chapter  6
13 Pages

Equality and hierarchy in Aristotle’s political thought

For some-like Alasdair Maclntyre, Charles Taylor and other writers who represent what is often identified (to their annoyance) as the communitarian tendency in contemporary political philosophy-it is not Aristotle’s text so much as his conceptual framework and the general emphases and broad direction of his thinking about politics, virtue and koinônia that are important, and particularly his elevation of the good above the right and his deafness to the charms of methodological individualism.1 For Greek historians, on the other hand, Aristotle towers above all other ancient writers and most moderns as the great theorist and analyst of the ancient polls. Let me cite just two instances: the Marxist G.E.M. de Ste. Croix and Mogens Herman Hansen (definitely not a Marxist). According to de Ste. Croix’s second magnum opus, The Class Struggle in The Ancient Greek World, Aristotle provides the classic sociological analysis of Greek politics as the inevitable conflict generated by the opposed interests of the propertied and the non-propertied, with its key insight that ‘a man’s economic position’ is ‘the main determinant of his behaviour’.2 The colloquium at which Hansen launched his massive empirical research project on the nature of the ancient polis was asked to take as its motto ‘Aristotle’s description of the polis as a koinônia politôn politeias’3-i.e. as the mutual participation or association of citizens in a constitution or political ordering. Throughout Hansen’s writings it is Aristotle’s formulations of the ideas of citizenship, freedom and equality which are taken as summing up with supreme lucidity and economy both the self-definition and the historical reality of the Athenian democracy.4 The Politics of the ancient philosophy community is different again. While it is difficult to identify any single major preoccupation surfacing in recent work, what evidently attracts scholars otherwise as little in agreement as John Cooper and Martha Nussbaum to the Politics? as mutatis mutandis to the Ethics, is its vision of politics as a sphere in which human beings have the potentiality to conduct themselves rationally in the pursuit of happiness, whether it be social harmony (Cooper) or distributive justice (Nussbaum) that is the main route to the goal; a sphere where-to echo a formulation of Oswyn Murray’s-the polis might be a ‘city of reason 0146’.6