Aristotle: Democracy and Political Science

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Aristotle: Democracy and Political Science. Delba Winthrop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Delba Winthrop’s Aristotle: Democracy and Political Science is an outstanding piece of work. No, it is one of those pieces of scholarships that challenge future generations of scholars to follow in her footsteps and do to other thinkers and their works what she does to Aristotle’s Politics III. Yet before I continue to discuss the book, I believe that I need to give some context in how this book finally could be in the hands of readers interested in Aristotle’s political thought.

It seems that Delba Winthrop, who died in the summer of 2006, never seems to have seriously attempted to publish this book while she was alive. In fact, we owe the publication of this book to Harvey Mansfield. He could not let his late wife’s work on Aristotle not be lost to the future as some rather inaccessible Harvard doctoral thesis from 1975, something he did for his daughter and her dissertation on French history, after she died tragically in a car crash. No, he sought to allow future generations the opportunity to not only to get their hands on Delba Winthrop’s only solo-authored book length work, but also the ability to read it as well as she generally left it when she delivered it for deposit at the Harvard Graduate School in 1975. Mansfield’s Forward only frames the book and then leaves the reader to the book as Delba Winthrop left it. And we should all give him thanks for this service.

Now it is true that some scholars have had access a copy of Winthrop’s doctoral dissertation, yet none has ever talked about it publicly. When I was trying to write my doctoral dissertation on Aristotle’s Politics III in the early 1990s, I tried in vain to get a copy given that it was dealing with the same part of the Politics that I was interested in. Only after her death did Harvey Mansfield sent me a copy after I praised the publication of Winthrop’s piece on Aristotle’s Politics I that he had published in 2010. And once I finally got the photocopy of that 1975 doctoral dissertation in the post, I opened it and started to read it. As I read it, I was confronted with something so different from what my expectations where, given what I have seen in Winthrop’s published works. What I was reading so initially overpowered me with awe, that I needed to return to it a few days later to try to process what I had read.  My own dissertation on Politics III, which I revised and turned into my first book which was published in 2004, in comparison to what Winthrop produced merely touched on the surface and only slightly came near the depths that her treatment of the text of Politics III engaged in.

Let me turn to my impression of the book that we now finally have in our hand. First, it is generally the same as the dissertation, which won the first Leo Strauss Dissertation Award of the American Political Science Association. Aside from the Forward by Harvey Mansfield, which was merely 9 pages, the structure of the book is framed by Winthrop’s introduction. While it is a brief 7 pages, it introduces the reader to the question that the book will try to address “Why Democracy?” and how looking closely at what Aristotle in what he addresses and deals with in Politics III offers a very framework to help one struggle to answer that question.

The main body of the book is divided into three sections, which she only notes by noting the number–“ONE, TWO, and THREE” and nothing else. Each section has a number of chapters that have numbers and a named title. ONE and THREE has 5 chapters and TWO has 6 chapters.  Following this main body of the work, there are two Appendixes. The first is “A Note on the Translation” and the second is her translation of Politics III. Also, the notes for the text are all also at the end following the Appendices. Now given how often one needs to turn to her translation when one is thinking though a claim she has made in the main body of the work, perhaps it might have been better to offer the translation, which is wholly hers, at the front.  But the translation is not the point of what she is doing here, rather it is merely the database or primary source she was working from. So, as any good student of political science knows, such things are put in the end.  Yet, ok she did this to conform to expectations of political scientists who were offering her the degree this work was originally produced to obtain. Yet as a reader of this text, I think the translation works better at the front.  This is my only criticism of this work.

Now the main body of Winthrop’s text is the close examination of the Politics III text. And the division of the main sections and the chapters of those sections mirror the various sections of text of Aristotle’s Politics III. She notes the exact sections of the text in question in the title of each of her chapters. So, the flow of the book, follow exactly and precisely the flow of Aristotle’s Politics III.  Now here is where what she does here is do different from her other writing and so much more akin to the kind of scholarly analysis done by Seth Benardete than any of the scholars she worked with throughout her career.

Like any work done by Benardete, Winthrop’s mastery of the Greek that is presented in this work is simply amazing. One would think you were reading Benardete, who was held in very high regard by leading professional classicists, who had little like of or respect for what Leo Strauss and his students were up to with Greek texts. Yet they respected Benardete. And what Winthrop does here is not only on the par of Benardete at his best, but also not suffering from the numerous flaws (an opaqueness and a lack of clarity in his argument, among some of things critics of his writing would point to) that plague even his best works. No such issues are present here in Winthrop’s treatment.  In fact, the clarity and precision one finds throughout this work is one of the reasons readers are stuck with awe of what they are reading. While she is trying to be serious in what she is dealing with, there is also a playfulness in her reading that would annoy traditionally trained classicists.

Some might even charge that she is rather postmodern in her treatment of the Politics text. While that might appear so at a quick superficial look at what she does here, but one follows her actual argument and then looks at the translation and then the Greek text, you see there is often strong support for what she says. When one reads either Derrida or Foucault when they try to interpret specific sections of a text and contrast what Winthrop does here, one finds Winthrop is always on much firmer ground in the Greek text than either of those superstars. Often with their approaches to a text one can see only something that is rather tangential to the argument of the text and when emphasize as they do distort the text.  Whereas Winthrop’s engagement with the text tends reveals dimensions that are working with and not against the argument that the overall text is developing.

