The classical Greek world differed greatly from our own. Athens may have been the birthplace of Western democracy, but it was hospitable to practices that democracy, as we know it resolutely, disavows, including the institution of slavery and the systematic subordination and exclusion of women from citizenship. Moreover, the classical Greeks expressed their views about democracy, and politics more generally, in poetry, narrative, speeches, tragedies, comedies, and dialogues. The canon of modern and contemporary Western political thought, by contrast, is primarily made up of discourses, treatises, essays, and letters.

Despite these and other significant diVerences and also because of them, contemporary political theorists remain as committed as ever to studying the classical world. This is in no small part because, in the words of Bernard Williams, ‘‘our ethical ideas have more in common with those of the Greeks than is usually believed’’ (Williams 1993, 11). This is true not only of our ethical ideas but also of our political ideas, and not just of our ethical and political ideas but also of our ways of thinking about those ideas, and of relating thought to practice. In short, the classical authors, in all their many genres, are fertile resources for contemporary scholars because they inaugurated a reflective approach to the study of politics that is no less reflective of being about the world of action, power, institutions, and no less political for being reflective.

Politics counts among its constituent parts individuals, families, complex and plural social groups, classes, and cultures, the practices and institutions that regulate the relations among these parts, and also the constitutions that guide them. Studying politics thus involves studying all sorts of matters having to do with human beings, both individually and collectively, including, but not limited to, history, economics, sociology, psychology, philosophy, education, anthropology, and ethics. Treating as equally political matters relating to public and private, community and individual, institutions and ethics, Aristotle, to name only the most explicit example, calls politics the most authoritative,  kurio¯tat¯es,  or architectonic,  arkhitechtonike¯s,  art  (Nico- machean Ethics I.1–2). The disciplinary boundaries that today often restrict the study of politics to political science departments would have made no sense to the classical authors.

In the past two decades, this reflective and pre- (or, for us, multi-) disciplinary approach to the study of politics has been adopted by a host of scholars of the classical world. The practitioners of this approach find their academic homes in and out of political science departments, in North America, the United Kingdom, and Europe. Some produce studies of single thinkers.1 Other examines multiple thinkers across time.2 Still others are guided by a particular topic, such as punishment (Allen 2000), greed (Balot 2001), memory (Loraux 2002; Wolpert 2002), gender (Saxonhouse 1985; Thompson 2001), or law (Schwartzberg 2004).

Some see significant discontinuities among the classical authors, locating in Plato’s Socrates, for example, the development of a set of concepts (Williams 1993) or the onset of a theoretical attitude (Cartledge 2000; Thompson 1996) or a mode of audience engagement (Salkever 1986) absent from the poets and historians, while others seek and find continuities not necessarily of form or conclusion but of the theme from Homer to Plato and Aristotle. These scholars bring different sets of questions to the materials they examine and they often offer to compete for interpretations of the texts they engage. Despite all of these important diVerences, they have a sufficiently large set of substantive and methodological commitments in common that it is possible to speak of them as sharing a political theoretical approach. Focusing on scholarship available in English and published in the past twenty years, this chapter provides an overview of the commitments these scholars share and then shows them at work in some recent scholarship on Aristotle.3


I. The first commitment shared by the practitioners of this reflective and multidisciplinary approach to the study of politics in the classical world is to treat the authors they study not as ‘‘systematic philosophers’’ who provide their readers with ‘‘conclusive truths established by rigorous arguments’’ (Mara 2000, 841) but as educators. These practitioners, accordingly, seek in the materials they engage not impregnable foundations for a particular political regime or ultimate justifications for some set of institutions or transcendent doctrines of morality, but rather ways of reflecting on and expanding the horizons of stubborn and complex ethical and political questions. Moreover, for these political theorists, as for the classical authors they study, theory and practice are not opposed. Instead, theory directly engages and reflects the changing world of human thought, character, actions, and institutions in which the political questions themselves arise. Theorizing, so understood, as in the original sense of the word, from the Greek theoria, is a practice of seeing and an active engagement with the local and observable world of contingency and particularity.

