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Reflections on Aristotle’s Politics

Reflections On Aristotle’s Politics

Reflections on Aristotle’s Politics.  Mogens Herman Hansen, Copenhagen:  Museum Tusculanum Press, 2013.


Reflections on Aristotle’s Politics is another innovative and interesting work by Mogens Herman Hansen on Athenian democracy, but this time with a singular focus on Aristotle’s Politics. The book has eight chapters, seven of which are revisions of pieces previously published in various volumes, mostly from the 1990s, and the eighth a revised lecture that was delivered at the University of Athens in 2012. The sustained focus on the Politics creates a cumulative picture of Aristotle’s theory of politics, with each chapter contributing fresh perspectives and treatment of issues that have been neglected. However, the book would have been enriched by the addition of an introduction weaving the chapters together into a more coherent depiction of Aristotle’s Politics.

The first chapter looks at Books 4-6 of the Politics where Aristotle provides the typology of oligarchy and democracy to replace the sixfold model described in Book 3. According to Aristotle, all constitutions are either democracies, oligarchies, or a mixture of the two: aristocracy, if the oligarchical element prevails, and polity if the democratic elements are dominant. Kingship and tyrannies are no longer treated as constitutions but are classified as monarchies. Thus, the clear-cut distinctions in the sixfold model between a genuine and perverted form of each of the three basic constitutions (rule of one, few, and many) is replaced by a continuum of constitutions with gradual transitions from one type to another.

For Hansen, this new typology allows Aristotle to classify constitutions when confronted with the problem of whether the criterion for distinguishing between oligarchy and democracy should be wealth or numbers – a question that is raised in Book 3, Chapters 7-8. The sixfold model fails to classify certain types of constitution when confronted with a majority that is rich or a minority that is poor. However, the new typology permits Aristotle to classify these new constitutions not as democracies or oligarchies but as mixed. Furthermore, by permitting mixed constitutions, Aristotle is able to reconcile his theory of ethics with his theory of politics: the best constitution, namely aristocracy/polity with the rule of the middle class, is the mean between the two extremes of pure oligarchy and pure democracy. In the sixfold model, the ethical teaching of the mean is incompatible because the classification of constitutions is binary: genuine or perverted.

In the second chapter, Hansen examines contemporary debates about the Aristotelian polis: its definition, its exclusion of barbarians, and its relationship to other poleis. Part of the confusion is that Aristotle treats the polis in Book 1 as a “city”, describing it as some kind of market or gathering place for people, while in Book 3 the polis is seen as a political community, an aggregate of citizens, with its physical location irrelevant. Women, children, slaves, and barbarians therefore are part of the polis as a “city” but not in the sense of a political community with its freedom and autonomy. The confusion about what constitutes the Aristotelian polis stems from the use of the same word in different contexts. It also distorts contemporary historians’ understanding of Hellenic history because they have adopted Aristotle’s understanding of the polis as an autonomous political community, whereas in reality the autonomous polis was the exception rather than the rule in the classical Greek world.

Chapters 3 and 4 are short, technical explanations of the differences in meaning of polis, politeuma, and politeia used by Aristotle in Politics Book 3, Chapters 3 and 6 and Book 4, Chapter 14. Politeuma refers to a body of politically privileged citizens and is more concrete in nature, whereas politeia denotes a “citizen-structure” or the polis’ body of enfranchised citizens. A polis consequently is the body of enfranchised citizens who rule the city, and the constitution (i.e. the citizen-structure) is in fact a city’s body of enfranchised citizens. The root of this confusion is that classical Greek, like all languages, has some concepts that are abstract, some that are concrete, and some that can be either, depending upon the context.

In Chapter 5, Hansen provides an explanation of why, apart from half a line about the Arkadian federation (1261a29), Aristotle ignores the numerous federal states in the contemporary Hellenic polis world. Building upon the work done by Dittenberger, Nielsen, and others, Hansen stresses the similarity between polis and ethnos and the fact that an ethnos can be understood as a multitude of poleis under certain circumstances. The Arkadia federation therefore should be understood as an ethnos that can be subdivided into poleis. The reason why Aristotle neglects the Arkadian federation as well as others is that, with the polis as the human telos, there is no need to go beyond it in the Politics. Because certain federations can be subdivided into poleis, the polis is the only proper unit of interest for political science.

