Saturday, June 11, 2011


Judith A. Swanson, C. David Corbin, Aristotle's Politics: A Reader's Guide. Continuum Reader's Guides. London/New York: Continuum, 2009. Pp. ix, 168. ISBN 9780826484994. $24.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Richard Fernando Buxton, College of Charleston (

Version at BMCR home site

The present volume is part of the series Reader's Guides from Continuum. In the words of the publisher, the guides aim to provide "clear, concise and accessible introductions to classic works of philosophy … [i]deal for undergraduate students," which focus on each work's "major themes, historical and philosophical context and key passages." In the present case, Judith A. Swanson offers an extensive and erudite summary of Aristotle's Politics, accompanied by short sections on the work's context, themes, reception and bibliography. C. David Corbin is listed as co-author, but he makes clear in the preface that his contribution is limited to the summaries of books 4-7, and that even these were written under the guiding hand of Swanson. Swanson's reading is intentionalist, analytical and sympathetic to Aristotle, assuming a unified argument across the Politics in its transmitted order, which she grounds in the concept of natural justice.1 But although the book provides an intelligent rehearsal of the Politics' contents, its dense prose and Swanson's casual assumption of background knowledge make it a poor fit with the target audience, while its limited brief does not recommend it to scholars.

The first section, Context, begins with a quick review of Aristotle's life and the major philosophical currents informing his work. Despite the publisher's promise of historical context, no space is devoted to the socio-political peculiarities of polis-culture and how these influence Aristotle's theorizing. This is a shame, especially given D. Brendan Nagle's recent monograph on the subject, The Household as the Foundation of Aristotle's Polis (Cambridge 2006, reviewed in BMCR 2006.11.14). Instead, terms like city, democracy, oligarchy and tyranny are used throughout the book without any attempt to attune a general reader to their significantly different connotations in antiquity.

The bulk of the context section is taken up introducing Swanson's concept of natural justice: the eternal but contextually determined ethical imperatives inherent in the cosmos that only human reason can adduce, but that habit can also help foster. The idea is a useful hermeneutic for the irresolvable tension between form and matter across Aristotle's thought, as Swanson herself goes on to argue. Nevertheless, her phrasing often obfuscates as much as it clarifies this orienting insight. For instance, the reader is first told human beings grasp natural justice through "intuition," a gloss for nous (4). Soon after, however, it is "reason" that apprehends this principle (5), and finally the ability to grasp unity behind particulars is dubbed "noetic" (8). To anyone familiar with basic Greek terminology and the outlines of Aristotle's thought, there is no problem making sense of all this. But it is precisely this background that anyone likely to purchase the book will lack. I can only assume an average undergraduate will be left scratching her head at the seeming conflation of what are, in quotidian usage, the normally opposed faculties of reason and intuition. I treat this example of confusing diction at length because it is symptomatic rather than exceptional.

The next section, Overview of Themes, builds on the concept of natural justice through situating the descriptive aspects of the Politics within the work's larger proscriptive function. For Swanson, Aristotle sees human beings as having the freedom to improve their polities, but only within an overall framework set by nature and always in relation to situational constraints. The study of particular regime-types, therefore, helps refine the scope for any possible ideal. This perspective allows Swanson to argue that the transmitted order of books is correct, since 1-3 first describe the basic features of all states before progressing from defective (4-6) through ideal (7-8) models.2 Jaegar and others have, instead, transposed books 7-8 after 1-3, arguing that all of these books address ideal politics before concluding with defective instantiations (4-6). Confusingly, Swanson begins the section by plunging the reader straight into the details of the book-order debate before setting out the key themes in the Politics that she sees as undergirding her position.

Well over half the Reader's Guide consists of a book-by-book summary of Aristotle's argument ("Reading the Text," which Swanson refers to as a "commentary"). The coverage of each book is prefaced by a short abstract of its contents and followed by study questions that zero in on important ideas. The summary is excellent at connecting common themes in individual passages across several books, and, frequently, with parallels in the Nicomachean Ethics. Swanson and her collaborator in this section, C. David Corbin, bring a high level of sophistication and analytical precision to Aristotle's often sprawling text, and they frequently introduce helpful modern parallels without these becoming a distraction.

However, both the opaque diction and the hysteron-proteron arrangement of ideas I have noted above recur throughout the summary. Too often sections of the Politics are simply paraphrased, with no help offered as to how they connect (e.g. p. 52 on the transition between chapters 3 and 4 of book 3), or with such help only arriving after a reader has slogged through a difficult sequence (e.g. pp. 57-58, which finally tie together the contents 3.8-10.3) Rather than help a reader navigate Aristotle's arguments by framing them in advance, as do, say, the section-heading summaries in Peter Simpson's student-friendly translation (Chapel Hill 1997), Swanson and Corbin simply reproduce Aristotle in a frustratingly wonkish idiom. Also, readers without previous knowledge of Plato's Republic and Laws, or Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics are left to fend for themselves, with references to specifics like "Socrates' 'happy city' or 'city of pigs'" employed without further context (70).

Given its difficult prose, a lack of informative section headings and little explicit guidance to over-arching concepts beyond the concluding study questions, the summary's contents seem strikingly at odds with the book's advertised function as an "accessible introduction." Indeed, running more than one hundred dense pages, it is difficult to imagine a classroom or general-reading context in which the summary would not end up replacing as opposed to augmenting a translation of the original.

The book's most successful chapter comes after the summary, and covers the reception of the Politics from Cicero to Alasdair MacIntyre, with particularly strong sections on medieval Muslim and early U. S. American thinkers. Here the text is lucid, concise, and trades in straightforward but meaningful contrasts that will stimulate further thought from new readers, rather than cause them frustration. Typically pithy and articulate is the syncrisis between Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas: "[St. Thomas'] conception of natural law, constitutive of strict moral prohibitions immune from circumstances, appears at odds with Aristotle's conception of natural right, constitutive of moral considerations attentive to circumstances" (136).

The book concludes with a list of suggested further readings that are divided into nine topics and current through 2009, endnotes and a general index. I was surprised to find that neither Simpson's translation, mentioned above, nor the well-regarded four-volume translation in the Clarendon Aristotle Series (Saunders 1996; Robinson and Keyt 1996; Keyt 1999, reviewed in BMRC 2000.04.17; Kraut 1998, reviewed in BMCR 1999.06.17) merited inclusion as suggested readings.


1.   Swanson's positive evaluation of Aristotle's political thought, especially her implicit defense of the author's attitude towards women and slavery against the critiques of modern liberalism, squares with her influential monograph, The Public and the Private in Aristotle's Philosophy (Ithaca 1992, reviewed in BMCR 04.02.13). She has explored natural justice as an important interpretive key to Aristotle previously in "Aristotle on Nature, Human Nature, and Justice," in R. Bartlett and S. D. Collins (eds.), Action and Contemplation, Albany, SUNY Press, 1999, pp. 225-247.
2.   Swanson is here repeating arguments from the Appendix of her 1992 monograph, without addressing any subsequent contributions to the debate.
3.   The summary of sections 3.8-10 is particularly confusing since, on p. 55, it is billed as covering 3.8-9, followed on p. 59 by a section covering 3.11-13. Chapter 7.16 similarly disappears between the headings of sections for 7.13-15 (p. 116) and 7.17-18 (p. 119).

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