Part 3. Aristotle’s views on Citizenship

In the first book of his Politics, Aristotle discusses the polis (city/state) in terms of a “political community” (koin?nia politik?) as opposed to other types of communities and partnerships such as the household (oikos) and village. Aristotle states that the city-state is by nature a collective entity, a multitude of citizens. For Aristotle, the highest form of community is the polis.

In Politics III, Aristotle presents his views on political citizenship in the polis. Not surprisingly, he reserves that kind of citizenship for those directly involved in the political processes of the city or city/state.

Commentary: Today the sheer magnitude of political processes in our massive nation state seem to preclude the kinds of direct participation that Aristotle favored. If Aristotle were alive and observing the world around us, I imagine he might be rethinking some of what he originally said and wrote.

Aristotle begins his treatise with a definition of the political citizen (politês), Citizens, in the political sense of the word, were distinguished from other inhabitants, such as resident aliens and slaves who had no role in the political processes of the city/state. Aristotle did not consider children to be citizens in the political sense for the same reason. Presumably, when “senior citizens” retired from public life, Aristotle would not have considered them to be political citizens either. He would have seen them as citizens but not as political citizens, unless they once again took on an active political role. Likewise, Aristotle would not have considered most workers to be political citizens. For Aristotle political citizenship was a very simple and transparent calculation which was exceedingly flexible around its edges. Slaves were not excluded because of their enforced servitude. There could have been, and probably were, citizen slaves in ancient Greece, but, for the most part, slaves were not directly involved in political life.

Commentary: For us, Voting Rights have become synonymous with political citizenship. We have maintained many of Aristotle’s restrictions on the kind of political citizenship entailed in the right to vote through voting rights legislation. Non-voting citizenship is a birthright but voting citizenship (political citizenship) is not. For better or for worse, we have broadened voting citizenship by extending those rights to all legal residents without felony convictions. We have awarded political citizenship to most adults because of our progressive vision that most adults have a “vested interest” in the affairs of state. We could of course argue that children and resident aliens have equal “vested interest” in the affairs of state, but we have chosen to exclude them. We have done a very bad job of integrating Aristotle’s ideas of direct political involvement into today’s political realm. We really haven’t given it much thought at all. Our system is subject to attack from at least two different directions. First, since having a vested interest in America is the only criterion for political citizenship, anyone and everyone who lives here has a claim to those rights. On another front, people of a more conservative persuasion might argue that we have too many knuckleheads with voting rights already.  

Proposed: Here in America, we equate Political Citizenship with the right to vote. Non-Political Citizenship should remain a birthright, but Political Citizenship should not. Rights without responsibility may seem meaningless and therefore easily abused, so Political Rights must come with responsibilities attached. I propose a voluntary year of public service and a more stringent Pledge of Allegiance as precursors to the right to Vote. I suggest we start with anyone immigrating to the United States or being born here on or after yesterday’s date, July fourth, two thousand-nineteen.