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Political Participation and Citizenship: Aristotelian Perspectives on Democracy 

Info: 10983 words (44 pages) Dissertation
Published: 14th Oct 2021

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Tagged: PhilosophyPolitics

Political Participation and Citizenship: Aristotelian Perspectives on Democracy 

“Χρώμεθα γὰρ πολιτείᾳ οὐ ζηλούσῃ τοὺς τῶν πέλας νόμους, παράδειγμα δὲ μᾶλλον αὐτοὶ ὄντες τισὶν ἢ μιμούμενοι ἑτέρους. καὶ ὄνομα μὲν διὰ τὸ μὴ ἐς ὀλίγους ἀλλ᾽ ἐς πλείονας οἰκεῖν δημοκρατία κέκληται.”

“Let me say that our system of government does not copy the institutions of our neighbors. It is more the case of our being a model to others, than of our imitating anyone else. Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people.”

(Pericles’s Funeral Oration, Thucydides 2.37.)[1]

1. Introduction

The development of democracy in Athens has been a major source of inspiration for modern and contemporary political thoughts.[2] Defective as it might be, its ideals and practices contain some of the most attractive and durable principles in building a picture of the best possible political community. What has enabled various forms of democracy to persist over centuries? At a historical moment when the future prospects of democracy have been challenged by populist or extremist movements,[3] it may be valuable to examine democracy’s sources of strength.

To help shed light on the substantial principles under which democracy can thrive, I will investigate the characteristics of Aristotle’s political philosophy, especially in regard to what we can call ‘democratic elements.’ In particular, this thesis aims to explore what kinds of institutional arrangements in Aristotle’s model are compatible with the modern democratic ideals and in what respect they constitute the essence of democratic citizenship. Three dimensions of democratic practice may be particularly important to its resilience: 1) the equal distribution of basic human resources, 2) the exercise of political participation, and 3) the practice of public deliberation.

Why should Aristotle’s idea of the best constitution be any more connected with democracy than with aristocracy? To be sure, Aristotle supports the “aristocratic ideal,”[4] not to mention his endorsement of slavery and the disenfranchisement of women, artisans, laborers, and foreigner.[5] But it is also true that Aristotle advocates a mixed constitution that combines the best features of an aristocracy with that of democracy (Pol. 4.7-9). This thesis therefore attempts to understand Aristotle’s “ambivalent attitude toward democracy,”[6] exploring how democratic elements in his political philosophy can be reconciled with his aristocratic framework and thereby testiying to Aristotle’s continued relevance to democracy. My question is not to ask whether Aristotle was democratic or aristocratic or something else, but it is rather to sketch what elements in his political philosophy will provide useful insights for developing political philosophy.

To this end, I will firstly examine the characteristics of Aristotle’s argument on the mixed constitution in detail and its value to modern democratic theorists. How to integrate the democratic elements into the aristocratic governance is, I believe, one of the most crucial underpinnings to recapture Aristotle’s original vision of politics. Secondly, I shall show how these democratic arrangements makes it possible for Aristotle to develop a political theory that are congruent with the modern (social) democracy. I shall then compare Aristotle’s use of key ideas—liberty, equality, reciprocity, deliberation, and friendship—with modern political thoughts. Thus this thesis will draw upon primary and secondary source materials of Aristotle’s ethical and political theory with reference to present-day “Aristotelian” philosophies.[7] Lastly, as many political theorists have argued that deliberative model is one of the most remarkable constributions of Aristotle’s politics to democratic thought,[8] I will investigate the feasibility of Aristotelian deliberative model in comparison to modern interpretations.

My intention is to articulate the connections between these elements of Aristotle’s ideal constitution, showing how a certain political arrangement gives rise to a democratic understanding. We will see that his notion of what it is to be a good citizen is rooted in his design of good constitutions and in his argument of good human functionings. Under what conditions might it be possible for citizens to be in a position to enjoy equal political status and effective opportunities for participation as well as shared political deliberation? By taking a closer look at his conditions for citizenship, I shall propose that Aristotle offers an attractive account of democratic political life as a crucial element in human flourishing.

I should add one further preliminary remark regarding the method of this research. This research is clearly meant to be a part of the case for an hermeneutic approach to Aristotle’s political philosophy. It is not only to draw attention to the historical contexts of Aristotle’s political thinking, but also to reinterpret classical texts within our current conceptual framework, namely, liberal democratic theory. This is what Hans-Georg Gadamer meant by “fusion of horizons (Horizontverschmelzung),” with which we can bridge the past and our present. This way of understanding, I hope, enables us to reconstruct the positive characteristics of Aristotle’s political idea as well as the ideology of modern political thought.[9]

2. Aristotle’s Ideal Constitution

In Politics Book 3, Aristotle provides a six-fold classification of possible constitutional forms. This canonical schema of correct and deviant regimes is determined first by constitutional orientations toward the common good (τὸ κοινῇ συμφέρον) of citizens and second by the number of people who rule in each regime—the one, the few, or the many. Aristotle’s division of regime defines kingship, aristocracy, and politeia as correct regimes, and tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy as corresponding deviant forms: a correct constitution is one that promotes the common good (Pol. 3.1.1275b1-3; 3.6.1279a17-21), while a deviant constitution is one that looks after the benefit of the ruling people (Pol. 3.6.1279a17–21; 3.7.1279a28–b10; 3.13.1283b40–84a3). But it is important to note that, even though the latters are considered as deviation-forms (παρεκβάσεις), Aristotle did not deny them as a kind of constitutions in so far as they were governed by law (Pol. 4.4.1292a30-38), and he allowed correspondingly a partial validity to the notion of justice on which they rest (Pol. 3.9.1280a9).[10]

As commentators have noted, Aristotle’s classification is nonetheless puzzling not least for the fact that this distinction would seem to collapse.[11] In fact, Aristotle himself takes an ambiguous position by drawing attention to the idea of constitutional mixture.[12] But this concept of the “mixed regime” has a historical reference in Greek political thought and behavior. One of its earliest expressions can be found in Thucydides.[13] He admiringly described the regime of the so-called Five Thousand, which he claims to be the best type of government Athens ever had in his own time, which was a “blending (σύγκρασις)” of democracy and oligarchy.[14] And Plato’s Laws also says that both monarchy and democracy are the “mothers (μητέρες)” (in plural) of regimes and that almost all other regimes are woven from these (693D). Aristotle seems to have adopted these general ideas that the mixture of the forms of constitution can be the best regime (Pol. 2.6.1265b33–34), since he had advocated a form in the middle (μέση) being neither a democracy nor an oligarchy. And he named it “politeia” (Pol. 2.6.1265b26–28).

