Critically evaluate ideas about justice, citizenship and the state held by either Plato or Aristotle.

Aristotle’s ideas regarding justice, citizenship and the state can often appear to be in depth to a point where it’s difficult to discern what Aristotle is trying to say. Examples of this can be seen throughout much of his works in ethics and philosophies, whereby he links the connection of justice, citizenship and the state in an almost scientific calculation, making each a dynamic factor that is subject to change should another change. These ideas contrast with his mentor, Plato, who believed that justice was not obtained through experts, but in fact through empirical circumstances, such as deliberation and debate through democratic politics and the citizen body.

We will see throughout this essay that Aristotle’s ideas are heavily dependent upon each other and that his work suggests themes that suggest this.

The idea of citizenship appeared to play a crucial part in Aristotle’s ideas regarding the state and justice. The idea of citizens derived from the question “What is a state?”[i] Saunders (1986) further exemplifies this point in his analysis of Aristotle’s The Politics, in that the citizen by Aristotle’s definition was dependent upon the state they lived in[ii]. Essentially, Aristotle suggests that the role of the citizen can change depending on the state’s constitution, such as a democracy or oligarchy, ect. Importantly, however, a change in the citizen body, which creates the judicial and political elements of the state, would change the type of state they existed in. This shows Aristotle’s over analytical workings regarding the philosophies of the state and the citizens. It also shows the empirical analysis he makes, creating an equilibrium equation between to the two factors.

Aristotle considers the state as the highest form community, and adds elements of morality, in that a state exists as community is self sufficient and preserves ‘a good life’. Lloyd (1982) offers a simpler explanation to Saunder’s analysis of Aristotle’s The Politics. He defines that the state exists within the constitution and is not dependent upon the physical or social factors that lie within the state, such as the people and the land it resides on.[iii] It is clear that Aristotle’s ideas regarding the relationship between the citizen and the state are very close and highly empirical. The state is exists within the constitution, which offers the judicial elements that is imposed on its citizens. In turn, the citizen’s held the political power to alter the constitution, through deliberation or discussion and/or through revolutionary means. This change in constitution would therefore alter the definition of the state. In essence, it is difficult to analyse the ideas regarding the state, and its citizens, because it’s not specific, but dynamic and circumstantial. By today’s standards, Aristotle’s ideas hold a degree of truth, in that, citizen body (or government) controls the laws that make the state what is it.

The citizen, Aristotle claims, has specific rights and is all equal. So, each citizen has the same humanitarian, economic, social rights as any other citizen. He believed that birth place, and ancestry did not play a factor in what defined a citizen, but his involvement within politics.[iv] Parry (1972) quotes Aristotle, “…a man who shares in the administration of justice and in the holding of office,” as a definition for what a citizen is. This also suggests the idea that citizens and justice were in control of each other.  To further Aristotle’s idea to what a citizen is would also allow us to see how obscure his ideas can be. For example, women were not considered to be citizens, in his view, for they lacked the fundamental reasoning required for politics. Also, artisans and those who made a living were not considered to be included in what defined a citizen. This shows the degree of definition Aristotle was willing to achieve, essentially alienated a vast majority of the population of the city states. In actuality, one can conclude that Aristotle’s idyllic scenario of what a citizen was, were the aristocrats of society, the educated and wealthy elite who didn’t need to work. To further expand this scenario, if the elites were the citizen body, who was then part of the judicial and political system within a ‘democracy’, such as in Athens, an oligarchy could essentially be created. Aristotle also argues that it is in the polis, or city state, that one can be ruled and be ruled, thus suggested a social system of hierarchy[v]. He does not explicitly link this to citizenship, however.

Aristotle’s empirical nature appears to be fundamental part within his ideas regarding justice, citizenship and the state[vi]. Closely connected was his belief that politics should relate to the behaviour of nature. As an academic of a variety of studies, such as biology, Aristotle has clearly involved other areas of study within his theories regarding the philosophies of politics. His idyllic scenario was related to the life of an acorn, in that, the acorn represented the citizen. Under the right conditions (the environment of the polis), the acorn could grow. However, if the state was not correctly functioning, essentially the constitution it holds, the acorns would not grow, suggesting that the citizens would be fully functioning political units that Aristotle argues is a requirement for a successful city state.

