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Aristotle’s Defense of Slavery

Author: Dan Lowe Categories: Historical Philosophy , Ethics , Social and Political Philosophy , Philosophy of Race Word Count: 999

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Aristotle (384-322 BC) is one of the greatest philosophers, and his moral and political philosophy remains especially influential. But he also believed that, for some people, being enslaved was just and even beneficial for them.

How could Aristotle defend a despicable, abhorrent practice like slavery? How could someone with such philosophical insight get one of the most basic moral issues completely wrong?

Aristotle’s defense of slavery illustrates how even the most brilliant people can fail to critically examine their own beliefs and society’s customs.

Enslaved people working in a mine in Laurium, Greece.

1. Slavery in Ancient Greece

In ancient Athens, slaves were not citizens, and they considerably outnumbered male citizens. [1] Greeks sometimes enslaved other Greeks in wars, but most slaves in Athens were foreigners. Slavery was hereditary, and freeing one’s slaves was rare. [2] This extensive slave underclass gave the citizen elite time for leisure and contemplation, which was important for political participation in the Athenian democracy. [3]

2. Aristotle’s Argument Defending Slavery

Aristotle’s defense of slavery starts with the idea that in order to be just , social norms must reflect what is natural . Accordingly, society may practice slavery if there are some people who are naturally suited to be slaves. 

2.1. The Idea of a Natural Slave

In general, human beings have the capacity to reason, which allows us to regulate our appetites and impulses. Sometimes we fail to do so  –  against our better judgment, we give in to temptation – but in a fully-developed human being, reason rules.

But what if there were some human beings whose reason couldn’t rule in this way?

Aristotle says such people could understand the reason of others but would lack entirely their own capacity for rational deliberation. [4] Such a person would be a natural slave, Aristotle claims, meaning that they would inherently lack the capacity to rationally direct their own lives. [5] Such people would need to be directed by those who can rationally deliberate. Since this authority should be distributed to those most able to exercise it correctly, Aristotle argues that owning such people would be just. [6] And since someone without the capacity for rational forethought would choose badly if left to their own devices, slavery is even beneficial for them, Aristotle argues. [7]

2.2. Are There Any Natural Slaves?

Aristotle often discusses natural slaves hypothetically: if there are any such people, this is what would be true about them. He is aware that some deny the existence of natural slaves [8] : some “believe that it is contrary to nature to be a master (for it is by law that one person is a slave and another free, whereas by nature there is no difference between them).” [9]

But shockingly, Aristotle says that it is “not difficult” [10] to show that there are natural slaves, that there are people “as different from others as body is from soul or beast from human.” [11] It is not difficult, he claims, because the psychological deficiencies of natural slaves are physically observable: nature “tends to make the bodies of slaves and free people different too, the former strong enough to be used for necessities, the latter useless for that sort of work.” [12] Aristotle even believes that we can often tell who is a natural slave right from the beginning of life: “From the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” [13]

2.3. Would This Justify Greek Slavery?

What guarantees that whoever is actually enslaved happens to be a natural slave? Most Greek slaves were enslaved by conquest, and Aristotle admits that “it is possible for wars to be started unjustly.” [14] The same is true for those born into slavery, since Aristotle states that natural slaves can sometimes give birth to naturally free persons, and vice versa. [15]

Nevertheless, Aristotle seems to think these cases are atypical. [16] Moreover, Aristotle argues that non-Greeks were natural slaves, [17] and so it would be easy to determine who was a natural slave by empirical observation. [18]

2.4. Aristotle’s Argument in Summary

We can now see how Aristotle’s argument comes together:

P1. Slavery is just and beneficial (for the slave and for the owner) if the enslaved naturally lacks the capacity to deliberate. P2. There are some human beings who naturally lack the capacity to deliberate. C1. Therefore, there are some human beings whose enslavement would be just and beneficial. P3. Those who are enslaved typically lack the capacity to deliberate. C2. Therefore, the typical slave is enslaved justly.

3. Evaluating Aristotle’s Argument

Every one of Aristotle’s premises is questionable.

