Law and Justice – Citizen and State – 8.9 Aristotle and Slavery
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Law and Justice – Citizen and State – 8.9 Aristotle and Slavery

August 24, 2019


>>>>As we’ve been discussing Aristotle as
a philosopher of justice, I’ve presented a generally favorable account. It comes through
I think we have much learn from Aristotle. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean that
Aristotle’s political philosophy is complete and or acceptable in all of its terms to us.
And in fact, if you begin reading “The Politics” you should notice something in its very first
pages that might be highly disturbing to you. Aristotle provides a quite elaborate defense,
an elaborate justification of slavery. Aristotle, in other words, offers a theory of slavery,
an account of why slavery is justified — and it’s called Aristotle’s natural slave theory.
It’s revealing because it shows us Aristotle’s political philosophy at work, and the way
that it could justify what we would maybe think of as unjust institutions. And it’s
also useful for us to think through the foundations of our own philosophy of justice. Why do we
disagree with Aristotle? It’s not enough simply to react and say that Aristotle lived thousands
of years ago and he was ignorant. He’s one of the most profound moral philosophers of
all time, and so where is it that we disagree with Aristotle? Aristotle says in the opening
pages of “The Politics” that some humans are meant, by nature, to be slaves. Now this is
quite a profound and extensive claim. Aristotle’s world, the classical world of the Greek polis,
was a world in which slavery was a very real institution. And in fact, slavery has been
common across human history. Many, if not most societies have known some form of human
enslavement down into the modern world when the rise of the abolitionist movement forever
abolished slavery as a legitimate form of practice. But in Aristotle’s world, classical
Greece, slavery is not just existent–it’s in fact unusually common. The empire that’s
built by Athens, for example, this great democratic empire of the Athenians, is home to the one
of the most extensive slave systems in all of human history. And it’s somehow a paradox
that as freedom develops, as an ideal of the Athenian democracy, so too somehow slavery
exists as a kind of cancer on this society that compromises, for us, it’s moral integrity.
But for the Athenians there’s no contradiction between the freedom of the citizen and the
enslavement of the slave. Now the Athenians had, undoubtedly, many different ways of rationalizing
their slave system, but Aristotle provides an elaborate philosophical account of why
slavery is justified in terms of his own philosophical outlook. And it’s no accident that Aristotle
says that some people are made by nature to be slaves. And it’s telling that Aristotle’s
philosophy of slavery is called natural slave theory, because nature is a central term in
Aristotle’s philosophical system. And he believes that some people have been naturally intended
to be slaves. There was a common Greek belief that the Greeks themselves were a superior
culture, and that those who didn’t speak the Greek language were barbarians. And in fact,
barbarian is a Greek term. It means barbar, the people who speak the vulgar tongues instead
of the beautiful Greek language. And the Greeks believe that they are superior in reason,
in mental capacity, in culture, in political achievement to the barbarian cultures that
surround them. And many of the people who were enslaved in Athenian society were in
fact ethnically barbarians. They were non-Greeks, they were foreigners who didn’t speak, at
least natively, the Greek tongue, and the Greeks believed that they were superior to
these barbarians. Aristotle takes a generic kind of cultural chauvinism and turns it into
an elaborate theoretical justification for the institution of slavery. He says that in
fact some people lack the mental power. They lack the capacity of reason to govern themselves
and that these people are meant, by nature, to be in the power of someone else. Slavery
is a particular kind of relationship in which one human being is the master, and one human
being is the property, and they’re under the complete dominion of the master. And Aristotle
thinks that for some people this is what nature intended for them. In fact, he thinks that
they lack the reason to guide their own lives, and that it’s beneficial for them to be enslaved.
Now this is so counterintuitive to us that maybe the only example, the parallel we can
think of is we can think of someone who has a mental illness or a condition that to some
extent, requires them to be hospitalized. It’s for their own good for them to lack this
kind of freedom. That’s an extreme example, but it’s somehow parallel to what Aristotle
thinks is in fact the case for the slaves in his own society–that it’s best for them.
Now we hopefully can see through this to the fact that it’s an ideology. It’s a way of
justifying a set of arrangements that allowed one group of people to exploit another. Nevertheless,
Aristotle describes in his own philosophical terms a kind of inequality. That Aristotle
says that nature has so unequally distributed the potential for human capacity, for human
reason, that some people actually benefit from being the property of another. Now this
is integral to Aristotle’s view of the world, and it requires us to think through–why do
we think that slavery is wrong?

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  1. We love to look back in history and chastise people for owning slaves… and yet we let employers control what we say, what we put in our bodies, and give them complete power over our lives, just so that we may simply survive. Slavery isn't dead, it just has a better face.

  2. Slavery still exists today in the form of "income tax." A certain amount of slavery is necessary for every society. We've just figured out ways to make it more humane.

  3. Who were the slaves in Aristotle's Greece? If one looks at the literature – the Torah, Herodotus, say, it would seem that the slaves in a given society were likely to be those who's own country or city had fallen to the Greeks or were transactionally linked to such a conquest. But Aristotle surely knew that those people did not suffer from some psychological disability, they were simply the victims of bad luck, just as many today are prevented from reaching their potential by circumstance. I am not in a position to accuse Aristotle of bad faith on this matter, but sometimes consistency and system building in philosophy lead to results that are transparently weak.

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