Friday, January 12, 2018


C. D. C. Reeve, Aristotle, 'Politics': A New Translation. The New Hackett Aristotle. Indianapolis; Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2017. Pp. xc, 442. ISBN 9781624665578.. $22.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Vasia Vergouli, University of Patras (

Version at BMCR home site


Aristotle identifies both his Nicomachean Ethics (henceforth: NE) and his Politics as a contribution to the "philosophy of human affairs" (NE X.9, 1181b15). As we learn in the opening chapter of the NE (I.2, 1094b11), political science aims at defining the human good and, as we learn in its closing chapter (X.9), the practical value as well as the theoretical vindication of political science ultimately depends on its applicability to political institutions. C. D. C. Reeve's study of Aristotle's Politics (translation with introduction, hundreds of notes, and a detailed index of terms) does justice to the above framework of Aristotle's practical philosophy as a whole in an exceptional way. This is already an important reason to welcome Reeve's new Politics, which, far from being a simple revision of his previous work (Hackett, 1998), provides us with a totally fresh English text in harmony with his recent translation of the NE (Hackett, 2014).

Among the merits of the edition is Reeve's philosophically illuminating Introduction. It is impossible here to provide an account of all the issues raised therein but it is worth mentioning at least some key claims that attest to its originality. (1) Whereas the secondary literature, for the most part, treats the Politics as a separate discipline or, at most, as a pair together with the Ethics (when it does not simply focus on particular topics, such as the nature of citizenship, slavery, etc.), Reeve's long Introduction is a rare exception in that it attempts to situate politics within the framework of Aristotelian sciences. In particular, it explores its similarities to a canonical science, i.e. to a strictly theoretical one (such as astronomy) or, more interestingly, to a less exact one (such as natural sciences). (2) In line with his study on Practical Wisdom,1 Reeve emphasizes the universalist component of the Politics. According to Aristotle, political science (politikê) is the same state of the soul as practical wisdom (phronêsis) (NE VI.8, 1141b23-4), which includes both scientific knowledge of universals and knowledge of particulars (NE VI.7 1141b14- 21), the latter amounting to a sort of experience that enables us to correctly apply universals to particular situations. The former consists in legislative science (nomothetikê) which produces a set of universal laws. These laws are universal in that they hold for the most part; they are not descriptive of how we act but prescriptive of how we ought to act. Envisaging the universalist and the particularist elements in their interdependence enables us to see politics as a combination of something like a theoretical science (in the sense in which natural science is theoretical) and the experience-based knowledge of how to apply it (p. xxvi). (3) A further topic regards the way we gain access to the starting-points (archai) of politics (that is, the definition of happiness and the virtues). Reeve claims that the field of practical philosophy is autonomous insofar as its explanatory foundations are answerable only to its own empirical foundations. He thereby convincingly explains why other bodies of knowledge, such as biology and metaphysics, 'have no foundational role in politics whatsoever' (p. xxxvi). (4) Reeve does not miss the opportunity to present, once again, his view as to the role of (honest) dialectic—which is usually considered to be the opposite of science—by stressing its parallels to the process of induction and thus revealing its contribution to the scientific enterprise. This process begins with tithenai ta phainomena and aims at reaching a theoretical grasp of the starting-points (and that holds true not only for politics but for all sciences). Hence, Aristotle's insistence on the importance of going through reputable beliefs (endoxa) and examining the puzzles they give rise to is to be seen as a commitment to a certain scientific methodology rather than a simple reference to the 'common opinions' of his political community. (5) Reeve also addresses the relation between first- and second-rate happiness: by articulating the comparison between the theoretical and the political way of life in terms of completeness (teleion / telos), he shows its impact, among other things, on our understanding of the famous ergon argument. Admittedly, none of the above major claims is incontrovertible (though this is not the place to put any of them under scrutiny) and one might have wished that Reeve had become involved in a more direct discussion with alternative interpretations. They, however, offer an impressively holistic, solid, and coherent picture of Aristotle's practical philosophy that anyone undertaking a careful study of the Politics should take into account.

It is a great merit of Reeve's Translation and Commentary that his own views are confined to his Introduction. In his sequentially numbered endnotes (from 1 to 1074) we most often hear Aristotle's own voice and not a commentary that might have promoted partial interpretations. Apart from the quotation of a wide range of passages from the Aristotelian corpus, the reader will also find clarifications providing her with the assistance necessary to find her own way in the text. In any case, one has to acknowledge the notes' invaluable contribution in offering alternative readings of the text and clues to understanding Aristotle's terminology and, further, in pointing out ambiguities or doing away with possible misunderstandings. Of course, when necessary, we are provided with lengthier and interpretative comments, as in n. 373 (pp. 291-4) concerning III.6, 1279a17-20, lines that introduce the distinction between correct and deviant constitutions. Crucial in this passage (and a key element of the Politics) is the notion of the common advantage: aiming at it properly or in deficient ways or even totally neglecting it determines a community's relation to the political good, to its opposite or even to its privation. A variety of answers has been given as to whether it should be understood as the advantage of the individual members of a group G, or of G taken as a sort of whole. I quote Reeve's conclusion, seeing it as a telling example of the distanced way he comments on disputed topics (p. 294):

Aristotle does not seem, then, to be an extreme individualist, who thinks that the happiness of the city simply consists in the happiness of each of the individual members of G . . . By the same token, he is not an extreme holist or organicist who thinks of the happiness of the whole of G as something distinct from the happiness of each of the individuals in it . . . What he is, it seems, is a moderate individualist—someone who thinks that the happiness of a city must be generally congruent with the happiness of the individual members of its G class. But whether we should call this position moderate individualism (as I have opted to do) or moderate holism is perhaps more a matter of taste than substance.