Why did Aristotle favor the mixed constitution than any other “pure”[15] constitution? From well-known histories of political thought, the conclusion that normally follows is that the mixed form will be more stable (Pol. 4.11.1295b28-34) and more just (Pol. 4.8.1294a15-25). But, of course, Aristotle conceded that kingship is “the first and most divine” form of constitution in his ranking of constitutions (Pol. 4.2.1289a40). But it is not likely to happen in the real politics, since the kings would reasonably be regarded “like gods and heroes among human beings” (Pol. 3.13.1284a10–11). This suggests that Aristotle is not seeking for an ideal constitution ruled by any godlike kings but the best possible constitution ruled by normal human beings: “For one should not study only what is best, but also what is possible, and similarly what is easier and more attainable by all” (Pol. 4.1.1288b37-38).

In what follows, Aristotle questions how many varieties of the constitutions there are and, among several kinds, which is most attainable and choiceworthy.[16] According to Aristotle, politeia may be the least intolerable (less bad) form of constitution and it is at its most basic level “a mixture of oligarchy and democracy” (Pol. 4.8.1293b33-34). The regime politeia (normally translated “polity,” but best left untranslated) is the generic Greek term for “government / citizenship / constitution,” although the term is generally used to describe mixtures of regime.[17] Aristotle’s argument reflects that it is difficult to single out politeia as a self-contained political constitution. So he rather prefers to opt for a “middle way” by admitting overlap between the closely allied regimes (Pol. 4.6.1292b25–33) and yet takes a serious treatment of it (Pol. 4.7.1293a39–1294b40). This way of middling approach is the key to his proposal because, in a well-mixed regime, “both democratic and oligarchic elements should be held to be present—and neither” (Pol. 4.9.1294b14–18; 4.9.1294b34–36).

Aristotle introduces politeia within his familiar taxonomy of regimes: Politeia is the name for a regime ruled by “the many” with a view to the common good (Pol. 3.7.1279a37–39). As mentioned above, politeia is the only regime that meets both the criteria from which a correct constitution is built: the number of people who rule in a regime and its orientation toward the common good. Hence, it is evident that politeia, characterized as “the middle constitution” in his extensive description, can be the best possible constitution of which most cities are capable in practice (Pol. 4.11.1296a7). And one of the great political merits of this middle constitution is, as Aristotle stresses, stability. It is a durable (μόνιμος) regime (Pol. 4.12.1296b40), particularly because it is free of faction (ἀστασίαστος, Pol. 4.11.1296a7). In his discussion of revolution and civic conflict in Politics Book 5, Aristotle shows that he is distinctly aware of the fragility of ordinary politics: “every difference is likely to make a division (διάστασις)” (Pol. 5.3.1303b14). This is why Aristotle persistently praises this middle constitution: “the better mixed a constitution is, the more stable it is” (Pol. 4.12.1297a6). It is worth noting that politeia is not intended to be “a mishmash of other regimes that preserves class tension in a fragile, and possibly imperialistic, political mixing bowl.”[18]

However, why doesn’t Aristotle call the regime politeia explicitly or give it a specific name? Aristotle judged the merits of this regime with reference to its capacity to promote the flourishing of its citizens. Such flourishing involved a life in accordance with virtue, and one supplied by adequate means of subsistence (Pol. 4.11.1295a35–37). With this characterization, we have discovered a mixed regime, even though it is ambiguous and nameless, that is worthy of choice and genuinely valuable in pursuit of ideals of the common good or of sharing equally in the regime—ideals that the middling regime typically exhibits (Pol. 4.11.1296a27–32; 1295a40–1296b2).

The aim of the best constitution is a happy and blessed life. “The best life, both for individuals separately and for city-states collectively, is a life of virtue sufficiently equipped with the resources needed to take part in virtuous actions” (7.1.1323b40–1324a2, cf. 1323b21–6, 7.2.1324a24–5). It is only within the framework of Aristotle’s teleological account of human flourishing that we can correctly locate his presentation of the mixed regime. For Aristotle’s practical philosophy was intended not simply to explicate the central problems of ethical and political life; instead, and more importantly, it was intended to improve the quality of human lives. “Therefore, the proposal of those who mix together a larger number is better, because politeia composed of a larger number is better”(Pol. 2.6.1266a3-4).

In addition, all this and much more shall account for the fact that Aristotle might possibly be presented as a democrat in good standing.[19] Within his theory of the mixed constitution, Aristotle illustrates the characteristics of what he sees as a desirable, practically workable political system. As will be discussed, there are some pronouncements that make Aristotle look like a supporter of democratic ideas in the modern sense. To name a few: 1) Aristotle distinguishes proper governments from deviant forms for the sake of the common good for all members of the community (3.1.1275bl-3; 3.6.1279a17-21). 2) He holds that citizens should rule and be ruled in turn (Pol. 1.5.1254a21-24; 3.4.1277a25-27; 13.1283b42-1284a3). 3) Being deprived of political rights results in the social division (3.10.1281a29; 3.11.1281b28-31). 4) The judgment of the many may actually be better to that of experts, because many eyes and ears see and hear more than just two (3.11.1281b4-10; 3.16.1287b25-29).

