Should Citizenship Extend Even to Those in the Trades?

Aristotle has been defining citizenship, and examining the virtues of citizens, which, he says, can only encompass the complete virtues of a good man to the extent that the citizen is also at least periodically an authority of the state.


Who then gets admitted to this club? What of the banausoi, for example? The translation I’m working with translates this word as “mechanics” but it seems to encompass the working class in general along with the petite bourgeoisie. It’s something of a derogatory term in ancient Greek, I think. The way it’s used reminds me of how snobby characters in Jane Austen novels refer to people “in the trades.”

Aristotle isn’t quite sure what to do with them. If they too are citizens, then he needs to rethink his idea about how citizens can also practice the virtues of good men. Certainly we can’t have all of the banausoi of the polis taking turns running the place. For one thing, they’re too busy already. For another, they don’t have time to cultivate the wisdom and other refined virtues necessary to do that job well.

On the other hand, if they aren’t to be citizens, where do they stand? They seem to be in some sort of intermediate class between citizens and slaves. The way slaves provide services to individual households, the banausoi provide services to the polis as a whole in the course of pursuing their livelihoods.

This class will have different sorts of civil rights and responsibilities depending on the nature of the constitution. In an aristocracy or oligarchy, they will have few of these; in a democracy, more.

Also, as population waxes and wanes in a polis, the state may correspondingly relax citizenship requirements or make them more strict to compensate.

Sometimes a form of “citizenship” is broadly offered to banausoi, immigrants, and all manner of riff-raff. But because this nominal citizenship does not include the responsibility or power of joining in the administration of the state, it’s harmless.

Aristotle ends this chapter by reiterating that the opportunity to cultivate the virtues of a good man while also being a good citizen is really only available to those in the ruling class / leisure class.

The qualification “while also being a good citizen” made me wonder whether dropping out and pursuing the task of being a good person and turning one’s back on being a good citizen would be an option for those not fortunate enough to be in the fortunate class. But Aristotle has said that he thinks the polis is our natural habitat, that we are political animals, and that some virtues (e.g. justice) are only really achievable in the political context. So I think he might discourage that option.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics