Aristotle admitted that his argument that some human beings were ‘natural’ slaves was a weak one because he was aware that slaves often did not show the characteristics of meekness, servility and stupidity that was expected, and often rebelled against their masters. This was true in the slave society of Sparta, just as it was in the Roman Republic and the plantation colonies of the America. Much as their masters wished them to be like dumb brutes and animals, and even where slaves put on a pretense of matching this stereotype, the reality was often different. Slavery’s real basis was in law and custom, not nature, and even Aristotle knew that some nations like Carthage managed to exist without it. He also recognized that slavery led to oligarchy and wealth concentrated in a few hands, which was deleterious to his ideal of a middle class republic where wealth was widely distributed. For a whole host of reasons then, his defense of slavery was ambiguous and contradictory, although he had great difficulty conceiving of a society that did not have the authoritarian and paternalistic relationships in which male heads of households did not govern the persons and labor of women, children, servants and slaves.
Aristotle made certain key assumptions about slavery and economics that were very common in the mostly agrarian world of ancient times, and which still held true in most parts of the world prior to industrialization in the 19th and 20th Centuries. His definition of the economy (oikoinomia) was not at all a modern one, but similar to microeconomics today, since he assumed that it would be based on the agricultural household. To be sure, trade, commerce and money-lending existed in his world, but like manufacturing there were on a much smaller scale than in the modern era, while 90% or more of the population were engaged in agrarian activities. Within the household, the master governed all the other members, including women, children, servants and slaves, and for Aristotle these types of patriarchal and authoritarian relationships between men and women, parents and children and master and slaves were simply natural ones. He never made the assumption that all human beings were naturally equal or entitled to the same rights, and even in his concept of a republic or democracy, citizenship was reserved for male heads of household. Aristotle’s ideas were by no means unique in this respect, but quite typical, along with his notion that the master of the household was entitled to use the labor of all its members and to direct and govern them. Although some humans were natural slave-like, having characteristics of stupidity and servility, he recognized that most people had become slaves because they inherited that status from their parents or had been captured in war. Even though their characters might therefore not necessarily be naturally slavish or animal-like, the law and social and economic necessity required that they remain in that condition, although he also thought that order could best be maintained by holding out the hope of eventual freedom to those who were the most intelligent or spirited.
Aristotle’s pre-modern, agrarian world was based on agricultural, and the need for a class of person to do the heavy farm labor that was necessary, which would of course be directed by the landowners and male heads of household. He described slaves and serfs as “animate” tools like horses and cattle, and stated that the social and economic relationship between master and slave was similar to that by which humans governed animals or the mind governed the body (Shulsky, 1991, p. 90). His argument that some humans were naturally slave-like because of their lack of intelligence, courage or morality tended to fall flat, just like that of other pro-slavery philosophers after him, in that he also recognized that slaves would for the most part have the same type of souls, minds and bodies as their masters. Even the most rudimentary tasks also required that the show some level of intelligence beyond that of dumb, speechless brutes and beats of the field, so that his natural slave would “have to be someone almost totally lacking in reason” (Shulsky, p. 92). This was obviously not the case to anyone who could observe slaves firsthand or was aware that they often rebelled and demanded their freedom, which horses, chickens, hammers and saws generally did not do. Therefore, to justify slavery at all, Aristotle had to fall back on law, custom and convention, such as the fact that the children of slaves were also slaves or that prisoners captured in war would usually be enslaved, even if few of these were born with servile or slave-like characteristics. He recognized that these were relatively weal arguments to justify slavery since he pointed out frequently in Politics that laws, customs and constitutions were changed and upended all the time, and that even well-born and intelligent persons could end up enslaved if they had the misfortune of being on the losing side of a war. Aristotle was never quite able to prove his case conclusively for the naturalness of slavery or the master-slave relationship, except of course on the basis of might makes right or the strong dominating the weak. Nor can he justify such a position as being consistent with his own views on ethics and morality, no matter that like Plato he thought that only an elite with leisure and education could truly became philosophically and spiritually enlightened beings, which most would simply be slaves to materialism and their owns lusts and passions.
In an extensive discussion of Sparta, which he held in high regard for the courage and manly virtues of its military caste, Aristotle pointed out that slavery was necessary to give the ruling elites the time and leisure for more worthy pursuits than drudge labor. In this highly regimented and authoritarian society, the majority of people were of the slave or helot class, who had been originally conquered by the Spartans and forced to work on their agricultural estates. Unlike Athens, the Spartans disdained trade, commerce and money-making, or at least claimed to do so, because these distracted from the militaristic and authoritarian ethos that they instilled in all young males. Aristotle did not claim that the helots would a naturally slave-like group, and even realized that they often should great courage and intelligence by rebelling against their masters or allying with their external enemies in order to win their freedom. In fact, history shows that slaves did this time and again often the centuries, including in the American Revolution and Civil War. They were therefore intelligent enough to realize that they did not control their own persons or labor, and in fact were simply being used to increase the wealth and power of their owners. Like most other slave societies before and afterwards, from the Roman Empire to the American South, Sparta was militaristic because it needed a well-armed and trained population to control the slaves, and “the policing of this class was a burdensome task that required the city to remain on a perpetual war footing” (Shulsky, p. 95).
