Everyone knows that according to Aristotle, there is a sphere called “the political.” It is dependent upon but fully distinct from the economic, which is the realm of necessity and slavery. By contrast, the political represents the realm of freedom and full human dignity; it is the chief end of man. For all its faults, Aristotle’s account is taken as normative by a powerful line of political theory that runs up through Arendt and Wendy Brown, among many others.
Returning to Book 1 of the Politics in my class after engaging with a range of Greek texts (Homer, Aeschylus, Thucydides) and Nicole Loraux’s The Divided City, I am deeply, deeply skeptical. First of all, I am not sure why the idealized self-image of Athens needs to be normative for all future political thought — especially because Aristotle’s rosy picture of a peaceful, natural hierarchy presided over by free and equal men is obviously a sheer fantasy with almost no relation to the actual highly conflictual history of Athenian institutions.
Second, the teleology of the political serves to justify a whole laundry list of evils. It legitimates elitism, strict patriarchy, and slavery. It serves as a sign of Greek cultural superiority — because weirdly, this “natural” institutional structure has never managed to appear among the barbarians — and justifies imperialism. I understand why early modern political theory would latch onto this structure; it is less clear why a contemporary critical political theory would take it as normative.
Finally, Aristotle’s account empties the political of nearly all content. Division of labor, gender relations, economic exchange, and even some wars (against people who are “naturally slaves”) are not sites of political contestation for Aristotle — they have a “natural” form that serves as a support for the political. Aside from war, the only thing that really results from the profound dignity and freedom of the political is public displays and monuments to glorify the city. So the city is great because it grants 10-15% of the population the freedom to bring glory to the city. I’m unimpressed.
“The political” in Aristotle’s account is a classic empty master-signifier. It’s good because it’s good. It’s the goal of everything because he says so. And this connection becomes clearer when we compare Book 1 of the Politics to Pericles’ funeral oration — which is open propaganda, arguing that Athens is great because it provides us all with such amazing opportunities to contribute to its greatness. Was Athens really so great and unsurpassable, though? Is a slave society that kept its women trapped in the home, dominated over its neighbors, and wrote really cool plays really normative for all subsequent politics?