In Aristotle’s Ideal Democracy, a Good Citizen Was a Good Friend
On the Virtues of "Civic Friendship"
We are all members of communities which extend beyond our families and close friends. Our happiness depends partly on whether we are at ease with our fellow citizens in our nations and the citizens of other nations across the planet. It can be difficult to work out our responsibilities as members of groups, especially in times of political turbulence or when we do not agree with the policies of the government. Another problem is a feeling of helplessness in the face of large-scale international troubles, such as the environmental crisis, a feeling that often leads understandably to a desire for a retreat into private life and escapist recreation.
Aristotle understood this. He himself lived in times and places where it was actually dangerous to oppose the ruling powers. In Macedon, Philip II ran affairs as a ruthless autocrat; in Athens, even though it was a democracy, Aristotle was always an outsider, a resident alien, without the rights of a full Athenian citizen. He must have felt tempted to turn his back on political issues altogether and retire completely to his large personal library. And yet he did not. He continued to teach his students (several of whom were destined to be leaders), and give lectures to the ordinary Athenian public at the Lyceum. Above all he continued to write, with exceptional insightfulness, about politics and the relationship of citizens to their wider human communities and even to the natural and animal worlds.
The effective creation of happiness, for Aristotle, cannot be done alone. Humans may enjoy brief periods of solitude, but they are biologically social animals. They flourish optimally when they live in association with other humans and animals and engage in reciprocal good deeds. In ancient Greece, the deities symbolizing reciprocity were the Three Graces, sisters called “Beauty,” “Joy” and “Flourishing.” They were often depicted in art holding hands in a circle, because three marks the moment when a simple two-way relationship breaks out into a complex set of transactions, which form the nucleus of society. This mirrors the flow of mutual assistance around human communities in a “virtuous circle.” Aristotle approves of the custom of placing a shrine of the graces prominently in a public place “to remind people to return a kindness; for that is a special characteristic of grace, since it is a duty not only to repay a service done to you, but at another time to take the initiative in doing a service yourself.” It is insufficient, in virtue ethics, merely to respond to friendly overtures: you need to be a self-starter, to initiate and actively foster cooperation yourself.
The texts in which Aristotle discusses how human beings best live together are his Nicomachean Ethics and his Politics. He uses the analogy of diluting sugar in water in different concentrations to illustrate the strength of the affection felt toward different members of our own family and toward friends and fellow citizens. “The mutual rights of parents and children are not the same as those between siblings; the obligations of members of a club or social group are not identical to those of fellow citizens; and similarly with the other forms of friendship.” Doing harm to someone else is increasingly serious in proportion to the closeness of the bond: it is more shocking to defraud a friend of money than a mere fellow citizen; or to refuse to help a brother but not a stranger.
In Aristotle’s political theory, our relationships with fellow citizens are a special subcategory of utility friendship, since they exist for mutual advantage and cease when mutual self-interest ceases. City-states malfunction when there are no friendly partnerships in operation between the individuals who constitute the state. A trenchant account of the potential degradation of all relationships in a malfunctioning state was published in Agamemnon’s Daughter by Ismail Kadare (2003). This novel uses the sacrifice of the heroine in Euripides’ tragedy Iphigenia in Aulis (by which, as it happens, Aristotle was also fascinated) as a paradigm for the effect in the early 1980s of the dehumanizing regime in Albania and the moral degeneracy that afflicts any population ruled by an unaccountable government. Kadare shows how everyone is in danger of losing their moral compass when terror is the dominant psychological register:
Each day we felt the cogs and wheels of collective guilt pushing us further down. We were obliged to take a stand, make accusations, and fling mud at people—at ourselves in the first place, then at everyone else. It was a truly diabolical mechanism, because once you’ve debased yourself, it’s easy to sully everything around you. Every day, every hour that passed stripped more flesh from moral values.
Aristotle’s ideal state is just the opposite: it is a magnification of the primary relationships. Good government of a city-state, aiming at the happiness of citizens, requires a foundation of friendships between citizens and will promote them.
This foundation of civic friendship is called by Aristotle “civic concord,” which describes an unfluctuating attitude toward the other individuals constituting your state. The attitude comprises both goodwill and a commitment to reciprocal responsibility. Its aim is to secure what is expedient for everybody in a morally conscientious way. There will always be citizens, unfortunately, who cannot sign up to the project of civic concord any more than they can make serious friendships in their personal lives, “since they try to get more than their share of advantages, and take less than their share of work and public burdens.” Aristotle is clear that citizens who love only themselves, and take more than their fair share of their community’s assets, are rightly censured. Moreover, “a man cannot expect to make money out of the community and to receive its respect as well; people do not try to make money out of their friends.” But where the bulk of citizens treat each other as friends, the state as a whole can pursue happiness.