According to Aristotle, democracy means a form of government in which the people rule. And democratic constitution, in contradistinction to monarchies and aristocracies, entails some form of political equality among the people so as to be able to pursue the common good. As Aristotle defines it, politeia is related to a certain form of political order: “The constitution is itself a certain order of the inhabitants of a state” (Pol. 1274b38-39). And this particular order is not to include every inhabitant, but only those who actually participate in constitution: “For we seek to define a citizen in the strictest sense, and the one whose claim to citizenship has no defect of this sort that needs to be corrected, since similar difficulties may also be raised and solved about citizens who have been disenfranchised or exiled. And his special characteristic is defined by nothing else so much as by his participation in judgment and in office” (Pol. 1275a19-23).

This decisive criterion in Aristotle’s assignation of citizenship can sufficiently be understood by what Dorothea Frede called as “functionalism.” Aristotle ascribes the state’s identity to the distribution of citizens’ function. “He thereby not only replaces the common concept of citizenship as a hereditary birth-right, but also limits citizenship to those men who actively participate in government.”[20] A citizen for Aristotle is a person who plays a political role in the polis, and, by doing the work of a citizen, one can attain his entitlement in the offices of government, for he conceives of the state as a partnership of participants. As will emerge, this restrictive character of the citizen seems to be democratic-sounding principles of Aristotelian constitution: “What constitutes a citizen is therefore clear from these considerations. We now declare that one who has the right (liberty) to participate in deliberative and judicial office is a citizen of the state, and that a state, simply speaking, is a multitude of such people, adequate for life’s self-sufficiency” (Pol. 1275b18-21). In essence, a citizen is he who performs the functions that make the state what it is, and the states will differ widely by the organization of offices: “It is evident that the sameness of the state consists chiefly in the sameness of the constitution, and the name to call it may be different or the same one, whether the inhabitants are the same or entirely different.” (Pol. 1276b910-13).

This passage is reminiscent of an opening remark addressed by Thucydides: “Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well: even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics—this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all. We Athenians, in our own persons, take our decisions on policy or submit them to proper discussion (emphasis mine).”[21] The ideals and aims of Athenian democracy are strikingly recounted in this famous funeral speech attributed to Pericles. What Pericles represents here is a community in which all citizens could and indeed should participate in the creation and nurturing of a public life. In Athenian democracy, individuals could only properly fulfill themselves and live honourably as citizens in and through the polis. In other words, a fulfilled and good life was only possible by a commitment and dedication to common affairs in the polis.[22]

In addition, the quest for clear criteria of a good citizen is followed by a useful metaphor of a ship: “Just as a sailor (πλωτὴρ) is one of members of a community, so is a citizen. And though sailors differ in their functions (δύναμιν), for one is a rower, another a captain, another a lookout, and others have other sorts of titles. It is clear both that the most exact account of the virtue of each sort of sailor will be peculiar to him, and similarly that there will also be some common account that fits them all. For all of them strive for a common object, which is the safety in navigation” (Pol. 1276b19-26). Aristotle is, at first, concerned with a division of functions and, then, with the corresponding division of virtues, which ultimately contribute to one overall function, namely the safety of the ship.[23] In the same way, the citizens too, even though they are dissimilar in their virtues and functions, have the safety of the polis as their common goal.

To put it in a nutshell, I believe that Aristotle’s design of political institutions provides the philosophical basis for a certain sort of democratic principle, that of ruling and being ruled in turn (Pol. 1317b2) and Aristotle’s belief that the constitution should involve the participation of all its citizens in government (Pol. 1261a22-b6; 1275a22-b21). Furthermore, Aristotle demonstrates a strong argument for majority rule among the citizens, in so far as their collective decisions in an assembly are based on a greater quantity (or quality) of wisdom than that of a few experts (Pol. 1281a40-43). As it turns out, the task of Aristotelian political planning is, firstly, to make available to each and every citizen the institutional and social circumstances in which good human functioning may be chosen; secondly, to move each and every one of them across a threshold of capability into circumstances in which they may choose to live and function well both ethically and politically.[24] I find it a valuable and promising political conception to understand a number of important features of democracy, even from the point of view of the contemporary welfare state.

3. Sharing of the Democratic Cake

We can begin exploring Aristotle’s democratic perspective by reading relevant passages from Politics Book 7. Aristotle here tells us his own solution regarding the distribution of resources and functions in the city. Because citizenship, as Aristotle conceives it, is a matter not primarily of possessing certain rights, but of sharing in the constitution.[25] To be a citizen is to have “a share of the democratic cake”—or as we might put it, to partake “the possibility of exercising democratic rights.”[26] The idea of sharing in the constitution is frequently used formulation of what is involved in being a citizen. So I take myself to be approaching his scheme in three levels: 1) allocating basic human resources as a part of governmental responsibility, 2) distributing the political entitlement as a part of citizen’s shared practice, and 3) participating in public deliberation as a part of social practice. It would be worth getting a closer look on these matters, for I believe they will ultimately guide us to the virtues of Aristotle’s democratic planning.

3.1. Basic Resources

In Politics Book 7, Aristotle addresses his idea of the best political community by illustrating its application with detailed examples:

Our first task now is to discuss the distribution (διανομῆς) of land, and, the character of the farmers, what sort of people they should be. We do not agree with those who advocate common ownership, but it should be commonly used, as it is among friends, and no citizen should be lacking in sustenance. As for common meals (συσσιτίων), everyone agrees that it is valuable for well-organized city-states to have them. … All the citizens should participate in these meals, even though it is not easy for the poor to contribute the required amount from their private resources and maintain the rest of their household as well. Furthermore, expenses relating to the gods should be shared in common by the entire city-state. So the land must be divided into two parts, one of which is communal and another that belongs to private individuals. And each of these must again be divided in two. One part of the communal land should be used to support public services to the gods, the other to defray the cost of communal meals; one part of the private land should be located near the frontiers, the other near the city-state, so that, with two allotments assigned to each citizen, all of them may share in both locations. This not only accords with justice and equality, but also ensures greater unanimity in the face of wars with neighbours (Pol. 7.10.1329b38-30a18).

