In Pursuit of the Sublime Pleasure: A Consideration of Citizenship and Philosophy in Aristotle’s The Politics


By Andrew Lawrence Crown


July, 2017


Copyright © Andrew Lawrence Crown, 2017. All rights reserved.




The Politics of Aristotle includes considerable discussion concerning the several categories of inhabitants of the various types of states existent at the time of Aristotle’s writing, as well as during earlier periods of both Greek and non-Greek history. Just as there are, according to Aristotle, a variety of forms of government, which he refers to as the constitutions of the various types of states which differ in governmental structure, so the inhabitants of the states vary according to a number of properties which either qualify them or disqualify them for citizenship and the resulting duty and privilege of participation in the political life of the state. In fact, one of the fundamental determinants of which type of constitution or organization of offices and governmental structure will predominate in any particular polis or city state, is the composition of the inhabitants of the polis, with a focus on the existence or lack of existence of those categories of inhabitants which make particular states a possibility and likelihood, while at the same time excluding other forms of states or constitutions from being able to take hold in any particular polis.


The constitution of a state determines the arrangement of political offices and magistracies, determining who, for example, may serve or in fact is required to serve in the assemblies, law courts, military, navy, and a host of other offices and positions within the government essential to the preservation of the constitution and regime.  In other words, the constitution determines the governmental structure of the states and political community of rulers and ruled maintained by the arrangement of offices determined by the constitution.


The variety of possible and potential constitutions and corresponding states is determined by the composition of the inhabitants of the states and the relative strength and prominence, or weakness and dearth of the several categories of inhabitants. How prevalent are slaves, merchants, traders, artisans, sailors, farmers, shepherds and tenders of flocks and cattle, foreigners, men of excellence and education, men of wealth, men without education or wealth who are of a common lot, the rich, the poor, the middle class, and so on? Do those wealthy enough to own heavy arms or those who can only afford light arms predominate? Are sailors prevalent and is there a strong force of cavalry? Just as the possible combinations of these many classes and categories of inhabitants differ, so differ also the potential categories and types of constitutions and the forms and structures of government determined by the constitutions.


For example, in a polis in which the wealthy prevail and are able to maintain a force of cavalry (because only the wealthy can afford to keep and maintain horses) an oligarchy is more likely to take hold than a democracy. In contrast, where the poor predominate, and a significant number of sailors for the navy and lightly armed troops prevail instead of heavily armed hoplites, a democracy is more likely to take hold.


To review briefly the fundamental forms of government or possible constitutions, let us remember that Aristotle categorizes the possible constitutions into pure and ideal forms, and the perversions or impure manifestations of each of the pure forms. Kingship or royal rule is the rule of the truly outstanding and excellent one, but is degraded into tyranny when the sole leader governs in such a way as to satisfy his own selfish passions rather than to foster the good of the wider political community which is his charge. Aristocracy, the rule of the excellent few, is in its degraded or impure form, oligarchy, the rule of the wealthy who believe their superiority in wealth gives them the right to rule. Polity or constitutional rule, when degraded and corrupted, is transformed into democracy, the rule of the many who are also poor and believe their superiority in numbers justifies their leadership.


Aristotle reminds us that these basic forms of government or constitutions of states will vary as much as the potential combinations of the categories and classes of inhabitants will vary. Consequently, there is not merely one form of, for example, democracy or oligarchy. Instead, there are numerous forms of these regimes and all other regimes due to the great number of possible combinations of the inhabitants of these states and all other states. In addition, the nature of the physical surroundings in which the different states are situated will also have a significant impact on the nature and arrangement of the constitutions of the variety of possible regimes. Is the polis well situated to become a naval power? In this case the class of sailors will predominate and the polis will incline towards democracy. Is the polis, in contrast, existent on a plain, and therefore more suitable for a strong force of cavalry which only the rich have sufficient wealth to maintain? In this case an oligarchy is more likely to take hold. A great number of circumstances determined by the physical realities in which states are situated will to a significant extent determine which constitution and regime is most likely to take hold, and furthermore which particular form of the numerous versions or manifestations of either the pure or adulterated constitutions will prevail.


