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Who is the “good man”, and who the “good citizen”?

Americans in particular are heavily influenced by the notion that “all men are created equal”. I would argue that while we can think of ourselves as equal in a moral and spiritual sense before God and each other in our personal lives, and when judged before the law, (e.g. in court), no mainstream political philosopher claims that we are equal in ways that will influence social, political and economic relations. Moreover, we should not want to be equal in any obvious sense, for if we were, our lives would be shallow and meaningless. It is clear that the best aspects of civilization and culture come from a few who passionately care about the deepest truths of human existence. So, if this is so, how does this reality show up in philosophy? In the contrast between the ‘good man’ and ‘good citizen’. This distinction is made by Aristotle. On this page, I discuss this distinction, and include some links to further references regarding it.

Further remarks…. We might think of the ‘holy grail’ of political philosophy as the combination of the good for the human being as such with the good of society as a whole. At times I have referred to these two goods as the ‘deep good’ and the ‘political good.’ One way to think about certain philosophical problems for us as moderns is by looking at how these two qualitatively distinct goods are defined by the founders of modern political philosophy. While thinking about how these distinct goods are defined, we are to keep in mind that, to a great extent, the moderns get their material from pre-modern and especially Greek philosophy. If there is a dilemma in modernity of a moral-spiritual nature, one way we might get a better grasp of it is by looking closely at the way the above distinction was understood and what the point of making it is. The best way into this distinction is via Aristotle’s distinction between the good man and the good citizen.

Once one is conscious of the tremendous significance this distinction has in Western civilization – in spite of the popular understanding and stress on a vaguely defined notion of equality, one will see its presence in films and art repeatedly. The best films I am aware of that illustrate the meaning of the distinction are The Lives of Others (2009) and Romero (1989). The film The Reader (2008) also nicely brings out the distinction by showing what happens when one is a ‘good citizen’ in a bad regime.

Plato on the good,

“Isn’t it clear that many men would choose to do, possess and enjoy the reputation for things that are opined to be just and fair, even if they are not, while when it comes to the good, no one is satisfied with what is opined to be so, but each seeks the things that are, and from here on out everyone despises the opinion? … Now this is what every soul pursues for the sake of which it does everything… ”
from The Republic, Book VI, 505d

Leo Strauss on the distinction between the ‘good man’ and ‘good citizen’.

The practical meaning of the notion of the best regime appears most clearly, when one considers the ambiguity of the term “good citizen”. Aristotle suggests two entirely different definitions of the good citizen. In his more popular Constitution of Athens he suggests that the good citizen is a man who serves his country well, without any regard to the difference of regimes – who serves his country well in fundamental indifference to the change of regimes. The good citizen, in a word, is the patriotic citizen, the man whose loyalty belongs first and last to his fatherland. In his less popular Politics, Aristotle says that there is not the good citizen without qualification. For what it means to be a good citizen depends entirely on the regime. A good citizen in Hitler’s Germany would be a bad citizen elsewhere. But wheras ‘good citizen’ is relative to the regime, ‘good man’ does not have such relativity. The meaning of good man is always and everwhere the same. The good man is identical with the good citizen only in one case – the case of the best regime. For only in the best regime is the good of the regime and the good of the good man identical – that goal being virtue. This amounts to saying that in his Politics, Aristotle questions the proposition that patriotism is enough. From the point of view of the patriot, the fatherland is more important than any difference of regime. From the point of view of the patriot, he who prefers any regime to the fatherland is a partisan, if not a traitor. Aristotle says in effect that the partisan sees deeper than the patriot, but that only one kind of partisan is superior to the patriot; this is the partisan of virtue. One can express Aristotle’s thought as follows: patriotism is not enough for the same reason that the most doting mother is happier if her child is good than if he is bad. A mother loves her child because he is her own; she loves what is her own. But she also loves the good. All human love is subject to the law that it be both love of one’s own and love of the good, and there is necessarily a tension between love of one’s own and the good, a tension which may well lead to a break, be it only the breaking of a heart.

Leo Strauss, from What is Political Philosophy, p. 35

Text from Aristotle’s Politics

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