“Nothing is so obscure it does not deserve to be found.” These words are from Delba Winthrop’s 1974 dissertation on Book III of Aristotle’s Politics, a document high on the list of things that deserve to be found. When Winthrop died in 2006, her dissertation was still unpublished despite the protestations of her husband, Harvey Mansfield, perhaps the dean of conservative political philosophy in this country. At “From Athens to America,” a conference in honor of Winthrop and her work this Monday in Washington, D.C., Mansfield told the audience that she had long refused to publish it: she wanted to learn more about Aristotle first. “Now that’s really putting it off to the Calends,” he said, half-smiling.
Lucky for all of us, Winthrop’s work is now available from the University of Chicago Press. The conference’s first panel, moderated by Mansfield and composed of four learned Aristotelians, examined Winthrop’s unabashedly esoteric reading of what are—on the surface, anyway—Aristotle’s views on constitutions, political virtue, and the nature of the citizen.
Readers of Leo Strauss will be familiar with some of the methods of esoteric reading: the reconstruction of several audiences, the attention to what is not said as well as to what is said, et cetera. Diana Schaub, a political science professor at Loyola University, said that Winthop’s dissertation is a different animal: the book “is an extraordinarily esoteric reading; it goes well beyond the usual methods.”
Winthrop’s intense search for codes in Aristotle’s text extends even to proper nouns, such as Periander’s name. In the famous story also told by Herodotus, Periander, when asked by the petty tyrant Thrasybulus how to consolidate his rule, wordlessly cuts down the tallest stalks of grain from his own field. To Winthrop, he is Periander, peri androu, the all-around man, the man who combines feminine silence with masculine assertiveness: a “wonderful hermaphrodite.” Even the name Peloponnesus, the claw-fingered peninsula where ancient Sparta and Corinth lay, is claimed to mean “dark-toil”—an etymology Schaub was unable to confirm.
Delba Winthrop’s intense search for codes in Aristotle’s text extends even to proper nouns, such as Periander’s name.
Paul Ludwig of St. John’s College noted that Winthrop’s approach diverges from that of most esoteric readings—like Strauss’s of Machiavelli—which begin with the exoteric reading, or the most superficial interpretation (taking superficial, if you will, in the superficial sense), and declaim against the insufficiency of this view before slowly sliding down into the subterranean depths of the unsaid. Winthrop’s approach instead “rubs the reader’s face” in the esoteric; it glories in it. It begins with the most symbolic association and leaves the firmer ground for later.
This approach accentuates some of the book’s themes: the importance of assertiveness, the philosopher’s need to meld a feminine remove with a masculine brashness—to form a whole from the differentiated parts. The philosopher also must embrace the third, spirited part of the soul, which relates to thymos (spirit, or the desire for recognition, roughly)—a term Francis Fukuyama has recently brought back to popular discourse in his new book on identity politics. Winthrop’s book, the panelists pronounced, is the product of an extraordinary attempt to find a metaphysics in Aristotle somewhere other than in his Metaphysics; to find a place for women in politics, whereas Aristotle—as we understood—had banished them; and to teach the politician to philosophize and the philosopher to politicize.
As the first panel adjourned, a sober feeling prevailed in the room, the audience having witnessed two hours of the philosophical equivalent of the cave rescue of the Thai soccer team. Everyone was awed and more than a little intimidated. Mentioning in an aside that it was surely the most learned discussion ever to have taken place in Washington, D.C., Bill Kristol took the stage along with Peter Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution and David Epstein, the author of The Political Theory of The Federalist.
Mentioning in an aside that it was surely the most learned discussion ever to have taken place in Washington, D.C., Bill Kristol took the stage.
The three panelists sought to apply Aristotle to American politics, pausing for a moment to consider Thomas Jefferson’s derision of the philosopher. In a letter to a friend asking after the best translation of Aristotle, Jefferson pronounced him, and with him all the ancients, mostly “useless” in light of the great invention of representation. Of course, as even James Madison knew—himself not exactly a classical scholar, especially by the standards of that day—the Greek political body did in fact allow for representation: the Athenian strategoi were elected. But they discarded it as a governing principle for their states, sniffing on it an aristocratic odor. The office lottery was much more robustly democratic.
This Jeffersonian denunciation of ancient knowledge, which, to be fair, was an ambivalent judgment (in other letters, he happily supplied inquirers with advice from classical authors), is evidence of one tendency in the American founding: that of faith in a new political science. This would seem to oppose the idea that Aristotle’s classical lessons can have much to teach us, but Kristol pointed out that in one sense the opposite was true. Even the separation of powers, that most identifiably eighteenth-century of political ideas, takes on a certain Aristotelian character in The Federalist. What, after all, is the judicial power or the executive power? Can we derive them from forms? Maybe not, but we can build them up deductively, and the authors of The Federalist do. The judicial power does this, and because of this encroachment or this requirement in practice it must be like that—and before you know it you have an institution.
Berkowitz said that authors like Nietzche and Alasdair MacIntyre provoked in him skepticism in the classical liberal project before Mansfield helped him to see that there might be another way to restore his faith in liberal constitutionalism: not in Locke for his own sake, but in “Aristotle, ergo Locke.” In other words, there was a way to construe the American political tradition in Aristotelian terms.
Epstein pointed out that there was a touch of Aristotle to Madison’s argument in The Federalist for the superiority of the American Constitution. If it was indeed the case, as Aristotle said, that one of the sources of constitutions’ instability is that their most extreme tendencies tend to become more extreme over time, then so much the better for the wholly representative basis of America’s popular republic. For, as Madison says, there is no less popular part of American government for the representative parts to undermine, and no parts that are more popular to undermine the representative ones.
The inevitable question that occurs here is, has this held up? Mostly, it seems fair to say, but for many decades now there have been worries that a less representative part of the American constitution, the judiciary, is in danger of overstepping its purely interpretive prerogative. Likewise, government by referendum, as practiced in many states, including California, threatens to become a more popular part of government, interfering with the representative parts. This leads to confusion about the precise location of sovereignty, a problem that has been plaguing Britain for several years now. An Aristotelian republic, then—if you can keep it.