The Concept of Citizenship

Every country now is said to have “citizens.”  At least, it says this typically on their passports. However, most of the 192 nations represented in the United Nations have imported the concept of citizenship, for the most part only in a merely verbal and superficial sense, from the West, where it was first developed.  The idea of citizenship was created by the ancient Greeks, and developed and enlarged by the Romans.  The earliest organization of human beings was by blood relationship: the family, the tribe and the clan, and for much of the human race these are still the entities to which one owes one’s primary allegiance. The citizen was something different: a person who gave his first allegiance not to his tribe, but to his city. Tribes are governed by personal relationships, but cities by the rule of impersonal law. In ancient Athens the citizen was a Politeia (πολιτεία), a member of the polis or city.  Aristotle is frequently quoted as saying that “man is by nature a political animal,” but what he actually said was more like, “man is by nature a city animal,” which was not far from saying that man was naturally a citizen-animal. In saying this, however, Aristotle was deceived, for although Greek men were citizen-animals, this was not true of the Persians or the Egyptians or indeed of anyone else.  Greek cities were different from most modern cities in that modern cities tend to exist in and be subordinate to the much larger political and economic units that we call countries or nations, as Philadelphia exists as part of the United States.  Greek cities, however, during the classical period up till the end of the 4th century B.C. were politically and economically independent entities, states which created their own distinct identities out of their own laws and customs, such as Athens or Sparta, and made war or peace as they chose.

The citizen was a member of the city, not just in the sense that he resided there, but that his membership gave him special rights and also responsibilities in it.  The city was ruled by its citizens.  Citizenship was a privilege and to be a citizen was to have the consciousness of being privileged. Together with his fellow-citizens he contributed to the city’s financial upkeep and to its defense, and was entitled to share in its benefits.  Citizenship in Athens meant having to be ready to engage in hand-to-hand combat when the city was attacked, and was restricted to males who had completed their military training and whose parents had been citizens.  This was a relatively small group, perhaps no more than a quarter of the population. Democracy in Athens was not exercised through the election of representatives, as ours is, but was direct: all citizens had the right to vote in the Assembly directly on any proposed legislation or judicial action, which meant that thousands of men spent a great deal of their personal time without pay engaged in the process of government.  There was little bureaucracy.  Only citizens could vote, stand for election to office, file suit in a court of law or serve on a jury.  To be a citizen was to be conscious of being an equal among equals.  Although Aristotle lived much of his life in Athens, he never became an Athenian citizen, but remained a citizen of his native city of Stagira, and at the close of his life went back there.

The Romans believed in an open society and extended the rights of citizenship to many other peoples. St Paul, a Jew, could boast of being a Roman citizen.  When the Roman empire in the West fell, much of Europe lapsed again into tribalism. But it remembered its ancient privileges and gradually, over the centuries of the middle ages, restored them.  The Americans fighting under George Washington said they were fighting for “the rights of Englishmen,” — their inherited rights of citizenship which they believed the British government had taken from them.

It is very important to understand that the true concept of citizenship, as a social relationship demanding a loyalty that supersedes the family or tribe, has never really taken root outside the West.  China has never had citizens in this sense, nor India, nor the societies of the Middle East or Africa.  Patriotism, perhaps, but citizenship is something different, for it includes the right to participate in government.  If you grew up in the United States or any other Western country, you have grown up in a culture deeply stamped with the concept of citizenship.  To the citizen, his country is a value in itself and exists in its own right. It does not really exist for a purpose.  But people who come to the nations of the West from elsewhere must learn this concept: it is not part of their societal inheritance. In its absence, one’s first allegiance remains typically to one’s blood relatives, and the tendency is to look upon civil society merely as a tool for the achievement of one’s personal ends.