Throughout the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that Justice just isn’t sufficient enough within the world he lives in[vii], which as a political thinker and scientist, enticed him to investigate and analyse why. We will see the result of such thinking. It is important to note that Aristotle’s views regarding justice are, in some cases, considered to be virtues of the citizens of a state.

Justice distinguished the moralities of life, and was especially important when it comes to politics. Politicians had to be selfless, in that, they acted in the best interests of the people and not for their own ends. Justice was a required, according to Aristotle, characteristic of a person, within a state, in order for them to be a citizen. Aristotle had two different ideas regarding Justice: General Justice and Special or Particular Justice (subdivides into Regulatory Justice and Distributive Justice).  Specifically, Aristotle shows a greater interest in Distributive Justice, the justice that decides the balance of gains and losses in society. Be it monetary or honour, Aristotle argues that the injustices regarding the distribution of gains and losses cause the downfall of constitutions regarding oligarchy and democracy[viii]. This is also present in the Nicomachean Ethics, where Ackrill (1999) indirectly argues the importance of justice through morals according to Aristotle[ix]. Morals, of course, play a fundamental part in Aristotle’s ideas regarding the role of justice within constitutions. Aristotle points out a huge criticism in how a city state can operate, either through democracy and through oligarchy, which exists throughout time and is clearly visible by today’s standards, such a proportional representation when it comes to democratic elections, and the French revolution, deposing of an aristocratic system and closing the class gap between the lower and upper classes.

It is important to note that Aristotle was genius to identify the roots of the political system, finding the moral roots of indifference and inequalities and proposing ideas that could exist in a perfect polis.

To conclude, we have seen that Aristotle’s ideas have been greatly influenced by his studies of nature and science, and saw an opportunity to connect justice, citizenship and the state to an empirical system where it could be easily analysed and assessed. We see such measures with the careful breakdown of different constitutions that operate states, the roles of the citizens within those states and the types of justices used to enforce the constitution, and its people.

There is often much confusion to how to come to terms with Aristotle’s ideas regarding the ideas of constitutions and its citizenry. However, a variety of historians have developed simplified versions of the original ideas, possibly with their own interpretation involved. These interpretations allow for a better understanding of the ideology Aristotle had. His views would be considered to be overly optimistic in many cases, especially regarding his idyllic view on a state, and the definitions of what a citizen was; people who were educated, yet where wealthy enough not to work, essentially the aristocrats of the era.

Justice is considered to be a fundamental issue that outlines two of his significant works, the Nicomachean Ethics and The Politics. As the title of the latter suggests, justice and politics are connected strongly, as justice proves to be an underlying theme throughout the book. Aristotle does not just outline the ideas of justice as a judicial entity, the force that punishes wrong doers, but as a degree of virtue, or morality that is considered to be phenomena in politics. He argues strongly that without a sense of morality, and virtue, any type of constitution is destined to fail.

Throughout Aristotle’s ideas regarding the state, justice and citizenship, he maintains the idea that there is a strong link between all three. As one change, so does the other and each is dependant on the other. This proves to replay throughout history as the role of the citizen changes if the state’s constitution changes.

[i] Ross, R., Aristotle, p. 246-7

[ii] Aristotle, The Politics (1986 ed.), p. 173-4

[iii] Lloyd, G.E.R., Aristotle: The Growth and Structure of his Thought, p.249-50

[iv] Parry, G., “The Idea of Political Participation” in Parry, G., eds, Participation in Politics”, p.27

[v] IBID, p. 29

[vi] Jaeger, W., Aristotle – Fundamentals of the History of his Development, p. 265

[vii] Winthrop, D. “Aristotle and Theories of Justice,“ The American Political Science Review, Vol. 72, No. 4 (Dec., 1978), pp. 1201 [Accessed: 20th January 2010]

[viii] Aristotle, The Politics (1986 ed.), p. 310-18

[ix] Ackarill, J. L., “Aristotle on Eudaimonia”, in Sherman, M., eds, Aristotle’s Ethics – Critical Essays, p. 60-1


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: