The Role of Justice in Aristotle's Work

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Words: 2326 |

Pages: 5|

12 min read

Published: Sep 4, 2018

Words: 2326|Pages: 5|12 min read

Published: Sep 4, 2018

Consider the following list: justice, citizenship, law, happiness (or another goal of human existence). Which of these four is the most important foundation for a political existence, a civilized life? Defend your position by a close analysis of Herodotus and Aristotle. One potential answer is that the most important foundation for a political existence is citizenship. According to Aristotle, “The citizen in the strict sense is best defined by the one criterion that he shares in the administration of justice and in the holding of the office.” He defines citizenship as being active in the government, whether it be by actively serving terms as a politician or just by serving jury duty. Through his definition, Aristotle implies that someone must be politically active to be considered a citizen. Additionally, in Herodotus’s Histories, a concrete description of citizenship is not provided, but Herodotus illustrates several instances of what citizenship should appear as. He does thisby outlining the various rulers of Lydia and highlights both flaws and triumphs in each ruler. Herodotus also portrays several military campaigns that civilizations such as Athens and Sparta join. Military involvement was a defining feature of citizenship and a civilized life for Athens and Sparta and by capturing these different battles, Herodotus demonstrates that through military campaigns these civilizations establish a firm political existence.

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A second answer is that the most important foundation for a political existence is law. Laws are utilized to give citizens peace and order and keep society from degrading into chaos. In Herodotus, he describes the situation of the Lacedaemonians. Once labeled as the worst governed people in Greece, Lycurgus, a lawgiver, went to the Oracle of Delphi for advice. There, the Pythoness gave him an entire system of new laws which reformed the Lacedaemonian’s government and vastly improved their society. For people to have a civilized life, there must be laws. In Politics, Aristotle also advocates the importance of laws, saying that “laws resting on unwritten custom are even more sovereign, and concerned with issues of still more sovereign importance.” Free from human desires, the most important laws are the ones that concern issues of a high matter; take for example things like justice (not falsely accusing others, harming/killing others, etc.). Law and political order go hand-in-hand, without laws we simply cannot have a civilized existence.

The most important foundation for a political existence is citizenship; being actively involved in one’s government or society through voting, holding public or governmental offices, partaking in jury duty and participating in the community. While laws provide a firm foundation for any society, civilization is composed of citizens. The actions and involvement of citizens create a society and keep it running.

First, there will be a historical background on Herodotus and Aristotle. Then an argument for law is the foundation of a political existence will be presented with Herodotus’s account of the Lacedaemonians and Aristotle’s statements on laws provided to support the argument. Following that, a case for citizenship will be illustrated with examples from Herodotus of influential leaders and military exploits along with comments from Aristotle. Finally, this paper will ultimately prove why citizenship is the most important foundation of law for any civilized life.

From the book Herodotus and Hellenistic Culture: Literary Studies in the Reception of the Histories, author Jessica Priestley examines the historical biography of Herodotus, mainly citing the Suda of Byzantine. The book features a passage from the Suda which states that Herodotus was the son of Lyxes and Dryo. Herodotus moved from Halicarnassus to Samos due to the tyrant Lygadamis and it was in Samos when he wrote his Histories. Herodotus eventually moved back to Halicarnassus, removed the tyrant and eventuallydied. A historical author, Herodotus wrote about the country of Lydia and how the power shifted from the Heraclids to the family of Croesus. He does so by portraying military campaigns and tactics that were taken by various rules.

For Aristotle, his political beliefs stem from his “extensive knowledge of the affairs” of several Greek mainland and island cities such as modern-day Turkey, Italy, Spain and the coasts of the Adriatic and Black seas.[4]The main focus of Politics is on the different forms of government and which ones work better over others. Good forms of government include kingship, aristocracy and constitutional with the bad forms being tyranny, oligarchy and democracy. Aristotle’s Politicsis closely linked to his other work, Nicomachean Ethics as in both works his overarching idea is that the city exists for the good life and focuses this idea on the individual and the whole city.

