Thursday, May 18, 2017


David J. Riesbeck, Aristotle on Political Community. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. xii, 322. ISBN 9781107107021. $120.00.

Reviewed by Demetra Kasimis, University of Chicago (

Version at BMCR home site


At the core of David Riesbeck's careful and persuasive book is a desire to solve a puzzle that has long preoccupied close readers of the Politics: the "so-called paradox of monarchy" in the Politics, that the best political arrangement appears at once to enable and to dissolve political relations.

Political relations, says Riesbeck, do not hold for Aristotle in conditions of slavery, marriage, or parenting because political communities enable persons—the free native men at least—to share authority (1).1 As citizens, they rule and are ruled in turn, and this ruling aims at what is good for all. This celebrated and potentially egalitarian account of what makes the political distinctive for Aristotle suggests that a citizen is nothing if not also a ruler (at some point in his life) and so it jars with those moments in the Politics that seem to allow for, if not to require, barring citizens from rule.

Riesbeck presents his book as a study concerned with exclusion, but Aristotle on Political Community is not about membership criteria, which is to say, it is not about Aristotle's interest in the "prior" question of who is or is not counted as a citizen. Riesbeck has some things to say about this matter, but his focus is on figuring out whether in the Politics citizenship and the power to rule are coterminous. As the introduction makes clear, Riesbeck sees hierarchical impulses behind Aristotle's sanguine depiction of monarchy, a form of political community that ensures "large numbers of otherwise able and willing individuals" will be "excluded from participation, and in the name of their own common good, at that" (8). How, Riesbeck asks, can we understand this arrangement to be just or even political for Aristotle when it "evidently denies to everyone but the king the participation in citizenship that was, we thought, essential to a fully good human life" (8)? When Aristotle applies his "merit-based conception of justice to his core conception of political community" and recommends monarchy in what would have to be exceptional circumstances, he seems to undermine his own basic commitments (9).

Over six chapters and a short conclusion, Riesbeck makes, though he sometimes plods, his way toward an explanation that is well supported, plausible, and in a striking way deflating for what it implies for our understanding of Aristotelian citizenship. Riesbeck's Aristotle ends up loosening the relationship between, though not quite decoupling, citizenship and rule. He says there is citizenship for the non-kings living under kingship—just because a king has supreme authority in a monarchy does not mean he is the only citizen—but what this citizenship involves is what we might call the non-creative work of politics, like implementing policy or consenting to a king's reign. Citizens of a monarchy on Riesbeck's reading may not make "the most general decisions of law and policy," but they have responsibilities and so they are not disenfranchised (239). As a way of accounting for various inconsistencies in the Politics, this argument is clever. I worry, however, that Riesbeck wants to have it both ways—to meaningfully disentangle citizenship and rule while holding onto their constitutive relation, which is to say, the sense in which rule is required for citizenship. Riesbeck might say this is what Aristotle wants too, but the question remains: if sharing in rule admits of degrees, as the author says, what happens to the "setting in motion" that is so crucial to the meaning of archein? Though there are Athenian precedents for maintaining that different groups possess different shares in initiating (Solon's division of the citizenry is one example), might Riesbeck's language of degrees threaten to recast some and therefore potentially all citizenship as rule following?

To make his case, Riesbeck takes on an impressive number of competing interpretations—he argues primarily against the scholarly tendency to argue that "either political participation is not an intrinsic good necessary for living a good life or political rule is not necessarily shared and reciprocal" (11). The book anticipates obstacles to its own readings, and it offers new takes on well-known passages, which Riesbeck reads both alongside and against each other. Chapter 1 sets the stage for the rest of the book by reconstructing in detail Aristotle's defense of kingship and by arguing against the dominant strategies philosophers use to reconcile how monarchy is, on the one hand, a correct constitution and, on the other, destructive of what for Aristotle seems to think constitutes political relationships. One of Riesbeck's most important moves in this chapter is to remind readers that the problems that plague Aristotle's theory of monarchy are not confined to that constitution but apply to aristocracy as well. To make sense of Aristotle's views on monarchy, in other words, we need to look beyond the sections on kingship and "reexamine the central tenets of Aristotle's account of the nature and value of political community" (42).

It is in this spirit that Chapters 2 and 3 re-consider Aristotle's "vision of politics" in general (45), first by reconstructing Aristotle's conception of political community (and the bonds of friendship and cooperation that make it up) and then by looking carefully at how a city is different from a household or a village. A city, Riesbeck explains, "is characterized by a distinctive political form of rule or authority and distinctively political standards of justice" aimed at the common good (132). Chapter 4 argues against established accounts that see Aristotle claiming either the intrinsic or the instrumental value of political participation and suggests instead that political participation is simply a requirement of justice. Here Riesbeck reminds his reader that political community and justice demand "naturally free adult males not be ruled despotically" (179), a point that sets the reader up for Chapter 5, where Riesbeck re-introduces the conflict with which the book begins: "the principle that all free adult males should share in rule seems to entail that neither kingship nor aristocracy could conceivably be just, or at least not ideally just" (180).