This unit of interest of political science is described in its ideal form in Chapter 6. Drawing upon the 1,035 poleis in the Copenhagen Polis Centre’s inventory, Hansen provides a brief but concrete account of what Aristotle’s best polis would look like in terms of population, geography, institutional arrangements, demographics, education, and constitution. In light of the previous chapter on the Arkadian federation, one of the more interesting features of this polis is that it would have no neighbors, for fear of potential enemies. Hansen misses the opportunity to apply the same procedure to Aristotle’s best practical polis and compare the best practical polis with his ideal one.

Chapter 7 is an analysis of Aristotle’s negative view of democratic freedom. Contrary to classical and contemporary scholarship which argues that Aristotle is an advocate of democratic freedom – to rule and be ruled and to live as one pleases – Hansen contends that Aristotle did not develop an alternative view because he did not see political freedom as a value in itself. This is true in that, among other classical Greek authors, one finds freedom, eleutheria, endorsed as a positive good but not in Aristotle or Plato.

In tracing how eleutheria was used in the classical Greek world, Hansen finds five uses specifically connected with democracy. These different uses can be summarized as the right to participate in political decision-making because one is a full citizen by birth, the right to live as one pleases, as opposed to being ruled, especially by a tyrant, and interference in one’s private life. By contrast, for Hansen, one does not find any serious interest in the concept of political freedom in Aristotle’s Politics. The most important treatment of freedom can be found in Book 6 where eleutheria is defined as the basic value of democracy and is subdivided into two aspects: the opportunity to be ruled and rule in turn and the opportunity to live as one likes, of which slaves are deprived.

However, Aristotle criticizes this understanding of freedom in Book 5: some classes, like wage earners and the young, are excluded from participation in politics and therefore are only ruled but never rule. Secondly, people should live in accordance with the constitution and not as they please. What Hansen points out is that scholars have mistranslated Aristotle’s discussions or have omitted lines that did not comport with their preconceived notions about Aristotle and democratic freedom. A close reading of the text reveals that when Aristotle speaks approvingly of eleutheria, he has in mind the ordinary and literal sense of being a free person – preferably a citizen – rather than a slave owned by a master. In the case of democratic freedom, Aristotle simply rejects the concept.

In the final chapter, Hansen shows how Aristotle’s mixed forms of democracy incorporate indirect forms of democracy. Adopting the typology described in Chapter 1, Hansen shows that the main difference among the four variants of democracy is the degree of restriction in electing magistrates and calling them to account, and in how much discretion is given to officials for deliberation and decision-making. These variations reveal that Aristotle’s view of democracy is much more complex than commonly believed: he favors moderate mixed democracy, in which the whole people elect the magistrates and hold them accountable but leave it to the elected magistrates to deliberate and decide political issues. He believes that the original form of democracy has deteriorated into the perverted form of pure democracy, based on a corrupted understanding of both liberty and equality. By contrast, Aristotle approves a mixed constitution of which democratic elements are an indispensable part. Thus, Aristotle’s theory of mixed democracy is much closer to modern democracy than originally thought.

What emerges from Hansen’s Reflections on Aristotle’s ‘Politics’is an Aristotle different from what some previously had thought. It is an Aristotle who adopts a binary typology to analyze constitutions rather than the sixfold model; it is an Aristotle who advocates indirect democracy and rejects democratic freedom; and it is an Aristotle who recognizes alliances and federations but neglects them in favor of the polis as the unit of interest for political science. In painting this picture of Aristotle’s theory of politics, Hansen also illuminates the need to be sensitive to the context of language and its use, the problem of preconceptions in analysis, and the way Aristotle can both clarify and obscure our understanding of the polis and its place in the Hellenic world.

If I have one quibble, it would be the absence of an introduction to tie the various themes together into a coherent whole: the role of the polis in the world of federations and alliances, the typologies that Aristotle adopts in his analysis of the polis, and the ways freedom was understood by both philosophers and non-philosophers in the Hellenic world. In spite of this, Reflections on Aristotle’s ‘Politics’ provides a collection of essays that offer a fresh perspective on Aristotle’s theory of politics. It will force us to rethink not only Aristotle’s own theory of politics, but how we approach and understand classical Greek works and the world they inhabit.


This review was originally published in Bryn Mawr Classical Review on March 15, 2014.

Lee TrepanierLee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).

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