotle examines then distinct kinds of Constitutions, what they require to be effective, and what effects they might bring upon.
Read it, then, for a clear and well-ordered exposition of themes, subthemes, and advice. Here you will find the origin of half of Western political thought. And precisely the half that seems to be winning the race.
There are moments in "The Politics" when the reputation Aristotle has enjoyed for 20+ centuries as a practically minded, rational thinker seems well deserved. In examining the six forms of constitutions and their subtypes, he objectively weighs the merits of each and his recommendations are guided by pragmatism rather than idealism. For example, Aristotle, like Plato, is no fan of democracy; his preferred social hierarchy favors the well-born and well-educated. However, he accepts "the people" as a necessary evil, and he is shrewd enough to recognize them as a potentially powerful political force and one that must be placated. Thus, his ideal constitution is not, as we might expect, an aristocracy, which he dismisses as unrealistic, but what he calls a polity, a mixture of democracy and oligarchy that leans more towards democracy. Aristotle's polity includes a strong middle element (similar to our middle class) which serves as a buffer between the two extremes, the wealthy and the poor, and thus stabilizes the government and discourages factionalism. Aristotle's willingness to be flexible, promoting a polity rather than an aristocracy because a polity has a greater chance of permanence, is in keeping with his view that stability is the crucial factor in any form of government. Aristotle believes that each of the various sub-populations within the state must have a vested interest in keeping the constitution as it is, or else one of the groups will attempt to undermine the regime.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the section in which Aristotle offers Machiavellian-style advice to everyone from tyrants to demagogues regarding how best to keep the different groups within a society happy. It is important, he stresses, to appease those who are not in power. As he points out, "The constitution ought, if possible, to command the support of all citizens; short of that, at least those who exercise sovereign power should not be regarded as enemies by them." A mixed constitution, or at least the appearance of such, augurs well for stability. Thus, the best way to preserve an oligarchy is make it seem as little like an oligarchy as possible. This can be achieved by incorporating elements of democracy. Conversely, the best way to preserve a democracy is to introduce oligarchic or aristocratic elements. The best way to preserve a tyranny is for the tyrant to embrace whichever of the two sections is the more powerful, the wealthy or the poor, and to give those people special privileges, thus convincing them the tyranny is not really a tyranny.
Perceptions are sometimes more important than reality, Aristotle craftily observes. The wise leader will realize that as long as "the people" believe that they have a voice in government, they often are willing to hand actual authority over to others. For example, Aristotle is of the opinion that "qualitatively inferior" free men, i.e., the poor and uneducated, should not hold positions of power in government: "They are not men of wealth, and have no claims to virtue in anything...To let them share in the highest offices is to take a risk: inevitably, their unjust standards will cause them to commit injustice, and their lack of judgment will lead them into error." However, he is savvy enough to recognize that the way to keep the poor out of office is not to formally exclude them from politics. The mob generally does not take kindly to aristocratic or oligarchic forms of government, and excluding the poor will only rile them up. Instead, Aristotle advises leaders to `think outside the box', for example by declaring government positions non-paying. Without a profit motive, free men will lose interest in these roles because they are unable to afford to devote a lot of time to non-paying jobs; the positions then will be filled by wealthy men with plenty of leisure time. Problem solved. With similar cunning, Aristotle points out that democracies work best when most of the qualitatively inferior people are agricultural workers whose farms require much attention. These people technically will have the right to vote, but in actuality they will be reluctant to leave their farms and travel long distances to the assemblies. Instead, the votes will be cast by wealthy men with plenty of leisure time. This, of course, results in a situation that is more of an aristocracy or oligarchy than a democracy - but no one's complaining.
