What Does It Mean To Be A Citizen Of A Polis?October 9, 2018
One of the most fundamental components of the polis is the citizen; regardless of its level of unity, size, location, or its proximity to effective resources, the actions of its citizens will determine the effectiveness of a polis.
On a basic level, Aristotle defines a citizen as “a man who has the right to participate in a legislative or judicial office of that state […] so the right to deliberate or decide some or all matters is assigned to these persons”.
Deliberation evokes the idea of virtue, so it seems plausible to infer that a citizen must have a degree of virtue so that a citizen can deliberate well. Remember that a person deliberates about “the things which he can do by himself […] things which are possible […] whose outcome is not clear […] in which there is something indeterminate”.
Kraut strengthens Aristotle’s point about the virtuousness of the citizen because in a polis by saying that “every citizen must meet minimal standards of character; and this is the most important qualification of all, because the goal of the [polis] is to promote the development of fully realized human beings who have the resources they need to exercise their powers”. Overall, one of the duties of being a citizen involves the exercise of acquiring and demonstrating virtues.
However, Aristotle notes a difference between virtuous citizens and virtuous people which relates to the duties of a citizen. According to Aristotle, “a virtuous citizen does not necessarily possess the virtue of a man”.
Why not? It is due to the fact that the virtues of a citizen change between different polities. However, a person who is said to be virtuous does not transform their virtues to the political system they associate with; rather the virtues and the character of the person remain consistent regardless of the polis. In this regard the person’s virtue and actions are better because they do not change. Thus Aristotle concludes that a good ruler must possess both the virtue of a citizen of that particular polis and the virtue of a good person. Since the citizens are an integral part of the polis, it is important for them not only to be good rulers, but good citizens as well.
In an ideal polis, the ability to rule is an important component of being a citizen, so it is no wonder that Aristotle recognizes this as a characteristic for citizens. Not only is it important for citizens to rule, but it is equally important for them to be ruled as well. Ideal polities contain many virtuous citizens who can take turns ruling over one another, for “all must alike share in government by ruling and being ruled by turns”.
Here Aristotle refers to “all alike” as the adult male citizens, and these citizens will take turns ruling the polis. Rotating citizens in and out of office gives them equitable power so that no one person has more influence than the other. At the same time, this approach reduces the ability of abusing power; once the offender leaves office, the offended person could take revenge. In an ideal polis, such events would not occur because both the rulers and the citizens will be virtuous.
Aristotle realizes that conflicts will happen, and so he uses the rotation of ruling as a preventative measure. However, a polis without enough citizens who are able to rule well makes it difficult to make modifications to the political system. It is important for a citizen in charge of the polis to promote and live the virtuous lifestyle, attain happiness, and a complete life. Kraut supports Aristotle’s claim about virtuous citizens because citizens who can rule are also able to “make what is defective less defective [and] not to substitute one kind of defect for another”. In order to be a virtuous citizen, it is also crucial to understand the polis enough to make the necessary improvements and to resolve any issues that arise.