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Citizenship

OverviewCitizenship In The History Of Political Philosophy

Book three of The Politics by Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) is the first treatise on citizenship, and it remains an essential reference point for all subsequent reflection on what it means to be a citizen: "The citizen in an unqualified sense is defined by no other thing so much as by sharing in decision and office.… Who ever is entitled to participate in an office involving deliberation or decision is … a citizen in this city; and the city is the multitude of such persons that is adequate with a view to a self-sufficient life" (p. 87). Aristotle's definition of citizenship sounds modest enough, but in fact it encapsulates an awesomely ambitious account of what is required in order for human nature truly to flourish. Aristotle's account of what it means to be a citizen is intended to be a conceptualization of the experience of free, native-born males in the polis as a unique site for the development of properly human capacities. What the definition affirms is that only a very small number of human beings in the history of humankind (and only a minority of the inhabitants of Athens even during the age of the polis) have been in a position to realize their full humanity because they happen to be members of the kind of political community that uniquely gives play to their properly human (political or polis-based) capacities.

In republican Rome the idea of citizen virtue was detached from the robust theory of moral development offered by Aristotle, and saw its crowning ideal in a practice of courageous military heroism in defense of the free state. Still, the Roman drive for glory, honor, and power to defend the liberties of collective, aristocratic self-rule was regarded as double-edged by one of the great Christian fathers, St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430). While praising the Romans in his City of God for such a long-lasting and glorious state, Augustine called upon Christian believers (and those who felt themselves to be future citizens of heaven) to recognize the pride residing in these Roman ideals of citizenship, and to see the ultimate futility of all earthly ambitions. Christians, as pilgrims in this world, should adopt a stance of submission, disengaging themselves from the ideals of active participation. Augustine saw in the ultimate failure of human enterprises an opportunity to cultivate humility and acceptance of God's will.

It has long been thought that, following Augustine, the ideals of citizenship were largely absent from medieval thinking and only reappeared in the Western tradition in the Italian Renaissance. However, more recent research has shown the deep historical roots of the links between the language of citizenship and the struggle for communal independence throughout Europe (see Höfert). The lingering presence of Roman law, along with the emergence of a class of burghers who sought new forms of political influence, gave rise to political struggles in which the language of citizenship became, once again, salient.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), particularly in his Discourses on Livy, is regarded as the most famous—as well as the most controversial—defender of citizen liberties. Inspired by the ideal of civic virtue as practiced by the Romans, he called for a new ethos of devotion to the political community sealed by a practice of collective self-rule and self-defense. Needless to say, Machiavelli's conception of the citizen-body remains emphatically patriarchal, as is the case, with rare exceptions, for the entire political theory tradition until recent times. Understanding of the internal and external challenges to the survival of the free state led him to recognize that the duties of successful leadership of a free state would necessitate actions that would, at times, contravene the precepts of conventional morality. Nonetheless, he praised republics over principalities, for it was only through collective self-rule that the greatest number could guarantee their personal autonomy and independence and thereby achieve a more lasting and glorious state.

Post-Reformation religious struggles in Europe gave rise to new accounts of the proper relation between rulers and their peoples, especially in matters of religious practice. While these debates were initially more relevant to individuals as subjects of absolute rulers, they brought about broader reflection on the concept of natural individual rights, which would later become a powerful tool in the struggle against absolutist rule. The Second Treatise of Government, by John Locke (1632–1704), is the best-known account, harnessing the idea of individual rights to a notion of collective sovereignty even though Locke does not reject monarchy. Still, with the advent of commercial society, the possibility of fusing the promotion of individual liberties with a form of government that would require very limited participation on the part of all citizens was increasingly regarded as an attractive alternative. It has meant that in the modern era the quality of citizenship has often been judged more by the accountability of liberal democratic governments toward their citizenry than by the actual forms and degrees of popular participation. But this new synthesis has not been without its critics: modern theorists, notably Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), have drawn on more ancient accounts of citizen virtue to decry the lack of active participation in collective self-rule as an ongoing assault upon true popular liberties.

On the Social Contract, by Rousseau, and The Philosophy of Right, by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), remain the two most important modern treatises on citizenship. At the core of Rousseau's political philosophy is the idea that modern human beings should be judged by the (suitably high) standard of the ancient experience of citizenship. When Rousseau claims, in a note to Social Contract (Book one, chap. 6), that modern men know only what it means to be bourgeois and have no notion of what it means to be a citoyen (citizen), he makes perfectly clear how deficient he regards modern human beings in relation to this standard. This celebration (mythicization?) of ancient citizenship has of course not gone uncontested within modern political thought: just as Rousseau challenged the Lockean synthesis outlined above, so Rousseau's account of citizenship in turn was challenged vigorously by subsequent liberals. Hence it has been one of the chief theoretical purposes defining liberal political theory going back to Charles de Montesquieu (1689–1755)—or perhaps going back to Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) if one considers Hobbes part of the liberal tradition—precisely to challenge the normative superiority of classical republicanism. This has been nicely summarized by J. G. A. Pocock: "[Thinkers such as Montesquieu, David Hume (1711–1776), and Adam Smith (1723–1790)] argued that the virtuous man of antiquity was obliged by the lack of a free market to live off the labour of slaves who worked his land and gave him the leisure to serve the republic. His 'virtue' made him harsh and barbaric; even his moral personality was impoverished by his inability to exchange goods with his fellows.… [With the development of the market, the] rigid and fragile virtue of antique man was replaced by the greater flexibility of 'manners'" (Pocock, p. xxi). Hegel, with his huge debt to the vindication of modernity contained in the classical political economy tradition (see Plant), represents perhaps the crowning expression of the thought that citizenship in the modern liberal state cannot be exhausted by the notion of citizens unwaveringly committed to the exertions of civic virtue. Hegel, in common with other liberals, believed that consciousness of rightful membership in the modern state must incorporate a clear acknowledgment of the legitimacy and, indeed, moral necessity of the energies that individuals invest in their private lives.

Reading Rousseau gives one the impression that the most powerful theorizing about citizenship is located outside of, and in polemical opposition to, the liberal tradition. But students of the history of political philosophy should never forget that there is at the same time a decisively important tradition of reflection about citizenship and civic virtue within liberalism. Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) are two great exemplars of civic theorizing within the liberal tradition. For all Mill's apprehensions about an unrestricted franchise, and for all Tocqueville's anxieties about the unwelcome consequences of the culture of democracy, both of them were strongly committed to enhancing the civic dimension of liberalism, and in that sense, both are important modern theorists of citizenship.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Chimaeras to ClusterCitizenship - Overview - Citizenship In The History Of Political Philosophy, Citizenship In Contemporary Debates, Bibliography, Juan GÓmez-quiÑones