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Aristotle’s Investigation of the True Meaning of Citizenship

Delba Winthrop’s Aristotle: Democracy and Political Science addresses itself to modern political scientists who are, in her words, “partisans of democracy.” We may take it for granted that for such readers, the merits of democracy are so uncontroversial that “were someone to ask today, ‘Why democracy?’”—their visages “might well drop in surprised silence.” The question “Why?” takes some effort to recover. Upon recovering it, however, we find a series of questions and doubts lying just beneath the apparent certainty of the modern democrat.

These doubts begin with the troubling possibility that, although the strongest argument for democracy is that it alone allows people to live as they wish, in truth, democracy permits only a certain kind of people to live as they wish and at the same time removes from view the crucial question of what wish, and what way of living, deserve the freedom that only appears universal in democracy. Winthrop contends that this question, and its attendant puzzles and doubts, were understood deeply by Aristotle, who deftly navigated them in the third book of his Politics. Aristotle: Democracy and Political Science is a painstaking, line-by-line commentary on that book intended as a resource for the most serious friend of democracy who has become troubled by such doubts.

Now one might wonder whether, by exploring these questions at the outset, Winthrop really begins “where democrats naturally begin,” as she says we must do. But these questions soon seem almost beside the point. They are eclipsed by a very different and altogether unexpected question: What preconceptions about the world as a whole, and its first cause, underlie our attachment to democracy?

This question is in fact the guiding preoccupation of Winthrop’s commentary on the Politics. To investigate democracy, it turns out, is to investigate the cosmos and what it means for beings to be. Her book proves to be a quite unexpected journey through the looking-glass, in which the true meaning of the Politics is revealed at each turn to be ever more profoundly different from its apparent meaning than we could have imagined.

Two Kinds of Beings

That journey, to the extent that I understand it, proceeds more or less as follows: The philosopher’s investigation of citizenship, the preface to his treatment of the regime, cannot get very far before encountering a deep and heated disagreement among different classes of citizens—democrats and oligarchs—over what exactly constitutes citizenship. This disagreement presents a serious problem for Aristotle’s investigation, which takes its bearings from common opinion. He must undertake a rigorous analysis of the disagreement to find its resolution and thereby discover the true form “citizen.” Upon inspection, that disagreement points to a larger question about the regime and, in particular, about what makes the regime “whole.” Indeed, it raises the larger question of what it would mean for anything to be whole and, finally, what it would mean for the cosmos to be whole.

Not only does politics happen to point toward these questions, but we eventually learn that the best or perhaps the only way to approach them is through a consideration of political things, because “political beings” are so peculiar, or so peculiarly different from “natural beings.” Thus, the “philosopher’s care for the common things is not simply an exhibition of humanity,” writes Winthrop, but is in fact demanded by philosophy as such.

The difference between the two kinds of beings is reflected in the difference between the kinds of rule exercised by human beings. Both despotism and democratic rule correspond to natural beings, insofar as the former operates by necessity and with no concern for the subject, and the latter treats its subjects as countable beings indistinguishable by quality. The political, as distinct from the natural, lies somewhere between these, where force is qualified by persuasion, the aim is a common good, and beings are articulated into stations and ranks.

Where exactly the connection between human rule and the principles or causes of being leads us, according to Winthrop, is hard to pin down. Political rule in its best practicable form, as it comes to sight in Aristotle’s presentation of the mixed regime, involves a combination of distinct principles and therefore a kind of incoherence. Demanding coherence from political rule leads us to perfect kingship—which, on the one hand, provides a model for how the philosopher should go about living with the non-philosopher, and on the other, indicates that nous or “intellect” is, properly understood, the first cause of the beings of our experience. Yet neither the mixed regime nor perfect kingship make it altogether clear to me what, in Winthrop’s view, the final status of forms, substance, or being is, or whether Aristotle’s investigation of politics renders the cosmos intelligible to the philosopher or really just helps him navigate its potentially unfriendly features.

The murkiness of Winthrop’s teaching—it is very hard of access—and its precipitous transition from questions about democracy to metaphysical questions make us wonder who Delba Winthrop intended to read this book. Though it is addressed to the political scientist, it is hard to imagine her argument will get the attention it deserves from any political scientist in the ordinary sense. This puzzle I think is explained by the fact that Aristotle: Democracy and Political Science was originally written as a dissertation; indeed, it was only written as a dissertation. It was published posthumously this past year—Winthrop passed away in 2006—by her surviving husband, Harvey Mansfield, 44 years after her she defended it as a Harvard graduate student, with no revisions. She herself made no effort in her lifetime to publish it.

