Jill Frank has written a serious book on politics in the form of a philosophical reflection on Aristotle especially his Politics, but also his Nicomachean Ethics, Rhetoric, Poetics, Physics, Metaphysics, and De Anima. Frank unapologetically suggests that Aristotle may have a more sophisticated understanding of politics than do contemporary political theoristscommunitarians, say, or classical liberals. She thinks "Aristotle's ethical and political lessons are no less timely for us than they were for fourth-century Athens." This alone should predispose one to like A Democracy of Distinction.
Frank is refreshingly unembarrassed by Aristotle's accounts of the goodness of natural slavery, of property qualifications for citizenship, aristocracy, etc. She does not attempt to marginalize their importance. Instead, she seeks to interpret them anew in light of what she takes to be Aristotle's "signal methodological contribution to contemporary debates." This is Aristotle's understanding of a "middle" way or position or condition that "combines both extremes and neither to come up with a common term that . . . is not reducible to its component parts."
Frank unfolds her understanding of this Aristotelian "middle" progressively, beginning with the nature of the individuals who make up political life (chapter one), and proceeding to their relation to the objects of their world (chapter two) and finally to one another (chapters 3-5). These are not stages of a temporal development but aspects of the subject presented separately to show that and why they cannot exist independently of one another. In Frank's terms, individual identity only makes sense in terms of the work we do with property, and such work, in turn, already implies social life.
Frank thus follows a path much like one laid out by Martin Heidegger (though she rarely mentions him). A Democracy of Distinction ends with a recognizably Heideggerian reflection on the political constitution as "the work of the present from out of the past with a view to the future." And the argument of the book as a whole parallels the argument of the first section of Being and Time. For Heidegger, the question of being (Sein) cannot be asked without asking about the nature of the being who raises this questionDaseinwhich, in turn, cannot be understood apart from the world that necessarily unfolds for it. This world around us (die Umwelt) first comes to sight in terms of the objects of which we make usewhat is ready-to-hand. These objects are not only for me, but are part of a world of use for those like me. Dasein is always in a world of related things that involves being together with others (Mitdasein). Or, in Frank's terms, individual identity only makes sense in terms of the work we do with property, and such work, in turn, already implies social life.
Like Heidegger, Frank does not wish simply to do away with the tensions that generate the "middle." Dasein may always be in a world, but it is in this world as sensing itself apart from it. In Heidegger, meaning (Meinung) cannot be separated from making something mine (mein), which, in turn, involves an understanding that there are things other than mine. In Frank, individuals may show themselves only insofar as they are at work with something proper to themtheir propertybut property must still somehow remain other; we do not simply disappear into it.
A Democracy of Distinction does not aspire "to produce a definitive Aristotle" but rather "to bring to light elements of his political philosophy that have been underexplored and that are of interest today, particularly for contemporary democratic politics." Frank thus turns to Aristotle to understand democracy, even though "Aristotle makes no secret of his hostility to democracy." Then, to understand Aristotle, she turns to Heidegger, who, although perhaps the most important philosopher of the twentieth century, was also no obvious friend of democracy. This democratic use of antidemocratic thinkers is what is perhaps most intriguing about A Democracy of Distinction.
Aristotle famously claims that "man is by nature a political animal," or, as Frank would have it, a "political being." He argues in addition that the polis is by nature, that some are natural rulers, and that some are naturally ruled. Nature is thus customarily taken as the fixed standard against which Aristotle measures the goodness of any polis. When those who are best by nature rule for the common good, the city is at its best. Accordingly, Aristotle concludes, however reluctantly, that when one man is so distinguished in virtue that he far surpasses all others, there is no choice (in a good regime) but to make him ruler. Aristotle's anti-democratic bias is therefore rooted in his understanding of the natural inequality among human beings. If, in the extreme case, some are by nature unequipped to rule themselves, they will be by nature slaves.
At the same time, Aristotle is aware that a beehive is not political. In a polis men obey from choice, not from a fixed disposition of their natures. In this they are presumably equal. Accordingly, politics and morality go hand in hand; indeed in the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle calls politics the sovereign and architectonic science of the single and final human good. Nonetheless, by almost immediately splitting the object of politics into twothe noble (or beautiful) and the justhe hints strongly at its equivocal nature. From the point of view of the noble, we must be aristocrats. We expect and even rely upon some men to be better than others. On the other hand, from the point of view of the just (especially understood as the lawful) we democratically demand that everyone be moral.
Jill Frank seeks to address this equivocation and others related to it with her interpretation of nature. She distinguishes nature from necessity on the one hand and from chance on the other. Nature (phusis), cognate with the verb to grow (phuô), contains change within it. Because human beings are by nature political, nature (in the form of human nature) realizes itself only within the polis rather than placing an external limit on the polis. Frank wants to make human nature simultaneously "both a measure of polity" (so that nature is not altogether changeable and thus conventional) and "itself a question of politics" (so that nature is altered by conventions). "Nature is, thus, not immutable but changeable, and this means that the boundaries it underwrites and the hierarchies it secures, although necessary to politics, will be changeable too."
The consequences of this view are, for Frank, enormous. Natural slavery will exist. Cities will contain human beings incapable of being citizens because they lack that self-rule that is the distinctive feature of moral virtue and so of political life. Slaves do not engage in "the work of man"what Frank calls prohairetic activity, forging through choice a present by projecting themselves out of an already determined past into an as yet indeterminate future. There must be something necessary and fixed about our world for us to be able to think through our choices; there must be something open-ended about it for us to act on these choices. "What is by nature, then, may reach toward necessity, but it must remain distinct from the necessary so as to preserve the activity characteristic of human beings."
