Slavery is Natural, Says Aristotle

Aristotle plans to examine the political life by first breaking it down into its component parts and studying them individually. The first of these is the household, and the household is in turn structured around three (or maybe four) relationships: the husband/wife relationship, the parent/child relationship, the master/slave relationship (and perhaps a fourth economic relationship concerning the household resources).


I say “relationships” but that may falsely imply a peer-peer sort of thing. Aristotle seems to see these as all sharing in a master-slave dynamic, where the master, husband, and parent hold the master role, and the slave, wife, and child hold the slave role with respect to each relationship.

Aristotle first examines slavery itself. Slavery seems to have been widespread in ancient Greece, and slaves were so numerous that even relatively poor Athenian citizens could afford to have a few. So it’s perhaps not too surprising that Aristotle regards slaveholding as fundamental to the definition of a household.

But there was debate in Aristotle’s time over whether or not slavery was what he would call “natural” — that is whether the institution of slavery was the result of some preexisting condition of superiority and inferiority or of differences in roles and skills, or whether it was a cultural imposition effacing a preexisting natural equality.

People frequently became enslaved at the time as a result of being on the losing side in war. And this included Greeks. So Greeks might easily conclude that the institution of slavery was more arbitrary than natural: rather than being the possible reflection of an inherent condition of inferiority, it’s often clearly just the result of having been on the unlucky side.

But Aristotle evidently believed that slavery of some sort was a natural institution. People are not created equal, but some have the brains and others have the brawn, and it’s natural that the first should command the second, because this works to the advantage of both by playing to their strengths and supplementing their weaknesses. A command/obey relationship, he says, is “both necessary and expedient.”

Such a relationship, says Aristotle, crops up in all sorts of places in nature, both within and between beings. The will rules the body in a well-regulated person, men rule over women, and even in music there is a “dominant”. Humans rule their tamed domestic animals to mutual advantage. And in people, slavery is also natural “whenever there is the same wide discrepancy between human beings as there is between soul and body or between man and beast.”

Some people, Aristotle says, while they are capable of “recognizing” reason, do not “possess” it. Such people are slaves-by-nature, he says, and so are better off under the rule of masters-by-nature who possess reason. He stresses later that this doesn’t have to do with masters possessing any particular skill that the slaves lack (skill in acquiring slaves or ordering them about, for instance). It’s something more intangible than that, and he never described it well enough for me to put my finger on it.

Aristotle tries on a few analogies for the master/slave relationship among people: A slave is like a part of the body, and the master like the soul that commands the whole body. A slave is like a tool, and the master like the person who wields the tool. A slave is like one of the crew of a ship, and the master like the captain.

Curiously, Aristotle distinguishes between household property that is useful as a means of producing something else (such as a loom that produces fabric), and property that is useful on its own (such as a bed). He says slaves are (or “minister to” at any rate) the latter variety of property. He is evidently concerned mostly with household slaves, then, and not the sorts of slaves who did agricultural or mining work in ancient Greece. I wonder if this presages a bias towards treating the polis as though it were essentially its urban center, and discounting the agricultural and industrial and colonial parts of it.

Aristotle defines a slave as someone who belongs to someone else, and says you belong to someone else to the extent that you are their tool. This, and Aristotle’s comparison of the master/slave relationship to the captain/crew relationship made me wonder if his definition of slavery was broad enough to include what we would call “employees” today — that is, “wage slavery”.

In any case, having described and defended “natural” slavery, Aristotle next looks at slavery as it is actually being practiced around him. In reality, the masters aren’t necessarily people who possess superior reason, and the slaves aren’t necessarily those who have only the virtues of brutes. Slaves are mostly those who have had the misfortune to see their cities sacked in war or who have been captured by pirates and raiders.

Aristotle tries to thread the needle between two possible responses to this discrepancy. There are those, he says, who say that people who have become slaves cannot blame misfortune, but that slavery is evidence of a preexisting inferiority. Those who have conquered and enslaved them have proven by doing so that they have superior virtue and a right to rule.

Others believe that since conquered people are enslaved without any regard to their virtues or capacity for reason, this proves that slavery is just a matter of might-makes-right and cannot be justified as a natural institution.

Aristotle takes a characteristically Aristotelian middle way: Slavery is justified and natural for the reasons he has previously stated, but the actual institution of slavery as practiced in the real world does not necessarily live up to the justifications — it is in some ways corrupt and unnatural, and this leads to disharmony in the master-slave relationship as the institution has lost the mutual benefit that it has in its natural form.

In part, Aristotle is discussing slavery here, but in part I think he is establishing some things about slavery that he intends to later draw on in examining the relationship between the rulers and the ruled in the polis. The “statesman” (politikos) in a position of leadership is more of a first-among-equals, while a king is more like a master. At least I think that’s where he’s headed.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics