Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Paul Cartledge, Ancient Greek Political Thought in Practice. Key Themes in Ancient History. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xxiii, 169. ISBN 9780521455954. $24.99 (pb).
Reviewed by Brendan Boyle, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Cartledge says this introduction to ancient Greek political thought is structured around three "problematics": the first, the "relationship between theory and practice"; the second, the "relevance of class (however defined) and / or status to explaining political behaviour"; the third, "the history or histories of ancient Greek democracy", with special attention to its "invention ... development and expansion, and extinction, in antiquity, prior to its relatively very recent (nineteenth-century CE) resuscitation and even apotheosis" (4-5). To say, then, that there are only "three" problematics is a bit misleading. The third "problematic" alone might well be thought to contain a handful of "problematics" all by itself: how the history of ancient Greek democracy is best told, how that democracy was invented, how it expanded, why it died, and why and how it was revived. That all this comes within 142 pages of text makes for a dense but rewarding read.

Much of this material -- roughly five of the eleven chapters -- has appeared elsewhere and close followers of Cartledge's work will not find much new here (though they may find a very fine addition for their introductory courses). Longstanding admirers, myself included, may actually find themselves frustrated, if only because he is working so quickly. Take pages 14 - 24, which contain no fewer than seven sections: "Terminological Exactitudes" defines what Cartledge calls "politics in the strong sense" and distinguishes it from the subject matter of contemporary political science; "Republican Politics Ancient and Modern" marks the salient differences between ancient "direct" democracy and modern "liberal democracy"; "Public and Private" surveys the Greek and Roman vocabulary for political and private affairs; "Gender" registers the tensions in the polis' understanding of women; "Freedom and Slavery" notes the ideological importance slaves played in the Athenian self-understanding; "Constitutions" adumbrates typological differences in political formations; and "Factions" locates the place of stasis in Greek -- and, again, early-modern and contemporary -- thinking about politics.

It's all a bit breathless, and the speed can make for some very odd sentences, like these: "Plato ... had relatively little interest in practical terrestrial politics, let alone in the comparative sociological taxonomy of political formations. For his star pupil Aristotle, by contrast, the natural scientist with a teleological bent, these were precisely the major preoccupations of his Politics, a study based on research into more than 150 separate Greek and non-Greek polities. He was careful, though, to preface the Politics with the Nicomachean Ethics, less of a moral treatise than the title might lead us to expect, but not altogether dissimilar in general orientation from, say, John Rawls' influential A Theory of Justice" (21). One certainly gets Cartledge's drift in the first two sentences, even if they, too, invite some fine-tuning. But the last one is positively odd, given that the "general orientation" of A Theory of Justice is not at all Aristotelian, and this by Cartledge's own lights: "if there has been a single underlying theme running through this book, it is the difference ... of the Greek city. Whatever the ancient Greek polis and its politics were, they were emphatically not 'liberal' as that term is today understood in mainstream Western political theory. Any attempt to detect even a quasi-metaphorical 'liberal temper' in Greek politics is deeply misguided" (131).

But Plato and Aristotle by no means dominate the book, a fact attributable to Cartledge's notably catholic understanding of what counts as a substantive contribution to the structure of political life. Such an understanding is what Cartledge means to signal with the phrase "political thought", which is something like a term of art. Political thought stands in contrast to "high-flown political theory" and includes, as serious if not rigorously scrupulous investigators of politics, Hesiod and Herodotus no less than Plato and Aristotle (xii).

The distinction between "thought" and "theory" is a good one, and has already been to fine use in the Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought (to which Cartledge contributed an introductory essay, large portions of which reappear here). But I was left thinking that the distinction is a bit, well, under-theorized. Cartledge says that he is "interested in the ordinary-language, everyday political thought"; that "the thoughts, however inchoate or inarticulate, of the mass rather than the theories of the elite will be what predominantly engages me here" (xii). Political theory, by contrast, has something to do with "articulate, theoretical systematization" and "abstraction." But I am not sure how far this gets us. It's never really clear just what political thought is, nor, more importantly, what relationship such thought has or should have to political theory proper. Is the Iliad "political thought"? Well, no -- Cartledge says that Dean Hammer's "valiant attempt to read the Iliad as in and of itself a 'performance of political thought'... clutch[es] at straws in the wind" (33). Rephrase the question as "Is there political thought in the Iliad?" and the answer is quite different: "Yes, indeed [there is political thought], and most strikingly in the defence by Odysseus of legitimate hereditary monarkhia (not so-called) against Thersites' alleged threat of the abstraction polukoirania" (39). But two sentences previous Cartledge had said that there isn't politics in Homer. Tallying these answers up, it's not clear what we're left with: the Iliad is not a performance of political thought, but there emphatically is political thought in it, and yet there is no "politics".

