Book III, Chapters 1–8
Book III is ultimately concerned with the nature of different constitutions, but in order to understand cities and the constitutions on which they are founded, Aristotle begins with an inquiry into the nature of citizenship. It is not enough to say a citizen is someone who lives in the city or has access to the courts of law, since these rights are open to resident aliens and even slaves. Rather, Aristotle suggests that a citizen is someone who shares in the administration of justice and the holding of public office. Aristotle then broadens this definition, which is limited to individuals in democracies, by stating that a citizen is anyone who is entitled to share in deliberative or judicial office.
Aristotle points out that though citizenship is often reserved for those who are born to citizen parents, this hereditary status becomes irrelevant in times of revolution or constitutional change, during which the body of citizens alters. This raises the question: to whom may citizenship be justly granted, and can the city be held accountable for decisions made by governing individuals if these individuals have not been justly granted citizenship? Further, if the city is not identical to its government, what defines a city, and at what point does a city lose its identity? Aristotle suggests that a city is defined by its constitution, so that a change in constitution signifies a change in the city. He does not, however, resolve the question of whether a city should honor debts and obligations made under a previous constitution.
Aristotle next compares the criteria for being a good citizen and those for being a good man. One is a good citizen to the extent to which one upholds and honors the constitution. Because there are different kinds of constitutions there are also different kinds of good citizens. Perfect virtue, however, is the only standard for being a good man, so it is possible to be a good citizen without being a good man. Aristotle suggests that a good ruler who possesses practical wisdom can be both a good citizen and a good man.
There is the further question of whether manual laborers can be citizens. Aristotle acknowledges that they are necessary to a city but states that not everyone who is necessary to the city can be a citizen: good citizenship requires that the citizen be free from the necessary tasks of life. Still, in oligarchies, in which citizenship is determined by wealth, a rich manual laborer may qualify for citizenship.
Next, Aristotle details the different kinds of constitutions that exist. There are just constitutions geared toward bringing about well-being for all of their respective citizens, and unjust constitutions geared toward the benefit of those in power. Constitutions vary also in the size of the governing body: a single person; a small, elite group; or the masses. Thus, there are six kinds of government: three just and three unjust. Just government by a single person is kingship, by a small group is aristocracy, and by the masses is politeia, or constitutional government, participation in which is reserved for those who possess arms. The three forms of unjust government are perversions of the corresponding forms of just government: a kingship directed toward the sole interest of the ruler is a tyranny; an aristocracy directed toward the sole interest of the wealthy is an oligarchy; and a constitutional government directed toward the sole interest of the poor is a democracy.
Aristotle's suggestion that a citizen is someone who shares in the deliberative or judicial offices of a city may seem odd to the modern reader, as very few people in the twentieth century would count as citizens by this definition. In the polis, on the other hand, involvement in the affairs of the city defined one's identity to a large extent. Though there were certain leaders concerned exclusively with the government of the city, all citizens were required to contribute in some way. Assemblies of citizens made decisions in bodies whose modern equivalents are law courts and city councils, and these assemblies would rotate membership so that every citizen served a specific term. The only aspect of this system that remains in modern times is jury duty.
According to Aristotle, everything is made up of form—the essence of a thing—and matter—the actual physical composition of a thing. Just as a bronze statue of Socrates has the form of Socrates and the matter of bronze, a city has a constitution as its form and a citizenry as its matter. A city whose constitution has changed is no longer the same city, much as a bronze statue that has been melted down is no longer the same statue. While the citizenry actualizes the concept of a city, it is a constitution that supplies this fundamental concept. Aristotle thus views the city as an entity much greater than the simple sum of its citizens.
It is important to note that Aristotle's conception of citizenship is elitist. He draws a sharp distinction between those who perform the necessary tasks to keep the city running smoothly and those who govern these laborers and benefit from their toil. Citizens must participate in the government of city and household, but they do not do any other work; the leisure they enjoy is made possible only by the continuing toil of those beneath them. Aristotle further reinforces class hierarchy by arguing that manual laborers should not be granted citizenship because they are too busy with their work to devote enough time to education and self-improvement. Why non-citizens should consider it worth their while to accept this system is one of the unresolved tensions in the Politics.
Aristotle will ultimately argue that just government works best when the masses are allowed to participate. That he believes possession of arms should be a condition for citizenship in such a constitutional government, however, further demonstrates his elitism. While this requirement ensures that citizens will take part in defending the city, it also serves as a minimum wealth requirement. Political power is reserved for the wealthy, while those who cannot afford weaponry have no say. Even in Aristotle's government by the masses the very poor and their interests are ignored.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!