The Dragonfly and Raven

The Dragonfly and Raven

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Aristotle--a Good Man vs. a Good Citizen

Here is an essay that I wrote on the differences between a good man and a good citizen, as seen by Aristotle. This essay was written under duress, with the reading of Ethics and Politics occurring within a 72 hour window (along with the writing of this essay). I don't know how many of you will enjoy it, but here you go.

Humanity has walked the surface of the Earth for thousands of years. Up until quite recently, this has been in the form of small tribes and bands of hunter-gathers. Approximately four thousand years ago, that changed, with the advent of agriculture and subsequently the creation of civilization. While this first occurred in the Fertile Crescent and along both the Nile and Indus rivers, the first of what we would call “Western Civilization” began in a region of the Balkans called Greece. The Greek polis or city-state was the hallmark of the era, and several strong states, such as Sparta, Corinth, and Athens, dominated the region. It is also to the Greeks that we—that being “Western Civilization”—looks back to for the fundamental foundations of our philosophical thought. We look to Socrates and his methodology. We look to Plato, and his Republic. And we look at Aristotle, the who was the student of Plato, and whose work much of “Western” thought is still based off of today. While Aristotle tackled many important and difficult issues during his time, one of the most important questions he attempted to answer was what makes a good man, and what makes a good citizen, and how they are not entirely the same.

In order to understand what makes a good citizen, one must first understand what a citizen is—for Aristotle had a quite specific definition, which he laid out in full in his Politics,  one that is not the same as is used today. Today, we view all people over the age of eighteen as citizens (eighteen being the age at which people can vote). We do not put any restrictions on who can become citizens, so long as they were born in the State in which they wish to be citizens, or they have at least one parent who is a citizen. For Aristotle though, it took much more to be a citizen. Firstly, in order to be a citizen, one must first be a man—for women had no real place in public life, as their place was the household. Secondly, one must not be a slave, but a free man. In addition to not being a slave, one must not have a career in fields of manual labour. Aristotle adds this specification because he believed that if one worked in manual labour, then instead of being ruled via statesmanship—also referred to as citizen rule over fellow citizens and rule by turns—they were being ruled by someone who ruled them like a master and his slaves. So being a manual worker meant you too were not a citizen. Another requirement that Aristotle had was that both of the parents of an individual must be from the place that they are wanting to be a citizen of (I say from the place in which they want to be a citizen of, for women could not be citizens. Though in order to be an Athenian, one must have an Athenian father and mother)4. The last major requirement regarding the nature of the individual citizen is that they must be of the proper age to serve in either judicial or legislative office. Aristotle also had requirements in the actions of the people who were eligible to be citizens. He believed that in order to be a citizen, one must meet certain obligations—chief among which was holding an official position in the State. This, he said, was vital in ensuring the constitution of the State—constitution here meaning the underlying conditions/states that exist within—which is essential for the survival of the State.

Such is how Aristotle defines what it means to be a citizen of a city-state with a democratic constitution. The question still remains however as to what makes a citizen good. For  this, Aristotle looks to the idea of virtues, which he explains in much more detail in his work Nicomachean Ethics. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle tries to decipher happiness and virtues, and ultimately what is good. To simplify, he viewed good as the end of goals. He then also viewed happiness as complete, without qualification—meaning that it is a good. Virtues, he said, are chosen by people for their own right, but also in an attempt to achieve happiness, and ultimately contribute towards one being good. He believed that there were two types of virtues—those of the soul and those of the body. Virtues were in his mind the middle ground—which he calls the mean—between excess and deficiency in the aspect of life they are related to.10 Essentially, virtues are experiencing pleasure and pain at the right times, and in the right amounts. One example Aristotle gives us is the that of giving and taking money. In this example, the virtue is generosity, the excess is wastefulness, and he deficiency is stinginess. In this example, a wasteful person would give too much money away, and take too little, whilst a stingy person would take in too much money, and give to little away. It is also important to note that Aristotle believed that it was only actions that involved rational choice that were subject to the purview of virtue. He also believed that actions were crucial in being good, saying that, “in life, it is those who act rightly who will attain what is noble and good,” and that, “actions in accordance with virtue are pleasant in themselves...[as well as being] good and noble.”