Because theorizing about sets of stable and changing human practices is not particularly precise, these political theorists do not set out to impose coherent rational orderings on those practices or to produce consistent sets of arguments for their own sake. Discovering no universalist theories or abstract essences, they aim instead ‘‘to enrich our moral vocabulary and so our moral lives; to re-enchant the world by respecting contradiction and paradox; to undermine the triumph of especially those experts and that expertise that reduce political and social life to problem-solving and efficiency management; and to recapture [a] sense of mortality and mutability’’ (Euben 1986, 16). For this reason, they borrow from the social sciences and humanities, drawing not only on analytic philosophy but also on the work of continental thinkers like Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Pierre Hadot, Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jac- ques  Rancie`re,  and  Leo  Strauss.  Sharing with these thinkers an interest in exposing and analyzing tensions and inconsistencies and the commitment to treating these as purposive rather than as sites of unintended philosophical failures, these political theorists also depart from some of those continental thinkers in seeing tension and contradiction not as stymying the possibilities for political action nor as making moot frameworks of falsity and truth, but rather as opening the way to less binary ways of thinking about age-old problems and dilemmas.

II. The first commitment, to political theorizing as ‘‘practical philosophy’’ (Salkever 1990a, 4), produces and is also guided by, a second commitment, to an expansive classical canon. Because the world of human thought, character, actions, and institutions is seen no less fully by poets, historians, and playwrights than it is by philosophers (and often more so), these political theorists do not limit their studies to the political writings of Plato and Aristotle, the most famous philosophers of the classical Greek world. Additionally, the poetry of Homer, Hesiod, Solon, and Theognis, the histories of Herodotus and Thucydi- des, the tragedies and comedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aris- to phones, the speeches of Lysias, Demosthenes, and Aeschines, the less famous political works of Xenophon and Isocrates, and the less explicitly political writings of Plato and Aristotle, including their works on rhetoric and poetry, the soul and the senses, nature and beauty, friendship and virtue, are all treated as fertile resources for the excavation of political phenomena.

Owing to the diVerences among these classical genres, the political theorists under consideration attend closely to the literary form of the materials they study, bringing different interpretative strategies to bear, where appropriate. This means that they treat the poetry of Homer differently from the tragedies of Sophocles and differently from the narrative of Thucydides and the dialogues of Plato. Attention to these diVerences in the genre in their larger context, namely, a primarily oral culture, does not produce a series of disconnected and particularistic interpretations, however. Committed to probing thematic continuities in the writings of a single author, among, say, Herodotus’ ethnographies or Isocrates’ speeches, or across the works of multiple authors, among, say, Homeric poetry, Sophoclean tragedy, and Platonic dialogue, these scholars are able to oVer context-sensitive insights that, taken together, bring out shared theoretical concerns on the part of the specific author or set of authors they study. For these political theorists, attending to genre also means taking seriously that the classical authors do not always speak in clear authorial voices or announce declarative truths and that, at times, they use tropes like irony, myth, and metaphor to invite the truth of their compositions to be called into question. Focusing on these practices, their venues, and the genres that disclose and produce them, the political theorists under discussion seek to illuminate the attitudes of the classical authors to such things as authorship and authority, truth and credibility, judgment and imagination, all key issues for politics.

III. A third commitment shared by this group of political theorists is to take seriously the sometimes declared, sometimes implicit claim made by most of the classical authors that they wrote for present and future audiences and understood their work as, in Thucydides’ words, ‘‘a possession for all time.’’ From the perspective of this commitment, the classical authors’ reflections on human action and character, political practices, and institutions and their modes of expressing these reflections are examined for the light they shed on the worlds these authors inhabited and on the attitudes, these authors took to their worlds, and also for their relevance to our own contemporary world. These political theorists thus reject the view that there is an unbridgeable chasm between premodernity and modernity. They also, however, reject the view that the best way to understand the classical Greeks is as part of a particular and unfolding historical narrative, whether progressivist or declinist.

