Aristotle and the Rediscovery of Citizenship by Susan Collins

Collins, Susan. Aristotle and the Rediscovery of Citizenship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.


“The Aristotelian tradition became almost moribund with the success of modern liberalism and of attacks such as those of Hobbes on the many “absurdities” of the “old Morall Philosophers,” Aristotle chief among them. Yet today Aristotle’s thought enjoys a remarkable renaissance. Against the orthodox liberal concept of the state as an association of rights-bearing free agents who contract with one another for the sake of peace and the pursuit of happiness, scholars are again taking seriously the idea articulated most fully by Aristotle that human beings are “political animals.” By giving new currency to the older view that individuals are naturally situated within a political community that requires specific virtues, molds character, and shapes its citizens’ vision of the good, the revival of Aristotelianism has challenged even such staunch defenders of liberalism as John Rawls to examine again the sphere of the citizen. This re-examination of citizenship belongs also to the recent work of scholars as diverse as Alasdair MacIntyre, Richard Rorty, Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Michael Sandel, Peter Berkowitz, Stephen Macedo, William Galston, and Martha Nussbaum. Yet, for all their diversity, the efforts of these scholars are typically unified by certain liberal presuppositions or ends and, in particular, by the concern to marry liberal principles of equality and individual freedom with a more or less Aristotelian view of community.

Although my book begins from current efforts, it does not seek to duplicate them. In undertaking a study of Aristotle’s account of citizenship, I contend that this account is a source of insight for us precisely because it does not begin from liberal presuppositions. Aristotle’s presentation of citizenship’s foundation in law and moral virtue is the classic statement of the pre-liberal view of political authority and civic education, according to which the community is prior to the individual and the highest purpose of the law is the education to virtue. Moreover, his investigation of citizenship and its connection with virtuous action and the good life addresses the question that is in principle left open by liberal thought: the question of the highest human good. Aristotle’s treatment of these matters clarifies the limitations of the current rediscovery of citizenship, with its distinctive liberal assumptions, as well as attachments and concerns that persist within our experience and yet are scarcely acknowledged, let alone explained, by liberal theory. By illuminating dimensions of citizenship that we either overlook or obscure, Aristotle invites our rediscovery of citizenship in its own right. He thereby helps us to comprehend not only the perspective of cultures or communities that do not share liberal principles, but also the full significance of the question “What is a citizen?” as an enduring human concern.”