Aristotle’s own evidence indicated that slavery was as much a source of weakness and internal insecurity for the Spartans as a social and economic strength, and this has been true of most other slave societies. He also condemned the vice and greed of the Spartan women, who lived in idleness and luxury at home while the men were out campaigning, and noted that the wealthier slaveholders were accumulating more and more land, pushing out the smaller landholders. This also occurred in Rome and many other slave societies, where those who controlled the largest pool of slave labor also ended up in possession of most of the land, while the small farmers were squeezed out. In Sparta, this decline in the social and economic status of the small householders also meant that there were fewer men available for military service and internal police duties. In societies like these, where they slaves began to heavily outnumber their masters and free persons, the danger of revolt was always present. This is what occurred in Haiti in the late 18th Century, for example, where the slave majority wiped out the master class and destroyed their plantations, and it almost destroyed Rome during the Spartacus revolt. Implicitly at least, Aristotle realized the grave source of internal danger, which is why he suggested that slave populations be mixed rather than of all one “stock” like the helots, and that a certain number of foreign slaves always be used, to prevent all of them from uniting in a common front against their rulers (Shulsky, p. 97). Like most Greeks, he thought that Asians would make the best slaves because he regarded them as both intelligent and subservient in character. Unlike the Greeks, they were accustomed to obeying their rulers without question, and would be less likely to rebel, especially if offered the prospect of freedom at some point. On the other hand, he thought that the nomadic and ‘barbaric’ European tribes might make dangerous slaves because even though they were not intelligent, they were notoriously spirited, warlike and courageous in battle (Shulsky, p. 98).
When Aristotle thought of the ideal government, it was not an oligarchy or aristocracy with wealthy elites and a few large landowners, but a republic with a large middle class. In this sense, a city like Athens or even Carthage was closer to the mark than Sparta or the Roman Empire. These more democratic cities did have wealthy merchants and oligarchs who dominated the higher offices, but the common citizens also wielded considerable power through their assemblies. Carthage in particular lacked a large class or serfs, helots or slaves, which meant that poorer classes of citizens did most of the labor. As in the Roman Empire of later times or the colonial societies of the Americas, they could also immigrate and start new colonies if wealth became too concentrated at home or there were no longer sufficient economic opportunities for ordinary citizens. Despite his professed admiration for a society like Sparta then, at least on some level, Aristotle did not really recommend it as a model for the world to follow. Again and again and again in his writings, he referred to the dangers of oligarchy and the concentration of wealth and land in a relative few hands, weakening the middle class of small householders. Nor could he ever come up with a truly convincing case for slavery being a ‘natural’ institution, since he knew of examples even in ancient times where the institution was not widespread. If a society had a large middle class, it would not really have a slave majority like Sparta, or the Late Roman Republic and many slave societies in the Americas. Like most Greeks of his day, he could easily imagine Asians and other foreigners being slaves, although he was always concerned enough about the dangers of rebellion so that he thought the wisest policy would be to offer emancipation after a certain term of service. This might make slavery a more stable system, although it would also necessitate that the slave owners would always have to purchase more slaves or capture them in wars rather than relying on their ‘natural’ increase. In short, it would make slavery less profitable to the maters who insisted that they required the use of slave labor in the first place. In short, Aristotle’s concept of slavery was quite complex and contradictory, and by his own admission the argument that some people were natural slaves was probably a very weak one. He simply could not conceive of a society in which men and women or all classes would have equal rights and citizenship, or if he did then it was only with horror since he thought of a democracy like that as anarchy or mob rule. In his rural, agrarian world based on farms, household and landed estates, his assumption was that male patriarchs were always going to be the masters over most other women beings, including the majority who were women and children. It is no accident in history that pro-slavery writers generally do justify this institution as part of the ‘natural’ paternalistic order, in which the propertied male majority governs everyone else.
Shulsky, A.N. (1991). “The ‘Infrastructure’ of Aristotle’s Politics: Aristotle in Economics and Politics”, in C. Lord and D. O’Connor (eds). Essays on the Foundations of Aristotelian Political Science. University of California Press, pp. 74-111.