"It is easier to corrupt the few than the many" - Aristotle, Athenian Constitution.
If I were the head of Penguin Books ("God-King"? "Czar"? "Chief Oompa-Loompa"?) I would order every writer of introductions to classic books to pretend they were Oscar Wilde and to speak in the worst taste with the assurance of perfect candor. These stolid English introductions make me want to quit before the text begins. I call this the Penguin Classics Law of Discouraging Introductions.
The only exception to the rule of discouraging penguin classics introductions that I have found is Dorothy L. Sayer's astonishing introductions to Dante's Divine Comedy, which are as interesting as Dante only because they (so to speak) borrow from Dante's intellectual light.
Aristotle's "The Athenian Constitution" is no exception to the Penguin Rule of Discouraging Introductions. The Penguin introduction to Aristotle's "Athenian Constitution" is as arid as the North African breadbasket after the 7th century Islamic invasion. Introducee P. J. Rhodes begins by deflating any notions that one might just, you know, sit down and enjoy the read. I urge everyone to avoid his introduction completely. Given the remarkable story of how this text survived, the introduction disrespects its subject.
So, instead, here are the ten most amazingly fascinating things about this book:
1. The really thrilling thing about "The Athenian Constitution" other than the story of its discovery, is the text. I didn't read it for ages because I thought it would be a set of laws like Plato's Laws. It's not. It's a vivid, exciting history of democracy in Athens, from the start to Aristotle's time! Very cool.
2. The trick with reading Penguin ancient classics is to avoid the editorializing in italics
. I personally wish Penguin editors would shut the hell up, but they feel compelled to patronize readers with constant interfering words INSIDE THE TEXT. If these editorial disgraces were to somehow survive a nuclear holocaust, editors of the future would be hard pressed to discern what the ancient authors of the Empire of Penguin Classics actually said, distinct from their editors. So, the trick is - ONLY READ THE ROMAN TEXT. Ignore the italics.
3. Most people don't know how to read across books (or how to read "syntopically", as the technical term goes). I suggest reading "The Athenian Constitution" as an adventure story. For this, you need to know the heroes. I suggest looking up the lives of the various heroes in Plutarch's Lives, then jumping straight into this text for a counter-weight. For instance, I'm most interested in Pisistratus and the tyrannies that undid demoncracy in the end. I couldn't much care less for Theseus and Solon. So I read about the personality that interests me.
4. What we see in Pisistratus's rule is a synctium of Tacitus and of latter Prussian, Nazi, and American politics: the tricks are all there in a smaller form. In THIS tyrant, we see and recognise all tyrants. He is a fascinating study. It is notable that, like Hitler, Pisistratus refused to have sex in the normal way when he was with Megacles' daughter. Much later Freud had some interesting things to say about sex problems and genius.
5. Cleisthenes, a personal hero of mine, is one of the few examples of genuinely revolutionary changes being peacefully carried through. He is the exemplar, synctium, and archetype of the successful Reformer, just as Pisistratus is the image of the failed Tyrant. Cleinsthenes reformed the 4 tribes to 10, the land or demes to 30 parts, the council from 400 men in 4 gangs of 100, to 500 men in 10 gangs of 50, and instituted the famous law of Ostracism, which amuses intellectuals today nostalgic to ostacize a hated politician. (Thus Cleisthenes is the first true liberal in recorded history. He is one of my personal heroes.)
6. The strength of the "Athenian Constitution" is that it threads together the various Athenian lives of Plutarch into one narrative. If like me you've read the Lives, then you will LOVE the Constitution.
7. It's fascinating to hear the story of Thycidides from outside his book. It tallies exactly with Thycidides' book, which is yet one more reason to love the homely old Athenian householder.
8. Nicias is alluded to, but not connected to the Sicilian disaster, and there is no mention of Alcibiades! One wonders how large a role they really played in these events?
9. In the story of the Thirty, in which can clearly be read the actions of desperate and overly-well-educated men, the lack of resistance can be attributed not to their cruelty (which was great) so much as to the Athenians' being so sick and tired of war. Lesson: being the brightest star of human civilization is not by any means a stable affair, nor would it have been much of a good place to live. Frankly, Corinth under Epamimondas looked like much much nicer place to live through all this hell of war we have called the "golden age of Athens".
10. Chapter 41, paragraphs 2 and 3, is the vital introduction to this book. THIS should be the thing at the start, not the ugly mess of Penguin Introduction nonsense. It summarizes the changes to the consitution over all of Athens history. Absolutely fascinating!
To conclude, what Penguin does so very wrong here is threefold:
1. The introduction sucks. Period.
2. The editorializing sucks. Period.
3. There is no delightful witty comments, comparisons, or bitchy comments, anywhere in the editorial apparatus. This is an unforgiveable omission in a book which, after all, is demonstrably a book one must read for the delight in knowing.
Penguin Classics, lift your act!