Seeking to demonstrate neither essential otherness nor causal continuity, or to explain why certain singular events occurred, why particular figures acted in specific ways, or how given institutions arose, they explore instead the ways in which these events, actions, and institutions, along with their analysis and evaluation by the classical poets, playwrights, historians, and philosophers, ‘‘are what they are yet they possess a transcend- ent significance as well’’ (Thompson 2001, 24). In other words, they treat the classical authors as bringing a past to the present. They do so not because there are no discontinuities between ancient and modern but because they see the Greeks as reflecting on ethical and political dilemmas and problems that are analogous to our own and so as co-thinkers, not museum-pieces. Because unpacking similarities and diVerences between ancient and modern often involves careful reconstruction of local contexts and horizons, these theorists draw liberally on the works of classical philologists, ancient historians, archeologists, anthropologists, and sociologists.

Exploring how the classical authors engaged critically not only with their contemporary practices and institutions but also with their contemporary values and ideas, and sensitive to the language and tone in which these engagements are expressed, the political theorists under discussion trans- late these classical critical attitudes into an interrogation of current practices and institutions and also of the political and philosophical ideas and values informing them. Like the classical authors they study, these political theorists undertake critical interrogation at least in part to stimulate individual and collective self-reflection and thoughtful and meliorative political change. Thus, the premodern practice of political thought becomes not only imaginable as a living tradition but actually lived, which is to say, reinvented and also respected for what it was, namely, a way of life (Hadot 2002).

IV. The final shared commitment among these political theorists is to engage the classical Greek poets, historians, and philosophers specifically with a view to how they may educate contemporary theorists and practitioners of democratic politics, domestic or international. To do this is not to treat Thucydi- des or Aristophanes or Plato or Aristotle as a friend of democracy in any simple sense. This is not least because these and other fifth- and fourth-century authors adopted largely critical, although varied, attitudes to the democratic regimes they inhabited and to democracy more generally. But neither are the classical authors treated as democracy’s foes. Instead the political theorists I am describing attend to the ways in which the criticisms of democracy oVered by the classical authors are made within, and ‘‘to a certain extent enabled by, a democratic culture’’ (Mara 1997, 3) and are often made with a view to its improvement. Thus, Thucydides’ treatment of Greekness (Mara 2003), Sophocles’ and Euripides’ tragedies, staged before


Athenian audiences, but depicting events in Thebes and Argos (Zeitlin 1986), and Plato and Aristotle’s treatments of the manly virtues (Salkever 1991; Smith 2001) are read as condemnations of attitudes fostered by contemporary democratic Athenian culture and also as opening more tolerant and, indeed, more democratic, practices towards ‘‘others,’’ be they foreigners or women. In these and other ways, the classical authors are, in large part, interpreted as ‘‘immanent critics’’ (Ober 1998, 48–51) of democracy and as subtle practitioners of the politics they critiqued, intent on thinking critically about their cultures with a view to improving relations not only among individual human beings and social groups within democratic Athens but also between Athens and other polities, no small task given the pervasiveness of war in the classical world.

Taken together, these commitments—to seeing education for the present from the past in the classical integration of theory and practice via a multiplicity of disciplines in many genres—produce a powerful political theoretical approach to the diverse theorists of the classical world. From the standpoint of these commitments, Aristotle appears, at first glance at least, to be an outlier among the classical authors. His writings come to us, not as dialogues, narrative, or poetry but, like those of most Western political philosophy, as prose, presented in his own voice. His prose, moreover, appears to follow modern analytic conventions regarding consistency and argumentation, and propositional declarations may be extracted easily from his texts. This prose style appears to reflect a mode of theorizing fundamentally different from that of the earlier classical authors, to be more modern in form and to inform a set of substantive doctrines that are more modern in effect. Indeed, Aristotle is often treated as the inventor of modern constitutionalism, and an authoritative source for modern accounts of private property, distributive justice, rights, and the rule of law.

For many of the political theorists under discussion here, Aristotle’s accounts of the building blocks of politics, along with his contributions to the history of political thought and to current theory and practice, must be read through the lens of his practice of theorizing. By their lights, however, Aristotle’s political theory is, like that of his predecessors, less formal and systematic and more complexly engaged with the politics and authors of his time than is often supposed. The next section explores how this is the case by showing the ways in which the four commitments just sketched are at work in some recent Aristotle scholarship.