It would seem, then, simple enough to be considered good be Aristotle. A good person would need to simply do virtuous actions. These virtuous actions would be good, as virtue is good, and therefor, they will make the person who carries them out good as well. While this is the essence of what Aristotle says, there is more to it. Firstly, the actions that the person takes must be voluntary in nature, for there is nothing virtuous in involuntary actions. Conversely, however, an individual is not responsible for involuntary actions—at least in how it affects one being virtuous or not. Cohesion and ignorance both constitute an action being involuntary—or the choosing of the lesser of two evils, though that is subject to the judgment of a State official—though ignorance through negligence does not make the actions of an individual involuntary. While most involuntary actions are pardonable, it is important to note that some are not—though Aristotle does not go into more specific detail on this particular matter. He also believed that actions were influenced by perception, desire, and intellect—with desires shaping rational decision making. One might believe that, based off of what has already been said that man and woman and child and beast could all satisfy the criteria that Aristotle has given. This is however, not the case. Aristotle dealt very little with the subject of women, however in regards to children and animals, he believed that they cannot make rational decisions.

Such is how Aristotle described the nature of virtues, and how they are used and applied, in Nicomachean Ethics. Taking this, we can then apply it to how he discusses the makings of a good citizen and a good person in Politics. He points out that all citizens have a role that they play in society—whether it be a legislator or member of the judiciary, or some other role entirely—and that there is virtue in these roles, but that they also share the common role of maintaining stability of the constitution of the State. However, due to the vast amount of constitutions that exist within the state of individuals, there cannot be one perfect virtue of a good citizen. While there is no single perfect virtue of a good citizen, that is not the case for a good person, as Aristotle said, “a man is good because of one single virtue which is perfect virtue.” This then means, according to Aristotle, that one can have a good citizen while not being a good person. However, that does not exclude the possibility that a particular person cannot share the same virtue that makes them a good citizen and a man—such as a good ruler, who is both good and wise (having the practical wisdom that is not shared by other citizens)23. However, if the common citizen has not practical wisdom, then there must be some commonality that makes them akin to their ruler, for the ruler is both a ruler and a citizen. Aristotle's answer to this is that the virtue of a citizen is to understand the governing of free men from both points of view (that of the governed and the governor), and that the virtue of practical wisdom belongs to rulers whilst the virtue of correct opinion belongs to those being ruled. It is with that that Aristotle concludes his discussion of what makes a good citizen and a good person in politics, shifting to a discussion of the different forms of government.

In the discussion of what makes a citizen and what makes one good, and how that then relates to what makes a good person, Aristotle had a cohesive—though long-winded answer. He believed that a citizen was a free man who was born to two inhabitants of the State in which he belonged to, who worked in fields in which they were ruled over by statesmanship, and not a master, such as a manual laborer would, who is of a certain age, and who holds either legislative or judicial office. He believed that what makes a citizen good is the virtue of understanding the governing of free men from both points of view, the virtue of practical wisdom (for leaders), the virtue within fulfilling the role that one has, and the upholding of the stability of the constitution of the State. In his detailing of what makes a person good, Aristotle looked at virtues, actions, and rational decisions—with those who were good being those who acted rationally with virtue. Due to the nature of what makes a good person, and what makes a good citizen then, it is possible for one to be a good citizen without being a good person, and for one to be a good person without being a good citizen.

These are the views of Aristotle. While he may—and indeed was—a brilliant thinker, and quintessential in the development of philosophical thought in both the “Western” world and the Islamic world, he was, in my opinion, mistaken in many aspects. First, there is the issue of sexism, which I hope is self-explanatory, and requires nothing further. There is also the issue of his belief that animals and children cannot make rational decisions. I believe that this train of thought is misguided, for is it not true that all life acts under the rationals that it has gained through both experience and instinct? If one were to punish a child every time they exhibited unwarranted wroth, then said child would rationally choose to stop exhibiting said wroth. The same can be said with a horse, which if fed when complying with its trainer and punished when not, the horse will rationally choose to comply with the trainer. I also find fault in the idea that a manual worker cannot be a citizen. What makes one who takes more direct orders (such as a slave) any less a person that someone who does not? For manual workers are not slaves, as they have the choice in what they do (to the extent that people have choices given the metaphorical hand of cards that is dealt to them). Those are but a few of the problems that I have with Aristotle, though in a whole, he train of thought does make a good deal of sense.