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Community and Conflict in Aristotle's Political Philosophy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2009


In this article a widespread misperception of Aristotle's political thought is challenged, a misperception shared even by his champions among recent political theorists: that his concept of political community is derived from an image of organic growth and identity, and thus does not account for political conflict. Familiarity with liberal political thought and institutions has led most of Aristotle's contemporary interpreters to look for counterimages to liberal images of political society in his work. As a result, they tend to ignore or underplay the connections which Aristotle draws between political community and political conflict. By interpreting Aristotle's concepts of political community and political friendship in light of his analysis of political argument in Book 3 of the Politics, the article tries to uncover these connections and their implications.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 1985

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1 MacIntyre, A., After Virtue (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 153Google Scholar. This lack of interest in conflict represents, for MacIntyre, the only serious flaw in Aristotelian moral and political philosophy.

2 Strauss, Leo's short essay on Aristotle in The City and Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978)Google Scholar is an exception to this tendency among Aristotle's recent admirers.

3 Arendt's interpretation of Aristotle rests on her highly original and very misleading interpretation of his understanding of “political” action: “The ‘good life,’ as Aristotle called the life of the citizen therefore was … ‘good’ to the extent that by having mastered the necessities of sheer life, by being freed from labor and work, and by overcoming the innate urge of all living creatures for their own survival, it was no longer bound to the biological life process” (The Human Condition [Garden City: Anchor, 1958], p. 33Google Scholar). Arendt's use of expressions like “overcoming the urge of all creatures for their own survival” and “no longer bound to the biological life process” to describe political activity shows how far she has, despite her insistence to the contrary, strayed from Aristotle's understanding of political life. Such expressions make it clear that for Arendt man's political character is something asserted against nature, against the “biological life process.” Only when we put our life at risk, only when we “overcome” natural urges, do we behave politically. Politics is for her the way in which we overcome our nature, while for Aristotle it is the development of our nature. Arendt's definition of the “political” sphere of action excludes almost the entire subject matter of the Politics. What would a “political” act be for her? Arendt is hard pressed to describe one. The action which most clearly fits her definition, the risk of life in war, is not one which the author of the most famous critique of totalitarianism is likely to glorify as the true end of human striving. Aristotle, on the other hand, has no trouble pointing to political actions in the day-to-day struggles over distribution of goods and honors within the political community, since he does not associate political action with selfovercoming.

4 Ritter, 's articles on Aristotle are collected in Metaphysik und Politik (Frank furt: Suhrkamp, 1969)Google Scholar. For a discussion of his interpretation see below. One of Ritter's students, Gunther Bien, has written a very serious and interesting fulllength study of Aristotle's political philosophy: Bien, G., Grundlagen der Politische Philosophie bei Aristotle (Munich, 1973)Google Scholar. It is not surprising, however, that Bien only devotes a small fraction of his analysis to books 3–6, given that he builds on the foundations provided by Ritter's studies of Aristotle.

5 Werner Jaeger thought the contradictions between book 1 and books 4–6 so great that he developed a genetic theory to explain them. Jaeger, W., Aristotle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1934), p. 269ffGoogle Scholar. Jaeger's hypothesis about the different layers of the text of the Politics no longer dominates discussion of the work as much as it did in the first half of this century and is not relied on by the recent interpreters of Aristotle whom I am criticizing here. That hypothesis makes sense only if we assume that the approaches used in the two sections of the text contradict each other. My essay, I hope, will raise serious questions about that assumption.

6 I translate koinonia as community in order to maintain the association with common (koinon). See Mulgan, R., Aristotle's Political Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 16.Google Scholar

7 As he has often taken to be doing. Maurice Defourny, a perceptive interpreter of Aristotle, was already complaining in 1933 about social scientists who were using Aristotle's characterization of man as a political animal in order to lend authority to their understanding of human sociality. Defourny, M., Etudes sur la Politique d'Aristote (Paris, 1933), p. 383ff.Google Scholar

8 See, for example, Hegel, 's early essay on Natural Law (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), pp. 112–13Google Scholar. Rousseau's famous image of the citizen as the numerator and the community as denominator (Emile [New York: Basic Books, 1979], p. 40Google Scholar) draws on this “ancient” understanding of citizenship and political community.

