Posted: January 27, 2014
homas Pangle's Aristotle's Teaching in the Politics is a welcome addition to the literature. He is guided by Aristotle's teaching in the twofold sense of what he conveys and how (and to whom) he conveys it. Although not strictly a commentary, Pangle's work blends summary and analysis, and serious students of the Politics will want to consult each of its discussions.
Pangle, who teaches political philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, follows the Politics from beginning to end, with something to say about each of its sections. He makes good use of earlier discussions, ancient and modern, with special attention to the work of students of Leo Strauss. Although he does not engage contemporary analyses from the analytic, phenomenological, or historical schools, he does swiftly dispatch Hannah Arendt and, by extension, those who are excessively influenced by her.
One virtue of Pangle's attention to Aristotle's modes of educating is that he tries to make, and succeeds in making, a good case for the order and completeness of the Politics' books and sentences as they come down to us in the manuscript tradition. Anything that one thinks to be misplaced or a later interpolation can be well explained. The possible exception is the apparently truncated Book 8, and here Pangle wonders whether Aristotle believed he could conclude early because his discussion has little to add to Plato's Laws. In general, Pangle presents Aristotle's arguments as much closer to Plato's than is often claimed.
In this fidelity to the text as we have it, Pangle differs somewhat from Carnes Lord, Professor of Strategic Leadership at the Naval War College, who offers us a revised version of his already fine translation of the Politics. His "revisions have not been extensive, but neither are they insubstantial," he writes in the Introduction. Lord presents Books 1-8 in the usual order, but finds it "difficult to dismiss" the evidence that the seventh and eighth books were meant to appear after the third book and that other changes were made "at some time during the early third century." Lord's translation is a good one, and it is aided by useful notes and thoughtful discussions. It is still the best version to assign to students, although its leading rivals, translations by Joe Sachs and by Peter Simpson, should also be consulted. The difficulty of translating Aristotle becomes evident if we reflect on the fact that despite Lord's and Pangle's similarity in training and outlook, their translations of the same passage are never identical, and the differences are sometimes significant.
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Pangle's attention to Aristotle's ways of teaching leads him to follow with special care the injunction to analyze the context of a serious author's quotations from, or references to, poetry. While doing so he discovers ambiguities about virtue and nobility that modify Aristotle's ostensible message. He also attends carefully to Aristotle's mentions of philosophy and political philosophy, and he is assiduous in following Aristotle's raising of perplexities, and his proceeding, notably in Book 3, by temporarily resolving and then returning to these perplexities. This care enables him to follow Aristotle where he leads, even if it is not where Pangle originally intended to go.
His exemplary attention to Aristotle's rhetoric does not prevent him from making dubious rhetorical choices of his own. Throughout his book, Pangle regularly refers to Aristotle as our elusive tutor; impish instructor; wry docent; challenging preceptor; lecturer; wry or thought-provoking mentor; wry or playful pedagogue; playful, prankster, or provocative professor; philosophic teacher; philosophic guide; conductor; maestro; master; supple political philosopher; philosopher; sportive or pagan sage; teacher of lawgivers; and, the lowest blow of all, our political scientist. I half expected to see on this Rabelaisian stage our tendentious teaching assistant, sublime section man, or jocular proctor. Even the Peripatetic and the Stagirite make appearances. At one point Aristotle is "jocoserious," and he engages in u-turns, judo throws, and "holding his nose." I suppose—or, as we Straussians now say—I am inclined to believe, that Pangle deploys each of these terms with intent, and that as a group they are meant to remind us of our inferior station and Aristotle's unusually well-disguised levity. Their cumulative effect, however, is to irritate or, indeed, to encourage dismissive familiarity. They detract from an uncommonly thoughtful and serious book.
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Much of what Pangle says substantively about the Politics will be familiar: one hardly expects to discover that Aristotle is Nietzsche in disguise. This familiarity does not detract from the virtue of Pangle's work, or occlude altogether its novel elements. Several themes and procedures orient the discussion, and differentiate it from others. I will emphasize these, together with those of his analyses that are especially useful and clear.
Pangle's discussion of the Politics' first book pays special attention to the issue of slavery and despotism. Aristotle differentiates kingly, political, tyrannical, despotic, and household rule, and criticizes those who do not, but as his work proceeds the similarities and differences among these modes become difficult to untangle. Pangle's discussion features extensive analyses of Aristotle's accounts of slavery and of the place of acquisition in household management. His conclusion that only those so unintelligent that they would be useless could qualify as Aristotle's natural slaves is familiar, but his precise path through the argument is not.
