A Reversal of Perspective: The Subject as Citizen under Absolute Monarchy, or the Ambiguity of Notions

In K. Trzcinski (ed.), The State and Development in Africa and Other Regions: Studies and Essays in Honour of Professor Jan J. Milewski. Warsaw: pp. 319-332 (2007)
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Europe has never had a single definition for the term ‘citizen.’ Indeed, over the centuries the significance of this term has undergone far-reaching evolution. In different historical periods, different states, and different European languages, this term has had diverse meanings and has been used in varying contexts. The concept of ‘citizen’ has repeatedly been defined anew depending upon specific political, social, and economic conditions. At various periods, the term ‘citizen’ has related to a wider or narrower portion of a given state’s society. The criteria by which an individual was said to form a part of the body of citizens have also differed. The changes which have taken place in the definition of a ‘citizen’ over the centuries are enormous. This is not to say, however, that there has been no common core to the concept of citizen as it has taken shape over the course of hundreds of years. As far back as ancient times, a member of the state could influence the shaping of that state’s authorities and could participate in government. It is the Aristotelian concept of the citizen – a concept that has influenced all historical models of citizenship since – which is at the root of the citizen understood as a political animal (politikon zoon). In addition, personal freedom has always been a sine qua non for possessing citizen status. Thus, a citizen has always been, and remains, the opposite of a slave. It has also come to be accepted that citizenship implies the primacy of an individual’s rights in a state over an individual’s obligations to that state. The polar opposite of this situation in the historical dimension is subjection to the monarch in an absolute monarchy. Thus the ‘citizen’ also stands in opposition to the ‘subject.’ When speaking of the historical models containing the said ‘citizenship traits’ of a person’s status in the state, we usually refer to the model of the citizen in ancient times, in medieval municipal citizenship, and in modern times, in the fully−formed nation-state. It is difficult to imagine a citizen in an absolute monarchy, and in a world of subjection. Still, it is possible to give rein to one’s imagination and perceive citizens in such a setting; one could even go a step further and call the subject of an absolute monarch a citizen. But is imagination truly necessary in order to conduct such a seemingly obvious reversal of perspective? Published as a chapter in Krzysztof Trzciński (ed.), The State and Development in Africa and Other Regions, Warsaw University & ASPRA, Warsaw 2007, pp. 319-332.

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Krzysztof Trzcinski
Jagiellonian University


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