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Aristotle’s views on slavery

Ancient Greek society generally, and therefore classical Athens, even when it was a ‘democracy’, was bored in slavery, an institution which Aristotle did not consider to be unjust and which he defends in book I of his Politics. This essay will focus on why Aristotle spent so much time on the subject of slavery. Also he claims that woman should not be treated the same as slaves, I would like to discuss the grounds in which he makes this distinction. What is the difference between conventional slavery and natural slavery? And most importantly what is the effect of Aristotle’s argument on conventional slavery?

Aristotle’s views on slavery are to the modern mind morally objectionable. Many find them poorly argued and incompatible with more fundamental tenants of his system[1]. Aristotle raises the question of whether slavery is natural or conventional. In his writing he insists that the former is the case. Is theory insists that some people are naturally slaves and some are naturally masters, thus he says: “But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature?”[2]. It is not hard to answer this question, on the basis of reason and fact. For it is clear that it is necessary for some to rule and other be ruled from the hour of their birth, some are marked for subjection and some to rule. However, it may seem that those who are ruled must be slaves but this is not true at all. It seems clear that in the situation between a slave and a master, the master does not treat the slave as an equal, or as he wishes to be treated, as no one would willingly allow themselves to be enslaved. By implication this would mean that the relationship between ‘master’ and ‘slave’ is an unjust one, which in turn violates Aristotle’s fundamental principal of justice. However Aristotle states that this would only be the case if master and slave were indeed truly equal. In fact, however they are not. Because not only is the slave not an Athenian citizen but in addition the master is the superior of the natural slave in a number of respects e.g. possession of reason, wisdom, capacity for autonomous action etc. All of which are qualities that Aristotle associates with ‘humanity’, and all of which in his view are lacking in those who are natural slaves[3].

Aristotle says: “Where then there is such a difference as that between soul and body, or between men and animals (as in the case of those whose business is to use their body, and who can do nothing better), the lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master. For he who can be, and therefore is, another’s and he who participates in rational principle enough to apprehend, but not to have, such a principle, is a slave by nature. Whereas the lower animals cannot even apprehend a principle; they obey their instincts. And indeed the use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different; for both with their bodies minister to the needs of life. Nature would like to distinguish between the bodies of freemen and slaves, making the one strong for servile labor, the other upright, and although useless for such services, useful for political life in the arts both of war and peace. But the opposite often happens–that some have the souls and others have the bodies of freemen. And doubtless if men differed from one another in the mere forms of their bodies as much as the statues of the Gods do from men, all would acknowledge that the inferior class should be slaves of the superior. And if this is true of the body, how much more just that a similar distinction should exist in the soul? but the beauty of the body is seen, whereas the beauty of the soul is not seen. It is clear, then, that some men are by nature free, and others slaves, and that for these latter slavery is both expedient and right.”[4]

So natural slaves should have powerful bodies but not be able to rule themselves. Although the problem with this theory as Aristotle clearly states is that the right kind of bodies and souls do not always go together! So it is a possibility that one can have the soul of a slave and the body of a freeman, and vice versa. Even though this possibility exists, Aristotle claims that because there are people who are appropriate to natural slavery, that is a strong body and weak soul, Aristotle holds that there are people who should naturally be slaves.

Who is marked out for subjugation and who for rule? This is where the concept “Barbarian” shows up in Aristotle’s account. Barbarians are naturally more servile than Greeks! Aristotle Says: “But among barbarians no distinction is made between women and slaves, because there is no natural ruler among them: they are a community of slaves, male and female. Wherefore the poets say,

It is meet that Hellenes should rule over barbarians; as if they thought that the barbarian and the slave were by nature one.”

It is clear to understand that Aristotle also holds that men naturally rule over woman when reading his Politics, he says that a Husband’s “rule over his wife is like that of a statesman over fellow citizens” and Women have a degree of governing capacity, i.e. for child care, but “without authority” he also favors moderate exercise for woman and that woman should be much younger than their husband.

In Aristotle’s politics he explains that the word slavery or slave can be used in two senses. A slave is not only by nature but can also be a slave by law; he says “But that those who take the opposite view [that is, who hold the view that slavery is not natural] have in a certain way right on their side, may be easily seen. For the words slavery and slave are used in two senses. There is a slave or slavery by law as well as by nature. The law of which I speak is a sort of convention– the law by which whatever is taken in war is supposed to belong to the victors. But this right many jurists impeach, as they would an orator who brought forward an unconstitutional measure: they detest the notion that, because one man has the power of doing violence and is superior in brute strength, another shall be his slave and subject.” Therefore people, who believe that conventional slavery is legitimate, also believe that all prisoners of war can be legitimately enslaved. If you lose the battle, and are captured that is enough. Aristotle accepts that some of those who are slaves are not natural slaves, but have become slaves consensual ‘agreement’, because they have been vanquished by war, in a situation where the alternative would have been death. He has doubts about the legitimacy of this kind of slavery, but could hardly be said to be a stern critic of it.

In Book I of Aristotle’s politics, he mentions certain anonymous ‘opponents of slavery’ in ancient Athens, who believed that slavery is unjust. He doesn’t state who they are or even how they argued, however he shows that, unlike him, they believed that all human beings are by nature equal.

[1] Malcolm Shofield, (2005) ‘Ideology and Philosophy in Aristotle’s Theory of Slavery’, Aristotle’s Politics: Critical Essays. Pg 91-120.

[2] Aristotle (350 B.C.E) Politics, Greece.

[3] David Brion Davis (1966) The Problems of Slavery in Western Culture, UK, Cornell University Press.

[4] Aristotle (350 B.C.E) Politics, Greece.

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