Pangle's discussion of Book 3 is exemplary. He traces each of the perplexities that Aristotle presents, clarifying what Aristotle means by a citizen, the priority of the regime in political life and analysis of it, and the relative justice in claims to rule—or to share in ruling—of the wealthy, the virtuous, and the free. He is especially attentive to the "fraught" questions of the connection between the serious citizen and the virtuous man and to the issue of whether rule by the one best man is the best rule simply.
Pangle is also effective in analyzing elements of Aristotle's discussion in Books 4-6 and elsewhere of varieties of the "best" regime in different circumstances. He shows that our wry pedagogue is even more subtle and prudent than he seems. Polity has not one but several varieties, including those close to aristocracy. It is connected but not identical to the middle class regime. A middle class can be advanced or encouraged; maintaining one is not merely a matter of circumstance. Moreover, it is not only gentlemen farmers who are at the heart of decent democracies or democratic polities; hoplites (the citizen-soldiers of ancient Greece) are central too. Pangle brings out complexities in Aristotle's discussion that are often overlooked, especially by those who focus too much on his analyses of how to manipulate offices.
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Pangle's discussions are guided by the questions of the limits or contradictions of political or moral virtue, the natural and political status of the philosophic way of life and of philosophers, and the mutual challenge of philosophy and revelation. Aristotle brings these themes to the surface in various ways, so they can be noticed and pondered at different levels by different audiences. Given the author's concerns, it would have been useful had he discussed more directly or completely Aristotle's consideration in Books 1, 6, and 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics of the priority of intellectual virtue, and its connection to ethical virtue and to the divine. An examination of the difference between the philosophic search for wisdom and the achieved wisdom that might seem to be required for scientific rule would also have been useful.
Pangle's most sustained attention is to the limits of political excellence, especially as we see them developed in Book 3. Noble or virtuous rule allows and expresses the full flourishing—the beautiful life—of the most able. It also is praised because it serves the common good, as the artisan serves the customer, not himself. So, noble rule is "self-sacrificial," not merely "self-fulfilling": there is a tension at its core. We see another problem with the possible rule of the virtuous, when we consider that, although it is unfair and ignoble for the best to be under the control of the inferior, it is insufficiently honorable, noble, and free for the inferior never to participate in rule.
Although the tensions Pangle has in mind are not arbitrary, I wonder whether possibilities for resolution and, perhaps, for still further perplexity might have been worked through had he discussed the following issues more systematically: 1) the question of founding and constitution-making, as opposed to ruling directly (founding allows both significant honor for active statesmen, if not all honor, and a retiring rule for some, whose founding science helps themselves, and not only others, because they too belong to the common good); 2) the connections and differences among philosophy, political science, legislative science, and prudence (these relations allow us to consider more concretely just what the rare knowledge might be that merits singular or almost singular rule, and the difference between seeking to deal with matters that change and those that do not); and, 3) the goods that ethical virtue enjoys in a measured way (these goods allow us to consider more concretely the limits, attraction, and dependency of the search for wisdom itself). Had such discussions been conducted systematically, more light would have been shed on the complex questions with which the author is concerned.
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Pangle also sometimes refers to matters anachronistically, and this may have affected his analysis or presentation of the issues we just discussed, and others too. Aristotle engages in "thought experiments," deals with "conceptual problematics," "problematizes," and worries about "conscience." He encourages in one of his regimes "start-up entrepreneurs." Perhaps these terms are meant to suggest that Aristotle can meet any later thinker or divine on his own ground. The difficulty, however, is that such terms obscure important questions. The differences are occluded among what is actual, possible, imaginable, desirable, and "to be prayed for"; between what is willfully or aggressively yoked "conceptually" and what is discovered in its natural composition and form; and between prudent efforts, and experiments that take their meaning from previous theoretical expectations. Pangle is doubtless aware of these issues, and one hardly expects in his book a comprehensive discussion of what Aristotle intends by means, ends, forms, wholes, and the like. But perhaps more directness about these questions would help us see more clearly the source, presence, and extent of some of the limits or contradictions within and among nobility, virtue, citizenship, justice, knowledge, monarchy, empire, and republicanism that Pangle so skillfully points out. In any event, Aristotle's Teaching in the Politics is a significant and accomplished work that, along with Carnes Lord's revised translation, deserves our careful reflection.