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Susan D. Collins, Aristotle and the Rediscovery of Citizenship

Refik Güremen
p. 269-272
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Susan D. Collins, Aristotle and the Rediscovery of Citizenship, Cambridge University Press, 2006, 193 p., ISBN 0521860466.

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1Susan D. Collins’s turn to Aristotle takes its main motive from a recent need for a reconsideration of the question “What is a citizen ?”. According to Collins, from Enlightenment up to now, liberalism’s incessant skepticism towards the existence of a highest human good obscured liberalism’s own position regarding the private and public virtues which make citizens’ life better and worthy of living, and that is the reason why a return to Aristotle’s account of citizenship proves to be pertinent. Based on the idea that “individuals are naturally situated within a political community that requires specific virtues, molds character, and shapes its citizens’ vision of the good”, Aristotle’s account of citizenship, she concludes, can provide us with a fresh insight into the political dimensions of human good, let aside the modern priority of the individual and his rights over the community, and the supposedly neutral character of law (p. 2).

2Collins’s book can be considered as composed of two main parts. In the first part, she visits the current debates on the nature of liberal citizenship and explores the theoretical impasses that the contemporary political thinkers face. Her endeavour consists in finding out the “problems that can provide a bridge to Aristotle’s thought” (p. 6). The second part is a detailed and scrupulous analysis of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics.

3The first part consists in a discussion of the well-known “procedural liberalism” of John Rawls, according to which justice as fairness cannot but be the work of a law which, let aside any particular, arbitrary and subjective end, accommodates without privileging any particular group or individual a multiplicity of subjective ends by establishing a fair process of negotiation between different claims of good. Hence the famous Rawlsian motto : “the priority of the right over the good.” But is liberalism really exempt from any value claim ? Is it really free from promoting any human good while claiming that justice is the common good of all ? If it is not the case, i.e. if certain moral values ought assume some constitutive role in the political domain, then the current liberal debates cannot help but find themselves incessantly haunted by the same question : “what makes a human life worthwhile and good ?” It is this question about human good, Collins argues, which provides us with a bridge to Aristotle’s thought.

4However, nowhere in her book does Collins face the question if terms like “good”, “good life”, “virtue” etc., which inform the premises of the current debates in liberal theory, do have the same signification as in Aristotle. She rather takes it for granted—which is hardly the case, I believe. For example, when she arrives at the conclusion that liberal theorists are compelled to confront the eventual question of what makes human life worthwhile and good (p. 36), she notes that what they have in mind is nothing other than “that ‘comprehensive doctrine’ of values or beliefs—grounded in individual conscience, religious belief, or philosophical outlook—that gives life its deepest meaning and constitutes an individual’s view of what it means to be a good human being and to live a good life” (p. 36). And a little bit later, after having stated that the Aristotelian human good is the possession and activity of moral virtue(s), she equates, without hesitation, the Aristotelian virtues to those “comprehensive doctrines of values or beliefs” (p. 37). I have real doubts if what Aristotle considers as possible conceptions of good life has much to do with what the liberal thinkers have in mind. For Aristotle, only three kinds of lives are worth considering when it comes to the good life : the life of pleasure, the political life and life of philosophy. These are the only candidates to good life, and one can argue that the agenda of Ethics is to show how and why man has to avoid the life of pleasure, that is, how and why man is to regulate, in order to live a human life, the interaction between his passions and his reason the way it has to be. I have serious doubts if liberal theorists do have the same or a similar anthropological agenda in mind when they are making claims about those “comprehensive doctrines” which are supposed to constitute an individual’s view of a good life. When they are speaking about “good life”, do they think of the same modes of lives as Aristotle ? Are their candidates the same as Aristotle’s ? And do they conceptualize their ideas of good life on the same grounds and for the same reasons as Aristotle ? I don’t think so !

5For Aristotle scholars, the real interest in Collins’s book lies in its chapters dedicated exclusively to Aristotle, for two reasons : First of all, these chapters investigate into the relation between ethics and politics in Aristotle, which continues to be a matter of dispute among scholars. Yet what makes Collins’ treatment of the question worthy of attention is that rather than trying to establish an all comprehensive coherent rapport between these two domains, she tries to point out certain tensions and limits. And secondly, by showing the moments of this tense relation through the movement of Aristotle’s own arguments as developed in Ethics and Politics, she demonstrates Aristotle’s own awareness of the tension between ethics and politics and in this way tries to show the limits Aristotle himself recognizes to man’s political being.

