Can One Be a Good Citizen and Also a Good Person?

In the fourth chapter of the third book of Aristotle’s Politics he turns to a topic at the heart of many of our concerns here at The Picket Line: the relationship between being a good person and being a good citizen.


Recall that to Aristotle, a citizen is not merely someone who is subject to or lives under the dominion of a particular polis or constitution, but someone who is an active participant in the state by being an officer in its government (and probably also, part of its military reserve). So to be a good citizen is not just to be law-abiding and orderly, or perhaps “a productive member of society,” but to take part in guiding and administering and defending the state. (See ♇ 12 December 2018 for Aristotle’s discussion of citizenship.)

For what a good person is, we have to keep in mind what Aristotle said in the prequel (The Nicomachean Ethics) about the set of virtues people must habitually practice in order to achieve the eudaimonia which is their most happy destiny.

To what extent are these two roles compatible? Is being a good citizen part of being a good person, or is it something in addition to being a good person, or is it something in conflict with being a good person?

Aristotle begins by reminding us that the polis is an association. He compares the citizen’s role in the polis to that of a member of a crew on a ship. Everyone on the crew has their role to play, and their virtue is to perform that role well, in service to the mission of the ship.

Similarly, the virtue of a citizen qua citizen is to perform the tasks of their office well, in service to the stability and good-functioning of the state.

But this is a very limited sort of virtue, circumscribed by the role the citizen plays and the sort of constitution they are upholding. The virtues of a good person are much broader, and in service to the thriving of that person, not to some external institution or tradition. “Clearly then,” Aristotle says, “it is possible to be a sound citizen without having that virtue which makes a sound man.”

The virtues of a person qua person are universal across humanity (or, you know, adult male Greeks of the leisure class anyway), but the virtues of a person qua citizen (or qua slave, wife, engineer, etc.) are different depending on the role the citizen is playing at the time. The roles are different, and so the virtues are various.

In particular, leadership and obedience are each virtues of the citizen, to be practiced at different times depending on the circumstance. But in a virtuous person, the reason is always to command the desire. There’s no similar trade-off where sometimes reason must obey. Obedience is a necessary virtue of the citizen, but to command is the virtue of a person.

So the virtues of a person and a citizen are at best coincident. A ruler, for example, needs the individual virtue of wisdom in order to make wise decisions. But those he orders into action do not need that same sort of wisdom; they just need to carry out the orders. It seems that the complete set of virtues is only really necessary to the rulers of a state; in everyone else those virtues are stunted, at least in relation to the roles they play as citizens.

If the rulers and the ruled are two completely different classes of people, forever to be held distinct, the case is like that of masters and slaves, or employers and employees, where each class has their own distinct set of virtues. The rulers should then learn that subset of virtues appropriate to good rulers; the subjects that subset appropriate to good subjects. But this seems to stunt the growth of both groups.

This would seem at first to interfere with Aristotle’s project of finding the best state, where that state is one which best contributes to the eudaimonia of its citizens. If the structure of the state by design must atrophy the virtues of all but a handful of kings and admirals, it seems a poor vehicle for this.

But Aristotle has praise for political systems in which citizens regularly share in the offices of authority. In such a state, all good citizens have opportunities to exercise their virtues of leadership from time to time. Also, because the leaders have also been followers they have better insight than they would if they were simply installed into a permanent leadership role. Aristotle believes that the good citizen can only also be a fully good man when he is putting the virtues of leadership into active use. That makes sense, as Aristotle has defined a virtue as a habitual practice — so having it “in reserve” is hardly having it at all.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics