Aristotle on the Question of Slavery

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This is the second installment in a series in which I discuss the contents of Aristotle’s Politics. I’ve been cautious about how I go about writing this segment because it covers Aristotle’s controversial discussion on slavery. On one hand, I do not want to sanitize Aristotle’s take on this subject the way others have—to say he is talking about the nature of servants, or some other non-slave term. To be very clear: Aristotle is talking about people who do not voluntarily choose to be servants here. On the other hand, I don’t want to fall into the trap of condemning him from easy-to-do-so position of living in the current year. Slavery is a difficult fact of human history to deal with. It only makes it more difficult when we have people on two sides of a divide, one side downplaying the extent of this fact throughout history, and the other side overemphasizing some idealized notion that we are all equally free and rational by nature and therefore the institution of slavery is inherently arbitrary in who is to be a slave, let alone being fundamentally dehumanizing altogether.

Aristotle begins his discussion acknowledging this controversy, writing that there are those who “affirm that the rule of a master over slaves is contrary to nature, and that the distinction between slave and freeman exists by law only, and not by nature; and being an interference with nature is therefore unjust.” Aristotle is attempting to outline a theory of household management in this overall section of the book, and ultimately a theory of political management, but before he can get there he must wrestle with the question: are there people for whom slavery is a natural and perhaps beneficial role for them to occupy? In the current year in the United States this is question seems out of place; slavery is wrong by definition because we have established on the outset that all men are created equal. In this context, if anyone is a slave it is due to completely arbitrary circumstances. But we only think this way because of the peculiar practice of modern societies to name the residents of a country citizens by virtue of being residents of the country.

In Aristotle’s time, whether you are a slave or citizen is largely dependent on whether or not you actively participated in shaping the institutions of society. The point he makes is that because slaves do not get to choose to be slaves, but are passively made to be slaves by those who construct the society, it had better be the case that those who are slaves are naturally suited to that role, or otherwise there is an injustice taking place here. The whole question of whether someone is a slave by nature or by convention was important in this context. One commentator on Aristotle, Javier Martinez, spells it out like this:

“… there is one major difference between the citizens and the slaves; the political and social institutions that are formed for the slaves and the citizens are made by the citizens alone. Hence, I have been made a slave by the social and political institutions in whose formation I have played no part in, and, therefore, I am made a slave due to my inaction, in other words, not acting and not helping to form political institutions means that one becomes a slave to them.”

Here’s my point in reopening this conversation. Just as I have said that modern societies like the United States make the residents of their territory citizens by virtue of being residents in that territory, these residents are only citizens on paper (Can I see your papers?). They are, however, slaves in practice—as far as Aristotle is concerned—because they do not act in any real political way. Every couple of years they voice their opinion in the ballot box, but they are only passive inhabitants in a world built by someone else, and within which they have no real power to shape. They go to work to pay off their indentured servitude agreement called a promissory note, they start families and create what little meaning in their lives they can within the parameters set by the real decision makers, but that’s about it.

That being said, we can therefore find something valuable in Aristotle’s discussion of slavery even today.

All of his discussion of slavery takes place within a larger conversation about the art of household management, within which the master-slave relationship is one of three elements. The other two are the husband-wife relation and the parent-child. “In the arrangement of the family,” says Aristotle “a slave is a living possession, and property a number of such instruments; and the servant is himself an instrument which takes precedence of all other instruments.” Slaves are a special kind of instrument—instruments with souls. Not only that, but a slave can be an excellent craftsman, a look-out man, or with some other high skilled profession. This treatment leads many modern commentators tempted to sanitize the term slave and call these people servants for modern audiences—no different than your plumber or electrician, except you don’t pay him and he lives on your estate.

Not everyone is equal in nature, Aristotle reminds us, there are those who are more rational and use their reason to override their appetites. These people are “born to be free.” They are free from the tyranny of their appetites for pleasurable food, sex, and comfort. Then there are those who are born to be slaves—slaves to their desires and impulses. Their capacity to exercise executive power over their bodily impulses is limited in one way or the other. For Aristotle, it is ideal for someone who is born to be free to order the activities of the slaves so that they can live better than if they were left to their own. It is better to be at the bottom of the hierarchy than it is to be in the state of nature. This, I think, is a big part of the message Aristotle has for us.

There is the caveat, though, that if someone is slave by convention—because he is a prisoner of war—but naturally a freeman, then that situation is less ideal for him. Conversely, if someone is made a master by the same convention, but in fact has limited reasoning capacity and cannot properly manage his life, then perhaps it is better to live in the state of nature than to be a slave under his management. Aristotle makes it clear that in these cases, the practice of slavery is unjust. It can only be good if you have natural slaves being guided by natural masters.

"They think that as men and animals beget men and animals, so from good men a good man springs. But this is what nature, though she may intend it, cannot always accomplish."

Because nature is imperfect, and conventions are often imperfect, it is not uncommon to find circumstances that don’t live up to the ideal. Many Southern slave owners attempted to cite Aristotle to justify the institution in America, but if Aristotle was around to see it, he would most likely criticize it. He would say that what we have before us is a situation in which the masters are not by nature masters, but inherited their position by convention, and many of the slaves are not by nature slaves, and the situation is an unjust one.

Leaving that aside—Aristotle isn’t here to speak for himself, so I won’t spend to much time on that exercise—I want to return to what all this has to do with our modern context. As I claimed above, in the United States, we are only citizens on paper. We did not choose this situation we are birthed into, and we don’t shape it any real way that is afforded to citizens as far as Aristotle is concerned. Like slaves, we just allow others to control the parameters that shape our lives. While we don’t shape the institutions that govern our lives, we work for them and contribute to them. For all our haughtiness standing on the moral high ground and looking down on Aristotle for endorsing slavery, we failed to see the sleight of hand that took place. We are living in a society that is not at all different from the one Aristotle lived in and endorsed. One in which most people have no control over the levers that move society, and only a small percentage of people have access to that machinery.

To be clear, this isn’t a call to action to overthrow the government for lying to us about being a democracy or anything like that. Most people being slaves by Aristotle’s definition (of having limited reasoning capacity over their appetites), they are better off living in a world that is constructed by others for them to live in. Most people today – like the slaves in Aristotle’s time – derive their sense of meaning and purpose by serving a higher goal that someone else laid out for them. This is the case for any ordered society – most people must be kept away from the machinery and simply find a role to play in the system as they live out their days. We may be convinced that we are “citizens”, but this is just a language game that distracts us from the fact that nothing much has changed since Aristotle’s time.

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