By "politics" Cartledge means "communal decision-making in the public sphere on the basis of substantive discussion about issues of principle as well as purely operational matters" (14). This helps untangle the threads somewhat, at least suggesting a way for there to be "political thought" but not "politics". But what one wants here, I think, is a more patient discussion of just this definition of "the political". Cartledge is, instead, teasingly brief. He says that "the Greeks' politics was not ours, theoretically or practically ... chiefly because, for both practical and theoretical reasons they enriched or supplemented politics with -- as we would see it -- ethics. Their ethics, moreover, comprised radical stipulations, including appeals to notions of nature that are not ours ... politics [today] tends to be reduced to a question of power, or, more precisely, force, exercised on a national scale, and modern political science is a technical, notionally value-free analysis of the workings of the state" (14-15). Arendt and Sheldon Wolin's powerful, disturbing, and deeply different understandings of "the political" in ancient Greece get dispatched without ado, Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss no mention at all.

The brevity will likely not much bother the beginning student at whom the book is directed and who will find many virtues in its general trajectory. It begins with Homer and continues through to Plutarch, a span which marks a welcome change from what Cartledge calls the "typical late fourth-century terminus." The wider focus allows Cartledge to register the distinctive Spartan contributions to political thought in the third century and to investigate, in the "last three 'Hellenistic' centuries, some "writers and thinkers ... committed to translating political ideas into practice, and a major historian, Polybius ... who made political thinking central to his analysis and explanation of the rise of Rome to 'world' power'" (xiii). Homer and Plutarch also turn out to form a nice pair of bookends. Both confront "political spaces" that are dominated, says Cartledge, by a single individual, a situation that produces two questions: first, what are the grounds of that individual's legitimacy; second, what is the "political" standing of anybody not ruling -- that is to say, of everybody else? "Political" needs to be in quotation marks since, as I mentioned above, there isn't really "politics" in the Iliad (on Cartledge's account). This ends up also being true of Plutarch, since by the time of his writing "politics" -- again, in the sense defined above -- has been so etiolated that it no longer merits the name. (Such a take alone suggests a reason why Schmitt might have been an important interlocutor. What marks the death of the "political"? Does it die in empires only? Or is it dead in liberal democracy, too?)

In between the bookends are chapters on Solon, the Athenian revolution, the invention of political theory, Socrates, and the triad Plato, Aristotle and Alexander. Complementing the chapters proper are six so-called "narratives," short excurses providing the historical connective tissue with rough sketches of, say, "the archaic Greek world, c. 750 - 500 BCE" or "the Hellenistic Greek world, c. 300 - 30 BCE" ("Narrative II" and "Narrative V" respectively).

I said above that much of the material has appeared elsewhere, and this makes the book feel somewhat backward-looking. I have no idea where Cartledge will go next -- this book shows his excellence is tremendously wide-ranging. But, taking a cue from the book's title, I hope for less "political thought" from Cartledge and more "political theory". By this I mean neither normative nor historical political theory, but rather something more basic, something like a rigorous, scrupulous, account of the distinctions that structure the writing of political history. I've already mentioned the cloudiness of the "thought" / "theory" distinction itself, but the same could be said of Cartledge's talk of "power", "language", "nature", and the "relationship between political theory and praxis".

Cartledge's treatment of Cleomenes provides a nice case in point for what a request for more theory might look like, at least apropos the book's "first problematic", the "relationship between theory and praxis". Cartledge asks: "Might Cleomenes have been, not just a (radical) reformer ... but also a social revolutionary, and possibly an ideologically or even philosophically informed and motivated revolutionary? The fact that two followers of the Stoic school of philosophy, Sphaerus and Persaeus, are known to have written about Sparta in the third century suggests at least the possibly of direct Stoic influence. Moreover, the known personal association of Sphaerus with Cleomenes strengthens the possibility greatly ... Sphaerus might well have seen in Cleomenes a potential Stoic 'wise man' and practical instrument of his ideas." There is nothing incorrect here. But the talk of "personal association" and "the possibility of direct Stoic influence" sounds awkward and cramped (as if the philosopher thought things up in his study, then walked out, tapped Cleomenes on the shoulder, and said: "Hey -- do this.") Cartledge isn't wrong to ask about the relation between theory and practice, but what cases like Cleomenes make clear is a need to make that relationship itself a subject of investigation. We need, that is, a sophisticated way of talking about this "relationship", one that has done with the language of "personal association" and clandestine meetings in favor of something suppler.

Of course, we already speak about such relationships in a suppler way, thanks to the work of Pagden, Pocock, and Skinner -- not to mention Ober and, of course, Cartledge himself. But I think this book shows that the ancient world presents particular challenges, and that its politics remain in need of sustained theoretical attention. The first section of the book -- distressingly, only two paragraphs long -- is called "Meaning in context: how to write a history of Greek political thought". I think it probably is better taken as a question: "How should we write a history of Greek political thought?" How immensely we will profit should Cartledge write a book that tries to answer it.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review - both positively and negatively