6Although the complex relation between ethics and politics is explicitly considered by Aristotle himself in certain contexts like the question of difference between good man and good citizen and his treatment of the contemplative and active lives, Collins extends the domain of this unease to the particular virtues. By following the movement of Aristotle’s own thought on particular virtues, Collins asserts that Aristotle’s account of morally serious life and his elevation of virtuous action to its status as an independent end evince a potential abstraction from the requirements and concerns of justice, which is the constitutive principle of a political community. The more a certain virtue claims perfection and the more it shows to be a completion of a morally serious life, the more, on the one hand, it merits human being’s devotion and the more, on the other hand, it tends to forgo the obligations of justice. Thus magnanimity requires “the means to the greatest scope of action” which are open only to the tyrant (p. 64). In order to be able to keep active in the exercise of his proper virtue, then, theoretically, for the magnanimous man, the only clear-sighted course of action seems to be to transgress the limits that justice imposes on him (p. 64-65). Thus the tension concerning moral virtue is that the longing for the noble, which is the basic motive lurking behind our virtuous actions, pushes its own pursuit for perfection to the point of incompatibility with justice. So, concludes Collins, “Aristotle’s analysis of justice as a virtue has raised the question of whether, even in the best case, the law can reconcile the two ends to which it demands our devotion as morally serious human beings : the common good on the one hand and our perfection in virtue as an end in itself on the other” (p. 77).

7Collins continues by showing how the same “impasse” reveals itself with regard to the distribution of political offices and the question of rule. In the final analysis, she argues, the just distribution of political offices favors, among different claims to the ruling authority of the state, the candidature of virtue, since, according to Aristotle, ruling requires virtue as its standard. Yet, the law, based on the equality of citizens, assumes that citizenship, understood as participation in political offices of the city, consists in “ruling and being ruled in turn”. The reciprocal equality of citizens requires that nobody threatens this equality. Hence the tension between the standard of virtue and the equality inherent in a regime : while, on the one hand, by considering the question of rule from the point of view of justice, “one has to acknowledge that when it comes to ruling offices, each regime, including the one grounded in virtue, is inherently oligarchic and so not wholly just” (p. 137), on the other hand, in spite of the fact that ruling requires virtue, “every regime is grounded in an equality that must be preserved” (p. 144). So, every regime may ostracize “those who would threaten this equality” (p. 138).

8Collins’ objective in analyzing Aristotle’s argument in such a detailed manner is to show that Aristotle himself acknowledges the existence of a deep tension between ethics and politics : according to her, by pointing out certain “necessary” constraints that law imposes on virtue, “the difficulty Aristotle thus illuminates is that especially for those who love virtue and seek its activity as best, such a subordination to law is never wholly satisfactory” (p. 115).

9I find, in my turn, unsatisfactory the way Collins concludes these difficulties because in her conclusion she misses the real impact of her own argument. She argues that Aristotle moves outside of this tension between law and moral virtue by introducing wisdom (sophia) as a new horizon within which both law’s and morally serious human being’s claims to determine the right virtuous action would be reevaluated. She argues that when Aristotle introduces wisdom as the highest human good understood as the perfection of a human being, at the end of the Book VI and in the opening lines of the Book VII of Ethics, he presents wisdom as a guide which can lead the law and the moral virtue out of their complex tense relation by providing them with a standard concerning action. However, what Collins disregards in her argument is the fact that wisdom as an intellectual virtue and the “political wisdom” are not exactly the same, and they do not share the same impact and the same position with regard to the city’s affairs. The question Collins dismisses is the following : is the activity of the life of wisdom as operative as that of legislation for the political life of the city ? And if it is not, is there any tension between the functions of the state and the life of wisdom whose activity constitutes the supreme human good ? This, I think is the ultimate question to which Collins’s arguments lead us.

10The impact of this problem with regard to man’s ethical and political status can be seen from Collins’ analysis of wittiness as the virtue which, thanks to its ironical attitude towards the conventions laid down by law, points beyond the political life. Yet wittiness is not totally lawless ; in its moderation, the witty person recognizes the necessity and the nobility of law and does not challenge the law in a vulgar violent way. Wittiness is the virtue, concludes Collins, which “occupies the middle ground between a dogmatic commitment to the law and skeptical alienation from it” (p. 163). As the virtue pertaining to leisure, it is preparatory to the proper activity of leisure, namely, philosophy. In the light of Collins’ previous arguments concerning the difficulties between the law and moral virtue’s longing for the human good, one can ask if the same tension does not extend and convert itself into an unease between the functions of the city and wisdom understood as the perfection of the function proper to human being that the best regime would promote for its citizens (for the function argument see Nic. Eth., 1097a22-1098a20).

11Collins’ work is admirable in that it offers a new perspective for the reconsideration of the “function argument” we find in Aristotle. However those who will read the book for its argument concerning the liberal political theory may not be as satisfied as an Aristotelian scholar because Collins’ conclusion of this debate just consists in saying that the difficulties mentioned by Aristotle can and should inform our doubts about the liberal presuppositions analyzed in the first chapter of the book. She does not come out with a new argument on the liberal conception of citizenship ; neither does she show a concrete way of doing it on the basis of her analysis of Aristotle’s thought. This may be the interest of her future works.

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Refik Güremen, « Susan D. Collins, Aristotle and the Rediscovery of Citizenship »Philosophie antique, 7 | 2007, 269-272.

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Refik Güremen, « Susan D. Collins, Aristotle and the Rediscovery of Citizenship »Philosophie antique [En ligne], 7 | 2007, mis en ligne le 13 mai 2022, consulté le 23 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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