This fact is, in the first place, a testament to the quality of her writing. How many dissertations in their original form would ever make it to, much less past, the University of Chicago Press’s editorial desk? It also does much to explain the peculiar quality of the book. Winthrop’s book is esoteric, but for a different reason from Aristotle’s. Whereas Aristotle’s writing was public and addressed a range of readers, Winthrop’s was written for a small committee of readers, and possibly not even for the whole committee. More to the point, it was written for friends—perhaps a single friend—with whom the author had enjoyed many conversations about its subjects. Accordingly, the author presupposes a great deal of common ground between herself and the reader, common ground unlikely to exist between her and most readers, including this one. The result is that the argument of the book, though gracefully articulated, is very difficult to follow and sometimes bewildering.

The nature of the composition excuses the book’s most glaring deficiency, which is a lack of attention to Aristotle’s other works that address directly the questions Winthrop believes are addressed indirectly by the Politics. We find no clear explanation for why Aristotle would give us a full account of parts, wholes, and being beneath the surface of the Politics when he has written more than one other book about parts, wholes, and being. Moreover, in the course of picking apart in great detail—sometimes word by word—the arguments in the Politics, Winthrop frequently refers to arguments in the Physics and the Metaphysics, most notably the distinctions between the four causes and the importance of “form,” “substance,” and “idea,” but without giving those arguments the same treatment that, if Aristotle is as complicated a writer as Winthrop suggests, they certainly demand.

Difficulties with the Interpretation

However, there are also some difficulties with Winthrop’s argument that I do not think can be explained by its origins. I will limit myself here to two that are close to the surface. 

The first is her attempt to find significance in the literal meaning of the proper nouns Aristotle refers to on occasion. The earliest example of this is when Winthrop suggests that Aristotle’s reference to the Athenian ruler Cleisthenes signals the “locking up” of Aristotle’s “strength,” which is to say, his silence about philosophy, on the grounds that “Cleisthenes” means “Strength Locked Up.” This might be easier to accept if it were not the case that in the passage in question, Cleisthenes the man provides a perfect example of what Aristotle is actually discussing: namely, the case of a statesman enlisting citizens from classes of inhabitants previously excluded from the regime. What could be a more suitable example for Aristotle’s readers than Cleisthenes’ democratic reforms in Athens? 

If Aristotle does intend for us to take the literal meaning of proper nouns seriously, how could he ever give straightforward historical examples without introducing confusion? Would he not provide some indication that we should give attention to their literal meaning, as he sometimes does with other words? (See, for instance, Nicomachean Ethics 1140b11-12.)

The second difficulty is Winthrop’s interpretation of the political disputes around which the argument of Politics III revolves. Let us again consider the dispute the reader initially encounters, that concerning citizenship. This dispute arises in response to Aristotle’s definition of the citizen as anyone who shares in “decision and office.” A hypothetical disputant objects that this definition implies that someone who only occasionally attends assembly or serves on a jury is just as much a citizen as one who serves as treasurer or leads an army in defense of the city. Winthrop reasonably concludes that such an objection would come from an oligarch and that when Aristotle draws our attention to it, he has in view the perennial contest between oligarchs and democrats. When he subsequently refuses to qualify his definition, insisting that it should include the “indefinite” citizenship characteristic of democracies, Aristotle seems to come down on the side of democracy.

Where I believe Winthrop goes wrong is in reading the next argument in the passage as an oligarchic rejoinder to Aristotle’s democratic conclusion. The next argument is that the regime “underlies” the citizen and that citizenship, though common to all regimes, will likely bear little resemblance between better and worse regimes. Now it seems to me very unlikely that this argument, which is put forward in distinctly Aristotelian terms, would be leveled by any oligarchic partisan—at least not without Aristotle’s prompting. And in fact, it seems likely that this is precisely what Aristotle intends in raising it: He provides his oligarchic readers with an argument of his own, which is neither oligarchic nor democratic, to give them a way out of the indignity they perceived in his definition. It does not vindicate oligarchic citizenship against democracy (the philosopher does not say which of the regimes is better or worse) but allows him to put off dealing with that dispute by revealing it to be about regimes more than about citizenship as such.

Subterranean Metaphysics of the Politics 

Winthrop’s interpretation of this passage is especially important for her argument as a whole because it opens up the possibility pursued throughout the rest of the book: that the disputes Aristotle depicts are fundamentally about first causes. I do not quarrel with the idea that grand political disagreements might be connected with disagreements about such deeper things, but I am skeptical that Aristotle sees in those disputes the metaphysical claims that Winthrop finds there.

These difficulties notwithstanding, Aristotle: Democracy and Political Science is the most original and intriguing work on Aristotle in recent memory. Its effort to show that the philosopher’s concern for politics is not altogether separate from his theoretical concerns about first causes is a notable challenge to the traditional understanding of the relationship between the theoretical and practical sides of Aristotle’s thought. For anyone interested in getting to the heart of his political science, it is well worth the effort to work through Winthrop’s rich and painstaking interpretation of Politics III.

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