Aristotle’s Politics Book III: The Limits of the City and Citizenship

In Book III, as we continue Aristotle’s investigation into each form of government (Book II), we find that the whole question of each form of government must be approached through the lens of the city. And what is the city? A class of composite things. And the composite things of a whole are called parts, so the parts of a city are called citizens.

So, what should we call a “citizen?” First, Aristotle discusses what a citizen is not. A citizen is not based simply on his or her geographic location (for there are such things as resident aliens as well as slaves). In other words, I am not a citizen of Athens simply because I am located within the city boundaries. Also, citizens are not people who share in the legal rights of lawsuits. Similarly, children are not citizens, nor are the elderly who have been relieved of obligations. The largest single thing that defines a citizen is a person’s “taking part in and judging” with regard to the affairs of the city (1275A 25), which implies a taking part in the offices of the city, and not necessarily being a citizen of another city or another regime. Citizenship is a responsibility, and an honor. It is exclusive. Also the definition of a citizen can be said thusly: “So it is clear from these things who a citizen is, for we say that one who has a right to share in deliberative and judicial rule is for that reason a citizen of that city, and a city, to put it simply, is a multitude of such people adequate for self-sufficiency in line” (1275B 18-22).

Next, Aristotle discusses the problems of hereditary citizenship. He also mentions the problems associated with people who come to be citizens by means of a revolution (as in the case of Cleisthenes and his reforms in Athens). The question is of whether they have come to be citizens justly or unjustly (this notion of the just and unjust is a returning theme in Book III, and thus why some claim Book III contains the most complete teaching of Aristotle on political philosophy).

Aristotle discusses the changing of regimes (much like the descent of the regime in the Republic) pertaining to the question of whether a city performs an action as not the city -such as when a democracy comes into being out of an oligarchy or a tyranny. Some people fail to fulfill their agreements in lieu of the tyrant. The question Aristotle is trying to address is regarding the Parmenidian “one-ness” or unity of the city, when it changes regimes. What preserves the body politic as it changes? Does it remain the same city if it changes from a monarchy to a tyranny? Like a musical scale, the city’s name does not necessarily change if it remains essentially the same musical number. So, to conclude this segment, the citizen has been defined as a part of a whole (the city) and the city is not like a Heraclitean river per say, but rather it is a union composed of composite parts, called citizens. We are left asking, then, are all citizens good and worthy of the city?

Next, we further delineate between the excellent citizen and merely a morally good man. The latter may be of good judgment, capable of being ruled, but the excellent citizen must be both capable of being ruled and also of ruling. This duality is key to the excellent citizen. One learns to rule, paradoxically, by being ruled (1277B 8-10). Similarly one learns to be a cavalry leader by being ruled, and the same goes for being a general or a squadron leader. Thus, citizenship and the art of politics falls under Aristotle’s “practical knowledge” because it is an art that may be a learned habit and instruction (practical judgment is the key virtue of a ruler). Another way of putting it might be that an excellent or virtuous citizen has both rights and responsibilities.

“Hence it is said, and beautifully at that, that it is not possible for anyone to rule well except someone who has been ruled. And while virtue in these roles is different, a good citizen needs to have the knowledge and capacity both to be ruled and to rule. This is the virtue of a citizen: knowing the rule of free people from both sides” (1277B 13-18).

However, we previously noted Aristotle’s clear distinctions between household and city, as he denies the explicit parallel between the soul or character of the city and man in Plato’s Republic. There is, on the other hand in Aristotle, a connection between the types of regimes and the corresponding citizenry. A citizen of a democracy is different than a citizen in an oligarchy. To what extent does this change the character of a city? A citizen also “shares in the honors of the city.”

Now, Aristotle returns to his earlier claim that “a human being is an animal meant for a city.” In the Ethics, Aristotle discusses the highest good, which is the beautiful (to kalon, meaning also something like “timely”). In the Politics, he has been discussing the highest form of the good in the city, which is connected to the beautiful. Aristotle does not concern himself with the material conditions of man, or any “high standard of living.” That is to say, Aristotle is less concerned with discovering a political regime that allows men to merely live, but rather to live well, or beautifully, according to their nature and their virtue. Another way of thinking about Aristotle’s conception of the beautiful is to consider a well-tuned set of instruments forming a symphony playing a harmonious song -with no cacophony, and each part playing its part appropriately and moderately.  He distinguishes the right form of government from those who seek elected office for the prestige and the riches associated with it (Aristotle mentions at the time of writing that many people pursue public office to essentially raid the common fund). This is a deviation from right rule.

