On excellent citizens and good men

Trip Start Jun 30, 2008
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Trip End Aug 24, 2008


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Flag of United States  , District of Columbia
Monday, July 21, 2008

When reading my own entries in this travel blog, I can imagine questions arise from careful readers. I trust the pictures serve as examples about my surroundings and the short stories describe the way I perceive daily life in Washington. However, this does not give an impression of what I actually do.

This week I wrote a paper on the question: how does Aristotle reconcile the concepts of good citizens and good men? No pictures this time, since they will draw attention away from analysis. Writing articles is an important part of studying at Georgetown, particularly in the course Elements of Political Theory. I hope you enjoy this analysis of classic philosophy and sincerely hope it will benefit both citizens and rulers.

On Aristotle and Politics, book III(4) by Maxwell Keyte

In The Politics good citizens are described as free men whose parents were also citizens, and who are entitled to participate in an "indefinitive office" involving deliberation or decision (in the city). Aristotle portrays citizens not only as virtuous in excellence, but also as members of a community who strive to preserve a common goal (i.e. the partnership; the regime). Citizens are distinguished from 'vulgar men', who lack leisure time, and slaves. Aristotle describes virtue of good citizens as something that contributes to the polis, and thus the common advantage. What is considered good depends on what type of regime a citizen is a member of. Aristotle connects the goodness of man with virtue and ruling. He implies that a good man rules - as opposed to ruling and being ruled.

'[T]he virtue of the good man and the excellent citizen is to be regarded as the same or as not the same.' A good citizen is not necessarily a good man, since the virtue of an excellent citizen is neither complete nor single. Also, a good man knows how to rule, even though he cannot be ruled. Thus, a good man is virtuous in ruling; a good citizen is virtuous in both ruling and being ruled. Moreover, a good man rules permanently, whereas citizens rule in turn.

The tension between being an upright citizen and a good man is not solely about virtue, but about the interpretation of virtue. 'The virtue of man and citizen would not be the same unqualifiedly.' Virtue of the good citizen points at the regime (i.e. the common advantage) and the capacity to rule, whereas virtue of the good man transcends the common direction of the polis and stems from a more personal, ethical source. Virtue of the citizen is plural; virtue of man is related to a man's actions or himself. I interpret the difference as tension between a legalistic interpretation (citizen) versus a moral, human reading (good man) of virtue. Also, Aristotle points out that virtue is a relative concept, interpreted differently according to roles and tasks, (e.g. household management for men and women) underscoring the tension caused by virtue from the perspectives of good citizens and men.

Before reconciling the differences, Aristotle first implies that virtue of the good citizen and of the good man seldom coincide. There are many cases when good citizens are not good men - any situation in which the latter do not rule being an obvious example. On the other hand there can also be cases when a good man is not a good citizen, for example when he is acting in accordance with personal ethics, which are not in line with preserving the common goal or do not benefit the regime. Possibly, a good man could also be a bad citizen under any regime other than a democracy, since Aristotle positions democracy as the only good regime. Nevertheless, the concepts of a good citizens and men can be reconciled.

The notions of upright citizen and the good men are harmonized where ruling is concerned. Only when ruling over 'those who are similar in stock and free' can the concepts of good citizen and good man be reconciled. Presumably this harmony, described as political rule in which the ruler learns by being ruled, is possible in the concept of a democracy. Both good citizens and good men should be able to understand this ruling from the point view of both ruler and ruled. But only when a citizen rules (i.e. actually holds political office or fulfills public tasks) can he be a good man; when a citizen does not rule he is a potential ruler. Aristotle also notes that an 'excellent ruler is [...] prudent', thereby further distinguishing rulers from citizens through prudence. Prudence is necessary for the political ruler to form strong opinions, and assumedly interpret the laws made by citizens (who are involved in deliberation or decision in the city).
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