The first premise is clearly mistaken: humans who lacked the capacity to deliberate would benefit from competent guardians to look out for their welfare, not a lifetime of forced labor. [19] Aristotle exhibits astonishing blindness to the abusive and degrading nature of slavery.

The second premise, that there are human beings who lack the capacity to deliberate, might be true in some cases – perhaps those with severe brain damage or advanced dementia – but they are certainly not who Aristotle had in mind. [20]

The third premise is similarly mistaken: Aristotle systematically misidentifies who lacks the capacity for deliberation. [21] It was probably true that enslaved people, forbidden real education and condemned to forced labor, did not have the intellectual abilities of the free Greek citizen. But Aristotle fails to see that this is not the inherent nature of enslaved people, but the result of slavery itself. [22]

4. The Legacy of Aristotle’s Argument

Aristotle’s argument was one of many used throughout history to defend slavery, including in the antebellum United States. [23] American slaveholders incorporated much of Aristotle’s argument, claiming that:

  • slavery was necessary for a leisured aristocracy; [24]
  • slavery benefitted the enslaved – so-called “planter paternalism;” [25]
  • slavery was justified because some people (black people, according to racist whites) were inherently less rational and intelligent. [26]

Slavery was pervasive in both ancient Greek society and the antebellum American south. Accordingly, privileged members of those societies were unable or unwilling to see the profound injustice of slavery. Aristotle’s defense of slavery shows that even the most brilliant philosophers can succumb to the tendency to uncritically accept the practices of one’s own society. Perhaps that same tendency exists in us as well. [27]

[1] Kraut 2002 (279-280). However, it should be noted that reliable numbers are hard to come by in this case.

[3] This is the upshot of Aristotle’s claim that slaves are tools for action, rather than production (Politics I.4, 1254a1-13). The point of having a slave is not merely to have additional material belongings, but to enable one to act in certain ways, in this case, as a contemplative citizen.

[4] Politics I.5, 1254b21-23, and I.13, 1260a12-13.

[5] Aristotle does not deny that slaves are human beings. Rather, he argues they are a kind of subcategory of human beings. This is typical of defenses of slavery throughout history: complete and utter denial of the enslaved person’s humanity is uncommon.

[6] Politics I.5, 1254a22-31. See also Nicomachean Ethics Book V for Aristotle’s more general remarks on justice.

[7] Although Aristotle seems to think this is plausible all on its own, he does offer two arguments for it. The first is analogical:

“For the soul rules the body with the rule of a master… It is evident that it is natural and beneficial for the body to be ruled by the soul, and for the affective part to be ruled by the understanding (the part that has reason), and that it would be harmful to everything if the reverse held, or if these elements were equal. The same applies in the case of human beings with respect to the other animals” (I.5, 1254b4-10).

“For the same thing is beneficial for both part and whole, body and soul; and a slave is a sort of part of his master—a sort of living but separate part of his body. Hence, there is a certain mutual benefit and mutual friendship for such masters and slaves as deserve by nature to be so related” (I.6, 1255b9-13).

Aristotle seems to think that it is a reliable generalization that when there are natural ruling parts and natural ruled parts, it is beneficial for both the whole and the parts to be in their proper relationship.

The second is a modified form of the function argument Aristotle makes in the Nicomachean Ethics (I.7). In that argument, a good life for a human being is to be found in excellently performing the function distinctive to human beings. Aristotle argues that since reason is distinctive to human beings, a good human life is one in which someone reasons well (throughout a complete life). In the Politics , Aristotle argues that:

“those people who are as different from others as body is from soul or beast from human, and people whose task ( ergon ), that is to say, the best thing to come from them, is to use their bodies in this condition—those people are natural slaves. And it is better for them to be subject to this rule” (I.5, 1254b16-19).

Although reasoning is distinctive to all human beings, Aristotle claims that natural slaves have reason only in some minimal sense. Accordingly, the distinctive way in which natural slaves function is not in deliberating for themselves but rather following the deliberations of others. And since a good life for a human being is to be found in excellently performing one’s distinctive function, then a good life for a natural slave is one in which it listens to others well.  Of course, this argument is irrelevant if there are in fact no natural slaves.

[8] In fact, Aristotle’s discussion is our main evidence that the justice of slavery in Ancient Greece was debated at all.

