Skip to content

On Thomas Pangle’s New Book: Reading as Eristic

I read Thomas Pangle’s new book, Aristotle’s Teaching in the Politics (University of Chicago Press, 2013), with both great interest and suspicion.  With great interest because with Pangle, I think the Politics needs to be read creatively and imaginatively–an approach which many people seem willing to use in reading Plato but much more reticent to employ in reading Aristotle.  With suspicion because I realized early on in the monograph that Pangle was a Straussian, someone who thinks there are two levels of writing and reading at work–one wherein Aristotle speaks to the common reader and one wherein Aristotle writes for what Pangle calls “the morally serious reader.”  This kind of bifurcation of the world of thinkers and readers worries me for philosophical and political readings.  I began writing this post with the effort to criticize that reading strategy, and I finished realizing that Pangle’s reading of Aristotle was highly provocative, but it didn’t need the Straussian reading approach to get there.  Resorting to that approach explained some difficulties, but also testified to Aristotle’s explicit effort to take into account many varied and competing positions on the meaning of the political and the role of the philosophical.

In his opening chapter, “The Challenge of Interpreting Aristotle’s Lectures,” Pangle aims to show how Aristotle presents puzzles, serious puzzles, in the Politics, puzzles that aim to show the seriousness not the futility of the political enterprise.  On this point, I agree wholeheartedly with Pangle (against Pascal), and on this point, I agree with his teacher, Leo Strauss, who maintained that philosophy begins in political contestations in Natural Right and History.  Some of the puzzles that Pangle finds in Aristotle’s Politics are that nature in the feminine acts as an artisan that fails the feminine; that human nature must be repressed to fulfill itself as political; that the particular situation often exceeds the universality characteristic of the law; that a virtuous person has commitments beyond the good citizen’s concern for the regime; that political life disputes the measure that philosophy claims to seek independently of power; that being ruled in a community seems to be at odds with being free.  I do not always agree with the way that Pangle solves these puzzles because I don’t always accept his terms, especially when he sees claims “that can’t be a correct reading because that is not the way things actually were,” as he responds to whether we should accept Aristotle’s definition of the citizen as the one engaged in rule.  Aristotle’s own definitions could be read as bringing together the descriptive with the prescriptive where the definition then carries with it the force to make it come to be.  Nonetheless, Pangle does well to follow the complexities of these questions and often, to leave them as questions.

To further this effort to puzzle with Aristotle, Pangle reads with an eye to the literary context that Aristotle employs often to show that there are puzzles where there might not seem to be puzzles.  For example, Pangle reminds us that the poet who asserts that “it is reasonable for Greeks to rule barbarians” (Pol. 1252b8) is Euripides who writes this in Iphegenia at Aulis (1400), placing this line in the mouth of Iphegenia who is about to submit to being slain by her father in human sacrifice so that the Greeks might go into battle (32).  It’s difficult to keep from asking, whose barbaric now?  How could this be reasonable when the Greeks have become barbarians in order to be Greek?  The distinctions the Greeks took to be natural ones have been perverted and appear to need active efforts to maintain, there being nothing essential to the Greeks that keeps them from the most natural responsibilities–protecting their children.  Pangle explores other references to Euripides, as well as references to Homer, Aristophanes, Sophocles, Plato and Xenophon to complicate claims that have become accepted dogma on Aristotle’s Politics.

On these points, Pangle presents reading approaches that make Aristotle’s Politics philosophical, important and worth engaging.  But his pervasive Straussianism (see this excerpt from Anne Norton’s book, Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire) made me bristle.  To argue that Aristotle divides his readers between the properly initiated and the not-so-serious reader requires an argument that a) Aristotle thinks his readers, the best ones, are properly initiated, and b) that persons of different characters need different arguments to move them toward virtue.  Pangle seems convinced of the aristocratic nature of the properly initiated reader of Aristotle whom he refers to as “gentleman,” “our thoughtful young aristocrats” (104), “the refined” (107), “the high-minded reader” (127), “his gentlemanly readers” (140), and uses examples of Churchill and Lincoln as the most political characters.  To be fair Pangle notes that Aristotle is not entirely uncritical of his aristocratic listeners, as when he points to the way the aristocrats are like democrats when they ostracize the supremely virtuous person from the city (147), forcing these listeners to understand their opposition or when he shows that no one claims to rule on the basis of knowledge of politics or the superior good (148).  So why suppose that the intended audience is the aristocratic type instead of recognizing in Aristotle misunderstandings of both political and philosophical life on all sides, misunderstandings that need to be addressed for both political and philosophical lives to be possible and compatible?  By the end of the book, I was more convinced that Pangle finds in Aristotle an argument for those who want to escape political life (the morally serious) that drives them back to political life, and an argument for the need for the philosophical life and the limits of political life for those who find all of their happiness in politics.  This reading draws Aristotle very close to Plato in the Republic.  In many ways, it is a convincing reading.