According to Aristotle, a city is determined by a constitution and not by the citizens. He defines constitution as an organization of a city in respect “of that particular office which is sovereign in all issues.” The introduction to Aristotle’s Politics discusses the importance of law to Aristotle who believes that there needs to be a distinction between a government and its laws and where decisions are made by the majority. However, Aristotle shows concern over any government that lacks laws. The reasoning for having laws is that they are a way to keep power in check. Whether that power belongs to the people (in a democracy) or a singular person (kingship or tyranny), laws keep rulers from having rampant control. These laws were not created strictly for rulers but also for the wellbeing of the citizens. Aristotle acknowledges and cites various lawgivers and legislatures such as Solon, Charondas, and Draco. Solon was an Athenian lawgiver who worked to steer Athens into becoming commercially successful by canceling debts and encouraging immigration. Charondas wrote laws concerning property, meals for women, and rules on drinking and military training. Draco focused on adding laws for an “existing constitution” and focused on laws of punishment.[9]Aristotle highlights the flaws and triumphs of each lawgiver with some of the flaws being that the people received too much power and therefore the functionality of the laws was undermined. One fundamental idea that reoccurs throughout Aristotle’s discussion of laws is the necessity for balance. Laws must discuss all aspects of a political establishment regarding owning objects and property, the military and public service, how people treat each other, and economic laws (selling and buying goods, government’s involvement in businesses) for a civilized existence to thrive.

Herodotus outlines how the lawgiver Lycurgus gave aid to the Lacedaemonians by altering “the whole of existing laws, substituting new ones, which he took care should be observed by all…such was the way in which the Lacedaemonians became a well-governed people.”[10] The Lacedaemonians, a struggling civilization, had a poor governance structure and procedures and floundered with international relations. But with Lycurgus, he refashioned their society by providing new laws and helping the society uphold them. Eventually, this led the Lacedaemonians to having successful military campaigns and to a flourishing society. This particular instance portrays how laws could establish a political and civilized existence. From a paper titled Herodotus on Kings and Tyrants: Objective Historiography or Conventional Portraiture? Author John Gammie illustrates in detail book three of Herodotus’s Histories, focusing on different rulers and law. Gammie writes how a king’s unchecked power can harm his fellow citizens and that a political organization must be wary of the king abusing his power. While law itself can be abused by kings and individuals with power, steps can be taken to ensure that leaders have restrictions that would prevent this. An example of this would be the Magna Carta, created to put a limit on the seemingly endless rule Kings had and created the beginning of making kings subject to the law and not in control of them. Gammie cites Herodotus as agreeing with the statement that “’law is the king of all.’”[13] No one is above the law, not kings nor citizens. It’s an intriguing paradox as people create laws yet they do so in order to become subject to these laws. Herodotus contributed to destroying the image that kings were akin to gods and held supreme power over everything (a good example of this would be Egyptian Pharaohs).

Aristotle commands that law is regulated by God and reason alone and that when man gets involved and rules it adds a “characters of the beast.” Man has a natural appetite that leads to governmental perversion and so law must be without desire. But even if a man tries to create laws by God and His will and reason, it can still become twisted. Recall the Ten Commandments as they were laws from God himself that were perfect and yet no human can perfectly uphold them. Since humans are sinful, they are not able to keep perfect laws and, and must compromise on them to keep them attainable. Thus, laws become flawed and have the potential to become corrupt. With this potential, it is dangerous to stake a civilized life on its existence. Moreover, without citizenship rules could not exist. Citizenship, defined as being politically active, is what creates laws. Citizens gathering together to hold political offices and define and protect justice creates the gateway to laws. After all, citizens make the laws, and they do this by gathering together and eventually forming a kind of political assembly. Herodotus also illustrates various rulers and lawgivers and conveys that law does not always guarantee a prosperous existence. Laws have the potential to become corrupt especially when there is one ruler. Even with a system to limit the power of kings and rulers, there are still methods to override these limitations. Therefore, while laws are a vital and necessary component to a political life, citizenship is the core to living in a civilized or political existence.