Aristotle’s style may distinguish him from poets, orators, and historians but, for many of the political theorists considered here, his work is no more systematic than that of his predecessors. Treating his political and ethical writings, including the Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics, Politics, and Rhetoric, as examples of practical philosophy and concerned with individual and collective action and change, they take Aristotle at his word when he rejects certainty as a standard for ethics and politics, maintaining instead that ‘‘we must . . . be content if, in dealing with subjects and starting from premises thus uncertain . . . we seek the degree of precision which belongs to its subject matter’’ (Nicomachean Ethics 1104a4, 1094b21–30). Aristotle’s works, interpreted in this way, set out no blueprints for correct ethical or political behavior, produce no transcendent prescriptions, and indeed produce few transparent prescriptions at all. Reading Aristotle in the way they read his predecessors, the political theorists under consideration extract from his texts no abstract or formal doctrines. Instead, they treat him as an educator in the mode of Plato, Euripides, or Thucydides and attend to how his texts layout in their depth and breadth the conundra of ethical and political life.

They read him in this way, at least in part, because they take the presence and role of an audience to be no less important to Aristotle’s practice of theorizing than it was to the earlier classical authors. Even though he did not write plays to be produced before an audience, Aristotle did stage dialogues among interlocutors (lost to us), and most ancient historians believe that his non-dialogic works are lecture notes taken by students attending his school, the Lyceum. Thus, like tragedies, comedies, and dialogues, his practical works are best treated as ‘‘forms of pedagogical rhetoric’’ that engage their contemporary readers and auditors, and everyone else who reads them, in a dialogue about the ethics and politics these audiences practice. Aristotle thus educates his audience by inviting them to participate in ‘‘conversations about the advantages and limitations of individual ways of life . . . and specified forms of common partnerships’’ (Mara 2000, 855–6), by inviting them, in other words, to participate in the very mode of life to which he wishes to educate them, which is to say, a theoretical-practical life. He does this by engaging, himself, in dialectic.

Aristotle engages in dialectic in any number of ways: he converses with earlier Greek poets, historians, and philosophers by incorporating or referring to their works in his own; he invites his readers to bring into conversation different parts of his texts by his use of paradox and inconsistency; and, within his texts, he brings the particular, different, and conflicting opinions of the many and the wise into dialogue with one another by way of his endotoxin (from doxa, opinion) method. These dialogic practices subvert the conventional appearance of his prose style and decenter his authorial voice.

Consider, for example, Aristotle’s treatment of natural slavery in the first book of Politics. Judged by the standards of conventional propositional philosophy, Aristotle there oVers a defense of natural slavery that is incoherent. As evidence that Aristotle defends natural slavery, passages such as the following that appear to establish a clear distinction between foreigners as natural slaves and Greeks as naturally free are cited from a book I: ‘‘ ‘It is meet that Hellenes should rule over non-Greeks’; as if they thought that the foreigner and the slave were by nature one’’ (Politics 1252b5–9).

Aristotle’s defense of natural slavery is deemed incoherent because it is full of inconsistencies. Aristotle says that slaves lack the deliberative element (Politics 1254b22–23, 1260a12–13) but also that if they did not participate in reason they would not be able to execute their masters’ orders (Politics 1254a23–24). He says that slaves are not capable of self-rule (Politics 1254b16–21) but also that they have the excellence necessary to fulfill their functions. He distinguishes slaves from children on the ground that children possess the deliberative element (albeit in an immature form) (Politics 1260a13), but then insists that the proper response to slaves, even more than to children, is admonition rather than command alone (Politics 1260b5–7). He says that slaves are simply mattered or bodies waiting for minds as a form to impose order on them (Politics 1252a31–34, 1254b15–20) but also that, as human beings, they are constituted by matter and form (Politics 1254a32–34), and share in the capacity to reason (Politics 1259b29).