The "correct" constitutions that seem to call for the exclusion of a majority of citizens from rule must at the same time enable a practice of citizenship for these persons. The burden of the fifth chapter, then, is to show that the supposed contradiction between Aristotle's theory of constitutions and his account of citizenship has depended for its credibility on a persistent interpretive oversight. Riesbeck thinks readers have failed to appreciate that Aristotle distinguishes between sharing in rule (being a citizen) "and the varying degrees and levels of authority possessed by citizens" (236). He submits that Aristotle's account "does not entail that the citizen body and the ruling class are coextensive" (181)—there are more and less authoritative positions a citizen can hold in a just constitution—because Aristotelian citizenship "is compatible with hierarchical distributions of authority" (228). Aristotle's correct constitutions are both more inclusive and more hierarchical than we typically take them to be.

Having addressed the conflict over monarchy in this way, the book's last chapter, "Kingship as Political Rule and Political Community," fixes its gaze once again on the monarchical arrangement, but this time Riesbeck's task is to draw out what makes kingly rule distinct from the non-political relations of mastery and tyranny. On this matter, Riesbeck grants citizen "consent" to the king a surprisingly pivotal role (248) and it would have been helpful to understand more clearly the ancient Greek analog to the modern concept of consent. Without further argumentation, I found it hard to believe that Aristotle holds the peculiarly liberal (and modern) view that the justness of law depends (partly) on a subject's relation to it rather than on the law's relation to the public good.2

Aristotle on Political Community ultimately resolves the paradox of monarchy at its center into a problem of reading: if Aristotle's text seems blind to conflicts it produces, that is because we have interpreted the Politics incorrectly and not because this compressed and fragmentary text produces meanings over which the author, like any theorist, lacks complete control. "[O]nce rightly understood," Riesbeck asserts, Aristotle's theories of political community, authority, and justice do not (have to) generate the problems that appear "inescapable on many standard interpretations of the main lines of Aristotle's political philosophy" (9).

But in his effort to preserve the political character of kingship, I wonder whether Riesbeck's preoccupation with tidying up the "mess" (181) others make of Aristotle's theory may lead him to clean up too much—to police the boundaries of political categories, like king or tyrant, that may depend for their instructive power on some messiness, which is to say, on the untidy symbolic work that only analogies can do. Consider a section in Chapter 6, where Riesbeck finds the comparison between the monarchical rule of a city (many cities, really) and the rule of a household perplexing (272-3). To point out their resemblance, as Aristotle does, is to threaten to unsettle the very distinction Riesbeck has been attempting to fix (for Aristotle) so as to maintain the coherence of Aristotle's typologies and to explain kingship as a regulatory ideal. Riesbeck concludes that the confusing analogy between what we might identify as imperial kingship and its antipode (household) serves a formal and therefore banal point: in kingship and household a single individual holds the highest position of authority. Moments like these indicate that Riesbeck may not be working under the same notion of theory that Aristotle is. To draw our eye, however fleetingly, to the similarities between household and kingship, as Aristotle does, is not simply to muddy or re-entrench a categorical distinction. It is to bring us face to face with the vulnerability of a polis and its susceptibility to change.3 The comparison of a relation of politics and a relation of domination reminds the reader, as do many passages in Aristotle's thought, that theorizing abstractly about politics means accounting for the dynamism in politics. As important as it is to get a handle on what Riesbeck calls Aristotle's "ideal theory," it may be impossible to separate that theory from the allusions, comparisons, examples, empirical observations, not to mention the particular political realities of Aristotle's present, that produce meaning in his texts. These are the figures through which Aristotle's Politics manifests its political alertness—its profound sense of the precariousness of a political order.

Toward the end of the book, Riesbeck reflects on an important question: "if kingship is so unlikely outside the special conditions of political communities in an early stage of development," why should Aristotle "devote so much space" to its "defense"? "Unlike the best constitution of books 7 and 8," he continues, "kingship is apparently not an ideal that legislators should strive to approximate" (274). What is it doing in the Politics then? The possibility that Aristotle offers a narrow definition of kingship in order to assign it a "negative critical" (275) function—to help readers see the importance of its un-realizability—is not lost on Riesbeck, and yet he is curiously reluctant to pursue its meanings in the dynamic context of Macedonian expansion in which Aristotle was writing. Right off the bat the book dismisses historically situated work as "biographical speculation" (43). This may be a question of methodological approach, but it is a missed opportunity with serious political theoretical stakes. The decision closes down one of the exciting and timely interpretive possibilities that Riesbeck's impressive study helps license: taking seriously Aristotle on kingship means seeing the theorist's concern not simply with a regulatory ideal but also with the de-politicizing dangers that are posed by an individual who acts with supreme authority. Once in charge, a monarchical figure is likely to arrogate to himself all forms of ruling—including those that rightfully belong to citizens in office and administration.


1.   Riesbeck mentions later that in Pol. 1259b1 Aristotle holds that"[a] husband rules his wife in a political way" but stresses that what makes a relation political is the "reciprocity of ruling and being ruled" (154), something that does not pertain between husbands and wives. The absence of alternating rule would seem to make the relationship only potentially political for Riesbeck.
2.   I thank Jared Holley for discussing this idea with me.
3.   For an argument that foregrounds Aristotle's interest in fluctuation and change, see Mary G. Dietz, "Between Polis and Empire: Aristotle's Politics," American Political Science Review 106 (2012), 275-293.

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