9 It seems that Aristotle ran out of terms when he moved from his biological to his political writings. Rather than call human politics “more political” than animal politics, I have reserved the adjective “political” for the human communities examined in the Politics. I leave it to the biologists to find a new term to classify the “less political” animals like bees and ants.

10 Ritter, J., Metaphysik und Politik, pp. 7677Google Scholar. For an interesting variation on this interpretation of Aristotle, see Salkever, S., “Aristotle's Social Science,” Political Theory, 9 (1981), 479508.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

11 Complaints about Aristotle's short-sightedness in classifying regimes in terms of the number of rulers thus reflect the short-sightedness of their authors, as in the case of Newman, W. L., The Politics of Aristotle, 4 vols. (Oxford: 1887), 1:225.Google Scholar

12 Similarly, Aristotle doubts that extreme democracies whose standard change daily according to the whims of demagogues are properly called re gimes (Pol. 1292a30).

13 Political communities grow only where individuals have developed their rational faculties and are free to make use of them. In Aristotle's opinion, the tribes of the north have not yet developed their rational capacities fully enough to form political communities, though they are second to none in attachment to their freedom. The subjects of the vast empires to the east, on the other hand, he considers rational, but lacking in the courage to assert their freedom (Pol. 1327b).

14 Hobbes, T., Leviathan (London: Pelican, 1968), pp. 96, 100, 189–90.Google Scholar

15 Hobbes, T., Of the Citizen in Of Man and Citizen (Garden City: Anchor, 1972), pp. 168–69.Google Scholar

16 Hobbes, T., Leviathan, p. 183.Google Scholar

17 Abramson, J., Liberation and Its Limits: The Moral and Political Thought of Freud (New York: The Free Press, 1984), pp. 127–29Google Scholar. The citation at the end of this quotation refers to Sandel, M., Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 183Google Scholar. MacIntyre's After Virtue is cited by Abramson in this section as well.

18 See Fraisse, J. C., Philia: La Notion de l'Amitie dans la Philosophie de l'Antiquite (Paris: 1974)Google Scholar, for a general account of the concept of philia in ancient thought.

19 In speaking of political friendship, Aristotle seems to be speaking of the friendship among all members of a political community rather than among the members of the political clubs based on friendship groups, the hetaireia, which played such a large role in Athenian politics. For discussions of the hetaireia see Connor, W. R., The New Politicians of Fifth-Century Athens (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), pp. 384Google Scholar; and Hutter, H., Politics as Friendship (Waterloo, Ontario: Waterloo University Press, 1978), p. 26ff.Google Scholar

20 In book 8 of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle defines the species of political friendship—democratic, aristocratic, and so on—but not the genus to which the species belong.

21 Note Aristotle's statement that this kind of friendship is “against nature” (E.E. 1242b39). Could political friendship be against nature? Aristotle calls this form of friendship against nature because it pursues both interest and virtue, the same combination we find in political communities.

22 Rousseau, J. J., Discourse on Political Economy, in On the Social Contract: with Geneva Manuscript and Political Economy, ed. Masters, R. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978), p. 218.Google Scholar

23 Fries, J. F., as quoted by Hegel, , Philosophy of Right (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952), Preface, p. 6.Google Scholar

24 See Pol. 1261a15 where Aristotle ridicules the fraternity among citizens which Plato tries to create in the Republic. The bond between a real nephew and his uncle, he suggests, is far stronger than the bond between the so-called brothers of the Platonic republic.

25 See Rousseau, J. J., Political Economy, pp. 217–24.Google Scholar

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