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Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle's Politics

by Fred D., Jr. Miller

Buy the book: Fred D., Jr. Miller. Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle's Politics

Release Date: June, 1997

Edition: Paperback


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Buy the book: Fred D., Jr. Miller. Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle's Politics

Weekend at Bernie's

Miller would like to reclaim Aristotle for the modern world. In order to accomplish this task Miller has decided that he must ignore certain blatantly obvious factors in Aristotle which clash with the way we live today. This is most obvious in his poorly argued decision to attribute a theory of rights to Aristotle. Miller cites but ignores the fact that the language of rights did not appear until around the 13th century. He also ignores the context in which that language appeared. Instead, Miller choses to rely upon an abstract definition of rights by a 20th century academic, apparently not bothering to notice the problem of relying upon the definition of an accepted entity to prove that entity's existence at a point prior in time. In other words, Miller commits the logical fallacy of assuming the consequent to prove the antecedent eg. "a theory of rights contains x,y, and z"; "Aristotle speaks of x,y, and z therefore Aristotle must have had a theory of rights". There is an additional problem with Miller's attempt to argue the existence of rights in Aristotle: the definition he relies upon is so vague as to allow us to claim that both the Torah and Hammurabi's Code contained a theory of rights. As there is no credible evidence that such a thing ever existed within those documents this procedure is absurd. Furthermore, Miller's "defense" of his "hypothesis" amounts to little more than two or three footnote citations of other professors' works with the unilluminating claim that these articles are enough to answer the obvious questions regarding his approach. He does nothing to "refute" the readings of Strauss, Macintyre, or Irwin but sniff and shuffle some papers.

What Miller ultimately concludes is that Aristotle did not believe in pre-political right but only in a particular type of political or civil right which depended entirely upon the constitution of the polis. Since Aristotle *never* used the language of rights the best we can state is that Aristotle believed that the constitution of a polis gave its citizens both *priviledges* and duties. As the existence of the polis preceeds and superceeds the existence of any of its members it is silly to claim that citizens possess "rights". Since law tries to mimic justice and give to each his own as his ability warrants, there is no place for a "right" which would override the claims of justice embodied within the law. One could ask, "why make such a fuss since what Aristotle said regarding the claims of justice because it sounds alot like what we say when we speak of rights?" It is important to be clear about these things because a certain amount of Aristotle's politics is based upon his understanding of nature and the cosmos. Everything within the cosmos operates according to a set order except for the relations between men. Nature should be our guide since it appears to guide everything else but nature is silent about the proper role of man. For Aristotle, law is the attempt to complete the work of nature by taking it as a guide. There are no "rights" in nature so it would have been absurd for Aristotle to invent such a fiction. Aristotle choses to emphasize the constitution of the polis because it mimics on a human scale the order of the cosmos.

To be fair, the book starts off quite promising and it is only when Miller begins his descent into the morass of rights that things deteriorate. One can read this work and learn a little bit about Aristotle but, in the end, it is not a terribly good exposition of what he wrote. Miller paints us a portrait of the dead philosopher dressed in some rather bad beach wear and pretends that this is still the profound thinker who dominated medieval philosophy for 1,000 years. The final chapter of the book attempts to defend the relevance of Aristotle for today by using the language of the modern university and its obsession with -isms. This may be a way to gain tenure but it makes for poor scholarship.

From Amazon.com

A positive assessment of a challenging work on Aristotle

Millers' book is a teleological interpretation of Aristotle's Politics. Miller includes a succinct overview of Aristotle's division of the sciences and the virtues, an important subject usually not covered in secondary literature devoted to the Politics. The most controversial part of Miller's thesis is the idea that Aristotle had a theory of individual rights. Miller offers possibly the best defense of this idea ever made, based on his teleological perspective, and is generally successful.

As a graduate student in Greek politics, I think that this is one of the best books ever written on this subject. It will be very challenging for non-specialists, but Miller's clear writing makes difficult concepts understandable. Aristotle's Politics itself is a definite prerequisite. This book is required reading for students of Aristotle.

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