Probing Aristotle’s textual references and unpacking his inconsistencies, the theorists considered here draw substantially different conclusions. Noting that the claim that ‘‘It is meet that Hellenes should rule over non-Greeks’’ is a quotation Aristotle attributes to ‘‘the poets,’’ they maintain that Aristotle invokes this passage, from Euripides’ Iphigeneia in Aulis, with knowledge of its context, not to establish a fundamental distinction between foreigners as natural slaves and Greeks as naturally free but to call into question any too- easy opposition between them: ‘‘Iphigeneia, who is speaking, is about to be sacrificed by her father, Agamemnon to propitiate the gods so that the Greeks can continue their expedition against Troy. Is this less barbaric than treating women as slaves? Iphigeneia is a living instrument used for the sake of an action’’ (Davis 1996, 17). The passage, read in its embedded context, as an incorporated reference to the words of a poet, may, thus, be seen to call into question the very distinction it is often claimed to establish. Taking seriously Aristotle’s inconsistencies in his account of natural slavery, such scholars conclude not that his account is incoherent but that he uses these inconsistent- agencies to underscore the difficulty, if not impossibility, of determining conclusively who, if anyone, maybe a slave by nature.

Bringing popular, persuasive, and conflicting opinions between the many and the wise into conversation with one another and orienting them in a way that draws on both sets of opinions but endorses neither, Aristotle’s endotoxic method is explicitly dialectical. He applies this method to the prevailing opinions and ideas of his time and also, as is evident in his account of the mean, to the ethical practice of virtue and to the political institution of a middle class. In all these ways, Aristotle, like the earlier theorists, brings into dialogue ideas and practices that, in his culture as well as in our own, are more usually opposed.

The dialectical quality of Aristotle’s theorizing is evident not only in his dialogues with other classical authors and in his endotoxic method, but in the ways, these inform his substantive teachings about the building blocks of politics. In the book I of the Politics, for example, Aristotle describes the polity both as emerging out of and preceding such smaller units as individual human beings, households, and villages. These claims seem contradictory. They may be taken, however, not as a sign of shoddy thinking, but as evidence of Aristotle applying his dialectical approach to the polity itself. These claims underscore his methodological commitment to thinking about politics both from the top down (from whole to parts) and from the bottom up (from parts to whole) and his substantial commitment to understanding the polity as an organic and preexisting whole with its own characteristic features and functions and also as composed of individuated and differentiated parts.

An exploration of the ways Aristotle’s dialogic practices inform his treatments of individual human beings and collectivities and the constituent parts of each of these unities—including soul and virtue, education, property, justice, and law—shows Aristotle to be a fertile resource for current theory and practice, although not in a particularly straightforward way. Attention to his understanding of virtue as constituted by habits and actions informed by nature and culture (Nicomachean Ethics I.8 and II.1), or of property as a mode of holding things as one’s own for common use (Politics 1263a25–26), or of the polity as a differentiated unity (Politics II.1), reveal him to be not a conceptual forerunner of contemporary theorists of virtue ethics or private property or identity politics but rather a proponent of a way of thinking beyond some of the binarisms that inform and stymie much of contemporary political thought about these questions.

Aristotle is able to move beyond binary thinking (is virtue a matter of nature or nurture? is property public or private?) because his dialogic practice of theory, which produces, and is informed by, complex understandings of ethical and political phenomena, brings together into plural or differentiated unities ideas and practices that are today often treated as being in an unbridgeable tension. Aristotle, too, understands the relationship between the differentiated parts of any whole to be always in a possible tension but, to him, the difference that can produce tension also and in the first instance makes possible these unities as plural wholes.

It is especially productive to engage Aristotle with the specifically democratic culture and practices of his time and of our own because of the ways in which his simultaneous commitment to difference and unity oVers a kind of education in democratic citizenship. It does this by, among other things, modeling the dynamic reciprocity characteristic of democratic deliberation and rotational rule, or ruling and being ruled in turn. These signal features of democratic self-sovereignty depend on the simultaneous recognition of and respect for plurality and unity, as do Aristotle’s philosophical method as well as his substantive accounts of ethical and political phenomena. Democratic deliberation depends on a plurality of points of view and aims to achieve consensus out of these differing opinions. The rotational rule involves hierarchy and obedience and aims to achieve the common good for both rulers and those being ruled.

