- Aristotle on the Nature of Community by Adriel M. Trott
This is a fresh, substantial, and engaging contribution to the ongoing Aristotle revival in political philosophy and theory. Trott’s project, like that of other works in this newish tradition, is not simply to interpret Aristotle but to advance an interpretation that has practical (in Aristotle’s sense) significance, one that employs Aristotle-interpretation as a starting point for calling into question key elements of the modern Western political imaginary. The book is as much a contribution to democratic theory as it is to Greek philosophy. This is not at all to say that Trott’s approach to the Greek texts lacks rigor. To the contrary, she presents an interpretation of the Politics based on careful close reading of key passages informed by a thoughtful and plausible overall sense of Aristotle’s apparent intention.
Trott’s take on the Politics starts with her claim that we cannot understand the central assertion of the Politics—that human beings are political animals, and that the polis itself exists by nature and not by mere convention—without examining what Aristotle means by ‘nature,’ something he does not discuss in the Politics. But in the Physics, he clearly opposes avant la lettre the modern Western way of treating “nature” as a system of necessity, as Kant’s “heteronomy of efficient causality,” as a system that opposes human reason and freedom, one that our reason strives to overcome. For Aristotle, however, nature is not such a system or a process at all—but a class of beings marked by internal causality: “I turn to Aristotle for a refreshingly distinct sense of physis” as “the internal source of change whereby the natural thing fulfills its end” (41). Her approach to Aristotle on nature builds on the work of other current scholars, notably Aryeh Kosman and Christopher Long.
But Trott is not interested in defending Aristotle’s conception of nature against modern ones, nor in showing that the two natures are somehow compatible. Instead, she uses Aristotle on nature as a key to understanding what he means by saying that human beings are naturally political animals: “Being an apologist for Aristotle is not my goal . . . this project attempts to offer a better way to think about political life that comes out of understanding Aristotle in a new light in order to encourage a better way of living politically. Against a view of community that is individualist, instrumentalist, or communitarian, where each position is, in its way, exclusionary, Aristotle offers a view of community needed at this time” (13). On her reading, Aristotle understands the polis as a natural entity, one that contains its own end (telos), and whose work (ergon) is continuously actualizing that end. She is not saying that the polis is a living thing, nor that it is separate from and superior to the citizens who compose it: “The citizen and the polis, in contrast to the organ and the body, have the same end . . . the happiness of each human being is the same as that of the happiness of the polis” [End Page 158] (67). Political activity is natural because it coincides with human nature: “By making the active fulfillment of the human being that which makes us political, Aristotle points to the active nature of being human and being a political community. I argue in this book that the activity that makes us human is also the activity that manifests the political community in its activity: deliberating over living well, the activity of logos” (57).
If asked the liberal (Millian) question of which comes first, the individual or the state, Trott’s Aristotle answers “neither.” What makes us human is continuous activity of political deliberation about the meaning of living well, not adherence to any fixed law, or principle, or set of institutions; and the good Aristotelian polis encourages such deliberative activity (136–37, n. 2). In the context of modern democratic theorizing, her position is closer to that of agonistic politics of an Arendtian sort, than to liberal...