Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Sharing in the Constitution

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Sharing in the Constitution

Article excerpt

Fred Miller's Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle's Politics(1) is a heroic attempt to make the concept of rights central to Aristotle's political philosophy. The argument, although intriguing and richly rewarding, seems to me not to work. There is an inherent improbability in Miller's thesis, given what we know of the Athens in which the treatise was composed (section I below). Citizenship as Aristotle conceives it is a matter not primarily of possessing certain rights, but of "sharing in the constitution" (section II). Section III concedes that Aristotle's citizens have something like what we would call rights qua citizens, but rejects Miller's attempt to find in uses of to dikaion/ta dikaia ("what is just") an Aristotelian vocabulary for political rights. Section IV proposes that it is the notion of desert or merit (axia) which does the substantive foundational and explanatory work in Aristotle's theory of political justice which Miller would ascribe to rights. A brief conclusion (section V) sets the inquiry in the context of some wider issues of interpretation.

I should say a preliminary word about the method I am adopting in this article, mainly to point out that there is nothing whatever remarkable about it. I take myself to be approaching the Politics in accordance with the interpretative canons standard in mainstream historical and Aristotelian scholarship. Compare the study of Aristotle's metaphysics. Everyone would grant that before we start considering whether hule or indeed any other Aristotelian concept anticipates or maps onto some modern notion of matter in any interesting or important way, it is imperative to acquire a full understanding of the way the idea functions within the whole matrix of concepts, analyses, and theses which make up Aristotle's physics and metaphysics. I am simply pursuing the same method with respect to that matrix of concepts in Aristotle's political philosophy within which Miller hopes to locate an anticipation of the idea of rights. My references to the work of John Pocock in section V have suggested to some readers that I am espousing a form of historical or cultural or Kuhnian relativism which rules Miller's project out of court ab initio. The only form of relativism to which I think this essay commits me is the methodological relativism (if that is what it is) that I have just described.

I

Athens. Historians of the institutions of classical democratic Athens have no qualms in introducing the topic of citizen rights into their accounts. Thus Douglas MacDowell begins Part 2 of The Law in Classical Athens with a chapter on personal status whose opening words are these:

The rights of anyone in Athens, including his right to prosecute at law,

depended on his status, on whether he was a citizen (polites or astos) or an

alien (xenos) or a slave (doulos or oiketes).(2)

Similarly, Mogens Herman Hansen has a section of the chapter in his The Athenian Democracy on "the people of Athens" entitled: "The Citizens, their Rights and Duties." Referring for support to Aristotle's Politics 3.1 he states:

The principal privilege of an Athenian citizen was his political rights; in

fact they were more than just a "privilege": they constituted the essence of

citizenship.(3)

This makes citizenship in ancient Athens sound not all that unlike citizenship in a modern western state.

Things begin to look a bit different once we start listening to the social and cultural historians. Consider for example the following remarks of Sir Kenneth Dover in Greek Popular Morality, recently adjudged the most important and original of all his books by Sir Hugh Lloyd Jones. Whereas we "have become accustomed for a very long time to regard the law and the state as mechanisms for the protection of individual freedoms," "the Greek," says Dover, "did not regard himself as having more rights at any given time than the laws of the city into which he was born gave him at that time; these rights could be reduced, for the community was sovereign, and no rights were inalienable. …

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