Aristotle And Slavery

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I am of the opinion that slavery was one of the issues on which Aristotle had to walk the fine line. He is often criticized by modern scholars for condoning slavery. But, would a public renunciation of slavery by a teacher to the rich and powerful have had any influence in speeding the abolition of it? Hardly. However, it certainly would have been detrimental to the well-being of Aristotle himself.

Slavery has been practiced since the beginnings of civilization, and most likely even before that. Slavery has been a factor in the economy of many societies and states up to our present times. Slaves have been forced to do the dirty, physically exhausting, and dangerous work that needs to be done but that the free men are loath to do. Not so long ago, slavery was a state-run enterprise in the Soviet Union: Slaves (political prisoners) were used in uranium mines and to clean nuclear-powered submarines of radioactive waste.

In Aristotle’s Greece the owning of slaves was not only an economic but also a cultural practice. By and large, Aristotle’s pupils came from the upper strata of society, from prosperous oligarchs and kings. Ownership of slaves was indicative of social status; it showed that one was rich enough to afford to keep them. It would have been unthinkable for them not to own slaves. But I can’t imagine Aristotle upholding slavery on principle.

Through his lectures and writings on ethics and morals, Aristotle was constantly trying to persuade men that it is to their own benefit to live a virtuous life and to allow the next fellow to do likewise. At the same time, he had no illusions about the nature of man, expressed very directly in this statement:

For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all; since armed injustice is the more dangerous, and he is equipped at birth with arms, meant to be used by intelligence and virtue, which he may use for the worst ends. Wherefore, if he have not virtue, he is the most unholy and the most savage of animals, and the most full of lust and gluttony. (P/BJ, 1253a31-36)

Aristotle did not hold much hope that man (as a species) could be perfected into the “best of animals”; we must be content that some of us acquire a smattering of virtue. Towards the end of the Nicomachean Ethics he writes:

Perhaps however, as we maintain, in the practical sciences the end is not to attain a theoretical knowledge of the various subjects, but rather to carry out our theories in action. If so, to know what virtue is is not enough; we must endeavour to possess and to practise it, or in some other manner actually ourselves to become good.

Now if discourses on ethics were sufficient in themselves to make men virtuous, ‘large fees and many’ (as Theognis says) ‘would they win,’ quite rightly, and to provide such discourses would be all that is wanted. But as it is, we see that although theories have power to stimulate and encourage generous youths, and, given an inborn nobility of character and a genuine love of what is noble, can make them susceptible to the influence of virtue, yet they are powerless to stimulate the mass of mankind to moral nobility. For it is the nature of the many to be amenable to fear but not to a sense of honour, and to abstain from evil not because of its baseness but because of the penalties it entails; since, living as they do by passion, they pursue the pleasures akin to their nature, and the things that will procure those pleasures, and avoid the opposite pains, but have not even a notion of what is noble and truly pleasant, having never tasted true pleasure. What theory then can reform the natures of men like these? To dislodge by argument habits long firmly rooted in their characters is difficult if not impossible. We may doubtless think ourselves fortunate if we attain some measure of virtue when all the things believed to make men virtuous are ours. (N/HR, 1179a34-1179b19)

So it is, then, that Aristotle himself thought that he was teaching the standards for human perfection to a mostly imperfectible bunch. Among other imperfections, Aristotle had to resign himself to the imperfection of slavery. When I read the following passage from Politics I can imagine in my mind’s eye Aristotle instructing a group of (probably youthful) students in what today would be called Economics 101. (I can even imagine that to Aristotle this was perhaps boring course material which he had to cover as part of the curriculum.) He is discussing rather mundane matters of household management. He says that the ability to manage a slave is a need of practical life; he is also hoping that the current attitude of master to slave can be improved, no doubt in order to better the lot of the slave (“. . . seeking to attain some better theory of their relation than exists at present”). Note also that Aristotle uses here the non-committal, impartial expression (which he employed frequently) of “some are of the opinion”; not “I think”, not “we believe,” but an unspecified group of “some.” That is how one keeps out of trouble with the powers that be.

And there is another element of a household, the so-called art of getting wealth, which, according to some, is identical with household management, according to others, a principal part of it; the nature of this art will also have to be considered by us. Let us first speak of master and slave, looking to the needs of practical life and also seeking to attain some better theory of their relation than exists at present. For some are of opinion that the rule of a master is a science, and that the management of a household, and the mastership of slaves, and the political and royal rule, as I was saying at the outset, are all the same. (P/BJ, 1253b13-1253b19)

However, Aristotle counters that statement immediately with a somewhat provocative assertion:

Others 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. (P/BJ, 1253b20-23)

Again, Aristotle sounds impartial on the subject — “others affirm”, not “I believe.” But, having mentioned the hypothesis that slavery might be an interference with nature, i.e. an unnatural relationship between men, he returns to the prevailing conventional wisdom which argues that a slave is, after all, a possession, and concludes with:

Hence we see what is the nature and office of a slave; he who is by nature not his own but another’s man, is by nature a slave; and he may be said to be another’s man who, being a human being, is also a possession. (P/BJ, 1254a14-16)

It is important to note the interjection of the otherwise redundant phrase “being a human being.” I think that Aristotle is subtly challenging his students to contemplate the illogicality of the idea that any member of the human race could be thought of as a physical possession. If it can be said of one human being that it is possible for him to be a possession, it can be said of all human beings, even of Athenians. That is not a conclusion that would be welcome in the minds of any of Aristotle’s students.

