BMCR 2007.05.22

Aristotle and the Rediscovery of Citizenship

, Aristotle and the rediscovery of citizenship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. x, 193 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521860466 $70.00.

Table of Contents

Americans recently held a mid-term election, with the House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, numerous governorships, and a host of other offices and ballot measures at stake. Roughly 40% of eligible voters turned out to vote. In contemporary America, this constitutes a veritable orgy of political activity, exceeded only by the participatory frenzy of our quadrennial presidential elections. It may seem odd to suppose that a country in which casting a vote every year or two is about the most that is expected of citizens could have much to learn about citizenship from a philosopher who defines it as “sharing in decision and office” (Aristotle, Politics 3.1).1 Yet that is the claim made by Susan Collins in Aristotle and the Rediscovery of Citizenship.

Collins situates her claim about the timeliness of Aristotle against the backdrop of a debate within contemporary liberalism. Her opening chapter offers a thorough, fair, and well-argued description of recent debates among political theorists about the nature of liberal citizenship, in particular liberalism’s (in)ability adequately to describe the relationship between the individual and the community and to delineate and defend a set of public liberal virtues distinct from a private realm of freely chosen values. She suggests—correctly, in my view—that these debates have failed satisfactorily to resolve two issues in particular: “the relation between the right and the good, and the connection between the education of a citizen and that of a good human being simply” (41). Hence the motive for returning to Aristotle, who claims that law aims at making citizens virtuous. By refusing to sever the rules of right from the goods at which those rules aim and by emphasizing the law’s educative function in shaping citizen virtues, Aristotle’s political thought highlights characteristic blind spots of contemporary liberalism.

Collins’s reading of Aristotle centers on the relationship between the political “regime,” or constitutional order, and moral virtue. Every regime, in the interest of perpetuating itself, if for no other reason, seeks to encourage certain virtues in its citizens. (This is no less true of liberalism—which has its own virtues such as “tolerance or openness to diverse views, willingness to settle disagreements openly and through persuasion, and a certain…reciprocity” [33, referring to the work of William Galston]—than of other regimes, even if liberalism seeks to cloak that fact in the language of neutrality.) Our first training in virtue is always our habituation among fellow citizens, themselves shaped by the regime. Yet the law’s appeal to virtue is problematic, because in suggesting the nobility and value of virtue it potentially raises for citizens the question of whether the law’s own demands—our regime’s particular interpretation of moral virtue, as it were—-always and entirely coincide with moral virtue as such. Precisely by awakening in citizens the desire for virtue, the law, in a sense, alerts us to its own possible limitations.

This complex relationship between the connected but distinct worlds of politics and morality is a familiar theme from Aristotle, one that appears in numerous contexts in the Ethics and Politics : the possibility of a “natural law,” and the law’s relation to equity (see Collins, pp. 80-89); the difference between the good man and the good citizen (pp. 124-131); whether it is better to be ruled by the best man or the best laws (pp. 139-146); the relation of friendship to politics (not a subject to which Collins devotes significant attention, but see her brief remarks on pp. 93 and 117); or the tension between the active and contemplative lives (again, not a central focus, but see pp. 97-98, 145-146, and 160-163). Yet Collins insists that we should understand these various relationships not simply in terms of a general tension between law and virtue or politics and philosophy; rather, she suggests that these difficulties, to which Aristotle consistently draws our attention but which he rarely conclusively resolves, are indicative of a fundamental dilemma at the heart of moral virtue itself. “[W]hen [Aristotle] cautions early in his discussion of justice that the education of the citizen…may not be the same as the education of the good man…, he is pointing in the first place not to a tension between moral virtue and some other possibility, but to a tension within moral virtue. He thus clarifies the problem at the heart of civic education: The two ends that necessarily demand our devotion as morally serious human beings cannot be fully reconciled” (80, italics in original).

The “two ends” to which Collins refers, and in terms of which she understands this dilemma “within” moral virtue, are the common good and individual flourishing. Virtue, especially as presented by the law, aims at serving the common good; yet it also claims to be good for each of us individually. But we have no guarantee that the requirements of the common good always coincide with our individual attempts to lead noble and virtuous lives. Collins explores this dilemma through examinations of various virtues, paying special attention to courage (which she treats in chapter two), justice (the subject of chapter three), and—unexpectedly—wittiness (chapter six).