A similar mode of commenting (though —wisely—without mentioning all the alternative interpretations) is at play when we encounter Aristotle's claim, strange to the modern eye, that 'every city exists by nature' (pp. 215-20 n. 23). In line with a long tradition, Reeve presents the polis as originating partly in nature and partly in craft, in the sense that potentialities that are parts of the nature of the polis are further actualized by craft (p. 216). And that is why Aristotle can comfortably combine the above claim with another one that deserves to be quoted too as an elegant sample of Reeve's new translation (Pol. I.2, 1253a29-31):

φύσει μὲν οὖν ἡ ὁρμὴ ἐν πᾶσιν ἐπὶ τὴν τοιαύτην κοινωνίαν· ὁ δὲ πρῶτος συστήσας μεγίστων ἀγαθῶν αἴτιος.

Reeve (2017): Now, although the impulse toward this sort of community exists by nature in everyone, the person who first put one together was also the cause of very great goods.

The philosophically sensitive rendering of μέν . . . δέ . . . as 'although . . . also . . .' gives us the sense of the above- mentioned combination of two causes at work, i.e. nature and craft; nature is present in the impulse or tendency of the political animals that human beings are to live together and craft is present in the (state of the soul of the) person who first put a political community together, the same person who is elsewhere referred to as legislator or creator of the political community (see, for instance, Pol. II.12, 1273b27-36).

In general, comparing the new translation to the Greek text one can hardly fail to recognize that it attains an admirable balance between fidelity and smoothness: though following the syntax of the Greek text, it remains fluent and readable. It is common to judge faithfulness to the text in terms of literalness; another way of getting a sense of it being to compare various translations and illustrate their differences. Let us see how Saunders, Schütrumpf, and Reeve himself in his 1998 edition render the above quoted passage from Book I:3

Saunders: 'Thus although the impulse towards this kind of association exists by nature in all men, the first person to have set one up is responsible for very great benefits.'

Schütrumpf: 'Von Natur lebt also in allen ein Drang nach einer solchen Gemeinschaft. Derjenige, der sie als erster gebildet hat, ist der Urheber größter Güter.'

Reeve (1998): 'Hence, though an impulse toward this sort of community exists by nature in everyone, whoever first established one was responsible for the greatest of goods.'

In this passage it is the small details that matter the most, such as rendering αἴτιος as 'cause' instead of 'responsible' or 'Urheber' (creator)'. A nice example of literalness is Reeve's (2017) choice of rendering ὁ πρῶτος συστήσας as 'the person who first put one together' instead of 'the first person to have set one up', 'whoever first established one', or 'Derjenige, der sie als erster gebildet hat'. Besides, the choice of relating 'first' to the act of putting together this sort of (i.e. political) community, and thus shifting the emphasis from the first person (or erster) to the first time such an activity took place, is possibly much closer to what Aristotle means to highlight. Also, I do not see any need to substitute 'goods' for 'benefits' narrowing thereby the range of ἀγαθῶν at stake.

No doubt, there is some cost or risk in any principled translation. And Reeve uncompromisingly follows that rule of consistency: he translates all of Aristotle's technical terms in the same way, no matter the context. This option has evident merits: it allows the reader to immediately identify the term used in the Greek text and interpret its meaning as she wishes. Sometimes, however, the result may be quite odd. To give just two examples, the term prohairesis, rendered by Reeve as 'deliberate choice', seems in many occurrences not to have its technical meaning at all. It rather means the 'objective' or 'aim' of Aristotle himself in writing the Politics or the legislator's aim as it is expressed in his legislation (see, respectively, Pol. II.1, 1260b27, V.1, 1301a19, VII.2, 1324a21; and II.9, 1269b13, II.9, 1271a32, II.12, 1274a12). The same happens with the term epistêmê that Reeve always translates as 'scientific knowledge', although sometimes the context hardly accommodates so strong an idea of knowledge (for instance, in Pol. III.4, 1277a25, IV.11, 1295b19, V.9, 1309b8). On the whole, however, the cost may be insignificant in comparison with the gain that consistency means to the reader.

In a nutshell, Reeve's new translation and commentary is a masterful work. Both students who wish to study the Politics and advanced scholars will greatly profit from it.


1.   C. D. C. Reeve, Aristotle on Practical Wisdom (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2013).
2.   T. J. Saunders, Aristotle, Politics: Books I and II translated with a commentary (Oxford University Press, 1995); E. Schütrumpf, Aristoteles Politik: Buch I übersetzt und erläutert (Berlin: Akademie Verlagac, 1991).

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