This passage suggests a concrete description of his social system, under which no single citizen will be lacking in sustenance—both with respect to common meals and with respect to the distribution of land. These two examples of his political arrangement are what Aristotle shares with modern democratic welfare state. For it is clear, first of all, that half of the land in a city should be held in common, and the other half will directly subsidize the participation of all citizens in the communal meals. This is a strikingly democratic move that comes close to that of a modern welfare state.[27] We can actually find a perfect model for this: Singapore. As 2015, almost all the land in Singapore (approximately 94%) are owned by the government, while 82% of resident population—Singapore citizens and permanent residents—live in public flats that are supplied by the government’s Housing and Development Board (HDB).[28] It is to ensure the suffient supply of landed residential properties to citizens, and, according to Aristotle, “it is the greatest good fortune (εὐτυχία) for citizens to have a middling or adequate property” (Pol. 4.11.1295b39–40).

In this respect, the ‘capability approach’[29] has in recent decades emerged as one of the most influential ‘Aristotelian’ research programmes not only in moral and political philosophy, but also in economics and development studies. Aristotle’s distributive model is allegedly a major inspiration for their framework.[30] Following this approach, Nussbaum articulated her idea of so-called “Aristotelian social democracy” while interpreting Aristotle’s theory of distributive justice and conception of the good as a resource for her social democratic argument.

The primary aim of the capability approach is, as she argues, to define a universally acceptable criterion for the most essential characteristic of humanness, such as morality, the ability of practical reasoning, or a sense of community, which will help us in achieving human well-being. Nussbaum refers to Aristotle’s conception of the good and well-formed political community to give an account of her ideas of capabilities and happiness. For the moment I should put aside the question of feasibility, but there is an important virtue of the capability approach we should adresss. Based on this idea, human happiness depends on the attainment of essential human capabilities. What are capabilities? Capabilities are a set of basic opportunities, or in their term ‘functionings,’ that a person choose to develop in one’s specific political, social, and economic situation, such as physical and emotional health, having self-respect, thinking critically, employment opportunities, and political participation of many kinds. It is evident that these functionings are to be settled by the political process. That is to say, the responsibility lay, in large part, with governmental institutions. In this spirit, Aristotle notes: “the task of an excellent legislator, then, is to study how a city-state, a race of men, or any other community can come to have a share in a good life and in the happiness that is possible for them.” (Pol. 7.2.1325a7-9.)

The government thus has an obligation to provide the basic resources and social conditions in which people have fertile opportunities to achieve such a set of human capabilities at least up to some appropriate threshold level.[31] Given Aristotle’s conceptual understanding of political community,[32] the government has the job of creating a decent political order with opulent resources to make people able to pursue a flourishing life. When people become capable of achieving essential functions, the social environment will be in accordance with basic social justice. Repeatedly, Nussbaum’s stress in the ability of choice as the most essential element in human functioning makes a clear point on the role of government as providing and maintaining the social environment where people are capable of choosing their own way of life.[33] In sum, what these discussions demonstrate is that, even though social goods may be the product of voluntary associations of individual citizen, but the formation of citizenship, capabilities, and conditions are guided not by the characters of citizens but by governmental incentives.[34]

Let us now return to the second example of the communal meals. Aristotle here provides an argument from analogy: the “potluck meal.” Potluck meal (συμφορητὰ δεῖπνα) is the standard and widely shared interpretation,[35] which refers to not only a meal to which each diners contributes, but also a meal to which each diners contributes by bringing a distinctive and special dish, which is a specific Greek practice.[36] It explains the superiority of a potluck meal over a meal cooked by one person, since it is the feast with the variety of dishes supplied by each and every participant all together (ὡς σύμπαντας) (Pol. 1281a40-b10). This communal meal is not just the cuisine that makes a dinner excellent; it is also, and essentially, the communal practice of sharing a meal—of socializing, learning habits of cooperation and civility, and taking pleasure and rest together.[37]

The potluck meal is potentially an excellent whole on the assumption that each of the constituents must be of the right sort. We can easily presume, based on Aristotle’s core assumptions about justice as a joint-and-several common good, that the result of a successful potluck meal is a better experience for each contributor than would be the case if a simple meal were provided by one. (Pol. 3.15.1286a29–30) However, the potluck, as a whole, can go wrong if the parts are not at once good and diverse as they expected to be. The crucial issue is how we can assure the goodness and diversity of each and every contribution. Since no diner knows ex ante what others will bring, then each diner may just happen to bring the same dish. Moreover, potluck meals are structurally susceptible to free-riding. A free-riding diner might bring something cheap and poor, or less than nothing, anticipating that others may bring better fare. If the potluck meal is to be excellent, the contributors must share some common knowledge or agreement so as to be able to predict what others are likely to bring to the meal, on the one hand, and, more importantly, they must be trustworthy, fair-minded group of citizens untainted by personal greed (πλεονεξία), [38] on the other (Pol. 4.12.1296a24-31; 1296b35-1297a7).[39] That is to say, each and every individual is required to have both intellectual and moral responsibility in regard to operating assumptions as a norm. But, when you look at the actual history of the best liberal states, as of the best social democratic states, there is no doubt that people often behave very inadequately and immorally.[40]

Aristotle himself noticed this problem and suggested a solution: In the following lines, Aristotle criticizes the arrangement in Sparta, praising the Cretan model, which he defines “more common to all (κοινοτέρως).”[41] For Spartan system, in which “each individual has to contribute (φέρειν)” to the common meal, is “scarcely democratic at all, and not properly legislated by the person who first established them,” because it has the effect of excluding the very poor who cannot afford to contribute (Pol. 2.9.1271a26-36.). By implication, it is the Cretan practice in which communal meals are “publicly supported (ἀπὸ κοινοῦ)” that is more genuinely democratic and ideal.[42] According to Aristotle’s perspective, it is Crete, not Sparta, which is more democratic, and it is so precisely because its communal meals are provided not by individual contributions but by already collectivized resources. In this regard, Melissa Lane rightly concludes that a more truly “democratic” possible feast consists not of individual contributions (and so a fortiori it is not a Potluck) but is rather provided out of resources, which already belong to the public. Immediate individual contributions do not, on this account, make for what is maximally “democratic” in any form.[43] Here we also can see a parallel social arrangement that both Aristotle’s and contemporary welfare state share.