The fact that Aristotle regards some people - actually, most people -- as "qualitatively inferior" provides a good segue into a discussion of the less appealing aspects of "The Politics." First, there are Aristotle's peculiar beliefs about who is worthy of citizenship. Traders, craftsmen, seamen, agricultural workers, and anyone who does any sort of paid work are all deemed unworthy -- on the grounds that they are lacking in virtue. Aristotle's logic here is difficult to unravel. He trots out and embellishes some of the ideas he presented in "Nicomachean Ethics" and formulates the following argument: 1) "Virtue has to do with enjoying oneself in the right way, with liking and hating the right things." 2)"Happiness cannot exist apart from virtue." 3) Virtue and happiness are integral to achieving "the good life," which is a condition in which men live up to their fullest potential as human beings. 4) Government has a purpose. Its purpose is to allow people to achieve happiness and the good life, both of which require virtue. 5) Virtue must be cultivated, which requires time and leisure. 6) People who work for a living don't have much time and leisure. Therefore, working for a living "is not noble, and it militates against virtue." Ergo, people who work for a living are operating at cross purposes with the state and don't deserve to be citizens. Aside from the snobbery inherent in such an outlook, Aristotle's view seems at odds with his famous pragmatism. When we consider that he also wants to exclude foreigners, resident aliens, women, any man who can't afford his own weapons, and the sizeable slave population from participation in government, Aristotle seems to be putting his citizens in the position of being dangerously outnumbered. No one is more aware than Aristotle of the perils of having "outsiders" in the majority - always, he keeps a wary eye on the mob - so it's difficult to understand why his ideal state is one in which citizens are at such a numerical disadvantage.
In my opinion, Aristotle's greatest weakness as a thinker is a certain "barrenness of the imaginative faculty," to borrow a line from Charles Lamb. He is able to learn from the past, to devise solutions to current problems, and even to anticipate future problems within existing systems, but he is unable to envision a society fundamentally different from the one in which he is living. For example, the partisan squabbling of our own age, with Democrats and Republicans trying to outmaneuver one another at every turn, is inconceivable to Aristotle because in his view, "the people" cannot think for themselves and will always vote as a bloc: he assures us that "internal faction within a democracy virtually never occurs." He can be flexible within certain parameters, sometimes surprisingly so (e.g., in proposing a welfare relief system that would promote prosperity by offering land or skills-training to members of the lower classes). Ultimately, however, he distrusts innovation and change of any kind. For example, Aristotle acknowledges that some laws are bad and unjust, but he nonetheless argues that they should remain on the books because changing laws could lead to dangerous egalitarian thinking on the part of the citizenry: "(A) man will receive less benefit from changing the law than damage from being accustomed to disobey authority."
Aristotle is particularly unimaginative when it comes to the subject of women and their role in society. Because he exerted such influence on medieval thought, he probably did more to perpetuate centuries of misogyny and inequality than any other Classical writer. Although Aristotle's more outrageous statements about women - e.g., that they are "not fully human" and are essentially infertile males - are reserved for other works, there is plenty of anti-female sentiment to go around in "The Politics." Aristotle believed that the deliberative faculty in women is ineffective, that they are "naturally" inferior to men, and that they should play a subordinate role in society on account of this inferiority. In "The Politics," Aristotle takes it as a given that men should rule over women, arguing that it's one of the classic ruler-ruled relationships seen in nature, just like the soul over the body, rational over the irrational, mankind over other beasts, etc. (He uses a similar teleological argument to justify slavery, as I will discuss shortly.) As rulers of women, men must be ever vigilant. Aristotle regards women as a potentially subversive element. If not kept under tight control, they actually present a danger to the constitution. Women are likely to support tyrannies and democracies, he claims, and if you give them an inch they will take a mile. Although otherwise admiring of Sparta, Aristotle rails against that city-state's out-of-control females. Spartan women enjoyed a certain amount of freedom: unlike most Athenian women, they received an education, they could possess property in their own right, and fewer restrictions were placed upon their movement. Aristotle does not like this at all. He says of Sparta: "(I)n the days of their supremacy a great deal was managed by women. And what is the difference between women ruling and rulers ruled by women? The result is the same" (presumably disaster). Aristotle's ideal society would include an official known as the "controller of women" who would monitor the movements of women and ensure that they did not venture far from their proper sphere, the home.