[9] Politics I.3, 1253b19-21, emphasis added. All translations are from Reeve (1998) unless otherwise indicated.

[10] Politics I.5, 1254a18.

[11] Politics I.5, 1254b16-17.

[12] Politics I.6, 1254b26-29.

[13] Politics I.5, 1254a21-22. Jowett translation.

[14] Politics I.6, 1255a23-24.

[15] Politics I.6, 1255a40-1255b1.

[16] I say “seems” because Aristotle is unclear on this point. He is mostly concerned with theoretical issues, so he doesn’t broach how common he thought these mismatches between legal and natural slavery were in actual Greek society. The most he concedes is that the categories of legal slave and natural slave, legally free and naturally free, do “not always” match up (Politics I.6, 1255b2-9).

[17] Politics I.6, 1255a28-29, where even the opponents of slavery seem only to be concerned with the slavery of fellow Greeks.

[18] Politics I.2, 1252b4-8.

[19] Miller 2017, §3.

[20] Aristotle claims that the natural slave “shares in reason to the extent of understanding it, but does not have it himself” (Politics I.5, 1254b23-24).

[21] This is also true of his claims about women, who he claims have the capacity for deliberation but are unable to let it guide their actions. Politics I.13, 1260a13.

[22] In fact, slaves in Athens were often skilled craftsmen and sometimes occupied what we think of as professional class positions — bankers, accountants, and low-ranking bureaucrats for the Athenian state.

[23] Davis 2006, 188, discusses how American slaveholders were influenced by Aristotle. That said, we cannot conclude that if Aristotle had not made his argument, slaveholders would not have made it. If Aristotle’s arguments had not existed, it probably would have been necessary for slaveholders to invent them.

[24]  E.g., James Henry Hammond, “The Mudsill Speech,” in Finkelman 1997, 86.

[25]  E.g., Thomas R. R. Cobb, What Is Slavery and its Foundation in the Natural Law , in Finkelman 1997, 154.

[26] e.g., Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia , in Finkelman 1997, 50.

[27] Thanks to Shane Gronholz, Chelsea Haramia, Peter Hunt, Tom Metcalf, and Nathan Nobis for their comments on drafts of this essay.

Aristotle. 2009. Nicomachean Ethics . Translated by David Ross, revised with an Introduction and Notes by Lesley Brown. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Aristotle. 1998. Politics . Translated by C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Davis, David Brion. 2006. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery In the New World . Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Finkelman, Paul (ed.). 1997. Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South, a Brief History with Documents . Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Kraut, Richard. 2002. Aristotle: Political Philosophy . Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Miller, Fred. 2017. “Aristotle’s Political Theory.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy .

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About the Author

Dan Lowe is a lecturer in the department of philosophy at the University of Michigan. He works on social and political philosophy, feminist philosophy, and their intersection with moral epistemology. sites.google.com/site/danlowe161

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defense of slavery summary

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Slave revolts. The United States had fewer violent slave revolts than the Caribbean colonies and Brazil, and the reasons were largely demographic. In other parts of the Western Hemisphere, the African slave trade had continued, and the largely male slave populations came to significantly outnumber the white masters. In the United States, with the exception of Mississippi and South Carolina, slaves were not in the majority, and whites remained very much in control. Perhaps most important, marriage and family ties, which formed the foundation of the U.S. slave community, worked against a violent response to slavery.

Nevertheless, in the early nineteenth century, there were several major plots for revolt. Gabriel Prosser recruited perhaps as many as a thousand slaves in 1800 with a plan to set fire to Richmond, the capital of Virginia, and take the governor prisoner. The plot failed when other slaves informed the authorities about Prosser. In 1822, Denmark Vesey's scheme to seize Charleston was also betrayed by slaves who were involved in the conspiracy. Despite these failures, some African Americans, most notably David Walker (in his 1829 Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World ), still saw armed rebellion as the only appropriate response to slavery.

