Justice and Rights in Aristotle's 'Politics.'(Aristotle's 'Politics': A Symposium)

By Cooper, John M. | The Review of Metaphysics, June 1996 | Go to article overview

Justice and Rights in Aristotle's 'Politics.'(Aristotle's 'Politics': A Symposium)


Cooper, John M., The Review of Metaphysics


In the nineteenth century, and even as late as the 1940s, when Barker's translation (or rather, paraphrase) appeared, most translators and commentators on Aristotle's Politics did not hesitate, in some contexts, to employ the language of "rights" in presenting Aristotle's political theory.(1) Here I mean the use of the word "right" as a noun, to denote something possessed by a person or persons, in a political context--not the use of the adjective "right," with its opposite "wrong," for example to formulate various claims about what is just or fair; the use of that, we can assume, would be quite uncontroversial. For example, Barker makes Aristotle speak of the judicial system as deciding the "rights of litigants," and of a constitution as establishing who shall have the "right of election" of candidates for the various magistracies.(2) Furthermore, in translating Aristotle's final, general account of what constitutes being a citizen he gives: "he who enjoys the right of sharing in the deliberative or judicial office attains thereby the status of a citizen of his state."(3) Now what is at issue in these three passages are legal rights, rights established by the laws of a given community or determined under them through the exercise of their legally established functions by constitutionally authorized bodies or officials (juries or magistrates, for example). Barker also, however, very occasionally, employs the same language of "rights" where Aristotle is discussing not what some set of laws does or does not establish as someone's rights (legal rights), but questions about what justice itself demands or forbids in the very establishment of such systems of legal rights. Thus in Politics 3.16 Aristotle presents an argument that "some people" make against rule by kings, namely, that it is unfair and indeed unnatural where the citizens are "similar" in political ability and merit for any one of them to rule permanently over the rest. Barker translates: "On this view those who are naturally equal must naturally have the same rights and worth.... The conclusion drawn is that justice for equals means their being ruled as well as their ruling."(4) Here we get Aristotle, in Barker's translation, presenting an appeal by these people to "natural rights," not "legal" or constitutional ones. Moreover, this claim about what justice demands is one that Aristotle himself accepts: it lies at the base of his own candidate for the best sort of political society, which is one where a body of more or less equally virtuous citizens rule in turn, as naturally and justly befits equals. Thus, for Barker, Aristotle speaks of both legal and natural rights in his own political theory, as well as in discussing the views of other theorists and the practices of different types of constitutional arrangement.

If now we turn to the recent translation of the Politics by Carnes Lord we see that the language of "rights" is completely avoided.(5) Lord prefers to speak sometimes in terms of what a person or group of persons is "entitled to" under the laws, or of what is "open" or "permitted" to them; and he usually or always sticks to "justice" or a related term to translate [seven Greek words cannot be converted to ASCII text] and its derivatives--whether this is justice as established by the laws of a given community or type of community, or the true or correct account (according to Aristotle) of what justice is and demands. It is doubtful, though, whether Lord avoids rights-talk as a matter of interpretative principle. He aims to translate key terms of the Greek with a single English translation throughout, with the result that, since in any event Aristotle uses no single Greek term where we might be tempted to speak of rights, avoiding the language of rights may have seemed to him required simply by his conception of "literal" translation. In his glossary under the heading "Justice (nine Greek words cannot be converted to ASCII text])," he explicates [nine Greek words cannot be converted to ASCII text] in part as "a right or rightful claim" and adds that this sense is generally rendered in his translation by "[claim to] justice. …

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