Aristotle’s Politicsis considered one of the most acclaimed and influential pieces of politicalphilosophy since its publication. While this may be true, it is also consideredhighly controversial for Aristotle’s view and discussion of natural slavery. InPolitics, Aristotle outlines hisbelief in “natural slaves,” who are not only enslaved in a morally just way,but who could also benefit from enslavement. Scholars have long debated his positions,with some questioning their validity and seeking to expose its “inconsistencyand incoherence,” and others pointing to its veiled attack on the institutionof slavery itself.
1 This paperdoes not seek to agree with Aristotle’s theory on slavery, but it does providea framework showcasing how his arguments were justifiable. I will do this byviewing his assertions through a lens in-line with the context of his time andplace, without modern day viewpoints of slavery. Further, I will discussAristotle’s views on slaves being socialized out of their condition and how, inall, his words represented a significant critique and restriction on the practiceof slavery during his time. Slaveryclearly offends modern sensibilities, but it is important to note its abundanceand usage during and after Aristotle’s time.2Slavery was a widely-accepted practice of the time and it was not long beforeAristotle wrote the Politics that itwas common for Athenians to be sold into slavery for their inability to repay aloan.3 Ina time when slaves were “simply accepted as facts,” Aristotle’s notions andcontemplations regarding slavery were quite admirable.
4 Aristotlerejects the notion of conventional slavery when he recognizes that some men arenaturally inclined for slavery, and some are not – “for it must be admittedthat some are slaves everywhere, others nowhere”.5 Henotes that by basing slavery solely on “legal sanctions and superior power,” itis not just disadvantageous to both master and slave, but also unjust.6For Aristotle to understand that slavery is in place because of its normalityin human nature, but also note that in some ways it is unjust, shows the extentto which he endorses the institution of slavery. (MORE…?) The significance of Aristotle’s rejection ofconventional slavery cannot be understated, especially in the context ofancient Athens.
As the predominant sources of slaves in Athens were theenslavement of war captives and reproduction among the slave population, it isevident that Aristotle considered the actual practice of slavery in his timeas being unjust.7This points to his view on how slavery as a form of punishment should have beennullified in Athens altogether. In Aristotle’s view, should a slave not benaturally predisposed to his enslavement, his master has no moral right toforce the slave to continue doing so.8Therefore, can we assume that Aristotle is saying a slave had an implicit moralright to choose whether he wished to continue as a slave or not? Further, wesee Aristotle’s contemplation regarding not only who should be slaves, but alsowhy should there be slavery at all. Slavery should not be done just because onecan, but only if it is necessary.9(MORE) Aristotle’s account on the possibility for a slave toexit their slavishness is entirely up to debate.
In the Politics as well as his will, Aristotle is too vague for audiencesto come to a clear conclusion on his views. He recommends in the Politics that masters should promisetheir slaves freedom as a reward, although he is not specific with hisreasoning for this.10If slavery is not innate, as is a socialized process, then it seems to beentirely possibly that one can socialize themselves out of natural slavery. Aristotle specified in his will that hisslaves be freed if his executors deemed them worthy of freedom.11 Incomprehensibly, Aristotle does not give aclear enough indication whether he is referring to natural slaves orconventional ones. If he was not referring to natural slaves, then according tohis theories on slavery, it would be morally incomprehensible to enslave themin the first place.12Is the condition of natural slavery permanent? If so, then freeing naturalslaves would be unjust since it would “deny them benefits of having a master.”13Aristotle does not go on in his account of natural slavery to say that freeing,or not enslaving natural slaves is unjust.
By observation of their master, andlearning to understand the nobility of their superior, slaves might have theopportunity to be educated out of slavery – so long as they have a virtuous andforgiving master. In all, Aristotle explains that the only unjust aspect ofslavery is enslaving individuals who are not natural slaves, and that slaves,if given the opportunity, are morally obligated freedom, if their master wishesthat upon them. With insight into the time, place and general context ofAthens when Aristotle wrote Politics,one can more easily objectively assess his accounts on natural slavery. If onewere to read them within the modern-day context of how society generally feelsabout slavery, then his writing would be deemed unjustifiable andunintelligent.
But Aristotle, who is aware of the uses of slavery in his time,writes to educate on how particular aspects of enslavement are unjust, andwhere they are perfectly acceptable. His endorsement of this institution isclear, in which some men are deemed natural slaves, but he also recognizes thatwe cannot base slavery solely on superior power or legal enforcement. Withevery bit of evidence for enforcing slavery, Aristotle goes on to critique hisown way of thinking, and/or the institution itself, leading readers to believehis account could be seen as justifiable – specifically within the context ofAthens at the time this was written.
1 Darrell Dobbs, “Natural Right andthe Problem of Aristotle’s Defense of Slavery,” The Journal of Politics 56, No.1 (1994): 71-2.2 Cite the paper used (online)3 Robert Schaefer, “Greek Theories ofSlavery from Homer to Aristotle,” HarvardStudies in Classical Philology 47 (1936): 177.4 Ibid.,177.
5 6 7 Jill Frank, “Citizens, Slaves, andForeigners: Aristotle on Human Nature,” TheAmerican Political Science Review 98, No. 1 (2004): 94; P.A. Brunt, Studies in Greek History and Thought (Oxford:Clarendon Press,1993), 3508 9101112Nicholas D.
Smith,”Aristotle’s Theory of Natural Slavery,” Phoenix 37, No. 2 (1983): 11113