Fordham University Press
by Daniela Cammack
It is generally believed that one argument advanced by Aristotle in favor of the political authority of the multitude is that large groups can make better decisions by pooling their knowledge than individuals or small groups can make alone. This is supported by two analogies, one apparently involving a “potluck dinner” and the other aesthetic judgment. This article suggests that that interpretation of Aristotle’s argument is implausible given the historical context and several features of the text. It argues that Aristotle’s support for the rule of the multitude rested not on its superior knowledge but rather on his belief that the virtue of individuals can be aggregated and even amplified when they act collectively. This significantly alters our understanding of Aristotle’s political thought and presents a powerful alternative to the epistemic defenses of mass political activity popular today.
Aristotle lived during a period of unprecedented imperial expansionism initiated by the kings of Macedon, but most contemporary political theorists confine his political theorizing to the classical Greek city-state. For many, Aristotle’s thought exhibits a parochial Hellenocentric “binary logic” that privileges Greeks over non-Greeks and betrays a xenophobic suspicion of aliens and foreigners. In response to these standard “polis-centric” views, I conjure a different perceptual field—“between polis and empire”—within which to interpret Aristotle’s Politics. Both theorist and text appear deeply attentive to making present immediate things “coming to be and passing away” in the Hellenic world. Moreover, “between polis and empire,” we can see the Politics actually disturbing various hegemonic Greek binary oppositions (Greek/barbarian; citizen/alien; center/periphery), not reinforcing them. Understanding the Politics within the context of the transience of the polis invites a new way of reading Aristotle while at the same time providing new possibilities for theorizing problems of postnational citizenship, transnational politics, and empire.
Between Polis and Empire: Aristotle’s Politics