“A Citizen is Distinguished From All Others By His Participation in Giving Judgment and in Holding Office.” So Why Does Aristotle Believe That Certain Kinds of Lifestyles Should Disqualify Men From Ever Being Citizens?

In what follows I shall clarify Aristotle’s definition of a citizen and examine the constitution he presents as the best practicable state, Polity.  I will then look at the kinds of people Aristotle disqualifies from ever becoming citizens and his reasons for doing so.  I shall consider the implications of these disqualifications for a city governed by polity.  Further I will discuss whether Aristotle was right to view people as simply a product of their dominant practices.

According to Aristotle a citizen is someone who shares in “the judicial and executive part of the government” (Ellis 1986, 67) of the state.  This means a citizen is a person who is able to rule the state.  But, to be appointed and trusted with positions of authority and legislation this capacity to engage in public affairs needs to be recognized.  A proven record of active participation in the constitution as well as moral virtue; demonstrated by a person’s choices to act justly in accordance with the law of the state and their behaviour.  Aristotle advocates a kind of meritocracy where shares in the state are assigned proportionately to moral and intellectual worth, the larger share going to the more worthy (Coleman 2000, 212).  However, Aristotle contends that everyone is born indeterminate of character; we are born neither bad nor with moral virtue.  He claims we are habituated through the polis, an arena in which humans may become acculturated through social discourse and shared experiences.  People are educated to value the particular virtues the polis upholds through praise or blame of their behaviour or choices, thus, what that society considers to constitute a human life, the good life and justice is learned.  What each polis decides is just is communicated to one another by its laws, of which citizens may participate in the legislation of.  Therefore, constitutions are dependent on their citizen body and justice and the good are relative concepts reliant on the common view held therein (Coleman 2000, 213).  Though that is not to say we do not have some instinct as to what good and evil are and that the good and the just are to be aimed for whilst evil is to be avoided, this is what we convey to each other through speech (speech being how we can establish a common view).  We can thus make a clear distinction between that which comprises of a good man and a good citizen.  A good man is transcendent of the state; it is a more universal concept encompassing moral virtue, well-being and practical wisdom (the “ability to use intellect practically” (Honderich 2005, 746)).  A good citizen obeys the law set forth by the government.  This indicates that a citizen is one who can rule and be ruled.  Further, due to their own moral merit and commitment to the common good a citizen is someone with “a right to a share in the judicial and executive part of the government”(Ellis 1986, 68).

Aristotle is a pragmatist, although he first presents the ideal constitution; one governed by the best men of proven moral merit, committed to the common good and who legislate and establish an education system to habituate citizens to morally fine behaviour.  Thus ensuring a continuation of men fulfilling their human function to be moral choosers and take turns in ruling and being ruled.  He admits that the ‘best men’ will not easily be found and so he advocates another constitution, polity.  Polity is a mixture of democracy and oligarchy in which the many rule (democratic principal) in the common interests of the whole and in which offices of state are distributed in accordance with merit (oligarchic principal [in a true oligarchy the merit is wealth not moral worth]).  Aristotle nominates the happiest mix of polity to be when a “person may properly call the same state a democracy and an oligarchy” (Ellis 1986, 123).  This constitution appears almost counter-intuitive as it consists of a blend of two constitutions Aristotle labels deviant or corrupt, however through application of the doctrine of the mean, Aristotle compellingly argues for its virtue.  A constitution is corrupt when its legislators favour one particular order in the state and not the common good.  The doctrine of the mean characterizes all virtue as “striking a balance between vices of excess and vices of defect”(Blackburn 2005, 227).  One important virtue for all citizens in polity is courage, courage can be thought of as the mean between foolhardiness and cowardice. Aristotle readily concedes that the same constitution cannot be universally appropriate for all states because that which is most suitable and achievable is significantly dependent on situation and circumstance:

“Although one form of government may be better than another, yet there is no reason to prevent another from being preferable thereunto in particular circumstances and for particular purposes.” (Ellis 1986, 129).

Polity is achievable and suitable for all states in most circumstances, which is Aristotle’s reasoning in promoting it as the best, most practicable constitution.  Aristotle also contends that there is more than one version to any constitution.  This can be easily acknowledged by looking at a modern example.  France and the United States are both democracies, yet they are distinct, both have their own culture and principles (springing from very different histories).  Aristotle suggests the best version of polity is a middle constitution, when the middle order is dominant i.e. in excess of the other orders. Middle implies moderate in every constituent to life, this includes rank, age and fortune.  The middle element acts as a buffer preventing the state splitting into factions.  Also this version will satisfy the state’s aim to consist “as much as possible of equals”(Ellis 1986, 126).  Equality is Aristotle’s answer to providing the most stable and secure city.  Security arises because the middle order have “a moderate and convenient fortune” and therefore neither covet the rich nor are themselves coveted by the poor therefore they live “free from danger” (Ellis 1986, 126-127).  Moreover Aristotle suggests that the sense of similarity can be advanced through ensuring the same education for every inhabitant of the state and by allowing “no distinction between a rich person and a poor one”, for instance, the rich may not dress any better than the poor (Ellis 1986, 124).  The second of these provisos is difficult to enforce and is unlikely to lead to a stable society.  Without the status and benefits associated with being rich, perhaps the accumulation of personal wealth will not remain an ambition.  The city would suffer because the communal wealth of the state would decrease as a consequence, and thus the state would have less economic power or maybe resources would deplete to such a degree that the mere survival of the state becomes questionable.  However, economic power is not a focus for Aristotle rather he advises this middle constitution of polity above all others because it is the “state most submissive to reason” and indeed, the “happiest”(Ellis 1986, 126).