These aspects of Aristotle’s theorizing are best exemplified, perhaps, in his familiar celebration of the mean as that which aims at ‘‘what is inter- mediate’’ (Nicomachean Ethics 1106b28–29). Functioning simultaneously as an ethical attitude—the embodiment of virtue—and as a political mandate— in defense of a middle class—and positioned between excess and deficit, Aristotle’s mean is a unified middle. But it is neither middle nor unity in any usual sense. It is not achieved simply by combining opposing extremes into an organic and undifferentiated whole. A person will not act courageously by combining rashness and cowardice. A middle class will not emerge by aggregating the discrete self-interests of rich and poor. Hitting the mean calls rather for bringing opposing extremes into conversation with one another and orienting them in a new way that draws on both extremes but is reducible to neither. Hitting the mean, in other words, produces a unified whole that preserves the plurality of its differentiated parts. This orientation to the middle is not in any sense orientation to mediocrity. On the contrary, requiring ethical and political work overtime in the form of trust, good judgment, and an enlarged sense of self-interest, it cultivates, even as it depends on, the practice of democratic citizenship.


For the political theorists discussed in this chapter, there is no better place to seek answers to the fundamental questions of politics than in the texts of the classical Greek world. That the answer these texts oVer takes the form of a question should not be altogether surprising. This question is most familiarly associated with Socrates. It is also the central question for figures ranging from Homer’s Achilles to Sophocles’ Philoctetes to Thucydides’ Pericles to Aristotle’s Theramenes. That question, both the subject of political science for the Greeks and also its object, is: What should I do? To call this the signal question for politics is not to reduce politics to ethics or to claim that the aim of political science is to answer that question. It is rather to view politics and theorizing about politics as at once individuated and collective projects that critically interrogate a complex ethical and political world at least in part by reflecting the questions it poses back at it.

The ‘‘What should I do’’ question shows politics to be an individuated project insofar as it is posed by one person addressing himself and signaling his preparedness to account for his actions. Engaging that question involves the person with his immediate and particular circumstances which are, in important ways, unique to him. The actions he takes distinguish him from others and exemplify his singularity insofar as those actions belong to no one but him. At the same time, by engaging a person with his local and observable world of contingency and particularity, the ‘‘What should I do’’ question calls that person to the practice of theory, and theoria. And theorizing brings to light, among other things, the ways in which individual human beings are always in relation not only to what is immediately around them but also to that which makes their unique circumstances what they are, namely, a culture, a set of institutions, a constitution, and the other members of their community, past and present, that brought these into being.

By inviting reflection that reveals the ways in which agency is both individuated and also embedded in collectivities made up of, and made by, others, the ‘‘What should I do’’ question brings to light the dependence of individual human beings on the collectivities of which they are parts and also the dependence of the collective whole on the actions, choices, and judgments of the parts that make it up. It underscores the centrality to politics of individual agency and accountability, the human impossibility of taking into account everything one would need to in order to answer fully ad- equally for one’s actions, and the utter vulnerability of those actions to collective power and institutions. In all these ways, the ‘‘What should I do?’’ question contains within it other questions, including ‘‘What is there to be done?’’ and ‘‘What do we wish to be able to do?’’ and ‘‘What should we do as a collectivity?’’ These questions, together, indicate the possibilities, responsibilities, and limitations of political life.

Modern and contemporary political theorists are no less concerned than were the Greeks with the possibilities, responsibilities, and limitations of political life. Studying individual agency or rational choice or identity or culture or state-centered institutions, these theorists tend to orient their analyses of politics to one particular axis of inquiry. The Greeks, by contrast, theorized politics by drawing all of these axes together. There is, to be sure, no easy fit between these domains of inquiry, and so the classical authors theorized as well about the quarrelsome interfaces among individual human beings, households, social groups, and polities, and also between politics and philosophy, politics and piety, politics and society, and politics and poetry. By putting the ‘‘What should I do’’ question at the center of their study of politics the classical poets, historians and philosophers disclosed the scope and breadth of politics. Asking that question now, and again, returns us to their methods and contexts, and allows us to appreciate anew the possibilities of political theory.

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