Introduction

Origin of the state
Aristotle's Politics
Translated by Benjamin Jowett

 
Book One sections 4 to 6
.
 
on the justification of slavery

 
4.
  For modern readers it is important to recognise that slavery had no racist connotations for Aristotle. Like any other ancient Greek, Aristotle has a general feeling for the superiority of the Hellene culture, but slaves in that world could be of any race, and were in practice mostly either captives in war or their offspring.
Property is a part of the household, and the art of acquiring property is a part of the art of managing the household; for no man can live well, or indeed live at all, unless he be provided with necessaries. And as in the arts which have a definite sphere the workers must have their own proper instruments for the accomplishment of their work, so it is in the management of a household.
 
Now instruments are of various sorts; some are living, others lifeless; in the rudder, the pilot of a ship has a lifeless, in the look-out man, a living instrument; for in the arts the servant is a kind of instrument. Thus, too, a possession is an instrument for maintaining life. And so, in the arrangement of the family, a slave is a living possession, and property a number of such instruments; and the servant is himself an instrument which takes precedence of all other instruments. For if every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others, like the statues of Daedalus, or the tripods of Hephaestus, which, says the poet, "of their own accord entered the assembly of the Gods"; if, in like manner, the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves.
 
Here, however, another distinction must be drawn; the instruments commonly so called are instruments of production, whilst a possession is an instrument of action.
 
The shuttle, for example, is not only of use; but something else is made by it, whereas of a garment or of a bed there is only the use. Further, as production and action are different in kind, and both require instruments, the instruments which they employ must likewise differ in kind. But life is action and not production, and therefore the slave is the minister of action.
 
Again, a possession is spoken of as a part is spoken of; for the part is not only a part of something else, but wholly belongs to it; and this is also true of a possession. The master is only the master of the slave; he does not belong to him, whereas the slave is not only the slave of his master, but wholly belongs to him. Hence we see what is the nature and office of a slave; he who is by nature not his own but another's man, is by nature a slave; and he may be said to be another's man who, being a human being, is also a possession. And a possession may be defined as an instrument of action, separable from the possessor.
 
  "He who is by nature not his own but another's man". By nature, not by law. Aristotle believes there are men and women who are incapable of "foresight" (the word he uses in section 2), and thus managing their own affairs, and that such people require a master to guide them. He will get to the question of whether there actually are such people, and how you distinuguish them, and the problem of someone who is not "by nature" a slave becoming one by law.
5.
But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature?
  This is the question: but it is interesting that he feels the need to ask it.
There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.
 
And there are many kinds both of rulers and subjects (and that rule is the better which is exercised over better subjects - for example, to rule over men is better than to rule over wild beasts; for the work is better which is executed by better workmen, and where one man rules and another is ruled, they may be said to have a work); for in all things which form a composite whole and which are made up of parts, whether continuous or discrete, a distinction between the ruling and the subject element comes to light.
 
Such a duality exists in living creatures, but not in them only; it originates in the constitution of the universe; even in things which have no life there is a ruling principle, as in a musical mode. But we are wandering from the subject.
 
We will therefore restrict ourselves to the living creature, which, in the first place, consists of soul and body: and of these two, the one is by nature the ruler, and the other the subject. But then we must look for the intentions of nature in things which retain their nature, and not in things which are corrupted. And therefore we must study the man who is in the most perfect state both of body and soul, for in him we shall see the true relation of the two; although in bad or corrupted natures the body will often appear to rule over the soul, because they are in an evil and unnatural condition.
 
At all events we may firstly observe in living creatures both a despotical and a constitutional rule; for the soul rules the body with a despotical rule, whereas the intellect rules the appetites with a constitutional and royal rule. And it is clear that the rule of the soul over the body, and of the mind and the rational element over the passionate, is natural and expedient; whereas the equality of the two or the rule of the inferior is always hurtful.
 
The same holds good of animals in relation to men; for tame animals have a better nature than wild, and all tame animals are better off when they are ruled by man; for then they are preserved. Again, the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind.
 
Where then there is such a difference as that between soul and body, or between men and animals (as in the case of those whose business is to use their body, and who can do nothing better), the lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master.
 