She begins her discussion of Aristotelian moral virtue by examining courage—a reasonable choice, as it is the first virtue Aristotle discusses in the Ethics, as well as a convenient one, since it is with respect to courage that the tension between individual flourishing and the common good appears most vividly. If I act courageously by fighting for my city in battle, nobly confronting the possibility of death, it is clear enough that my virtue serves the common good of the city. If I die, however, it is difficult to see how my virtuous action promotes my own flourishing. “In performing a noble deed, the courageous human being is shown to perform a deed that is at once selfless, in being for the sake of a higher end, and self-regarding, in being for the sake of his own virtue. But in the case of courage, this same action is problematic precisely because it entails the cessation of the activity and life that its presence as virtue makes choiceworthy…” (57).

A similar tension emerges from Collins’s discussion of justice. In the opening chapter of Ethics V, Aristotle makes clear that justice as a virtue is concerned both with our own individual character (it “makes us do justice and wish what is just”) and with the common good (it is “the only virtue that seems to be another person’s good…for it does what benefits another”). Furthermore, justice itself has two meanings. It sometimes refers to “general” or “complete” justice, which encompasses all of the virtues commanded by the law, and which Aristotle thus can refer to as the “lawful.” But justice can also have a narrower, “particular” meaning, relating specifically to what is “fair,” that is, to ensuring that people receive appropriate shares of goods in various sorts of transactions. Ensuring this sort of justice in exchanges or distributions requires a standard of “fairness” or “equality,” one that is provided by law. Yet, as Aristotle’s discussion of the various regimes in Politics III and IV emphasizes, different regimes profess different standards of justice and equality, based upon the interests and perspectives of their governing classes, and therefore every regime has at best a partial understanding of justice (see esp. Politics III.9-13 and V.1; and also Collins’s discussion of the rule of law on pp. 132-141). Particular justice thus takes as its standard something other than the good as such. “Aristotle’s analysis of justice as a virtue has therefore raised the question of whether, even in the best case, the law can reconcile the two ends to which it demands our devotion as morally serious human beings: the common good, on the one hand, and our perfection in virtue as an end in itself, on the other” (Collins, pp. 76-77).

Collins concludes her discussion of moral virtue and citizenship with a suggestive and extended discussion of the virtue of wittiness. While I remain somewhat doubtful that Aristotle’s slender discussion in Ethics IV.8 will bear quite the weight Collins attaches to it, her discussion is a fine example of how careful textual analysis can reveal intriguing connections among different aspects of Aristotle’s thought. Here, noting that Aristotle specifically identifies wit as a virtue exercised in the context of leisurely relaxation, Collins suggests that we understand this virtue in relation to Aristotle’s other important treatments of leisure (at the end of the Ethics and especially in Politics VII and VIII) and of the quintessentially leisurely activity, philosophy. Aristotle says that the witty person is “a sort of law to himself,” because—in a manner more successful and less blunt than the law’s attempts to forbid inappropriate sorts of verbal abuse—-the witty person, by means of his virtue, successfully adapts his remarks to the nature and needs of his audience, considering what is likely to give pleasure or pain in a given context. Like subtle New Comedy, the witty person can poke fun at the opinions of his audience without giving offense. In this sense, Collins suggests, wittiness is “preparatory to philosophy” (162), because (like philosophy) it sees beyond what we often call “conventional wisdom,” but without becoming threatening. “To laugh at a convention is to free oneself from it, and to make others laugh at it is to liberate them. The one whose wit is moderated by the tact that buffoons and the Old Comedy lack is like a law unto himself because he combines law-abidingness with this liberation or potential for liberation from the conventions of the regime” (158).

Collins closes by suggesting that we thus find in Aristotle an account of political life that recognizes, on the one hand, its fundamental role in shaping the kinds of persons we are, the lives we lead, and our very conceptions of virtue; and on the other hand, its inability to capture fully the requirements of the good human life. Collins claims that this balanced perspective “can appreciate and defend the benefits of a decent political community while remaining clear-eyed about its failings and limitations,” and that it thus offers a “comic” vision of politics, one that “comprehends both the nobility and the limits of human striving and that sustains the quest for wisdom about human affairs” (165). By squarely confronting questions of the good and by recognizing that every regime necessarily engages in some form of civic education, Aristotle’s political thought illuminates the dark corners of contemporary liberalism.

There is much to admire in Collins’s careful study of Aristotelian citizenship. Her argument that a tension exists within moral virtue is intriguing, suggesting as it does a certain dialectical quality at the heart of Aristotle’s ethics, as persons strive to reconcile the need to do good for others with their own drive for individual flourishing. Collins’s discussion of justice, I think, is most useful in this respect, for, though courage reveals more clearly the potential conflict between virtuous acts and my own happiness, justice—precisely because it is “the only virtue that seems to be another person’s good”—most strikingly injects this other-directedness into Aristotle’s discussion of the virtues. I think, too, that Collins’s overall assessment of Aristotle’s thought as appropriately sensitive to both the possibilities and the limitations of political life is correct.