In his illustration of the Cretan model, depicted as an ideal one, Aristotle goes even further. As we could see in the earlier passage, the land should be of common use even though that is still privately held. (Pol. 7.10.1330a9-18) Aristotle urges us that the constitution must make sure that citizens allow their property (i.e. slaves) available to others, not only to close friends just like the proverb “friends share everything in common,”[44] but also for the common use of all: “In Sparta, for example, they use one another’s slaves, as if they were their own, and one another’s horses and dogs. And when they are on a journey in the country, if they need food, they take it from the near farms in the area. Evidently, then, it is better for property to be private and its use communal. It is the legislator’s special task to see that people are so disposed.”[45] But matters do not end there. Aristotle even gives a delicate and minute guideline regarding the job of government:

Since we must consider the health (ὑγιείας) of the inhabitants, and it depends on the city-state being well situated on healthy ground and facing in a healthy direction, and second, on using healthy water supplies, this too should be matter of more than incidental concern. For the things our bodies use most frequently and in the greatest quantity contribute most to health, and water and air are by nature of this sort. Hence if it happens that all the springs are not equally healthy or if the healthy ones are not abundant, well-planned city-states should keep apart those suitable for drinking from those used for other purposes.[46]

From the fact that water and air are of great importance for citizen’s health, it is directly inferred that the adequate provision of these basic human resources is the work of every government. As mentioned above, communal meals, including clean water and healthy air, are a central part of the provision of nourishment for all, and also of good human functioning.[47] Needless to say, equal participation in the communal meals is a valuable part of social functioning. But it is significant to note that Aristotle criticizes the system in Sparta due to the fact that the citizen who is unable to pay a subscription to join is excluded, not only from the common meal, but also, as a penalty for failing to join, from all civic participation and sociability.[48] This kind of system can produce a situation in which the poor and the marginalized people are unable to join in, so that they will lose out on a valuable part of citizenship. 

3.2. Political Entitlement

One of the most fundamental Aristotle’s description of what it is to be a political community is to be a community in which political rule is exercised. According to Aristotle, government is “an act of sharing for the sake of the good life” (Pol. 7.8.1328a38-38). And for their complete human flourishing, citizens are understood to need basic resources for the various things they do and choose. It goes without saying that human activity always goes on in complex interdependence. So the task of politics must be to imagine forms of interdependence that are human rather than slavish, and to forge those circumstances, where possible, in the world. Thus the good of human beings must be pursued as a system of complex relations of dependence between the agent and unstable things in the world, such as friends, loved ones, food, water, a city of fellow citizens.[49] And one important way of sharing the democratic cake is an equal share of political authority.

Aristotle thinks of the individual as deserving the right, by which one can pursue his own purpose of life in “a government of free and equal citizens” (Pol. 1261a30-b5; 1325b7-10).[50] Aristotle’s concept of rights,[51] apart from the fact that there is no single special Greek word that corresponds exactly to the modern term,[52] can best be described by the his claim of liberty (exousia) and authority (kurios) in political participation.[53] Aristotle explicitly defines democracy as the constitution in which all native adult males, even craftsmen and laborers, are citizens,[54] and in which the assembly is authority. (τὸ τὴν ἐκκλησίαν κυρίαν εἶναι πάντων ἢ τῶν μεγίστων.)[55] And repectively, the citizen has the liberty in common to participate in deliberative and judicial office. (ᾧ γὰρ ἐξουσία κοινωνεῖν ἀρχῆς βουλευτικῆς ἢ κριτικῆς, πολίτην ἤδη λέγομεν εἶναι ταύτης τῆς πόλεως.) In this use, liberty (ἐξουσίαν) is understood equivalent to authority or political power (δύναμιν) only if it carries out certain rightful action in accordance with the constitution and laws.[56] Hence the individuals with the liberty are said to have the greatest authority (κυριωτάτους) in the polis. Referring for support to Aristotle’s conception of citizenship as a practice of liberty and authority, Mogens Herman Hansen states: “The principal privilege of an Athenian citizen was his political rights; in fact they were more than just a ‘privilege’: they constituted the essence of citizenship.”[57] This makes Aristotelian application of citizenship sound like democratic citizenship in a modern state.

To begine with, Aristotle’s political community is “a government of free and equal citizens” (Pol. 1255b20). It is clear that this “of” in the passage has a double sense: for both ruler and ruled are, in fact, to be free and equal, and they are to be the same people, taking turns in exercise of office: “For among those who are similar, ruling and being ruled in turn is just and noble, since this is equal or similar treatment” (Pol. 1332b25-27; 1325b7; 1334a27-29). In Aristotle’s view, it is a civic duty for those with the resources to participate and engage in political activity (Pol.1293a1-6). Central to Aristotle’s notion of participation is nothing but sharing in ruling positions when citizens get involved in constitutional activity.[58]

Every political community will typically involve political rule, which is a type of rule where “the citizens who are free and equal take turns in ruling and being ruled” (Pol. 1259b4-6; 1277b8-1;1277a25 ff.): “Although he differs under different forms of constitution, but in the best state he is the one who has the power and who deliberately chooses to be ruled and to rule with an eye to the virtuous life” (Pol. 1254a21-24; 1277a25-27; 1283b42-84a3; 1333b26-34a2).[59] It means that all citizens can participate in the sovereign functions of deliberation and adjudication in Aristotelian system. This equal treatment for those who participate in government is a fine and noble constitutional practice (Pol. 1325b7–8). And a good citizen must have the knowledge and ability both to rule and to be ruled, and this is “the virtue of a citizen” (Pol. 1277b14-6): Because the unqualified citizen is defined by nothing else so much as by his participation in judgment and office (Pol. 3.1.1175a22-23). Respectively, the people who make up a political community are free and equal, they must adopt a system of reciprocity in sharing authority. Thus this basic system is how reciprocal equality can preserve the polis. “For it is reciprocal action governed by proportion that keeps the city together” (Pol. 1261a29-30).[60]