For he who can be, and therefore is, another's and he who participates in rational principle enough to apprehend, but not to have, such a principle, is a slave by nature. Whereas the lower animals cannot even apprehend a principle; they obey their instincts. And indeed the use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different; for both with their bodies minister to the needs of life.
  So again someone who has no "rational principle" - though he can recognise it - is a natural slave. It offends us: but there are individuals with no "rational principle". We put them in institutions (or on the streets) and hopefully look after them. We differ from Aristotle in that we do not put them to work for others. Or do we?
Nature would like to distinguish between the bodies of freemen and slaves, making the one strong for servile labor, the other upright, and although useless for such services, useful for political life in the arts both of war and peace. But the opposite often happens- that some have the souls and others have the bodies of freemen. And doubtless if men differed from one another in the mere forms of their bodies as much as the statues of the Gods do from men, all would acknowledge that the inferior class should be slaves of the superior.
 
And if this is true of the body, how much more just that a similar distinction should exist in the soul? Bbut 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.
  What is actually clear is that it is possible that some men are by nature free and some not. But if you cannot see the soul, how can you tell who is and who is not? It's surprising that the normally empirically-minded Aristotle doesn't recognise fully that there is a factual question here.
6.
But that those who take the opposite view have in a certain way right on their side, may be easily seen.
 
For the words slavery and slave are used in two senses. There is a slave or slavery by law as well as by nature. The law of which I speak is a sort of convention- the law by which whatever is taken in war is supposed to belong to the victors. But this right many jurists impeach, as they would an orator who brought forward an unconstitutional measure: they detest the notion that, because one man has the power of doing violence and is superior in brute strength, another shall be his slave and subject.
 
Even among philosophers there is a difference of opinion. The origin of the dispute, and what makes the views invade each other's territory, is as follows: in some sense virtue, when furnished with means, has actually the greatest power of exercising force; and as superior power is only found where there is superior excellence of some kind, power seems to imply virtue, and the dispute to be simply one about justice (for it is due to one party identifying justice with goodwill while the other identifies it with the mere rule of the stronger).
  Aristotle appears to be in a quandary here. He justifies slavery on the ground that the slave is a slave by nature: but most slaves are made so just because someone else was more powerful. He has to wriggle.
If these views are thus set out separately, the other views have no force or plausibility against the view that the superior in virtue ought to rule, or be master.
 
Others, clinging, as they think, simply to a principle of justice (for law and custom are a sort of justice), assume that slavery in accordance with the custom of war is justified by law, but at the same moment they deny this.
 
For what if the cause of the war be unjust? And again, no one would ever say he is a slave who is not fitted to be a slave. Were this the case, men of the highest rank would be slaves and the children of slaves if they or their parents chance to have been taken captive and sold. Wherefore Hellenes do not like to call Hellenes slaves, but confine the term to barbarians.
 
Yet, in using this language, they really mean the natural slave of whom we spoke at first; for it must be admitted that some are slaves everywhere, others nowhere. The same principle applies to nobility. Hellenes regard themselves as noble everywhere, and not only in their own country, but they deem the barbarians noble only when at home, thereby implying that there are two sorts of nobility and freedom, the one absolute, the other relative.
 
The Helen of Theodectes says: " Who would presume to call me servant who am on both sides sprung from the stem of the Gods?" What does this mean but that they distinguish freedom and slavery, noble and humble birth, by the two principles of good and evil? They think that as men and animals beget men and animals, so from good men a good man springs. But this is what nature, though she may intend it, cannot always accomplish.
 
We see then that there is some foundation for this difference of opinion, and that all are not either slaves by nature or freemen by nature, and also that there is in some cases a marked distinction between the two classes, rendering it expedient and right for the one to be slaves and the others to be masters: the one practicing obedience, the others exercising the authority and lordship which nature intended them to have.
 
The abuse of this authority is injurious to both; for the interests of part and whole, of body and soul, are the same, and the slave is a part of the master, a living but separated part of his bodily frame. Hence, where the relation of master and slave between them is natural they are friends and have a common interest, but where it rests merely on law and force the reverse is true.
  So he is forced finally to admit that some slavery is justified "in some cases" where there is a "marked distinction" between master and slave, and then it works to everyone's advantage; whereas in the other cases, where the relationship "rests merely on law and force", it is not so justified - and does not work.

To modern ears, Aristotle arguments smack of abhorrent sophistry. We no longer accept political slavery: political freedom is a universal human right (not a phrase Aristotle would have recognised).
But while that is true in politics, what of economics?
Aristotle's master has foresight and a rational principle that the slave lacks: the slave is therefore better off doing as he is intructed. Why in business are there directors and executives on the one hand and workers on the other? Surely not because the former have superior foresight and reasoning abilities that the latter lack?
Is the only difference between us and Aristotle (on this point) that we believe "slaves" should be paid and be free (some of the time) to change "masters"?
Do we not accept that some people are "by nature" leaders and managers and others are "by nature" followers and workers?