In my dissertation and in my first book, I also hit on “some” of the dialogues and themes Winthrop hits on but her playfulness and openness to the depth that is to be found within the Greek text. Yet, I lacked the playfulness and perhaps the confidence over my grasp of the Greek to counter the authority of the vast majority of Classicists who have very dogmatic opinions over these things. Here Winthrop does not. Her analysis of the Politics III text is a mind-blowing experience of seeing Aristotle’s text in a wholly new light. She leaves us with the impression that we are reading with a master of the text–a superstar, who is in the middle of revealing to us, the readers, some revelations about the text that others have been blind to for so long.

Regarding her treatment of the Politics III text, she divides it differently than how the tradition does. The traditional division of Politics III into 18 chapters, she her analysis of the text into 16 chapters, there were divided roughly evenly between three sections. We see that in her translation she does not use the tradition chapter divisions, but divides it using the Beckker numbers of the section in question. Yet in doing this she gives us 19 sections, which are: 1274b32-1275a2, 1274b41-1275b21, 1275b22-1276b15, 1276b16-1277b32, 1277b33-1278b5, 1278b6-1279a21, 1279a22-1280a6, 1280a7-1080a25, 1280a25-1281a10, 1281a11-1281a39, 1281a40-1282b1, 1282b1-13, 1282b14-1284a3, 1284a3-1284b34, 1284b35-1286a9, 1286a7-1286b40, 1287a1-1287b36, 1287b36-1288a32, and 1288a32-1288b6. Now a close reader of things in her translation would notices what appears to be a mistake as first section 1275a2 but the next section starts 1274b41 which is before where the last section of the text was said to end. Nowhere else in her section divisions does this occur again. Is this a mistake or not, we cannot tell? It merely looks as a mistake, if we follow what chapter 1 of section ONE says as that chapter’s focus is 1274b32-41.

When one turns to Winthrop’s text we see that each chapter with its sections of the Politics III text it says will focus of that chapter don’t strictly follow the division she has given to her translation. I am going to reproduce the outline of the main body of the book so you can see the shape that she frames her analysis of the Politics III text as well as show what themes she focuses on in each chapter:


  1. Beginnings (1274b32-41)
  2. Citizen (1274b41-1276b15)
  3. To Be and Not to BE (1276a6-1276b15)
  4. To Be and to Be (1276b16-1277b32)
  5. Noncitizens (1277b33-1278b5)


  1. “The Few in Opposition” (1278b6-1279a21)
  2. From a Man’s Point of View (1279a22-1280a6)
  3. Ignoble Divisions (1280a7-25)
  4. The Oligarchic Logos (1280a25-1281a10)
  5. Unreason Is the Reason (1281a11-39)
  6. The Multitude, The Demos, and the Free Men (1281a39-1282b13)


  1. Political Philosophy (1282b14-1284a3)
  2. Hares and Hermaphrodites (1284a3-1284b34)
  3. Kings (1284b35-1286a9)
  4. The King of Kings (1286a7-1286b40)
  5. The King of the Beasts (1287a1-1288b6)

As we see from the outline of the book from the table of contents, we get an argument which follows the presentation of the Politics III text.  We are guided through the text in such a way that we are constantly seeing aspects of what was present in the text that is all too often have been lost in translation.  This is why Winthrop offers us her very literal translation of the Politics III text as an appendix, so the reader can see how she got to where she got in her disclosing of the text.

Winthrop in her reading of the Politics III text follows Diotima’s ladder of truth in starting with the particular and then climbing towards the universal. Winthrop’s ability to work with the Greek text and the various levels of meaning that can be found within it is what really separate what she does here from the works of others who have addressed this same portion of Aristotle’s Politics. Her close reading of the text reveals an argument at play within the text, the argument not only about the nature of the political community, but also what is the best political form for the political community. For the example, she follows the path Aristotle has given, from the question of the citizen, to the issue of the relation between the politeia to the polis and the question of the politeia itself, and then to the debate about pambaselia versus the rule of law which concluded Politics III. Throughout her reading she constantly shows that larger philosophic question is found right among the very political questions the text is dealing with. As both the question of the citizen and the politeia raises the question of the part to the whole and what is meant by a whole. This moving from the political to the philosophic follows the movement from the particular to the universal may help us see this is why Aristotle mentions “political philosophy” for the only time in the Politics text here and nowhere else.

Winthrop not only goes over the surface of the text, but also points out and reveals to readers the various double meaning found at a great number of places within the Greek text. She points to the different meaning of found in names and how those different meaning can reshape the meaning of what is being said. It is here in revealing the various possibilities of meaning found within the depth of the Greek text of Politics III, that Winthrop offers a great service for future scholars.  Now they have a guide to various things that have been lost to most of us whose access to this work has come mostly come through translations.

Overall, this book is one of those books that opens Aristotle’s Politics III in ways that many future scholars will benefit from. This book will be one those books that will hopefully force future scholars to “up their game” and learn how to approach the text as she has here.  As this is a book that any scholar interested in Aristotle’s Politics, if they are truly serious about their attempt to understand the text and its argument, will be forced to address.  And as such, it is very much a fitting tribute to Delba Winthrop.


Clifford Bates Jr.

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Clifford A Bates Jr. is a University Professor at Warsaw University in its American Studies Center with a specialization in political philosophy. He is author of Aristotle’s Best Regime (LSU, 2004) and The Centrality of the Regime for Political Science (Warsaw University Press, 2016).