This reciprocal equality is necessary among people who are free and equal. For it is not possible for all of them to rule at the same time, but only at yearly intervals or by some other arrangement of time. As a result, it turns out that everyone rules, just as all would be shoemakers and carpenters if the shoemakers and carpenters were exchanging positions and the same people were not always one or the other. But since it is better this way for the affairs that concern the political community, it is also clear that it is better for the same people to rule continually, if it is possible. But if it is not possible, because all the people are equal in nature, it is then also just for all to share in rule, whether ruling is a good or a base thing. For equals to yield in turn and to be alike when they are out of office imitates this. For some rule and others are ruled in turn, as if they were becoming different people. The same goes for when some people hold offices and others hold others. From these things it is clear that the city is not by nature a unity in the way that some people say. (2.2.1261a32–b7)

This practice of alternation is a response to the citizens’ underlying equality, an equality not in their acquired skills or talents, but in their nature.[61] But Aristotle does not take such an alteration to be a simple affair. Instead, he holds that ruling and being ruled are two distinctive functions, and that ruling is a better activity, superior to that of being ruled: “So if we take a good man’s virtue to be that of a ruler, but a citizen’s to consist in both ruling and obeying, then the two virtues would not be equally praiseworthy.”(Pol. 3.4.1277a27-29). Aristotle maintains this distinction saying that “he who has never learned to obey cannot be a good ruler” (Pol. 1277b12–13) and that “he who would learn to rule well must first learn how to obey… because the same person must first be ruled and then rule.” (Pol. 1333a1–12). Those who have some experience of being ruled, it seems, must have the capacity to rule, and those who rule, it seems, must have the capacity to be ruled. Aristotle therefore holds that each citizen must be educated in two quite different ways in order to be able both to rule and to be ruled properly.

To be more specific, Aristotle distinguishes two different kinds of obedience (1277a33-b7). One is “slavish” (δεσποτική) obedience. It is of those who work with their hands (i.e. vulgar craftman or labor workers) or those who must obey their masters in a complete manner. And this obviously is not the kind of obedience citizens should learn. Instead, there is “political” (πολιτικὴν) one: the obedience between free and equal men.[62] “Hence, this too is rightly said, that one cannot rule well without having been ruled. And whereas the virtues of each of them are different, a good citizen must have the knowledge and ability both to be ruled and to rule, and this is the virtue of a citizen, to know the rule of free men from both sides.”(Pol. 3.4.1177b12-17.) So this altering formulation of political authority also seems to be well again a democratic element in Aristotle’s political structure.

When it comes to the distribution of political authority, David Riesbeck’s exclusivist argument seems to distort what Aristotle originally had in mind. As we have seen above, a citizen is someone who shares in ruling as well as being ruled (Pol. 3.1 1275b18–21). From this, Riesbeck as well as other exclusivist commentators[63] conclude that a person with no share of rule is simply not a citizen. Where oligarchy distributes political office in proportion to wealth, aristocracy grants authority to the virtuous. In virtually all circumstances, however, the virtuous are guaranteed to be relatively few. Aristocracy will therefore exclude the majority from rule, and so will deprive them of the benefits of political participation.[64] It is true that Aristotle excluded women and slaves from political decision-making, but he has not make any division among free and equal citizens. Indeed, his fairly straighforward acknowledgement about imperfection of individual moral agent is prevalent (Pol. 1281a41-42). Nevetheless, Aristotle’s exclusionary tendency had not implied any of the discussion that operates with an implicit notion of “second-class citizens”[65] who do not share in ruling. On the contrary, Frede urges that Aristotle is not at all an exclusivist. Although she finds “a clear dichotomy between rulers and ordinary citizens,”[66] it does not necessarily lead us to those conclusions.

Avoiding a hierarchical labeling, Michael Walzer uses ‘a potential participant’ to express the people who do not take part in government and exercise political power but still possess legitimate authority as citizens: “Democracy requires equal rights, not equal power. Rights here are guaranteed opportunities to exercise minimal power (voting rights) or to try to exercise greater power (speech, assembly, and petition rights).”[67] In light of equal distribution of political authority, Aristotle’s account of citizenship “should not detract from the fact that with its connection to the rule of law, distributive justice based on worth, and the sharing of rule among citizens, Aristotle’s conception of political rule is one of the more admirable features of his political philosophy.”[68]

Again, it is striking that Aristotle illustrates in details the best possible form of government with such an interesting social arrangement. As will turn out, he eschews any formulation that would lead unmistakably to any one particular institution, and instead, he designs a best possible government that guarantees that no citizen will be lacking in sustenance both with regard to their basic human nourishments, and accordingly, with regard to their social activism. Based on the contrast he draws in Politics Book 3,[69] these arrangements are considered critical elements of democracy. For Aristotle the fact that democracy aims to pursue the common good of the many and oligarchy pursues the interests of the few is a critical factor. In oligarchy, wealth is the criterion for status of the rulers, in democracy the possession of freedom, which is the asset of all citizens including the poor(Pol. 1279b34-80a6). This contrasting ideology of the two constitutions forms essential characteristics of Aristotle’s description of democracy.[70] And it is closely linked to his conception of political rule, which involves full support for basic human functioning,[71] and to his arrangement that this support is to be done in such a way as to treat citizens as free and equal.

As we have mentioned above, it is worth recalling once more an analogy of a ship. For a ship should involve the participation of all people in pursuance of the common safety, the capacity to rule and be ruled is at any respect virtuously praiseworthy and must be performed, differing in their functions, by all citizens. Accordingly, if the purpose of the community lies in the achievement of the good life, the government should ensure this political authority for every individual.[72] For the ideal state outlined in Politics VII-VIII, Aristotle assumes a citizen body of equals who share in political rule, and this practice of alteration is a way of performing the tasks of citizenship. It is in effect a true account of what it is to be a good citizen. And, more importantly, the true state, whatever form it takes among various forms of government,[73] should secure some necessary conditions for the parts of happiness (i.e. equal chance of governing), from which a community could aim the best possible common good for all. Thus, if we can call such an opportunity a civic right, we must appreciate the fact that Aristotle’s focus is to see a right as a potentiality for actual participation. It is precisely because the citizens who does not participate in the offices are, as Homer wrote, “like some disenfranchised aliens.”[74]

[1] Thucydides 1972: 145. Cf. Held 2006: 13.