Aristotle may say that "it is clear that some men are by nature free and others slaves," but Frank concludes that "there is nothing immutable that singles out any particular person as a slave." Just as human beings acquire virtue by habit, becoming courageous by doing courageous deeds, slaves become slaves by acting slavishly. Slavery, however natural, is thus not necessarily a permanent condition. We come to be what we are in our interaction with the world. This is what it means to be political by nature. Thus, "human nature is as much a product of the regime under which one lives as it is a regime's cause."
Frank follows a similar path in her account of property. Some consider property prepolitical; for them, politics exists to protect the individual right to property. Some consider property an altogether conventional, post-political institution. But if the individual exists only in relation to a world made up of things that in turn exist only as instruments of use, then property cannot be understood as deriving from a right belonging to an idealized independent individual. Property is not properly even a noun but a verb, "a site of the practice of virtue," and an activity or energeia of proper use that involves "holding and using" which like habit and action "form a reciprocal and dynamic relationship." Thus Aristotle is critical of the communism in Republic Book 5 not in the name of a right of private ownership but because, where everything is held in common by law or necessity, there will be no psychic disposition to share, and hence nothing really held in common. Once again, political life requires prohairetic activity.
From property Frank moves to justice and law, also understood as "sites of excellence" that simultaneously require virtue from citizens and educate them to virtue. Aristotle's citizens are both the means by which the city acts and the purpose for which it acts. Accordingly, justice in the city both requires good judgment and inculcates good judgment, and law both guides citizen activity and is the result of citizen activity. Frank concludes with an interpretation of political friendship: it is meant to serve as a model for how the best political order is a community of those similar to one another in their prohairetic activity and yet different in terms of what they contribute to the city. She calls this polity a democracy of distinction.
A Democracy of Distinction is a book of considerable virtues that also gives rise to a series of questions. Frank's overall argument rests squarely on an interpretation of nature that is in some ways extremely attractive. To say we are political by nature is surely to say that we are somehow conventional by nature. The conditions of our being are not so fixed as those of other beings. To understand this distinctive condition is the perennial work of philosophy. Yet Frank attempts to justify her account of human nature by reinterpreting Aristotle's account of nature simply, and in doing so she risks losing sight of the difference between the two. Do we really want to say that fire burns the same way in Persia and in Greece "usually and for the most part"that it does not by nature everywhere have a power that is the same and unchanging (Nicomachean Ethics 1134b20)? Even if we do, would this nature really be the same as the nature that frees us to form our lives according to conventions and that makes natural justice changeable? Seduced by the power of Aristotle's understanding of being generallyin terms of potentiality (dunamis) and actuality (energeia) Frank too easily assimilates human being to the rest of being. But Dasein is not Sein; she should have stayed truer to Heidegger.
Frank's account of the middle as qualitatively distinct from the extremes that form it is also sometimes too facile. It may be that we must understand human choice as requiring both a fixed, intelligible, and predictable world and one at the same time open-ended, incomplete, and unpredictable; but is to say this to understand how human choice works? The problem is not solved by calling the activity of choice prohairetic. In the Politics Aristotle is critical of a court reform suggested by Hippodamus, who thought that judges should not be forced to choose between condemning or acquitting. Since every action is in some way idiosyncratic, Hippodamus thought those who judge should have the option of defining some position in between the two extremeson the one hand guilty, on the other hand not, for the truth is always somewhere in the middle. Hippodamus did not understand that while his principle might be correct, the middle comes to sight only in light of the extremes between which it falls, and to try to take our bearings by the middle is to risk losing sight of it altogether. An exception to a rule exists only when there is a rule.
Frank is not unaware of this problem and often herself makes the claim that the middle will show itself in the tension between the extremes. A Democracy of Distinction is a subtle account of the way political life works. It is less persuasive as a normative account. It is one thing to claim in general that an individual's sense that an object belongs to him alone is always already mixed together in a complicated way with a commonness that belongs to any object in the world. It is quite another to make clear what the ideal mixture of the common and the private will be or to demonstrate that there can ever be such an ideal mixture. The tension between the rich and the poor that Aristotle spends so much time discussing may be simply intractable (perhaps because it involves a tension between those whose being is constituted by a sense of their wealththeir ousiaand the poor who are constituted by a sense of lackaporia).
As the title of Frank's book indicates, she is really interested in democracy; she wants to make democracy better by combining its egalitarian principle with the aristocratic principle of virtue. With this end in mind she argues for a series of "democratic" middle conditions that would not homogenize a citizen body but preserve the distinctions necessary for healthy political life. Yet all of these middles are very difficult to get a handle on and threaten in the end to dissolve into the tensions they are meant to resolve. Frank has written a book that, by bringing Heideggerian insights to politics, shows the inescapable consequences of our being political animals. But it is one thing to explain that we are inextricably in the political world and another to identify one way of being in this world as more politically authentic than others. What Aristotle calls an aristocracy, Frank chooses to call a democracy of distinction, but Aristotle does not seem to mean what she means. That virtue is, in Frank's words, "something particular to and different in each human being" is a democratic principle. It may even be true. But nowhere does Aristotle indicate that he thinks it a viable political principle. Jill Frank has written a very good book about politics, but in the end, like Hippodamus, what she says is just too good to be true.