against a cerebral view of citizenship

For a faculty seminar tomorrow, a group of us are reading Aristotle’s Politics, Book III, which is a classic and very enlightening discussion of citizenship. Aristotle holds that the city is composed of citizens: they are it. Citizenship is not defined as residence in a place, nor does it mean the same thing in all political systems. Rather, it is an office, a set of rights and responsibilities. Who has what kind of citizenship defines the constitution of the city.

According to Aristotle, the core office or function of a citizen is “deliberating and rendering decisions, whether on all matters or a few.”* In a tyranny, the tyrant is the only one who judges. In such cases, the definition of a good man equals that of a good citizen, because the tyrant’s citizenship consists of his ruling, and his ruling is good if he is good. Practical wisdom is the virtue we need in him, and it is the same kind of virtue that we need in dominant leaders of other entities, such as choruses and cavalry units. Aristotle seems unsure whether a good tyrant must first learn to be ruled, just as a competent cavalry officer first serves under another officer, or whether one can be born a leader.

In democracies, a large number of people deliberate and judge, but they do so periodically. Because they both rule and obey the rules, they must know how to do both. Rich men can make good citizens, because in regular life (outside of politics) they both rule and obey rules. But rich men do not need to know how to do servile or mechanical labor. They must know how to order other people to do those tasks. Workers who perform manual labor do not learn to rule, they do not have opportunities to develop practical wisdom, but they instead become servile as a result of their work. Thus, says Aristotle, the best form of city does not allow its mechanics to be citizens.

Note the philosopher’s strongly cognitive or cerebral definition: citizenship is about deliberating and judging. Citizenship is not about implementing or doing, although free citizens both deliberate and implement decisions.

But what if we started a different way, and said that “the city” (which is now likely a nation-state) is actually composed of its people as workers? It is what they do, make, and exchange. In creating and exchanging things, they make myriad decisions, both individually and collectively. Some have more scope for choice than others, but average workers make consequential decisions frequently.

If the city is a composite of people as workers, then everyone is a citizen, except perhaps those who are idle. It does not follow logically that all citizens must be able to deliberate and vote on governmental policies. Aristotle had defined citizens as legal decision-makers (jurors and legislators); I am resisting that assumption. Nevertheless, being a worker now seems to be an asset for citizens, not a liability. Only the idle do not learn both to rule and to be ruled.

Aristotle’s definition of citizenship has been enormously influential, but it has often been criticized: by egalitarians who resist his exclusion of manual workers and slaves; by Marxists and others who argue that workers create wealth and should control it; and by opponents of his cerebral bias, like John Dewey. The critique that interests me most is the one that begins by noting the rich, creative, intellectually demanding aspects of work. That implies that working, rather than talking and thinking, may be the essence of citizenship. I draw on Simone Weil, Harry Boyte, and others for that view.

*Politics 1375b16, my translation.