Ernest Barker and Greek Political Thought: Aristotle

In: Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek and Roman Political Thought

Ernest Barker is best remembered for his study of Plato and his Predecessors (1918), yet his early efforts to mine Greek political theory for relevant insights centred on Aristotle.While not as original as his teacher, Aristotle represents a significant advance in political science, first, by avoiding Plato’s extremes, second, by forwarding a naturalistic and ethical vision of civic life, and finally, by adopting a pragmatic approach to improving ‘deviant’ regimes. Both thinkers serve as a foil for exposing the shortcomings of modern politics, particularly the atomistic individualism of Hobbes, Locke, and Bentham. Unlike Plato, Aristotle exhibits an ‘English spirit’ of compromise, moderation, and balance, although from a distinctly Burkean perspective. Barker’s sympathies did not, however, blind him to the ‘reactionary’, ‘primitive’, and ‘illiberal’ aspects of Aristotle’s teaching. His failure to reconcile these discordant elements—culminating in a quixotic call for an ‘aristocratic democracy’ — merely echoed the ambiguity and equivocation that marked his treatment of Plato. Barker maintained a grudging respect for Plato, but knew he was politically incorrigible. Aristotle showed farmore promise, but in the end could not be made to fit the mould of the Edwardian progressive.

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