The utility partnership between citizens takes place on a larger canvas than utility friendships in your workplace or school. Yet Aristotle’s emphasis on fellow citizenship as a species of friendship underlies his sense that there was a size beyond which happy city-states would not grow. He speaks with amazed disapproval of Babylon, so large that “when it was captured a considerable part of the city was not aware of it three days later.” Overpopulation also leads to poverty; one lawgiver at Corinth he mentions argued that the best policy is to maintain the same numbers across time. Aristotle believes that there is a natural limit to the size of a civic community which functions well, just like a ship. A ship needs to be neither too small (no wider than an arm) nor too long (a quarter of a mile), because in neither case will it function effectively. Even in the fourth century BCE, he seems more concerned about overpopulation than its opposite. He also uses the “ship of state” metaphor to illustrate civic concord. Fellow citizens are partners in a community, as are sailors. “And although sailors differ from each other in function—one is an oarsman, another helmsman, another lookout man, and another has some other similar special designation,” and so their individual competencies are peculiar to each, they are also aiming at a common goal, “security in navigation is the business of them all.” Similarly, in a happy state, although citizens have different occupations, they share the common goal of their community’s welfare.
Aristotle thinks about constitutions via the health of the individual relationships underpinning the political community. He offers a measured comparison of the four different types of constitution in ancient Greece—democracy, tyranny, aristocracy and monarchy (occasionally supplemented by a fifth, a super- monarchy incorporating several different races ruled by the “king of all,” the pambasileus, perhaps invented to describe the Macedonian imperial project). This comparative discussion has had an incalculable influence on political thought and indeed political practice: the very vocabulary of European political theory was born at the moment when Aristotle’s Politics was first translated into modern languages, and has been appropriated by advocates of all of these constitutional models. A month after the execution of Charles I in January 1649, John Milton’s The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, which justifies regicide where the king has made himself answerable only to God, uses Aristotle’s definition of a monarch in the Politics.
Aristotle’s harshest criticisms are directed at tyrannies, which he says discourage any activities among citizens that foster self-esteem and self-confidence. These activities, tellingly, include the work of philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, “the formation of study-circles and other conferences for debate.” Most of us today would not happily tolerate living under any form of constitution which suppressed self-education, or debate, or indeed any constitution other than a democracy.
Today, more than half the world lives in electoral democracies. Yet by Aristotle’s ethical criteria, many of these electoral democracies accept thoroughly bad behavior on a grand scale: most estimates put the proportion of humans living today in countries which respect basic human rights and the rule of law at less than 40 percent. Aristotle’s response to regimes which use torture in an attempt to elicit information is this: stop it because it doesn’t work. As he stated, coolly, in his Rhetoric, “those being subjected to torture are as likely to give false evidence as true, some being ready to endure everything rather than tell the truth, while others are equally ready to make false charges against others, in the hope of being sooner released from torture.”
He knows about the many problems associated with democracy. In a passage which speaks loud across the centuries, he acknowledges that regulation of property ownership causes discontent: “for if both in the enjoyment of the produce and in the work of production they end up not equal but unequal, complaints are bound to arise between those who enjoy or take much but work little and those who take less but work more.” He soberly concludes that these are hard problems to solve: “In general to live together and share all our human affairs is difficult, and especially to share such things as these.” Yet he chose to live in Athens for more than three decades of his adult life, even as a resident alien without citizen’s rights, and therefore can’t have found the democratic system inimical.
He speaks with less disapproval of democracy than of any other system. In his Rhetoric he defines the goals of different constitutions in a way which makes democracy appear preferable: the goal of democracy is liberty, as opposed to wealth (the goal of oligarchy), high culture and obedience to law (the goal of aristocracy), and self-protection (the goal of tyranny). He points out that the constitution with the most “scope for friendship and justice between ruler and subjects” is democracy, “where the citizens being equal have many things in common.” The constitution which is most hostile to friendship and justice between citizens is, unsurprisingly, tyranny.
Aristotle also thinks that although democracies can degenerate, the mass electorate empowered in a democracy potentially comes to far better decisions than the small number of rulers involved in the other types of constitution. He compares a decision taken by the masses to the type of public feast to which many different citizens contribute different dishes. This will inevitably be better than a dinner provided by any single host: when citizens come together to judge legal cases or deliberate, “just as the multitude becomes a single man with many feet and many hands and many senses, so also it becomes one personality as regards the moral and intellectual faculties. This is why the general public is a better judge of the works of music and those of the poets, because different men can judge a different part of the performance, and all of them all of it.”
We might today learn from Aristotle’s recommendation that in the ideal democracy, all citizens are enabled and encouraged to participate in government, through the institution of short terms of office and financial support to take leave for something like jury duty. Aristotle also points out that a large number of citizens is more difficult to corrupt than an individual, just as it is harder to pollute “a large stream of water” than a thin trickle. An individual’s judgment can be distorted by anger or some other strong emotion, but it is unlikely that all the citizens in a democracy will feel angry simultaneously.
From Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life. Used with the permission of Penguin Press. Copyright © 2019 by Edith Hall.