Aristotle disqualifies a certain type of person from ever becoming a citizen, namely a mechanic (labourer).  Also, women, children and slaves are not allowed to be citizens(Coleman 2000, 213).  Although a child may be thought of as a ‘half citizen’ as potentially (at least the male children) they become citizens when they are older.  Women, whilst they do possess a kind of reason so they may be ruled, do not possess any reason with appropriate authority to rule and therefore cannot participate in the ruling of the state and can’t ever be a citizen. Similarly, natural slaves possess reason enough to follow their masters and want what their masters want, but they have no aspirations of becoming moral deliberators.  They wish to be taken care of and so they are.  Slaves do not have the capacity to rule others and so will never become citizens.  Mechanics are bound to necessary work; the work needed to be done to secure the material possessions required to survive.  Aristotle does not think that human life consists merely of making, producing or acquiring material things but rather about moral action, which although it utilizes material things is directed at the human end (eudaimonia – a happy life, or to live well) (Coleman 2000, 223).  The end of work is leisure.  Aristotle argues that all citizens (all men which are to participate in the governing of the state) need to have had time away from work so they can engage in activities outside the household and economic sphere and may be educated to intelligently and objectively rule to state. It is only in leisure that men have the opportunity to exercise moral choice and thus exhibit their virtuous character for assessment and so it may be rewarded i.e. granted office of state.  Some men, the mechanics, are unable to secure sufficient leisure time (these people would appropriately be described as slaves to necessary work).  Thus they do not develop the character of a citizen; they do not learn rational objectivism or the moral habits that would make them trustworthy evaluators of other people’s moral worth (Coleman 2000, 223).  Further, Aristotle argues that men in the business of accumulating wealth, even if the amount is only that which is necessary for him to survive, become habituated to seeing wealth as the end to work and even the end to human life rather than as a means to something else i.e. leisure time.  As a consequence these men are prone to treat moral issues as economic ones, which is dangerous for the state as this would not create a polis suitable for human flourishing; its citizens could not be correctly habituated to morally fine behaviour and consequently the state would be unstable.  This indicates that freedom and at least a moderate amount of wealth are important preconditions to citizenship in a polity (though not in themselves sufficient).  Aristotle seems to say that for some men a life of necessary work is inescapable not because they do not aim at happiness and the good life, but, because of opportunity and the luck of whom they are born to, they will never attain it.