Motivated by religious visions of racial violence, Nat Turner organized a revolt in Virginia in August 1831. He and a close‐knit group of slaves went from farm to farm killing any whites they found; in the end, fifty‐five of them were found dead, mostly women and children. Turner intentionally did not try to gain support from slaves on nearby plantations before the short‐lived revolt began. He had hoped that the brutality of the murders (the victims were hacked to death or decapitated) would both terrorize slaveowners and gain him recruits. Once he had a larger force, he planned to change tactics: women, children, and any men who did not resist would be spared. But only a few slaves joined Turner, and the militia put down the rebellion after a few days. Turner, who managed to elude capture for several months, was eventually tried and hanged along with nineteen other rebels. Other trials of alleged conspirators in the revolt resulted in the execution of many innocent slaves by enraged whites.

The debate over slavery in Virginia. Turner's revolt convinced many Virginians—particularly farmers in the western part of the state who owned few slaves—that it was time to end slavery. Early in 1832, the state legislature considered a proposal for gradual emancipation, with owners compensated for their loss. Although the measure prompted an open debate on the merits of slavery, it failed in both houses, but by only comparatively small margins. Ironically, after coming to the brink of abolishing slavery, Virginia, and then other southern states, moved in the opposite direction and opted for greater control over the black population. New slave codes passed in each state increased patrols to locate runaway slaves and guard against new outbreaks of violence, prohibited African Americans from holding meetings, denied free blacks the right to own any kind of weapon, made it illegal to educate a slave (Turner knew how to read and write), and outlawed the manumission (freeing) of slaves by their owners.

In defense of slavery. The debate in the Virginia legislature coincided with the publication of William Lloyd Garrison's first issue of the Liberator. The moral attack that the abolitionists mounted against slavery called for a new defense from the South. Rather than emphasize that slavery was a profitable labor system essential to the health of the southern economy, apologists turned to the Bible and history. They found ample support for slavery in both the Old and New Testaments and pointed out that the great civilizations of the ancient world—Egypt, Greece, and Rome—were slave societies.

The most ludicrous defense of slavery was that enslavement was actually good for African Americans: slaves were happy and content under the paternal care of their master and his family, toward whom they felt a special affection, and talk of liberty and freedom was irrelevant because slaves could not even understand those concepts. The proponents of slavery also maintained that slaves on plantations in the South were better off than the “wage slaves” in northern factories, where business owners had no real investment in their workers. In contrast, planters had every incentive to make sure their slaves were well fed, clothed, and housed. Harsh masters, more often than not, were northerners who had moved to the South, rather than those born and bred in the region, the proponents claimed. Underlying all the arguments was a fundamental belief in the superiority of whites.

Public discussion of slavery and its abolishment effectively ended in the South after 1832; all segments of white society supported slavery, whether they owned slaves or not. The growing isolation of the region was reflected by splits in several Protestant denominations over the slavery question. In 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church South was established as a separate organization, and a year later, southern Baptists formed their own group, the Southern Baptist Convention. Not only did southerners try to counter the abolitionists in print, they wanted help in suppressing the antislavery movement altogether. In 1835, the South Carolina legislature called on the northern states to make it a crime to publish or distribute anything that might incite a slave revolt. The resolutions made it very clear that South Carolina considered slavery an internal issue and that any attempt to interfere with it would be unlawful and resisted.

North versus South. The existence of slavery was just the most visible difference between the North and South. The two regions' economies had been complementary, but by most measures—the number of railroads, canals, factories, and urban centers and the balance between agriculture and industry—they were moving in opposite directions. The reform movements that arose in the decades before the Civil War made few inroads in the South because any calls for social change were associated with abolitionism. Although wealthy planters hired tutors for their children, and many of their sons went on to college, even public education was considered not particularly important in the South.

In the North, the rejection of slavery as an institution did not mean there was widespread support for extending full political rights, let alone social equality, to African Americans. Residents of both the North and South believed in democracy, but at the time, the goal that would attain full democracy for the nation was the expansion of the franchise to all white males. Both northerners and southerners took part in the westward movement of the country, looking for better land and greater opportunities, but they could not escape the divisive issue of slavery. It was over the status of slavery in the new territories of the west that the sectional lines dividing the nation became rigid.

