Aristotle Against Orientalism: Carthaginian Perspective

Aristotle is turning up as a major party to a supposed ‘Orientalist’ tradition in political theory.  ‘Orientalism’ in general refers to the perspective in which western culture has considered other cultures to  be both opposite and inferior to itself.  This approach has had some productive results but also its own blind spots.


One suggestion in that approach is that western accounts of democracy, republicanism and any political way of thinking rooted in ideas of freedom, have been exclusively rooted in Greek origins.  Aristotle’s political ideas keep turning up as something rooted in a Greek centred view, in which non-Greeks have despotism and Greeks have freedom.  In this context it is sometimes pointed out that earlier people in the Near East had  On the barbarians to the north of the Greek world, Aristotle recognised some freedom in electing kings, though not much freedom under that king.


Most significantly, in The Politics, Aristotle does refer positively to a semitic people related to the semitic peoples of ancient Sumeria and Babylon, and sharing a common ancestry with modern Arabs and Jews, that is the Phoenicians.  The Phoenicians who spread commerce and the first alphabet around the Mediterranean.  Aristotle refers approvingly to the Carthaginian constitution as like that of Crete and Sparta.  These were not Aristotle’s most favoured constitutions, but the main point here is that he recognised that Carthage belonged to the group of good constitutions, which are not dominated by tyranny, oligarchy or democracy (in the sense of rule through popular assemblies).


He describes Carthage as a ‘polity’, his most favoured state form, also referred to in English as a republic, a mixed constitution, or a political state.  That is the kind of state where democracy, aristocracy (rule of the virtuous) and oligarchy (rule of the rich) are mixed, a situation which offers the best possible protection against forms of government which deny freedom: tyranny (lawless rule of one person), oligarchy (lawless rule of a rich minority), democracy (lawless rule of the majority).  The polity leans towards democracy, but possible acts against freedom and reason are mitigated by rule of the rich minority and rule of the virtuous minority (educated aristocrats).


He refers to Carthage as a polity which leans towards democracy in the power of a popular assembly, and leans towards oligarchy in that the ruling council contains wealthy people and people with multiple positions.  A couple of passages at the bottom of this post, confirm that.


There is a tendency around to think that the ‘west’ is anticipated in ancient times by Rome and by the Greek city states.  Rome had an epic struggle against Carthage, most famously when Carthaginian armies where led by Hannibal.  After defeat of Carthage, which was an obsession for some Roman leaders, the city was destroyed, though later rebuilt.  This leads to the background assumption that the Greeks regarded Persia as the enemy and called it despotic, therefore the same view of Carthage must have been held by Greeks and Romans, so that we have an element in  ‘western’ history of denial of the ‘Oriental other’.  We could add to that the appearance of Phoenicians as ‘Philistines’, an enemy people of the Israelites, in the Old Testament.


Aristotle did not deny the Phoenician-Carthaginian ‘other’ in a move of Orientalist violence.  he assumed that the Carthaginians had a polity, like the Greek polities, and that it deserved to be placed alongside them.  ‘Orientalist’ approaches have emphasised what needed to be emphasised about the ‘non-western’ cultures, but has also under-emphasised the ways in which the classical writers may not have been pure examples of `Orientalism’.


Quotations from Aristotle’s Politics (translated by H. Rackham, Loen/Harvard University Press).


1272b Book II VIII

Carthage also appears to have a good constitution, with many outstanding features as compared with those of other nations, but most nearly resembling the Spartan in some points.  For these three constitutions are in a way near to one another and are widely different from the others–the Cretan, the Spartan and thirdly, that of Carthage.  Many regulations of Carthage are good; and a proof that its constitution is well regulated is that the populace willingly remain faithful to the constitutional system, and that neither civil strife has risen in any degree worth mentioning, nor yet a tyrant.  Cathage is



Now most of the points in which the Carthaginian system that would be criticised on the ground of their defects happen to be common to all the constitutions of which we have spoken; but the features open to criticism as judged by the principles of an aristocracy or republic are some of them departures in the direction of democracy and others in the direction of oligarchy.

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