30 June, 2014Issue 25.5LiteraturePhilosophyPolitics & Society

Email This Article Print This Article

Revising the Reading of Aristotle

Nathan Pinkoski

Thomas Pangle
Aristotle’s Teaching in the Politics
University of Chicago Press, 2013
£27.50 (papergback)
368 pages
ISBN 978-0226213651

For anyone used to encountering political theory in the form of clear arguments, doctrines, or propositions, reading Aristotle’s Politics can be frustrating. The high frequency of tentative remarks, problems raised and yet passed over, and apparent contradictions renders any extraction of doctrines from the work both difficult and controversial. Interpretations based on reconstructing a systemic theory—whether of the state, or rights, or constitutions—sometimes give the impression that they are discounting significant portions of the text.

Thomas Pangle adopts a different approach, which aims to account for the whole of the Politics, including its internal difficulties. Drawing inspiration from his extended commentary on Plato’s Laws, Pangle argues that the reader can only understand the Politics by discerning the multi-level rhetoric which Aristotle used to present a surface reading for an unreflective audience of traditional gentlemen, members of the elites of Greek poleis, and a set of puzzles (the tentative remarks, unexplored problems, or apparent contradictions) for a more reflective audience. The validity of Pangle’s commentary rests on this approach, so it is important to investigate whether it holds together.

Pangle’s approach is influenced by the work of Leo Strauss. Despite the frequent vulgarisations of Strauss’s approach to reading philosophical texts, it was based on the reasonable observation that some philosophers may not have written their thoughts explicitly. A writer might deliberately place puzzles, tensions, or contradictions within a text as a way of guiding the careful reader to more rigorous reflections on the questions in hand. The surface meaning of the text need not be the whole meaning.

With a Platonic dialogue, this approach has a strong credibility, especially because the dialogue form, wherein various characters speak their views, establishes a distance from the author’s whole, considered view. Yet Aristotle’s texts are written in his own voice, and ostensibly as a kind of doctrinaire treatise, so it would appear that there is a much closer relationship between the surface meaning and the whole meaning.

Pangle argues, however, that the comments on method at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics indicate that Aristotle’s ethical and political lectures should be read as an exercise in persuasive rhetoric in which the need to beguile one’s audience alloys the need to state the truth plainly. In contrast to the mathematician, who seeks truth plainly, Aristotle speaks the truth “to the extent useful for the task”. So Aristotle has a rhetorical strategy that distinguishes between his surface meaning and his whole meaning. To outline the purpose of this strategy, Pangle describes Aristotle’s primary audience as gentlemen who are moved mostly by passion (thumos), settled in their moral habits, and are uninterested in knowledge (nous). This is the audience whom he must concentrate on pleasing and persuading. Yet there is a second, more reflective, audience that is interested in knowledge, and whom Aristotle does not forget. In order to meet the different psychological expectations or demands of these varied audiences, Aristotle communicates on different levels simultaneously. He designs a primary, doctrinaire impression to satisfy the gentleman reader and designs the internal difficulties to appeal to the second audience that desires to know more:

Only gradually, and especially under the guidance of Socratic-inspired questions and questioning, may a reader discern the incompleteness of this deliberate primary impression. Then one discovers the way in which the edifying surface has been designed to veil, but simultaneously to lure one toward a much more troubling but also liberating dialectical ascent […] the path leads to an eventually purified knowledge of the nature of politics.

This reading challenges the orthodox view. But Pangle also calls into question whether that view was always the orthodox one. By reference to the work’s reception history, Pangle sketches a tradition of reading Aristotle as deploying an artful rhetoric which extends through Descartes, Montaigne, and Pascal, as well as some now unstudied 19th century commentators. None of this will serve to persuade a complete sceptic, but Pangle’s effort to marshal the evidence of context, text, and reception shows that he has considered their doubts.

