Wednesday, July 11, 2018


Pierre Pellegrin, L'excellence menacée: sur la philosophie politique d'Aristote. Les anciens et les modernes, études de philosophie, 32. Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2017. Pp. 448. ISBN 9782406063681. €25,00 (pb).

Reviewed by J.J. Mulhern, University of Pennsylvania (

Version at BMCR home site

This book reflects Pellegrin's decades of thinking and writing about Aristotle's politics and biology. In the introduction, he focuses on two features of ancient life—slavery, which he observes is found in all ancient societies, and the polis, which is proper to the Greeks. He notes that Aristotle was the only ancient thinker to provide analyses of both (22). These analyses serve as points of departure.

In the first chapter, on the philosopher in politics, the author addresses the status of politics as a practical rather than a theoretical science (28-9) and the reasons why it is (30). He distinguishes the legislator and the magistrate with their different varieties of prudence from the philosopher (34-6). Thus there are three partners in achieving political excellence, which the book as a whole is devoted to explaining: the philosopher, who excels in theory but not in practice; the magistrate, who makes the city function well in applying the laws; and finally the legislator, who makes the citizens virtuous and thus happy (45-6). The philosopher's ethical and political works are intended mainly for the legislator (52).

In Chapter Two, the author considers the extent to which Aristotle's scientific politics might be illuminated by his biology. He finds that Aristotle differs from earlier authors in locating what makes men political not in something that human beings learn because of their needs, including survival (82-3), but in a gift of Nature given to men from their birth to fulfill their functions, of which the most developed is to be happy, in Aristotle's sense (95). In a section on man as a political animal, the author turns to Aristotle's treatment of language as a sign that civic life is natural, since language equips men to express their valeurs éthiques (97), which allows them to pursue a happy life (100). He describes Aristotle's schéma explicatif here as physical, and more particularly biological, and further as having one foot in the physical and one in the practical (106).

In the third chapter, on the endangered happiness of the city, the author takes up the self-sufficiency of the city for Aristotle, which is identified with perfection or completeness (113). At the same time, though, he argues that, for Aristotle, all cities should not aim at the same kind of excellence but each at the one that fits the social and ethical condition of its citizens (114). Given that most cities cannot achieve self-sufficiency, it is up to the philosopher to help the legislator remake the city into an engine by which self-sufficiency, and thus happiness, can be achieved (114). Self-sufficiency is in part economic, and so the author takes up Aristotle's treatment of the economy, especially in terms of exchange (121); exchange is natural when it tends to complete self-sufficiency (122), not when it seeks to produce the largest possible profit (124-6). He then moves on to material on household rule (archē, translated pouvoir on 129, referring to 1277b7), a 'prepolitical' institution to which he likens deviations from the right politeiai (130). Concentrating especially on douleia, he finds that Aristotle's treatment of it has less to do with the historical institution than with what would be a benefit to the parties involved, to the family, and to the city (142, 144). He pays attention especially to the situation of people who are deficient in foresight (137) even though fully developed intellectually in other respects, including technical ones (153), and who would benefit from guidance. There follow two sections on philia in the family, which can be a danger to the city (164), and in the city itself, where it becomes concord (170), goes beyond justice or what is merited (174), and is founded on utility rather than on virtue or pleasure (172-5).

In the fourth chapter, the author takes up the analysis of citizen, city, and politeia in Politics III. He had argued earlier that, for the Greeks, citizenship always was associated with kinship but that Aristotle did not find kinship sufficient (17-20). He regards Aristotle's exposition here, which begins with the citizen, as pedagogical rather than scientific because, for Pellegrin, the politeia (here constitution) should be treated first, being the form of the city (192-3). Thus the constitution becomes a central item in the author's interpretation. He argues, however, referring here to EN1135a5, that commentators have misconstrued Aristotle's teaching by supposing that one and the same constitution is best for all cities by nature everywhere rather than, as Aristotle would have it, that for each city, there is only one constitution that is by nature best for it (204).

In the fifth chapter, the author argues that, in Aristotle's view, the legislator must always deal with a world in which none of the politeiai is pure and not all the citizens are virtuous (261)—an important advance, in the author's mind (265). The goal of the political philosopher is always to give the legislator the means of achieving an excellent politeia, that is, one which is correct because it corresponds to the situation of the people for which it is prepared (274, 278). The author finds that Aristotle modifies the notions of constitutional correctness and deviation. While neither the democracy nor the oligarchy is correct, the partisans of democracy and those of oligarchy are equally wrong and equally right (281), although both represent deviations, and the main role of the legislator is to rectify democracy and oligarchy to produce stability, which is one of the signs of constitutional excellence (282). It is easier to arrive at a correct politeia from a democracy than from an oligarchy because, as Pellegrin writes, while the oligarchy is threatened in its essence when it accepts democratic measures (289), the democracy is able to accept some oligarchic characteristics. Pellegrin finishes this chapter with remarks distinguishing the mixture that is aristocracy from the mixture that is polity.