I am less persuaded that her concluding identification of his political vision as “comic” is especially helpful. (To be fair, Collins makes this point only near the end of the book, so perhaps we should regard it more as a rhetorical flourish than a substantive argument.) Not that I consider Aristotle’s a tragic vision; rather, Collins’s own description appears to me neither comic nor tragic. Granting that Aristotle’s perspective “does not hold the community and its ends in complete awe” and therefore need not “despair in the face of the many tensions, conflicts, and evils that beset political life” (165), why should we describe this sort of perspective as “a ‘comic’ vision in the highest sense” (165)? It seems comic only in that it does not “despair.” But one might just as well call it tragic, since it recognizes that “tensions, conflicts, and evils” are an ineliminable part of politics. The point is simply that, on Collins’s own terms, Aristotle’s vision encompasses both tragic and comic possibilities. Since the same is true of life itself, I take this to be a strength.

Collins’s discussion of wittiness also emphasizes the common Straussian theme of the conflict between the philosopher and the city more than I would be inclined to do in reading Aristotle. (I do not employ “Straussian” as a term of reproach.) This comes through in her suggestions that philosophic laughter involves “liberation from the conventions of the regime” (158; but see generally the discussion on 160-163). This is not, to my mind, a very Aristotelian way of talking, at least if “liberation” carries any meaning stronger than “realizing that conventions are conventions.” It is not clear that the notion of being “liberated from convention” would have a great deal of meaning for Aristotle (the very phrase, I think, strikes a far more post-Enlightenment, perhaps even post-Rousseau, note). Collins herself indicates the reason for this in her discussion of Aristotle’s claims that humans are political animals and that the polis is natural. As she points out, “The city presents its justice as the natural completion of a human being, yet the city is not simply natural in one respect: It must be constituted” (107). For Aristotle, to be human is always to be a creature shot through and through by convention, with no clear distinction between nature and convention, because human beings naturally create the conventions by which they live. That is what it means to be a “political animal”; it is also why even the naturally just, which is “unchangeable and equally valid everywhere,” is nevertheless among humans “changeable” ( Ethics V.7—granting that this notorious passage requires further explication). To be “liberated from convention” is either to descend to the level of a beast, unable to create conventions, or to rise to that of a god, standing beyond them, but it is not human. To the extent that this is true, it raises questions about Collins’s decision to close her account with the particular reading she gives of wittiness. I am inclined to think that her discussions of other virtues, such as courage, justice, or magnanimity (which I have not discussed, but see pp. 61-66), support her argument more effectively.

Finally, I am not sure that the book entirely fulfills its promise of helping us rethink liberal citizenship in light of Aristotelian insights. As already indicated, Collins gives an excellent treatment, in her opening chapter, of contemporary liberal debates over citizenship, and she rightly identifies problematic issues within those debates. I also agree that Aristotle’s thought speaks to questions about the relationship between the right and the good, or civic education, and that it thus holds out precisely the promise Collins claims for it. But her conclusions about how we might rethink current debates in light of this Aristotelian exploration are vague. Does her general conclusion, that Aristotle appreciates both the possibilities and limits of politics, suggest any concrete ways in which we ourselves might approach citizenship differently? Should we conclude that the language of liberal neutrality is not useful? That our public debate should more forthrightly engage questions about the good life? That restrictions on acceptable public argument, such as those in Rawls’s or other conceptions of “public reason,” are misguided? That the sharp liberal divide between private and public does more harm than good? That more assertive civic education should be conducted in the public schools? Or are we rather to re-affirm liberal citizenship, but now with a fuller understanding of it as itself a “regime,” and with a better ability to defend its particular vision of political life? Answers to questions such as these would flesh out what it means for us to follow Collins in “rediscovering” citizenship through Aristotle.

But the prudent scholar always leaves herself an excuse for writing the next book. If so, I look forward to the sequel. In this volume, Collins has at least provided a thoughtful reading of Aristotle, and she has persuasively demontrated that his theory investigates precisely those aspects of citizenship that we often neglect. In that sense, Collins has assisted us in our own quest for self-understanding. Perhaps the citizenship she helps us to rediscover is our own.


1. References to Aristotle are from Carnes Lord’s translation of the Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984) and Terence Irwin’s translation of the Nicomachean Ethics (2nd ed, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999).