In his Politics, Aristotle saw the “basic unit of society” to be the household. He draws the foundation of a society or civilized life to come from a family. The relationships in a family lead to citizenship. However even though as it was previously stated that Aristotle defines a citizen (or citizenship) as being actively involved in politics, a family living in a city can lead to this. It was common that the man of the household participated in societal life while the women stayed at home. And in Greek culture, politics played a huge role. It was expected for at least one person from each household to be politically involved so having a family in a city implied a strong sense of citizenship. The introduction to Politics states that Aristotle saw the polis, or city, to be an interactive society in which all citizens know each other and can join in an assembly together.[16]The city should be a society where the citizens are relatively acquainted and can form assemblies to resolve issues regarding political and societal matters. If a city contains citizens who do not know each other and cannot come together to address problems, the society will fall apart. In modern times, citizens come together in the forms of school boards, congressional meetings (when creating new laws), and even the United Nations to handle international matters collectively. If these did not exist, existing problems would grow and wreak havoc in the world.

Herodotus inserts several instances of citizenship in his Histories. Without directly stating it, Herodotus implies that for a civilized life, citizenship, through military campaigns and demonstrations, is necessary. With Aristotle illustrating that citizenship is defined by political involvement, Herodotus identifies it as being involved in the military or by offering the government aid and assistance (Also done through political participation). He writes about Solon of Athens who encounters Croesus of Lydia. Croesus inquires who is the happiest man that Solon has met. Solon replies that was Tellus of Athens, a devout citizen who fought for Athens during a specific battle and died. He goes on to describe other men who he deemed to be superiorly happy, and note that all of these men gave up their own lives for others in the act of sacrifice.[18]Herodotus portrays that for Solon, riches, and power does not automatically grant happiness but instead, it is the fulfillment of civic duties that one does willingly. For huge civilizations such as Athens and Sparta, civic responsibilities mainly came from military involvement. And so, through Tellus of Athens, Solon creates the impression that honoring citizenship by going out into battle or assisting one’s country is what forms the foundation for a civilized life. Because without people volunteering to go out and help others and their countries, there would be no country or political existence to speak of. Herodotus not only gives examples of singular men who demonstrated how sacrifices made for the sake of the military but also portrays military campaigns taken by whole countries. He outlines how King Xerxes of Persia tried to take a world domination approach but met his subsequent failure at the hands of the Greeks. The Greeks, defeating one of the most powerful civilization around, used their military power to establish their position in the world as a leading figure.

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Citizenship is indeed the heart of a civilized society and political existence. Aristotle directly addresses how laws govern a civilization and help them to prosper while Herodotus demonstrates through his historical accounts how significant it is for law keep power in check and help a civilization thrive. While laws manage a political society and maintain peace and order, citizenship implies several aspects of a civilized existence such as political and military involvement. A political existence requires people to be actively involved in politics and Aristotle defines citizenship as doing just that. Furthermore, a civilized life can be achieved through both politics and military campaigns on which Herodotus focused. Through military campaigns, civilizations could expand their territory and become exposed to new cultures and ideas that could transform and advance their lifestyles. Through military expansion, civilizations could potentially discover new methods of coexisting and upgrading their civilizations. Citizenship offers a slew of opportunities to build a thriving civilization with consistent military triumphs and expansions and a successful government with politically active citizens. Ultimately this results in a well-balanced existence that fosters the well-being of the citizens and establishes an ideal political and civilized life.

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The Role of Justice in Aristotle’s Work. (2018, July 21). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 13, 2024, from
“The Role of Justice in Aristotle’s Work.” GradesFixer, 21 Jul. 2018,
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