Of central importance to the determination of the constitution in a state, beyond the physical terrain in which the polis is situated and the numerous potential combinations of classes and categories of inhabitants, is the definition of citizenship existent in the state. Regardless of who predominates, shepherds and farmers, merchants and sailors, foreigners and slaves, men of excellence and men of wealth, the few, and the many, the key question which determines who holds power is the question of citizenship. We are necessarily drawn towards a consideration of this question of fundamental importance regardless of which possible combination of inhabitants exists within a state. Who is to be considered a citizen and what are the required characteristics, responsibilities, duties, and privileges of the citizens in any given state or polis? The determination of who is and who is not a citizen is a consequence of the constitution existent in any particular state, while at the same time the form of the constitution itself is determined by the answer to the question: Who is a citizen?


There needs to be a consistent definition of the term “citizen” which will be suitable for an examination of the significance and importance of this concept and the category of residents in the polis it represents. Furthermore, this definition must apply with equal validity to the term within the variety of possible constitutions and regimes. The primary nature of the citizen is related to the citizen’s requirement to both exercise and submit to the legitimate political power and authority within the state. The citizen is the person who knows both how to rule his fellow citizens and how to be ruled in turn by them. The citizen has both the privilege and duty to exercise and wield power, and the privilege and duty to know how to faithfully submit to the power and authority of those within the state who are his equals in being equally granted the rights and duties of citizenship.


Instability in the structure of government and revolutions which transform constitutions and regimes come about for a variety of reasons. Of primary concern for Aristotle is the relationship of the concept of citizenship predominant in the state to the perennial problem of revolution. Who has the right and obligation to rule, and who has the duty and privilege to submit? These are important questions because citizens of different social classes and backgrounds define their duties, obligations, rights, and privileges differently. Oligarchs who excel in wealth believe their superiority in this one category justifies their claim to have the right to rule completely. Believing they are superior to the demos in this one characteristic of wealth, they conclude they are superior to them in everything, and consequently the oligarchs refuse to submit to the rule of those they deem to be inferior and unequal to them. At the same time, in a democracy, the poor masses, because they excel in the single category of superiority in numbers, believe they are at least equal to and perhaps even superior to the minority who exceed them in wealth. Consequently the demos feels justified and ruling over everyone within the state.


The question of who is rightfully to be considered a citizen is important because the answer to this question both determines and is determined by the nature of the constitution, and also because the definition of citizenship within a state will have some bearing on the likelihood and form of revolution which may arise to destabilize and potentially transform the regime. Beyond these important considerations, there is another one of equal significance. Aristotle contended that the purpose of political participation can and should be the perfection of humanity through the quest for eudemonia, that is to say, the good life, happiness, and human flourishing. The task set before the citizens of the state goes beyond the mere attainment of all of the material things required for the sustenance of life, and even beyond the quest for material prosperity. The purpose of the state can and should be to make the good life possible for its citizens.


The good life, or eudemonia and happiness, is the end or purpose of human existence. Such a life will be possible and obtainable for a greater number of citizens of a state provided the structure of government, including the organization of offices and magistracies, as well as an ideal social structure, in a well constituted state with the proper constitution, can be established and preserved from both the threats from external enemies in war and from internal enemies in the form of a revolution. The state comes into existence for the sustenance of human life and society, but the good state continues in existence for something much higher and more difficult to obtain. This is human happiness and flourishing through participation in the good life. Consistent with this teleological understanding of the end or purpose of the state is Aristotle’s contention that the best person must necessarily be the best citizen of the best state. While positing that royal rule and aristocracy are truly the rule of the few and excellent best men, Aristotle also understand that these ideal forms of government are too often transformed into the adulterated forms of tyranny and oligarchy. Consequently, Aristotle concedes that the most practical course of action for the lawgivers and founders of the constitution is to aim for the middle course. This is polity or constitutional government in which the middle class predominates and neither the wealthy few nor the many poor hold sway. There are strong echoes of the concept of the golden mean from the Nicomachean Ethics here as Aristotle proposes that the predominance of a large and strong middle class will facilitate the preservation of polity or constitutional government. While not the best regime absolutely when viewed in comparison to the other ideal forms, polity and its adulterated form, democracy, are in realty the best regimes that are likely to take hold and survive in the real world. Here we see Aristotle as the political philosopher of the possible, a practical as well as a theoretical thinker whose ideas offer concrete advice to lawgivers operating in the real world with all of its innumerable imperfections. Aristotle’s approach stands in sharp contrast to that of Plato’s in The Republic, in which Socrates and his interlocutors ponder the possibilities of ideal forms which can only amount to a city of words and not a real existent city in this real and all too imperfect world.