The sixth chapter is devoted to the legislator. Here the author distinguishes the legislator from the magistrate, the prudence of the one from the prudence of the other, and law from decree (298-9), although allowing that the legislator may be a magistrate in his city. At the same time, he suggests the identity of the politikos with the legislator (299; also with the magistrate, 316), as in 1288b27, which requires that he take kai in the sense of c'est-à-dire rather than as coordinative. The legislator is especially for Aristotle not a city's founder but someone who intervenes where there are constitutions already (the constitution's being a system of laws, 319; also the political organization of a city and the soul—l'âme—of a city, 347; see also193-4) and guides them to a state of excellence (300, 308). Pellegrin considers the analogy with gymnastic at the beginning of Book IV, noting that the excellent constitution takes several forms (303) and that the legislator is subject to constraints (306). It is absurd in Aristotle's view, according to the author, to wish to impose the same constitutional form on all cities on the pretext that it would be ideal (309). In a short section, the author indicates what means the legislator should use—either imposing new laws or progressively modifying old ones (312). Since seditions are found in so many cities, the task of the legislator is to prevent them, or, if that is impossible, to combat them, or, if that is impossible, to direct them and to limit their effects (327-8). The author observes that the good legislator is the one who can give the most effective counsels for the preservation of constitutions and, returning to the philosopher, that the best philosopher is the one who will furnish him with the most just analyses on which to support these counsels (333).

The seventh chapter, with reference mainly to Books IV and V, moves on from the means that the legislator will employ to the theoretical tools that the legislator will use. One group of these has to do with the diversity of constitutions, another with stasis (335-6). Comparing Aristotle's two lists of constitutions, with special attention to the lists of democracies, the author notes that the second list gives the causes (344). He then considers how Aristotle treats the parts of the constitution rather than the parts of the city so that the legislator will have a combinatorial method for identifying all the constitutions and so will be able to determine how the laws should be modified for each (351). In a section on stasis, the author discusses the meaning of the word and its cognates (358-361) and the relation of stasis to metabolē (361-4), then observing that the latter can occur without the former (373). For stasis there is required an emotion that has been taken outside the private sphere by being politicized (374). The author concludes that, since the presence of social groups with divergent interests and in conflict is the normal state of the city, stasis exists there naturally (377).

In his eighth chapter, on the matter (in Aristotle's sense) of politics, the author addresses mainly Books VII and VIII. He begins by taking issue with scholars who suggest that, in these books, Aristotle gives us his conception of the excellent constitution, even the ideal. He considers the relation of virtue to happiness (386) and then the conditions —for example, proximity to the sea (388-9) —that must be present or are useful for an excellent city (387), even though they pose dangers to the city. These are the matter (401), distinguished as the material parts from the political parts (403). When Pellegrin comes to the order of the books, his argument for maintaining the manuscript order is that moving Books IV-VI to the end is a Platonizing tactic, since it would present the material conditions before identifying the object of which they are the material conditions, much as happens in the Republic and Laws. As Pellegrin writes, it is the political discussion of IV-VI which gives VII and VIII their sense (406). At the end of this chapter, he returns to the prologue—the first three chapters—of Book VII, which, he argues, correspond to earlier parts of the Platonic works.

In his conclusion, Pellegrin observes that the Politics finally reveals a coherent, even organic, doctrine whose diverse elements function harmoniously together. Beginning from the demand for happiness that Nature has placed in every man (419), he considers individual happiness as it is treated especially in the Eudemian Ethics, though noting that the work is not very prescriptive (421). He observes that Aristotle proposes a new conception of rectitude constitutionelle and an original approach to stasis (422). The careful reader of Aristotle will find, he suggests, a view of the political life as unstable, so that stasis is not a sickness of the social body (the social body is not an organism for Aristotle) but a possibility coterminous with the city (429). Part of Aristotle's originality is to see that stasis can be used for good ends (430)—pursuit of the good tendencies of both democracy and oligarchy. In his view, Aristotle's political philosophy is an art of dosages and of discrete legislative modifications which can do no more than establish an excellence perpetually threatened (p. 431).

Thus, for Pellegrin, the objective of the Politics throughout is to establish an excellent constitution (406) even though, where one may be achieved, it always is in danger. He challenges especially the view that the Politics, and especially the last two books, have to do with an ideal constitution rather than with rectifying what one can in the ethical circumstances. The interpretative consequences are far-reaching and complex, and even those who disagree with the author here or there are likely to read the Politics differently after studying this book. Readers of such a challenging and complicated work would be helped by additional indices alongside the minimal index of passages cited from the Politics that the publisher has provided.

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