The implication of Aristotle’s disqualifications regarding citizenship for his middle constitution, polity, is mainly that in the exclusion of so many there is a high probability that men with the potential to become great leaders never get the chance.  Also, by constraining politics to leisure, Aristotle gives the impression that training the inhabitants of the state to be moral is second to necessary work.  Aristotle is clear that without necessary work there would be no state at all, as humans would not be able to survive.  Indeed the state originally came into being for the mutual safety of people, so that they might live.  However, the most important thing in the continuance of the state is so its people may live well and flourish (Ellis 1986, 3).  Aristotle seems to willingly sacrifice a number of men that if given the opportunity may have been able to become citizens, to the practice of necessary work.  Perhaps his pragmatism is behind such a dismissal; he realizes that such work ensures the survival of the state (at its most basic level).  But he offers no compensation to those forced to carry it out, indeed no incentive and no escape.  Even if he implements a universal and free education system, still, because of a lack of wealth a person won’t be able to move up; they reach a point where they must quit education to work.  This attitude seems a little odd for someone who advocates a meritocracy.  Further, it is difficult to see how with such distinct orders of people – those tied to necessary work, those who work to attain leisure and those who need not work – Aristotle can prevent his society from splitting into separate classes.  After he was so critical of Plato’s class based society, believing it to cause dissatisfaction and ultimately lead to revolution, it again seems odd that Aristotle does not come up with any defense or propose a workable format enabling a person to move between these orders and advance if he should possess a worthy enough character or move down if he does not deserve the position granted him by birth.  This sparks some confusion as to what Aristotle defines the common good to be.  It seems to be the good life but only with regards to the middle order.  Clearly, by dismissing the mechanics as he does, never offering them the opportunity to ascertain the good life, Aristotle does not include the flourishing of these people in his definition of common good.  Less offensive is his exclusion also of those too lazy to bother using their leisure time to engage in moral deliberation and thus flourish and fulfill their nature.  In other words the common good with which the polis should be established is the flourishing of its citizens only, and as previously established much of the necessary qualifications of citizenship appear to be down to luck with no way of changing one’s lot.  Aristotle does give the weak example of paying the poor to attend public political debates and fining the rich for nonattendance but this is no solution, not to mention contrary to Aristotle’s conviction about not mixing the political or moral with economics. Surely the introduction of a monetary reward would only serve to lower the standing of morality in the eyes of non-citizens.  Aristotle’s disqualifications originate from his willingness to mitigate and compromise on his ideals, they may come across as unfair and harsh but there is some truth to what Aristotle is saying.  Who we are born to is not something one can choose or change, often the fortune and position of our parents will be mirrored in our own achievements and aspirations and form the bedrock of the opportunities we are presented with.  More, perhaps Aristotle was right to focus on the middle class; they are naturally dominant to the extremes of wealth and poverty.  And generally they are the most stable having had an upbringing that did not corrupt them with money or fill them with a sense of inequality and dissatisfaction.  The middle class are the only order that can really take advantage of education and improve their prospects through it (granted nowadays the improvement may well be seen as a larger salary than Aristotle’s moral character).  The effect on the state then by the disqualification of certain types of people is to divide it into two distinct levels, one involving necessary work and all the economics that must come with the social and the other, higher level that deals with morality, government/legislation and eudaimonia.  The first is where the mechanics come in and the second is exclusively for citizens.  There is no easy way of denying the sense in this separation as it ensures that the state can run smoothly and requires that in order to rule a person must be able to rule and pass on the values of moral virtue and reason, and habituate (as the state grows) ever greater numbers to citizenship.  Therefore, overall Aristotle’s disqualifications benefit the state because despite potentially losing out on great rulers and citizens through nothing more than a lack of opportunity, Aristotle guarantees those in office are those most capable and worthy and this can only make, in turn, the state the best it can practically be.

As to whether a person amounts only to their dominant practices, Aristotle’s habituation argument is very persuasive.  He claims we are all a product of our education and upbringing.  The environment and culture in which we are raised and the society we are exposed to determine the kind of person we become e.g. to what degree we are just.  This is particularly true of Aristotle’s time as many people, especially those tied to necessary work, had little access to the world outside the polis and thus chance to experience another culture with different values and understanding/interpretation of the world.  Similarly, in a state governed by polity, as Aristotle presents it, there seems to be no real opportunity for the majority of people to change their original lot; if they were lucky enough to have been born to a middle order family they were most likely to continue as such.  It follows that we are products of our environment.  So it is the same for our dominant practices.  If work and the accumulation of wealth is a person’s life then it makes sense that every issue the person faces will be treated economically.  Further, Aristotle’s argument carries in our own time.  Certainly, now inventions like the internet have made it possible for people the world over to learn about one another, their different cultures and believes and distinct valuations of justice and what should constitute a human life.  However, it is still our immediate surroundings that are responsible for the shaping of our character the most.  Someone who is raised in the Christian tradition is likely to keep hold of Christian values throughout their life.  Our dominant practices are largely responsible for the way we view the world and consequently what we decide to value and how we decide to live.

In sum, a citizen makes judgments and holds office.  Mechanics will never acquire citizenship because they never accumulate enough leisure time to develop and prove their moral character or intellectual objectivity.  Polity is a mixture of the best principles of democracy and oligarchy, where the many rule but rulers are elected on the merit of their commitment to the common interests of the people, their military virtue and their ability to legislate for the habituation of men to be morally virtuous.  Aristotle was right to put such an emphasis on where you come from determining your character, especially in a polity, because your dominant practices are your life.  They are all you know, unless through education (which must occur when you are not carrying out necessary work) you are subject to different experiences, for example conversations on the good life and what is just or what constitutes a human life, you will never know.  Further, he was right to allow only those who had received such exposure and learned to think in terms of moral value and the common rather than self interest to rule because a city governed without such knowledge can only fall apart, but it does not stop a clear disjunction from happening between the various orders of the city.


-Ellis, William, Trans. 1986.  The Politics.  Prometheus Books.

-Coleman, Janet.  2000.  A History of Political Thought: From Ancient Greece to Early Christianity.  Blackwell Publishing.

-Ed. Honderich, Ted.  2005.  The Oxford Companion to Philosophy.  Oxford University Press.

-Blackburn, Simon.  2005.  Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.  Oxford University Press.

-Prof. Coleman, 2008.  Aristotle (part 1 – Ethics).  Lecture presented at the LSE for course GV100, October 27th.

-Prof. Coleman, 2008.  Themes in Aristotle’s Politics 1.  Lecture presented at the LSE for course GV100, November 3rd.