Aristotle Examines and Defines Citizenship

To open the third book of the Politics, Aristotle considers citizenship and who counts as a citizen.


This is part of the very Aristotelian method of analyzing complex things by breaking them down into their component parts. A state is “a composite thing,” “an aggregate of citizens,” so let us first look at the citizens themselves.

This is subtly different from his approach in the first book, in which he took a more historical point of view, asking which more primitive associations preceded and led up to the state (e.g. the household and village).

Which of the residents of a polis are to be considered citizens of it is not obvious. There are differing opinions, so Aristotle has to consider which qualifications he will be considering for the purposes of his analysis.

He excludes certain categories of people from the ranks of citizenship:

  1. “ ‘made’ citizens” (a sort of honorary title, in the same sense that a university might confer an honorary doctorate)
  2. mere residence in the area governed by a polis does not count as citizenship: slaves and resident aliens, for example, aren’t citizens
  3. women; he does not find this worth mentioning explicitly nor defending, but it’s implicit in other things he says
  4. people who by law have access to the legal system, but who otherwise would not qualify as citizens (foreigners covered by commercial treaties, for instance)
  5. boys too young for military service, and old men retired from duty may be citizens, but not fully-fledged ones: they are a sort of semi-citizen
  6. people who have been exiled or stripped of their rights

Aristotle next gives some positive qualifications for citizenship. A citizen, he says, is marked by “his participation in giving judgment and in holding office.” He qualifies this by saying that being a part of the general assembly or a juryman counts.

Still, this definition of citizenship would leave out most people who call themselves citizens of nations today, or would at least leave them with a severely attenuated form of citizenship. A citizen of the United States and of California, as I nominally am, might be asked to help render a verdict on a jury once or twice in their lives, and might be called upon to vote on ballot initiatives periodically, but it would be stretching things to call this citizenship as Aristotle defines it. We perhaps tend to confuse citizenship with nationality in the modern world.

But Aristotle acknowledges that citizenship is defined differently in different places depending on the nature of the constitution. He may encompass the modern system when he says:

[O]ur definition of citizen is best applied in a democracy; in the other constitutions it may be applicable, but it need not necessarily be so. For in some constitutions there is no body comprising the people, nor a recognized assembly, but only an occasional rally; and justice may be administered piecemeal.

He says that in these other, non-democratic systems, citizenship is more properly considered as being limited to those who hold office: “as soon as a man becomes entitled to participate in office, deliberative or judicial, we deem him to be a citizen of that state.”

So we should keep in mind as we continue through this chapter and the rest of the book, that most of us who are called “citizens” today would not be considered to be citizens by Aristotle, but merely to be members of the large subject population whom the citizens direct and use, or perhaps as “made” citizens who have that title by law but few of the privileges and responsibilities that properly attach to it.

And since Aristotle considers the polis to be the culmination of human association, and that man can only reach his full potential and exercise the virtue of justice as part of a polis, this may worry us.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics

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