The best citizen for Aristotle is the one who lives in the best attainable state. He rules and is ruled in turn, and he acknowledges his duties and responsibilities to the state, where the state is viewed as a whole which is prior to and superior to its constituent parts. Unlike modern liberal democracy, Aristotle’s state does not exist primarily to ensure the freedoms and liberties of the citizens. Rather the individual citizens exist to serve and make possible the existence of the best state. This is the case because the state is necessary not merely for the survival of the citizens and other inhabitants of the state. Here preservation of the state is the prerequisite for opening up the possibility of the good life for the good citizens of the good state. We must remember that Aristotle’s reasoning is consistently teleological, as he contends that the good life is the end and purpose of both civil life and life itself. It is because the well-ordered constitution and corresponding state make the good life an attainable possibility that they are viewed as natural institutions. The state as a natural institution enables citizens to experience that end or purpose in life which is already implanted in them as their potential and purpose by nature.


Why is the life of citizenship, which also to say the life of politics viewed as the natural end of human existence within the good state, superior to other forms of human existence? Because the good citizen in the good state participates in alternatively ruling his fellow citizens and also being ruled by them in turn, requiring a balancing of individual and community interests which opens up the possibility of eudemonia, happiness, and human flourishing. Eudemonia, happiness, and human flourishing are the result of one of the fundamental aspects of political life in the well-ordered state. In such a state, the citizen must both understand his own needs and interests as they are determined by human nature, and also balance these personal needs and interests with those needs and interests of the wider political community of which the individual citizen is merely one part. The good citizen in the good state will learn and acquire, through dialog, debate, and discussion with his peers, the ability to balance his interests with those of these same peers who he will view as his equals within the context of political life, which is the highest life attainable for the citizen and the natural end of human existence with nature viewed as the central force which propels mankind through life and history. Once again, the fundamental concept of balance here echoes the concept of the golden mean in the Nicomachean Ethics. It is the requirement to weigh and balance individual concerns with the concerns of wider political community which gives the political life its claim to a kind of superiority and nobility firmly grounded, in a teleological sense, in human nature, as noble politics is the end toward which the good citizen in the good state is predisposed to by nature.


The necessity for the good citizen to know and understand, to sympathize and empathize with, the needs and interests of his fellow citizens, explains in part, why Aristotle believes there must be a limit to the size of the best possible state. If the polis becomes too large, it will not be possible for the citizens to know and be familiar with one another. In such an excessively large state, the interests of one’s compatriots will escape the understanding of the individual, and the balancing of interests, the seeking of the mean between individual and community interests, will not be possible. Aristotle’s recognition of the necessity of communal intimacy and good fellowship among the citizens of the good state, explains why he praises the institution of common meals attended at common tables by all the citizens of the state. At such common meals, citizens come to know one another intimately, and the rich dine in unison with the poor, a practice which can potentially ameliorate the political tensions and differences which arise from the manner in which differences in social class determine the political interests of men. When constituted in such a manner that all can participate and afford to sit and dine at the common tables, the common meals and tables bring all citizens together in a spirit of equality and camaraderie. Aristotle also sharply criticizes the practice in some states of allowing only those who can afford to do so to dine at the common tables. In these states, the poor and common people are excluded from the common meals, a practice which consequently deprives this potentially equalizing institution of the capacity to foster a sense of community, common goals and common interests, among the diverse categories of citizens within the state.