Some might defend Aristotle's views of women on the grounds that he was a product of his times; his opinions reflected commonly held societal views. While this is true, at least one of his contemporaries was challenging the status quo: Aristotle's teacher, Plato. In both the "Republic" and the "Laws," Plato had argued for an expanded political role for women, stating that there was no reason why women, given the proper education and training, could not become fully functioning citizens and even effective rulers. Plato believed that women, while weaker than men, are capable of exhibiting the same restraint, justice, and courage as men, but Aristotle attacks this idea in "The Politics." While Aristotle does not explicitly say that women should be deprived of citizenship (some females were considered citizens during Aristotle's time although they had limited rights), the definition of a citizen which he provides in "The Politics" precludes the possibility of a female citizen. Aristotle's position on the subject of women again calls into question his reputation as a practical thinker. Plato's "feminism" is actually much more practical. It makes no sense to exclude 50% of the population from participation in government, especially when one considers that Aristotle has already excluded all of the traders, craftsmen, seamen, agricultural workers, resident aliens, foreigners, poor people, and slaves. Doing so creates exactly the sort of situation he is always worrying about, i.e., one in which those who do not benefit from the constitution outnumber those who do. What happens to Aristotle's ideal city-state if these groups become disgruntled and decide to join forces?
Aristotle's logic and rationality abandon him completely in the chapters that deal with slavery. This is the weakest section of "The Politics." His attempts to justify the institution of slavery are feeble and poorly argued. He tells us that some people are "slaves by nature." Natural slaves, according to Aristotle, possess no virtue and no reason, and should be regarded as pieces of property and nothing more. One way to identify a "natural slave" is by body type. Most slaves are muscular, Aristotle observes. Whereas a rational person might conclude that slaves are muscular because years of hard physical labor have resulted in bodies well suited for such tasks, this point somehow eludes Aristotle. Instead, he's convinced that the explanation must lie in the fact that nature has given slaves the bodies they will need for slavery whereas wealthy men have bodies "useless for that kind of work, but well suited for the life of a citizen of a state." Brilliant logic! He admits that there are exceptions to this rule - sometimes a free man will have the physique of a slave, and vice versa - but the slave will reveal himself by his inferior soul. How will we identify those with inferior souls? Elsewhere in "The Politics" he mentions that those with inferior souls are inferior because they lack freedom, wealth, education and good birth. If we follow Aristotle's line of reasoning, a slave's status as a slave will be sufficient proof of his inferior soul because slaves usually lack all of these things. Such circuitous arguments are typical of this section of "The Politics."
Aristotle tries to prove that slavery is not merely justified but morally just, arguing that because "natural slaves" have no ability to reason, they are incapable of ruling themselves and need a master to rule over them. Therefore, the institution of slavery is a good thing because slaves actually benefit from the arrangement. Aristotle's contemporaries obviously saw some flaws in this logic because Aristotle feels compelled to defend himself against those who "hold it to be indefensible that a man who has been overpowered by the violence and superior might of another should become his property." Aristotle points out that virtue combined with resources usually leads to power, so `might' and `right' very often are the same thing. He concedes that this is not always the case, but insists that enforced slavery is justified if the master is qualitatively superior and "naturally" fitted to be a ruler. Since he already has told us that slaves are "by nature" qualitatively inferior and without virtue, this muddled reasoning is not very persuasive.
In summary, after reading this book one begins to understand why college students so frequently are assigned excerpts from "The Politics" rather than the complete work. Aristotle has some interesting things to say, but he also has some very stupid things to say. He fails to back up many of his major claims. His logic is often flawed. Reading "The Politics" was not a complete waste of my time and life, but I don't think I'll be revisiting it any time soon.