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Democratic and Aristocratic Aristotle: An Aristotelian Response to Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach

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image of Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought

This paper addresses the problem of how to make ‘democratic’ elements in Aristotle’s political philosophy compatible with his aristocratic framework for distributing political authority. To this end, it is argued that in Aristotle’s framework, the idea of aristocratic governance is justified, because it contributes most greatly to the achievement of the well-being of people in a city (Politics III.9), or the common benefit of a wide range of free individuals (Politics III.6 and 7), and that Aristotle’s argument for the wisdom of the multitude (Politics III.11) is actually not democratic, but rather aristocratic to the extent that he proposes integrating the multitude into the deliberative and judicial processes by identifying their ‘virtuous character’ as a group, not by offering an idea that human beings are created equal. The paper also offers a more constructive criticism of Nussbaum’s capabilities approach by arguing that Aristotle’s aristocratic idea of distributive justice provides more useful insights into the problem of popular participation than Nussbaum’s emphasis on people’s capacity for choosing their own way of life.


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