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In Defense of Slavery

Longtime readers know that I get annoyed by attempts to who approach history as an arsenal, as a search for analogies to throw one's politics in stark relief. The prodigious slave society of the old South is a fertile ground for such partisans. One claim that you often see in these arguments is the idea that slaves in the antebellum South weren't seen as human.

Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.  It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day.  Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the "storm came and the wind blew." Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
We may be doing Mr. Jefferson injustice, in assuming that his "fundamental principles" and Mr. Seward's "higher law," mean the same thing; but the injustice can be very little, as they both mean just nothing at all, unless it be a determination to inaugurate anarchy, and to do all sorts of mischief.  We refer the reader to the chapter on the "Declaration of Independence," &c., in our Sociology, for a further dissertation on the fundamental powder-cask abstractions, on which our glorious institutions affect to repose. We say affect, because we are sure neither their repose nor their permanence would be disturbed by the removal of the counterfeit foundation. The true greatness of Mr. Jefferson was his fitness for revolution. He was the genius of innovation, the architect of ruin, the inaugurator of anarchy. His mission was to pull down, not to build up.  He thought everything false as well in the physical, as in the moral world. He fed his horses on potatoes, and defended harbors with gun-boats, because it was contrary to human experience and human opinion. He proposed to govern boys without the authority of masters or the control of religion, supplying their places with Laissez-faire philosophy, and morality from the pages of Lawrence Sterne. His character, like his philosophy, is exceptional--invaluable in urging on revolution, but useless, if not dangerous, in quiet times.  We would not restrict, control, or take away a single human right or liberty, which experience showed was already sufficiently governed and restricted by public opinion. But we do believe that the slaveholding South is the only country on the globe, that can safely tolerate the rights and liberties which we have discussed. The annals of revolutionary Virginia were illustrated by three great and useful men. The mighty mind of Jefferson, fitted to pull down; the plastic hand of Madison to build up, and the powerful arm of Washington to defend, sustain and conserve.  We are the friend of popular government, but only so long as conservatism is the interest of the governing class. At the South, the interests and feelings of many non-property holders, are identified with those of a comparatively few property holders. It is not necessary to the security of property, that a majority of votes should own property; but where the pauper majority becomes so large as to disconnect the mass of them in feeling and interest from the property holding class, revolution and agrarianism are inevitable. We will not undertake to say that events are tending this way at the North. The absence of laws of entail and primogeniture may prevent it; yet we fear the worst; for, despite the laws of equal inheritance and distribution, wealth is accumulating in few hands, and pauperism is increasing. We shall attempt hereafter to show that a system of very small entails might correct this tendency.

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Thornton Stringfellow Scriptural and Statistical Views in Favor of Slavery Richmond, Va.: J. W. Randolph, 1856.

Stringfellow's Scriptural and Statistical Views in Favor of Slavery is written in two parts. The first part, "Scriptural Views," is a reprint of the tract A Brief Examination of Scripture Testimony on the Institution of Slavery. His four major points in this essay are as follows: 1) Slavery received the sanction of God in the time of the Patriarchs; 2) Slavery is incorporated as a part of the only commonwealth expressly established by God; 3) Slavery is recognized by Jesus Christ as legitimate; and 4) Slavery is full of mercy. In support of these contentions, Stringfellow calls attention especially to Abraham, Jewish Law, and the Pauline epistles in the New Testament. Added to this essay are two shorter essays. The first responds to an attempt by a pro-abolition individual to convince him that scripture condemns slavery. Stringfellow refutes every scripture employed by the abolitionist. The second essay uses the Israelite conquest of Canaan to prove that slavery is legitimated by Mosaic Law. The second part of this book contains the "Statistical views." This essay uses the census of 1850 to make material claims for the expediency of slavery. Most of his material compares the six New England states with the five old slave states on the Atlantic coast. Using census data, Stringfellow asserts that the southern states are superior in religious life and material life for whites, slaves, and free blacks. The urban life of the northern states suffers in comparison with the agricultural South both in terms of general prosperity and population growth. Stringfellow's conclusion is that despite the fact that the northern states forced the burden of slavery onto their southern neighbors, the southern states have thrived socially and religiously. Stringfellow takes this as evidence that slavery is not a curse, but a blessing.

Christopher Hill

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