             Another institution in states which strive to be the best is the practice of ostracism. This practice is most closely associated with democracies and so called polity or constitutional governments. If there should arise within the state an individual of true excellence who is clearly greatly superior to the rest of the citizens and inhabitants of any state, Aristotle contends that everyone in this state must recognize and accept his responsibility to submit to the authority and rule of the superior one. Of course, in doing so, the citizens of a democracy or polity or any other state for that matter, will willingly allow their constitution to be transformed into one of royal rule or kingship in which the truly excellent one rules as king. The practice of ostracism precludes this voluntary transformation of the constitution and regime from taking place, thereby preserving the existence of the polity, democracy, or other form of government. Aristotle’s position concerning the practice of ostracism appears to be somewhat lukewarm and ambivalent. On the one hand, he appears to criticize this practice because he sincerely believes the individual of true excellence possesses the right to rule as king. On the other hand, he seems to condone the practice of ostracism because it preserves the existence of the best possible real world regimes, and thereby also the potential for a greater number for citizens to participate in the political life of the polis and through such participation enjoy the good life. Aristotle also believes that in his time, the possibility that such a superior individual will arise is much diminished since men are of a more equal condition. Ostracism, which Aristotle in part defends and in part critiques, has little reason to be instituted in the states existent during his own time.


             The man of outstanding merit and excellence, the one to be made king or else cast out of the polis through ostracism, is the epitome of superiority, and he deserves to rule alone, apart from and distinct from the other inhabitants of the state. If made into a king, he will exercise royal rule which all the rest will be obliged to follow. Missing from such a regime will be the give and take, the weighing and balancing, the measuring and sympathetic consideration, of the needs and interests of the each member of the political community individually with the needs and interests of the political community as a whole. For this reason, under royal rule, the potential for politics to lead to eudemonia will be much diminished. The subjects of the king will obey, and the king himself will rule, without each member of the political community engaged in that crucially important weighing and balancing of individual needs and interests with those of the wider political community.


             In contrast to royal rule, polity or constitutional government, and even the perverted form of the latter, democracy, have a much greater potential to include a greater number of citizens in the good life and the life of human flourishing. It would seem then that these forms of government exceed all the others in quality because they have the potential to maximize the number of citizens eligible to participate in the communal life of the polis through engagement in politics, and through politics to experience the good life.


             Is there a way to live within the context of the state and political community in a manner that exceeds in excellence even the life of the citizen freely engaged in politics? The life of philosophy, which is the life devoted to the search for wisdom for its own sake has the potential to surpass even the life of eudemonia obtained through politics. To review, the family, the household, and after these essential building blocks of human society, the state, exist to provide those necessities which are required for human subsistence and mere life. In a well-ordered state with a well-ordered constitution, citizens can reach beyond subsistence and survival in order to attain, through politics, eudemonia. This achievement of the good life would at first appear to be the pinnacle achievement for any human society. But there exists a higher and more sublime possibility for life, open, not to all, but rather to only a few citizens of the best state. This higher and more sublime life, attainable only for the elite few, is the life of philosophy.


             The philosophical life is higher than even the political life and the eudemonia made possible by politics, because philosophy exists for no ulterior motive or purpose other than itself. Philosophy is an intrinsically valuable and worthwhile endeavor and provides the philosopher with a life which has no other end than that of itself. Philosophy is not valuable and worthwhile primarily because it leads to practical consequences of material worth. Rather, philosophy requires no end other than itself due to the nature of the sublime pleasure of the quest for wisdom and the contemplation of the eternal questions which have occupied humans of quality and sagacity throughout the ages. There is a kind of joy and exultation in the act of philosophical contemplation which exceeds even the realization of human potential through a life devoted to politics. The best man viewed from the perspective of the practical world of political realities is the citizen of the good state devoted to the common life of the political community of which he is a part. The philosopher recognizes the necessity of and potential for excellence obtained through the political life, but he longs and seeks for something even higher than this. Instead of engaging his fellow citizens in the assemblies, law courts, or other offices and magistracies, the philosopher devotes his leisure time to philosophical inquiry in the company of a much smaller group of like-minded friends, students, and interlocutors.


             The relatively small number of citizens of a well-ordered state, who are devoted to the life of philosophy, will not be content with the pursuit of interests, whether held individually or in common, through the political life. The philosophers will recognize that the life of philosophy becomes possible primarily within the context of the good state which grants to its citizens the requisite amount of freedom and liberty required for the pursuit of philosophy for the truly excellent few who prioritize knowledge and wisdom over material gain. However, the philosophically minded ones will not be content with the life of politics, and instead they will purposefully and voluntarily remove themselves from the life devoted to practical affairs of business and state in order to pursue the higher goal of philosophical wisdom.


