Aristotle Slavery Views & Justification

Fri, 10/04/2013 - 03:59 -- Umar Farooq

Aristotle Views on Slavery

“Natural slaves are those who understand reason but possess no reason” (Aristotle)

While discussing the origin of the state, Aristotle mentions the institution of slavery. He finds slavery essential to a households and defends it natural and therefore, moral. It was rampant in his own time and regarded as part and parcel of national domestic economy. He justifies slavery on the grounds that there is natural inequality between men, there is natural rule of the superior over inferiors and hence the functions must be based on nature i.e. the function of ruling goes to the superior intellects while the function of the physical labour must go to those who have sound and strong physique but poor intellect the slaves.

Aristotle Slavery Justification

Aristotle says that State is made up of house-holds which consist of freemen and slaves, husbands and wives and their children. Thus slavery is an institution and part of institution. It was rampant in his days and was part and parcel of national and domestic economy. According to Aristotle, a slave was a living possession and instrument of action in the hands of his master. A slave being – a living creature like any other servant, is a tool worth many tools. The slave is a tool with life in it. The tool is lifeless slave".

Aristotle says that some people regard slavery as unjust and contrary to nature which in his opinion is wrong. According to Aristotle slavery is quite in accord with the law of nature and the principles of justification. His argument is that men differ from each other in capacity. There are those whose high endowment of reason fits them to command and direct; there are those whose low intellect enables them to comprehend and obey orders only. The former are by nature, masters and the latter by nature slaves. One represents the mental strength and the other physical. A slave lacks the capacity to reason sufficiently to govern himself although he may recognize such capacity in others. Physical distinctions also separate master and slave. The former can serve in the military and hold public office whereas the latter is capable of performing only the menial duties of life. Thus he who can foresee with his mind is by nature intended to be lord and master; arid he who can work only with his body is by nature a slave. The slave is to the Master what the body is to the mind.

Just as the rule of mind over body is absolute, similarly the rule of master over the slave is absolute. Consequently, it is just that slaves should be held as property and used as other property is used, as moans or maintaining life. He says that a slave is not only his master's slave but also wholly his master's property.

Aristotle says that a citizen needs slaves for the development of his moral and intellectual excellence of which he is capable. But the development of these faculties demands leisure, which can be had only when a man has Slaves. Thus a citizen cannot lead good life without slaves. A slave according to Aristotle in a way, shares his master's life and therefore his master's excellence.

The institution of slavery is approved by Aristotle with certain conditions.

  1. He makes a distinction between a slave by nature and a slave by law. A slave by law is a prisoner in war but all prisoners cannot be enslaved because superiority in war does not necessarily mean superiority as a whole prisoners of war could be enslaved only if they were inferior to the captors in their intellect.
  2. Aristotle further that it is not necessary that the child of a slave should always be a natural slave. If he is superior in his mental capacity he will be as free as other free citizens.
  3. All the slaves should be given the hope and chance of emancipation.
  4. However Aristotle does not allow the enslavement of a Greek by a Greek. He also advises the masters to treat his slave and not to abuse. The authority he has over his slave because the interests of the two are the same.