What then, are some of the contributions which Pangle offers to the understanding the Politics? He is at his best when he is shadow boxing with the readings of Aristotle which predominate in contemporary political philosophy. One of these is that the Politics culminates in Books VII and VIII with a fully realized theory of the good, which would mean that the Politics articulated an ideal political theory of the best regime, which in turn could be used as a blueprint for all normative political reflections. To refute this reading, which slyly attempts to annex Aristotle to contemporary projects of ideal political theory, Pangle examines how Aristotle uses the term “best”. In fact, Aristotle criticizes his predecessors for having been too idealistic in their sense of “best”. Aristotle’s focus is on the “best possible”, where “possible” emphasises undertaking regime reforms that the people within the regime can be easily persuaded of. In that way, a crucial role for an Aristotelian-trained political scientist is to be able to provide concrete and realisable assistance to existing regimes, for which theorising an ideal regime per se would be of little help.

Consequently, when Aristotle comes to Book VII, he is not outlining his ideal regime, which is an absolute kingship in which the virtues of man and citizen are matched in one ruler. Nor is he even outlining his second-best choice, which is an aristocracy where the best men rule. Instead, Aristotle is only outlining the best conceivable republican regime and so leaves unexplored the gap—necessary to fill if he were outlining his ideal regime—that relates the best citizen of the republican regime to the best human being of the Ethics. By this means, Pangle argues, Aristotle draws his more reflective reader not to theorise about ideal political regimes, but to recognize “the limits of what can be hoped for from actual civic life”. Each kind of regime, including the republican one, can only incompletely achieve human flourishing for its citizens, drawing attention to the perennial imperfections of politics. According to Pangle, the awareness of the limitations of political life opens the reflective reader up to self-knowledge and to philosophy, recasting the meaning of a most famous saying from the Politics:

Coming to awareness of this, and how and why it dictates Aristotle’s rich rhetorical strategy, provides the key to true self-knowledge—which is available to humans only through civic knowledge. For “the human is by nature a political animal”.

There are difficulties. Pangle’s close reading of the Politics relies upon the assumption—important for the Straussian approach—that the text is given to us in its totality. Yet the manuscript tradition for the Politics is more seriously corrupt than for, say, Plato’s Laws. This lends a much more tentative character to a number of Pangle’s remarks concerning Aristotle’s intention, although it does not damage his core assumption that one can read the Politics as a single book composed by a single author and directed by a single conception of the subject.

Additionally, it is sometimes unclear what Pangle’s reader is supposed to imagine that Aristotle believes. Although Pangle’s commentary is thorough in assessing the entirety of the text, he frequently refrains from conjecturing about Aristotle’s fully considered thoughts on the subject, preferring to pose unanswered questions for the reader to ponder. His intention in doing so is to orient and deepen the conversation that the text is inviting the reader to have. In an age where Aristotle is often appropriated in discussions that have little to do with his thought, Pangle keeps the reader closer to the line of thought evoked by the original text. If that makes Aristotle groan and protest a little less about how we misuse him, then the approach is a worthy tribute to Aristotle.

Arguably, however, Aristotle’s text does offer some answers to Pangle’s questions. On Pangle’s interpretation, the ultimate goal of Aristotle’s discussion is to gain “purified knowledge of the nature of politics” in the manner of a social science. Yet the content of this Aristotelian social science is not something with which Pangle rewards us. In a conclusion summarising the whole commentary—a conclusion which the book surprisingly lacks—Pangle could have provided some concerted reflections organising some of the variant strains of the discussion without compromising either the intention of his commentary or his interpretative approach. His decision not to do so means that his commentary, whilst being a first-rate treatment of how the surface meaning of the Politics guides and educates the reader toward practicing political philosophy, leaves certain important features of the whole philosophical meaning unexplored.

Given its scope, readers of Pangle’s commentary will probably find at least something significant to disagree with, especially with respect to Pangle’s interpretive approach. Yet the greatest feature of Pangle’s commentary is that by detailed scholarly exegesis, it has brought an interpretative approach occasionally criticised for its gnostic tendencies into a wider conversation. Factions opposing this approach can now array their forces for fighting the hermeneutical battle which Pangle offers. If they take this offer of battle seriously, with due attention to the surface and the whole of the text, it may serve to clarify and reform many of the assumptions prevalent in the interpretation of Aristotle. Such a contest will only enrich our reading of Aristotle and help us to grasp the profundity of Aristotelian philosophical practice.

Nathan Pinkoski is reading for a DPhil in Political Theory at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.