The Great Conversation: Citizen

By Gabriel Blanchard

The full citizen is free and equal to every other citizen—but who are they?

One of the many topics of the “Great Conversation” is citizenship. What makes someone a citizen, or means that someone should be a citizen, and what precise connection citizenship has with liberties and law, is a matter that concerns anyone who lives in any kind of civic societythat is, everybody.

One of the earliest comprehensive discussions of citizenship comes in Aristotle’s Politics. In his view, citizens were all equals, and had a right to rule the community in turns accordingly. Democratic though this sounds, in the society of his time, it resulted in a pretty restricted idea of who could be a citizen properly so called. Free, native-born adult males were the only ones who were even eligible in his eyes: women and foreign-born residents were all automatically excluded, as of course were slaves, who were considered mere chattel. Yet even this minority of free, native males ought not all be citizens; the lower classes, who earned their living through plying a trade, were in his opinion rightly excluded from citizenship as well. Only those who were sufficiently well-off, and therefore leisured, to become intellectuals were worthy of full citizenship and its attendant immunities; in fact, it was the influence of this tradition that led to the expression liberal education, meaning the kind of education that would make its students deserve full liberty.

Being a citizen was also distinguished from various other political conditions. The slave, the woman, and the foreigner were out, but the subject of a sovereign was different; in a monarchy, the people did not take it in turns to be the king, and could never be on a completely equal legal footing with him, yet they still possessed certain rights he could not transgress (at least, not in theory). A king might still be contrasted with a despot or tyrant, to whom his subjects were indistinguishable, in practice, from slaves. The Renaissance saw a great vogue for “enlightened despotism,” succeeding on, and sometimes blending with, the earlier idea of the divine right of kings.

When the centurion heard that, he went and told the chief captain, saying, "Take heed what thou doest: for this man is a Roman."

The relationship between civic and religious loyalties was another qualifier on citizenship. The claims made by God or the gods on human loyalties might lead to conflict with civil authorities, and if so, how should the citizen qua citizen respond? In the pagan world, the contrast between these spheres was generally less pronounced, though even there, arrogant statesmen might attempt to defy or manipulate religious figures for their political ends. However, the uncompromising monotheism of the Jews introduced a new wrinkle into the concept of Roman citizenshipstrictly speaking, since they would not swear by the emperor’s genius, Jewish citizenships were honorary. This grace was not extended to Christians in the first few centuries; Christians in their turn, when they became the powerful, began denying liberty of conscience to heretics, and then to each other when the religious divisions of the Reformation occurred. John Locke, one of the founders of classical liberalism, famously excluded “those whose religion involves allegiance to a foreign power” from the full privileges of liberal citizenship in his (slightly ironically titled) Letter Concerning Toleration. This stands in contrast with St. Augustine, arguably the father of all specifically Christian political thought, whose City of God famously maintained that Christians at all times and in all places were first and foremost citizens of the kingdom of heaven, and only secondarily of any earthly realmso that in truth every Christian’s religion involved allegiance to a foreign power.

Another tension within citizenship has been an occasional but persistent theme since ancient times: that of local or national loyalty versus loyalty to humanity as such. The Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations of being a “citizen of the world.” The Jewish and Christian doctrine that man is made in the image of God supported this concept of universal, as opposed to merely national or ethnic, brotherhood. The abolitionist and civil rights movements leaned heavily on the intrinsically equal dignity of all human beings as the basis of their beliefs; on similar lines, the development of feminism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries challenged the idea that women could not be full citizens because they were not men’s equals.

Suggested reading:
Sophocles, Antigone
Cicero, On Duties
Magna Carta
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
William Blake, The French Revolution
W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk


If you liked this piece, try one of our author profiles, like this one on Boethius or this one on Franz Kafka. Or take a look at this teacher’s essay on John Adams’ thoughts on the nature of education.

Published on 4th June, 2020.

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