Aristotle next proceeds to state the question of whether slavery is or is not a natural institution.

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? (P/BJ, 1254a18-19)

It is to be noted that Aristotle starts out with a categorical statement asserting that slavery is a natural thing, supposedly supported by reason and fact:

There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule. (P/BJ, 1254a20-23)

But his argument appears to be contrived, leading one to suspect, once more, that Aristotle is presenting this weak case only to please the consciences of his students and their elders, many of whom were from slave-owning families, rather than to please his own. He actually slides off the point, and spends lines 1254a24 to 1255a02 citing various natural instances of “rulers” and “ruled,” which are really not instances of master and slave in the true sense, but are rather natural hierarchical and cause-effect relationships. After all, to state that in the natural world one will always find that something or someone is in charge — the master of the situation or process — doesn’t equate it with slavery. Aristotle could not present any proof of slavery in the natural world because he could not find any. Instances of actual slavery in the natural world are very rare; only a few have been found, mainly in the insect domain. Nevertheless, Aristotle states the conclusion that slavery is a natural thing. Aristotle, like many who came after him, had to conform with the “political correctness” of the time:

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. (P/BJ, 1255a02)

As if to confirm our suspicions that Aristotle has made the spurious argument for slavery in the natural world simply to please his patrons, he hastens to amend it. Just in case we are not quick enough on the up-take, he throws in an enigmatic reference to his own unstated personal opinion with the remark: “Even among philosophers there is a difference of opinion.”

But that those who take the opposite view 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. Even among philosophers there is a difference of opinion. (P/BJ, 1255a03-11)

As I understand it, what Aristotle implies in the above quote is that there really is only one kind of slavery which consists of the subjugation of man by man by violent means, usually in war, but not exclusively in war. The practice of raiding other tribes which are considered to be less civilized than your own for slaves is also a violent act conducted with superior brute strength. The “slavery by nature” looks more and more like a phantom concept inserted into the argument by Aristotle in order that he might propitiate the beliefs of the ruling classes.

Finally, Aristotle recognizes the racial underpinnings of slavery. Men do not enslave their own kind, only people who they consider to be “barbarians,” i.e. people who are racially, ethnically, or culturally greatly different from themselves. The “barbarians” turn out to be the “natural slaves.” Aristotle can be faulted only for concurring (reluctantly, in my opinion, i.e. “it must be admitted”) with the conventional belief (prevalent in the Greek world then and still prevalent in some parts of the world today) that certain alien ethnic and racial groups “are slaves everywhere.”

Others, clinging, as they think, simply to a principle of justice (for law and custom are a sort of justice), assume that slavery in accordance with the custom of war is justified by law, but at the same moment they deny this. For what if the cause of the war be unjust? And again, no one would ever say that he is a slave who is unworthy to be a slave. Were this the case, men of the highest rank would be slaves and the children of slaves if they or their parents chance to have been taken captive and sold. Wherefore Hellenes do not like to call Hellenes slaves, but confine the term to barbarians. Yet, in using this language, they really mean the natural slave of whom we spoke first; for it must be admitted that some are slaves everywhere, others nowhere. (P/BJ, 1255a21-32)

In spite of the above concession to slavery, Aristotle by no means endorses it. It seems to me that Aristotle never abandons his belief that all men are basically the same, because they are members of the same species. A man is still a human being even when enslaved, and has the potential to be a friend and freeman. Indirectly, Aristotle hints that abolition of slavery is most likely to happen in a democracy. This point is addressed in the following passage from the Nicomachean Ethics:

For master and slave have nothing in common: a slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave. Therefore there can be no friendship with a slave as slave, though there can be as a human being: for there seems to be room for justice in the relations of every human being with every other that is capable of participating in law and contract, and hence friendship is possible with everyone as far as he is a human being. Hence even in tyrannies there is but little scope for friendship and justice between ruler and subjects; but there is most room for them in democracies, where the citizens being equal have many things in common. (N/HR, 1161b04-10)

I conclude my argument that Aristotle the ethicist and logician could not, in his heart of hearts, approve of slavery with this brief remark he made in Book VII of Politics:

. . . there is nothing grand or noble in having the use of a slave, in so far as he is a slave; . . . (P/BJ, 1325a25)

Aristotle is renowned for always exalting the grand and the noble. He is saying that those who own slaves and use them as slaves lack nobility of character.

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