[2] On Aristotle’s contribution to current understandings of modern and contemporary politics, see Goodman and Talisse 2003; Knight 2007; Salkever 1990; Tessitore 2002; Wallach 1992.

[3] Today, in many democratic states, we see declining levels of political engagement and a privatization of power (see Putnam and Feldstein 2003; Stoker 2006), as well as deficits in citizen’s levels of civic knowledge and comprehension (see Macedo 2005).

[4] Farrar 1988: 266–74; Miller 2003: 13; Wood and Wood 1978: 223-6 succinctly described it as “Aristotle’s aristocratic conservatism.”

[5] Both artisans (βάναυσοι) and laborers (θῆτες) are the people who had to devote the bulk of their time and energy to forms of work to supplement their wages. So they are deprived of leisure and resource, which might have helped them to fulfil their political rights. See Nagle 2006: 119–20.

[6] Balot 2015: 104; Inamura 2015: 65; Mulgan 1990: 204; Wilson 2011: 259.

[7] As we will see, there are three major strains in Aristotelian theories that have attempted to apply Aristotle’s political thought in developing democratic philosophies: 1) communitarianism, 2) the capability approach, and 3) civic republicanism.

[8] See Bohman 2000; Fishkin 1991; Held 2006

[9] See Gadamer 1975: 235–74.

[10] Newman 1887: 215-6.

[11] See, for example, Collins 2006: 134-5; Mulgan 1977:61; Miller 1995:212; Simpson 1998: 151. In a slightly different perspective, Morrison 1999: 144–6 argues that Aristotle’s classification of regimes creates an incoherence with his own definition of citizenship, not within the schema of regimes. Since his definition of citizenship limits its boundary to those who have a share in ruling, it is impossible for the cases of monarchy and oligarchy to pursue the common good of the entire citizen body.

[12] Balot 2015:103-4 concludes that Aristotle’s emphasis on ambiguity in all his discussions of the mixed constitution is part of his point itself: “He aspires to encourage citizens to see in these mixed or ambiguous provisions the constitutional elements that they themselves find most attractive, whether they think of those elements as democratic, oligarchic, or even aristocratic.”

[13] “Indeed, for the first time, at least in my life time, the Athenian government seems to have run smoothly, and the reason was that there was a good blending of democratic and oligarchic elements. Now they began to restore the city from the wretched situation into which it had fallen.” Thucydides 8.97.

[14] Notably, Thucydides was one of its admirers. But this regime lasted only a few months and its program was never actually implemented. See Samaras 2015: 138.

[15] Herodotus did not mention any possibility of the mixed regime. Hdt. 3.80–83 shows his description of the three “pure” regimes—monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. Cf. Balot 2015: 103.

[16] But Aristotle’s presentation of the ideal regime is, unfortunately, breaks off abruptly and several promised discussions are sometimes missing. See Miller 2009: 548.

[17] See Balot 2015: 106 argues that the politeia is somewhat inclined more toward democracy.

[18] Ibid. 122

[19] “Aristotle seems to suggest that his own conception of full citizenship applies most of all to democracies. … But citizenship was a much cherished and jealously guarded good that was strictly hereditary: inclusion in the “list of citizens” at the age of 18 required proof of legitimate birth and that both father and mother were freeborn citizens.” Frede 2005: 169.

[20] Frede 2005: 170.

[21] Thucydides 1972: 147.

[22] See Held 2006: 14.

[23] “Aristotle draws several conclusions from his comparison of the state with a ship. Different types of government presuppose different functions, and hence one kind of excellence does not suffice for the different types of ships; by contrast there is just one kind of excellence characteristic of the good man. While there are different types of sailors necessary for the different types of ships, the good man does not fit all of them equally.” Frede 2006: 173.

[24] “Aristotle spoke about the human being and good human functioning. He also spoke about the design of political institutions in the many areas of life that should, as he saw it, fall within the province of the lawgiver’s concern. … I believe that this conception provides the philosophical basis for a certain sort of social democracy.” Nussbaum’s attempt to describe the relationship of Aristotle’s conception of democracy to some forms of liberalism is worth reading. See Nussbaum 1990: 203.

[25] Aristotle’s word for “community” is κοινωνία. Yet no translation is entirely innocuous, though its uses and translations are in wide range: association, political partnership, commonality, or societas (in Latin). Perhaps the most literal translation of κοινωνία would be “a sharing of something in common.” It is etymologically connected to the adjective κοινός , which means “common,” and to the verb κοινωνεῖν, which can mean “to share something in common” or “to have a share of something.” For discussions about the conceptual understanding of κοινωνία, see Riesbeck 2016: 48.

[26] “The colloquialism “share of the democratic cake” probably gives a better feel of what is meant by “sharing in the constitution” than rights talk, for it is clearly not a precise formula and indeed leaves quite open the specific terms that might be used to spell out just what it is a citizen has a share of if he shares in the constitution.” Schofield 1996: 836.

[27] For this relevance between Aristotle’s political philosophy and modern liberal social democracy, see Nussbaum 1990: 203–52.

[28] Chang 2010: 133.

[29] Nussbaum prefers the plural expression ‘capabilities approach’ to the singular ‘capability approach’ in order to emphasise the plurality of the central capabilities for measuring quality of life, but major scholarly literatures use the singular term. Nussbaum 2011: 18. Some philosophers have recently started to use the term ‘capabilitarianism.’ See Nielsen and Axelsen 2017: 46-59; Robeyns 2016: 397-414.

[30] See Nussbaum 1988, 1992; Sen 1993, 1999.

[31] Nussbaum 2006: 175.

[32] Riesbeck 2016: 46-52

[33] Nussbaum, 1990: 80–86; 1988: 179–84. She concludes that the Aristotelian conception of goodness is open enough for people to make what Aristotle would allow as appropriate choices in a number of different ways. See also Inamura 2015: 12.

[34] Frank 2005: 2 shares a similar view.

[35] Cammack 2013: 175–202; Lane 2013: 254-73; Ober 2013: 110-12; Waldron 1995: 567; Wilson 2011: 264.