What I am left wondering from this reading is why it demands an esoteric and an exoteric reading instead of an argument about Aristotle’s concern to address different perceptions and to move them all to a conception of, well, a mean in political and philosophical life.  I think Pangle would argue that this divided audience reading approach explains some of the strange claims that Aristotle makes.  Again, I appreciate that strategy, and as we have been having more conversations here at Wabash about how to teach reading, I find worthy the notion that reading works on us and effects us and does something that addresses the way we perceive the world and the framing we give a reading comes from our character which shapes our perceptions of the world.  But then I just want to say, why only two groups?  Why not as many audiences as there are kinds of characters?  Plato seems to engage Socrates in dialogues in this way, bringing different approaches to different kinds of people–generals, potential tyrants, priests and mathematicians.  Another element of the Straussian approach is it seems to make the esoteric the better reading and the exoteric the more limited one.  For example, Pangle writes that “[T]he exact truth, as a good thing–the exact truth about the just and the noble, perhaps especially the exact truth that emerges from an investigation into the ‘great disagreement the just and the noble contain’–may be harmful to some or to many” (3-4).  This suggests that some people can’t handle the truth.

"You can't handle the truth!"

“You can’t handle the truth!”

Thus, “The demonstration needs to be conveyed or indicated in a manner that will sift out the readers whom it may benefit from those whom it might harmfully bewilder or even anger” (24). This view suggests that the puzzles allow for certain readers to engage, while they fail to be recognized as puzzles by others.  Yet only a few lines later, Pangle writes:

Aristotle’s deepest aim in posing these riddles is to awaken his readers to the conceptual necessities that, if truly grasped, transform the confused, contradictory moral thinking with which we all begin into clarified and rigorously consistent thinking. 24

This claim seems to suggest that people come to be predisposed to politics or philosophy from having been habituated from out of a similar beginning position.  If that is the case, we might all be capable of changing our position and there might be issues and concerns with both, as one understanding of Pangle’s view would suggest.  So why privilege those who get it from those who don’t?  Historically, it is the case that Aristotle’s readers would have been those who were privileged.  But does that mean that he has a separate message for some rather than others?  By positing that there would need to be two readings, Pangle concedes that non-aristocrats would read Aristotle as well.  So we can’t take it for granted who the ‘real’ audience would be.  Why not suggest instead that there are those who get the importance of political life and those who get the importance of philosophical life, but as is the case in Aristotle’s dialectical approach they are both wrong and both right because of the way they understand those positions?  Of course, it is in the details that my disagreement with Pangle over what they are wrong and right about lies.  But I think Pangle does well to point to the Politics effort to join what appear to be competing ways of fulfilling human life elsewhere in Aristotle.  I wonder, could Pangle lead to this reading without Strauss and the assumption of the aristocratic superiority of a certain position?

In closing, I should mention one considerable concern with Pangle’s book.  While Pangle references Aquinas fifty times and the 19th-century Politics scholars Susemihl and Hicks more often than anyone, as Thornton Lockwood points out, he rarely cites the women scholars who work on Aristotle, while it seems that he nonetheless employs their ideas.  Mary P. Nichols describes nature in Aristotle’s Politics as stingy (in Chapter 1 of Citizens and Statesmen, 26-27) and politics in the Politics as limited (in the Chapter, “Best Regime and the Limits of Politics”).  She argues that monarchy becomes more like a republic to preserve itself (105-106).  I have only ever read those arguments in Nichols’ work.  Pangle makes these claims on pp. 57, 213-216, and the argument about the limits of the politics throughout.  Perhaps these views are widespread in circles on Aristotle’s Politics I am unfamiliar with.  I know it cannot be that Pangle has not read Nichols because he cites her elsewhere.  As we begin talking more and more about how women are ignored and their achievements effaced in philosophy, we would do well to be clear on the contributions that women are making to the field.  (Though both Pangle and Nichols are in Political Science Departments, they are a part of the larger cross-disciplinary field of ancient political theory and philosophy.)  Pangle does reference Nichols’ work on other issues as well as other women scholars such as Jill Frank, Mary G. Dietz, Arlene Saxonhouse, Susan Collins, Ronna Burger,  Claudia Baracchi, Eudore Derenne, Dorothea Frede, Isobel Henderson, Aimée Koeplin, Debra Nails and Hannah Arendt.  I found it noticeable how often men were named in the body of the book and women relegated to the endnotes.  A formatting irregularity led to some thinkers being cited in the body in parantheticals and some cited in footnotes.  I could not figure out the logic that made the distinction between them, but it produces the effect of the men being close at hand because cited more often in the text and the women’s voices far away in the back of the book – a woman scholar is not mentioned in the body until page 64.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Spencer #

    Nichols’s points on nature and the limit of politics are Straussian commonplaces… You can find them in The City and Man or other female straussians’s works such as Cathy zuckert. I won’t be surprised if one finds similar points in burger, Collins, or saxonhouse.

    Truth is a woman? Sometimes…

    August 27, 2014

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Janus-Faced, Part 1: Stuff I’m Proud of from 2014 | The Trott Line

What's your Line on this?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

The Prindle Post

Ethics in the News and Culture Explained

Feminist Philosophers

News feminist philosophers can use

Cori Wong, Ph.D.

Thinking Through Life in Transformative Ways

Samir Chopra

Refusing to Stick to the Subject

Works Cited

Catching all manner of thought


extra/trans-continental philosophers collective

The Activist Classroom

Because pedagogy is a public practice.

Ta-Nehisi Coates | The Atlantic

Catching all manner of thought

Christopher P. Long

Catching all manner of thought

%d bloggers like this: