The Centrality of the Regime for Political Science

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The Centrality of the Regime for Political Science. Clifford Angell Bates, Jr. Warsaw, Poland: Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Waszawskiego, 2016.


The Centrality of the Regime for Political Science examines the political community as Aristotelian regimes rather than the Machiavellian state. For Aristotle, the regime is the political community that emerges out of discrete and heterogeneous parts, like the households, while the state for Machiavelli is a unitary, united whole that was created through an act of will. In four chapters, this book explores the central role that the Aristotelian concept of the regime plays in giving the political community its form and character for it only later to be marginalized in the study of politics.

Chapter one, “The Rise of the Political Community,” begins with Aeschylus’ Orestia to highlight the political problem of conflicting human loyalties between the household and the political community. The Furies are representative of the demands of the household while the Olympian gods exhibit the values of the political community. Aristotle acknowledges the naturalness, and the loyalty invoked, of both the household and political community but argues that authoritative power and ultimate allegiance resides in the polis. But for this to transpire, the demands of the household must reconcile themselves to the authority of the political community, like the Furies do in the Eumenides where they embrace their new role as the primary defenders of the polis. Without the Furies, the justice which the political community provides would be ineffectual: reason must be combined with coercion to be truly persuasive. The result is that the political community retains while moderating the demands of the household in order to be authoritative for its citizens.

Yet politics is not coming together for the sake of itself but to have its citizens live well. To know what this means, we first need to understand Aristotle’s concept of regime (politeia). In chapter two, “The Centrality of Politeia for Aristotle’s Politics,” Bates defines Aristotle’s regime by using Aristotle’s four causes: 1) the regime’s material character is the specific institutions and offices that shape the political order; 2) the regime’s specific form depends upon how many rule and for what end (e.g., monarchy, aristocracy, polity, tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy); 3) the regime’s effective character is the ruling authority that reigns in the political community; and 4) the regime’s teleological character is to “provide the view of justice and right that each regime holds to be true and its members seek to attain and preserve” (38). In the rest of this chapter, Bates reviews the various forms, origins, and institutions of regimes as well as how political change and revolution occur in Aristotle’s political theory. Bates concludes the chapter with a look at the scholarship about Aristotle’s preference for the polis as the right size of the political community and whether this consideration led subsequent scholars to neglect Aristotle’s theory of regimes with the rise of the nation-state.

After reiterating his preference for Aristotle’s concept of the regime as the best way to understand politics, Bates in chapter three, “The Centrality of Politeia for Aristotle’s Politics,” examines the rise of the Roman Empire which eclipses the polis as the organizing principle for politics, the corruption of Aristotelian political philosophy by scholastic scholars, and its rejection by early modern political thinkers. By ushering in the principles of Caesar, First Citizen, and Emperor to organize its vast territory of heterogenous sub-political units, the Roman Empire makes the Aristotelian concept of regime, as located in the polis, irrelevant. Next is the medieval period which devalues politics by separating secular (the state) and spiritual (the church) authority, with the secular realm reflecting the spiritual in having a monarch rule the kingdom as God does in heaven. Furthermore, Aquinas misinterprets Aristotle’s Politics, when it is reintroduced into the West, by stating that the best constitution is a mixed one, which, according to Bates, is contrary to Aristotle’s own teaching. Whether this is based on misinterpreted Aristotelian texts or trying to make Aristotle’s works compatible with Christian teaching (or both) is a matter of debate and speculation.

But the biggest blow to Aristotle’s concept of regime is Machiavelli’s introduction of the state. Contrary to Aristotle’s account of the naturalness and heterogenous nature of the political community, Machiavelli believes the state is a product of will and has a unitary character. This understanding of the state influences subsequent thinkers like Bodin, Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Hegel in their own theories. It also provides the theory for the nation-state to emerge in England, Spain, France, and the United States. The result is that both in theory and practice the Aristotelian concept of regime had been replaced by the idea of the state.

In the final chapter, “Contemporary Comparative Politics and Reviving Aristotle’s Regime Science,” Bates compares Aristotle’s concept of the regime to contemporary political science theories, arguing that the Aristotelian account is superior because it avoids internal bias (i.e., favoring one type of regime over another) and is more respectful of the complexity of the interaction between humans and their environment. When discussing contemporary political science, Bates reviews the 1950s behavioral revolution in American political science and the backlashes of Geertz’s “interpretative culture” and the “return of the state” approach. Bates is especially critical of the “return of the state” approach not only because it adopts Machiavelli’s understanding of the state but also because they input agency to the state itself rather than the people who govern it.

One way to avoid these errors is to return to Aristotle’s concept of the regime to analyze politics. The political community is not a unitary composite whole that is homogenized and centralized and political scientists should not be biased in their preference for certain types of regimes in their analyses. Aristotle’s regime accounts for the heterogenous components in the political community and his typology does not explicitly favor one type of regime over another. It provides a way to understand the political community as a unitary system and as a dynamic and heterogeneous one. In this sense, a return to an Aristotelian political science would give us a more robust and richer account of politics than game theory, neo-institutionalism, and functional systems.

The Centrality of the Regime for Political Science is a much-needed book for the discipline of political science today. Lost in abstract theories, mathematical models, and unstated assumptions, political scientists not only fail to explain and predict politics but also make it inaccessible to the public. Bates’ call to return to an Aristotelian politics is to make political science more nuanced and self-reflective in its accounts of politics and, more importantly, understandable to citizens. If political scientists want to make their discipline relevant again, reading The Centrality of the Regime for Political Science would be a first step to make that happen.

Lee Trepanier

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Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science, Department Chair, and University Pre-Law Advisor at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. 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).