[36] In Cyropaedia 7.1.12, Xenophon described the ἔρανος as a common feast where all the participants contributed an equal share. Xenophon also refers to Spartan model of common meals συσσίτια in Constitution of the Lacedaemonians 5.3. It might also be a kind of social club or society in which all the members contributed equally to some public cause. See also Ober 1998: 295–96.

[37] “As for messes, everyone agrees that it is useful for well-organized city-states to have them. All the citizens should participate in these meals.” Pol. 1272al4-21; 1330a3-13. Aristotle prefers the collective, rather than individual, provision of these messes. See Nichols 1992: 67.

[38] Kraut 2002: 137-40 argues that Aristotle takes pleonexia to be “a distinct vice because he tacitly assumes that it involves a desire to have more at the expense of others” claiming that the “unjust person is glad that his gain comes at the expense of another, because causing that suffering is part of his motive.”

[39] Here pleonexia literally means “having more.” Other translations include “overreaching,” “getting more than one’s fair share,” “aggrandizement,” and “graspingness.” For the discussion on pleonexia and its destructive power on community, see Frank 2005, 167; Irwin 1990: 424-25; Rosler 2005: 190-91; Young 2009: 464-66.

[40] Walzer 1990: 17.

[41] Pol. 1272a16

[42] It is important to not that Aristotle shows his hostility to the ‘extreme’ democracy characteristic of Athens from the time of Ephialtes. Aristotle here suggests what is maximally “democratic” in any form. Cf. Pol. 1274a7ff.; 1292a4ff.; 1298a28ff.; 1319b1ff. See Lintott 1992: 115.

[43] Lane 2013: 257-8.

[44] Pol. 1263a30.

[45] That is to say, disposed to treat property in the similar way. See Pol. 1329b36-30a33.

[46] Pol. 1330b8-16.

[47] Pol. 1272a12-16.

[48] “Nor were matters relating to the messes (or so-called phiditia [φιδίτια]) well legislated by the person who first established them. For they ought to be publicly supported, as they are in Crete. But among the Spartans each individual has to contribute, even though some are extremely poor and unable to afford the expense. The result is thus the opposite of the legislator’s deliberately chosen aim. He intended the institution of messes to be democratic, but, legislated as they are now, they are scarcely democratic at all, since the very poor cannot easily participate in them. Yet their traditional way of delimiting the Spartan constitution is to exclude from it those who cannot pay this contribution.” Pol. 1271a26-37.

[49] “That is, a complex series of cooperative stratagems devised to protect and support citizens in their eating, moving, loving, and choosing, so as to convert their basic powers into fully human capabilities for choices of functioning.” Nussbaum 1990: 205.

[50] See also NE. 1132b32-34a30; 1163b32-64a2.

[51] For a deeper analysis regarding the Aristotelian locutions of the rights, see Miller: 1995: 87-139. According to Miller, Aristotle’s concepts of right can best be understood with conjunctions of four distinct types of assertions: 1) Just-claim rights (to dikaion), 2) Liberty rights (exousia), 3) Authority rights (kurios), and 4) Immunity rights (akuros, adeia).

[52] Vlastos 1978: 193.

[53] Aristotle’s use of the word exousia in his account of democracy is in a way more promising. He says that one sign or criterion of the liberty, which democracy makes its hypothesis or governing value, is that individuals live as they please. Pol. 1317b1-13; 1319a31-6.

[54] “Hence in some constitutions vulgar craftsmen and hired laborers must be citizens, whereas in others it is impossible—for example, in any so-called aristocracy in which offices are awarded on the basis of virtue and merit.” Pol. 1278a15–26; 1317b38–41; 1319a24–30; 1328b32–33.

[55] Pol. 1317b28–29; cf. 1292a6–7; 1293a8–9.

[56] Pol. 1274a15-18.

[57] Hansen 1991: 97.

[58] “This is all rather different from modern talk about rights. For us it is precisely the exercise of the right of, for example, free speech or freedom of worship and assembly as exercise of such a right which is constitutional activity. … For Aristotle they are merely preconditions or potentialities for the substance of our own participation in political activity.” Schofield 1996: 840.

[59] See also NE. 1134b15ff.

[60] Cf. NE. 1132b32-1134a30; 1163b32-1164a2.

[61] Riesbeck 2016: 155.

[62] He resorts to analogy with a military hierarchy.

[63] Roberts 2000: 363 and Schütrumpf 2015: 172 express the same view. For them, this is clearly the case that the majority is excluded in Aristotle’s political order.

[64] Riesbeck 2016: 5-9.

[65] Keyt made this label to those who do not apply Aristotle’s official definition of citizenship. Keyt 1993: 140. Cf. Johnson 1984; Nichols 1992.

[66] Frede 2005: 173.

[67] Walzer 1983: 309–10.

[68] Mayhew 2009 : 538.

[69] In Politics III, Aristotle lists six types of regimes: there are ‘correct’ constitutions, namely, kingship, aristocracy, and politeia or timocracy, followed by ‘deviations,’ namely, tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. For a detailed analysis on Aristotle’s ranking of constitutions, See Lockwood 2007: pp.355-370.

[70] Lintott 1992: 116.

[71] “It was also said that a human being is by nature a political animal. That is why, even when they do not need one another’s help, people no less desire to live together, although it is also true that the common benefit brings them together, to the extent that it contributes some part of living well to each.” Pol. 1279b17-21.

[72] “So political communities must be taken to exist for the sake of noble actions, and not for the sake of living together. Hence those who contribute the most to this sort of community have a larger share in the city-state than those who are equal or superior in freedom or family but inferior in political virtue, and those who surpass in wealth but are surpassed in virtue.” Pol. 1281a2-8.

[73] “That every constitution existing in Aristotle’s time answered to his idea of the State no one could suppose. Not one fully corresponded to it, and the majority fell far short of it.” See Bradley 1991: 42.

[74] Iliad IX.648, XVI. 59. Achilles complains that this is how Agamemnon is treating him. See Pol. 1278a35-37.

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