Regimes that look to the common advantage of the people are ruled rightly, while private advantage is to be scorned among rulers. Now, cities may be ruled only by one (monarchy), few (aristocracy), or many (constitutional rule or what we moderns call a “republic” as part of our inheritance from Latins). With each form of government comes a corresponding deviation from the right regime, or a degeneration or degradation. With monarchy, its deviation is tyranny which is not preferable due to its ruthless rule for the benefit of one man. With aristocracy, its deviation is oligarchy which works to the benefit of the wealthy few. With constitutional rule, or republicanism, the deviation is toward democracy, which is a rule of poor. None of these deviations look to what is commonly held to be advantageous, and thus they are not desirable.

Aristotle says a little more about the nature of each of these regimes: tyranny is the rule like a master over slaves, an oligarchy rules to the advantage of the wealthy, while democracy rules to the advantage of the opposite: that of the poor.

Chapter 9 is particularly notable in Book III, as Aristotle endeavors to speak about justice in the highest and authoritative sense. “For what is just, seems, in a way, to be something equal, and it is, but not for all people but for those who are equal” (1280A 12-14). With regards to justice, people agree about a fundamental equality underlying the issue at hand, but tend to disagree with respect to distributions. However, people form political associations not merely out of “utility” or financial agreements (for otherwise cities with trade agreements would fall under the category of a certain kind of city or political association, such as when Carthage trades with the Etruscans). A city needs to take concern for virtue, otherwise they run the risk of becoming a mere alliance, and law becomes a mere “contract.” On the other hand: “a city is instead an association of households and families living well, for the sake of a complete, self-sufficient life” (1280B 34-36). This addition to mere contracts, is friendship -a “choice to live in common.” And friendship exists for the sake of living well, which is the end of the city (fulfilling a self-sufficient, happy, and beautiful life).

However, a problem still arises regarding the question of injustice. Is justice the same as the law? So that whatever is merely legal is just? Aristotle plays devil’s advocate while also swearing by the god: “Well by Zeus, it was enacted justly by the authority!” (1281A 15-16; Aristotle repeats a “by Zeus” oath at 1281B 18). Aristotle illuminates the problems with justice as law or rulership, and he notes that one may say that it is a bad thing for authority to be human at all (i.e. divine authority) but still appears to be dependent on good and noble rulers.

At any rate, Aristotle argues that the multitude of people (free and citizens) should be left to deliberating and judging, but not allowed much in the way of rulership. The goal is to prevent the many from becoming too slavish.

Aristotle returns to the natural inequalities between humans (some are taller, smarter, more physically able, some have more wealth and other measurable qualities). Now, since every art points at some good, and the good of the political art points at the highest good: justice, and no city can be run only by paupers and strangers, the nature of the city must have present in it: justice and virtue. Aristotle says justice is a “communal virtue, and from it all the rest necessarily follow” (1283A 40-41). However if there is one man who surpasses in virtue he would be unequal, like a god among men, legislating for himself. This is the wellspring of democratic ostracism.

At the end of Book III, Aristotle engages us in an extended discussion of kingship.In a true kingship the rule of law is as important as the single human authority. The law educates people, and is thus the bidding of a god and of reason to rule (philosophy and theology contained within the Western experience). A human being susceptible to wayward passions, thus “the law is intellect without appetite.” Laws point to the mean, and laws based on the authority of custom are more authoritative than written laws.

Certain arguments call for kingship or constitutional rule, but none call for tyranny or other deviations, as these deviation forms of government are against nature. Aristotle has now claimed that there are three “right” forms of government but he has yet to say what is the best form of government, and how it may arise and become established. That discussion is left for Book IV.

For this reading I used Joe Sachs’s masterful translation of Aristotle’s Politics.

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