             Much has been written about the contrast between the political philosophy of Aristotle and that of his teacher, Plato, and of his teacher’s teacher, Socrates. The best state according to the Republic of Plato, is the one in which philosophers rule as kings. Aristotle is more realistic and less ambitious in his contention that this ideal state will most likely never come into existence in reality due to its immense impracticality. The philosophers in Aristotle’s best state, which is the best state practically attainable for humankind in this world, will not seek to rule as Plato’s philosopher kings. Aristotle’s philosophers will be content, so long as they live in a state which provides the kind of freedom and atmosphere required for philosophy to flourish, to pursue the quest for wisdom, knowledge, and virtue because they believe this quest is worthwhile in and of itself, and not primarily because it enables the philosopher to wield political power.


             What are the most crucial differences and similarities between the philosopher who is content to pursue philosophy as an intrinsically valuable activity having no ulterior motive or purpose, and the best political ruler in the best attainable state? The just king exercising royal rule, the excellent few who hold sway and govern in an aristocracy, and temperate and moderate leaders of the potentially raucous many in a polity or constitutional regime, have in common with the philosopher the quality of leadership in the following manner. While those who achieve excellence in the political realm exercise just rule and leadership over men who are their compatriots and fellow citizens, the excellence of the philosopher consists in a more intimate and private kind of leadership. This is the rule of the intellect and human reason over the more base and lowly passions which exist in each human being because all people are by nature endowed with animal like passions and desires. The philosopher is the one who can command these animalistic desires and make them obedient and subject to the rule and governance of the intellect and mind. All humans possess both body and soul, the body being beast-like, and the soul having the potential, in the person of true excellence, to make the body submit to reason. The most perfect and completely satisfying use of the human capacity for reason is the province of the philosopher, whose exceeds all others in the ability to command the body’s obedience to the rule of the soul and intellect.


             To a certain extent, even those men who are not philosophers do experience, in a lesser degree, the rule of reason over the body and those elements of the human person which are not as elevated as the soul and the intellect. Household management and animal husbandry both allow and require the head of the household to practice the arts of leadership over those lesser souls who are the animals, slaves, children, and women of his household. Kingly rule, when justified, consist of the leadership of the truly excellent one over those who acknowledge their duty to obey as a concession of their diminished excellence compared to the king. In other well governed states, leaders rule and may be ruled in turn, so that it is not at all uncommon for men in a political community to experience something analogous to what the philosopher experiences when he uses the power of reason to make the body and its animalistic passions submit to the soul’s and mind’s reason.


             The rule of the philosopher, however, differs from political rule because political rule aims at some tangible and material benefits which are of lesser concern to the philosopher. Human flourishing and excellence achieved through politics involves men of sufficient means to have the required amount of leisure and resources needed to devote themselves to politics. For this reason politics and the good life obtained through politics is concerned with the practical realities of the life of states. Raising animals and crops to feed the citizens of the state, trade and commerce, the rule over slaves, women and children, military defense and relations with other states both Greek and non-Greek; these and many other matters of practical importance for the mere survival, not to speak of the flourishing of the state, are the province of the citizen as politician.


             The philosopher’s rule in comparison is more intimate and private, existing to a great extent in the realm of intrapersonal relations as much or even more than the realm of interpersonal relations. The philosopher looks within and understands that as leader and commander he is the leader and commander primarily of the self, that is to say of the mind, reason, and soul as they command the obedience of the animal and beast-like passions. The wise philosopher acknowledges that a life immersed in introspection and thought can only be lived under certain political arrangements and realities in a well governed state, but he is not primarily concerned with the day to day vicissitudes of this boisterous, earth bound entity known as the state. The most wise man understands that human excellence for most men is intricately tied to the existence of the real life institutions and practices which make the good life possible, even as the wise one secludes himself intellectually from the tempestuous life of politics which plagues even the best state. He does this in order to retreat into a realm of sublime beauty and meaning through the introspective cultivation of the life of the mind.  



 Works Cited


Aristotle. David Ross, translator. The Nicomachean Ethics. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.


Aristotle. Steven Everson, editor. The Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988, 1989, 1990.


Plato. Raymond Larson, translator and editor. The Republic. Arlington Heights, Illinois: Harlan Davidson Inc., 1979.