A quick note on slavery

Since Aristotle’s notes on slavery frequently attract controversy, it may be well worth it to spend some time figuring out exactly what he means.

Even before Aristotle starts talking about slavery, he quotes “the poets” to whom he ascribes the dictum, “It is meet that the Hellenes should rule over the barbarians.” (1.2.8) Aristotle quotes this in a section wherein he considers proper place of slaves and women within a society, and this appears to lay the foundation for his slightly later discussion on slavery. Aristotle starts, then, by illustrating with the example of Greek dominion over barbarians the rightfulness of a slave’s disordered soul to the more ordered soul of his master.

The Philosopher spends a while describing instrumentality through the slave and various justifications of slavery, after which he arrives at an analogy: just as some are born with the bodies of slaves and some are born with the bodies of freemen, so are some born with the minds of slaves and some born with the minds of freemen. Aristotle concludes thusly:

And if this is true of the body, how much more just that a similar distinction should exist in the soul? but the beauty of the body is seen, whereas the beauty of the soul is not seen. 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.

(1.5.36-40) That is to say, so much as some may have a body intended for servitude, and some a body intended for the work of a freeman, even more so are free and slave distinguished in their souls.

Chapter 6 contains a discussion on relative freedom and nobility, according to which Greeks are reluctant to deign anyone a slave but barbarians, save when in the barbarians’ own land. Concluding that both Greek and barbarian believe that “from good men a good man springs,” (1.6.40-42) the Philosopher continues to discern a relationship between slave and master the abuse of which constitutes an injury to both.

Aquinas comments on a “good man” springing from other “good men” in the following:

And sons may also differ from parents in goodness or wickedness not only because of natural bodily disposition but also because of an aspect that does not necessarily result from a natural inclination. And so human beings who are similar to their parents in natural disposition may also, because of a different education and upbringing, be dissimilar even in morals. Therefore, if the children of good parents are good, they will be both reputedly and really good. But if the sons of good parents are wicked, they will be reputedly noble but actually base. And the converse is true about the sons of wicked parents.

Then [Aristotle] shows how it is expedient or inexpedient for some to be slaves, summarily concluding form the foregoing that the difficulty previously posed has some plausibility. And so there is in some cases a distinction between freedom and slavery by law, not by nature. But in other cases, there is a distinction between the two by nature, and it is advantageous in such cases for one person to be a slave and another to be his master. And this is also just.

(Commentary on Aristotle’s Politics, comment on 1255a3-b15.)

Thomas earlier quotes the more succinct and poignant passage from Proverbs: “The stupid will serve the wise.” (Prov. 11:29)

This indicates that slavery, as imagined by Aristotle and briefed by Thomas, is entirely just when dealing with the submission of lazy or wicked souls to better souls. This, it appears, is why Aristotle includes a discussion of the natural subservience of barbarians – as imagined as disordered souls – at the beginning of Politics. The barbarians described at 1.2.8 have no order, and so no ability to establish a polis in which they might work towards the Good. When Aristotle considers the arguments for and against slavery starting in 1.4, he finds a middle ground between slavery by human law and absolute abolition in finding that some people are indeed less suited for for freedom owing to the quality of their souls. As Aristotle believes it is just that someone establish dominion over the barbarians to inculcate virtue within them, so it is just that less ordered souls within a polis be led toward virtue by “masters.”

Those are only some quick thoughts that throw out some terms such as “justice” and “virtue” that may require further background in Politics or Nicomachean Ethics, thought I welcome and encourage additional thoughts on this.



Aristotle’s Politics Bk. 1

For my part, I’m envisioning these main posts as being part summary and part reflection. With that in mind, I’m indebted to my wife for pointing out that the Politics must be understood as a continuation of the Nichomachean Ethics. We see the reason for this in 10.9 of that famed moral discourse.

But it is difficult to get from youth up a right training for virtue if one has not been brought up under right laws; for to live temperately and hardily is not pleasant to most people, especially when they are young. For this reason their nurture and occupations should be fixed by law; for they will not be painful when they have become customary. But it is surely not enough that when they are young they should get the right nurture and attention; since they must, even when they are grown up, practice and be habituated to them, we shall need laws for this as well, and generally speaking to cover the whole of life; for most people obey necessity rather than argument, and punishments rather than the sense of what is noble.

At the outset of the Politics then, is an assumption that is alien to our own. The life of virtue, in an Aristotelian model, is not under the control of the individual alone. Even having a virtuous household and family upbringing is insufficient. Without a virtuous regime (a.k.a. laws with the power of force to direct all toward the common good) personal virtue is unlikely or even impossible. This premise, I think, is worth quite a bit of discussion since it seems to be absent from both prevailing American political parties. But also, it may cause problems for Rod Dreher’s version of the Benedict Option since his embedded communities look a lot more like an extended household than a fully-fledged polis. If that is the case, the form of that community would be insufficient for inculcating virtue in Aristotle’s view.

Continuing in this vein, it is also worthwhile to spend some time reflecting on the opening lines:

Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always acts in order to obtain that which it thinks good. But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.

The vision here is of a gradated and interlocking function of parts ordered to a single unified end. Perhaps we might think of a metaphor from Aristotelian psychology where each lower form of soul (vegetative, animal) really subsists in the rational soul which provides the ultimate unifying principle for the person. There is no hint here of an antagonism between the individual and society, or between household and civil government. The practice of Aristotelian politics depends on each unit of human organization recognizing its place and role in relationship to its highest expression: the polis.

Very beautiful, and certainly more attractive than our current mash-up of Locke, Rawls, and Woodrow Wilson, but since this blog is on pilgrimage toward Benedictine resources, it would behoove us to make some Christian objections.

While the kingdom of heaven is not of this world, and difficult to make concrete (“Neither shall they say ‘Lo here!’ or ‘Lo there!’ for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you”) we may need to push back against the claim of any earthly organization to be the highest community aimed at the highest good. The mystery of the Church, while occupying a liminal space between earth and heaven, visible and invisible, does take the name ecclesia. She is the first-fruits of things to come and the threshold of beatitude. Can Aristotle’s system be brought in harmony or even co-existence with the radical demands of the apostolic kerygma of Christian society? We can begin that discussion here and continue to develop it as we go along.

More could be said, especially about Aristotle’s fairly hard-edged claims about natural slavery and the constitution of female rationality. Another point of interest could be the extended reflection on economics, the household, and the art of wealth-acquisition (a hot topic for Macintyre and other Neo-Aristotelians in political theory). But I leave that to you. What shall we take up first?



A group of us in and out of the desert, who admire each other’s wit and insight, have come together in an attempt at an online reading group.

Rod Dreher’s book on his “Benedict Option” inspired this endeavor, as many of us have interest in and opprobium for this proposal. Since the release date does not arrive until next year, we have decided to start with Aristotle’s Politics, hoping that that can start a discussion on what a community ought to look like and the ends it ought to have. Suggestions for future readings include From Dawn to Decadence and A Secular Age.

We have agreed to work through Politics a book at a time while taking turns writing a reflection on a chosen book. Commentary from any of the group are welcome at any point, whether or not the book for that week is “theirs,” and constructive comments from outside readers are welcome.