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Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that some people were born to be slaves. Reproduced by permission of Corbis-Bettmann.Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that some people were born to be slaves. Published by Gale Cengage Reproduced by permission of Corbis-Bettmann.
The ruins of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. The Parthenon was a temple built by slaves to the goddess Athena. Photograph by Susan D. Rock. Reproduced by permission.The ruins of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. The Parthenon was a temple built by slaves to the goddess Athena. Published by Gale Cengage Photograph by Susan D. Rock. Reproduced by permission.

Excerpt from The Politics of Aristotle
Published in
The Politics of Aristotle, 1900

Although ancient Greece introduced the concept of democracy (a government ruled by its citizens), Greek society was also highly dependent on slave labor. In fact, only a small group of people in ancient Greece—the citizens—actually enjoyed the benefits of democracy, such as the opportunity to vote. The citizens were made up of free Greek males. Women were forbidden to vote, as were foreigners. So, too, was the largest group in Greek society: slaves.

Ancient Greece was never a single nation, but a collection of several hundred self-governing city-states. These tiny districts functioned as separate countries, but tended to follow the lead of the most important city-states, particularly Athens and Sparta. Sparta was a military dictatorship, an extremely harsh, organized system ruled by a small group. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of its people were slaves. Yet even Athens, the birthplace of democracy and indeed of Western civilization, was hugely dependent on slave labor.

Even a highly intelligent, educated Athenian citizen could support the cause of freedom for some people and accept the concept of slavery. Such was the case with Aristotle

(384-322 B.C.), who is considered one of the greatest Greek philosophers. (Philosophers are concerned with the essential nature of reality, and in the course of their study they examine different aspects of life.) Aristotle's interests were extremely wide-ranging, and he wrote hundreds of books on subjects exploring such topics as science, music, and politics.

Many aspects of Aristotle's thinking had a liberating effect: his writings helped scientists, for instance, reach a better understanding of how they knew what they knew. Yet in his discussion of slavery from the Politics, Aristotle revealed himself as a man tied to his time and place. He lived in a world built by slavery, and he was not inclined to question it.

Things to remember while reading

  • Although many of the ideas expressed by Aristotle in this passage are offensive to a modern reader, it is important to remember the time and place in which he was writing. The Greeks looked down on other societies and considered their own, which had been built on the backs of slaves, superior to all others. Aristotle was among the wisest men who ever lived, and did much to advance the cause of human freedom; yet when it came to the subject of slavery he was (like most people) unable to challenge the beliefs of his time.
  • A number of the ideas expressed in this passage reflects Aristotle's Greek heritage. The ancient Greeks tended to regard anyone who was not Greek as a barbarian, or uncivilized person; and they viewed women as vastly inferior to men. They also placed little value on mercy or compassion.
  • Like his teacher Plato, Aristotle regarded the ability to think as the most important qualification for a person. He also believed that people's destinies were already determined for them. He wrote that free people were superior to slaves, using as justification the fact that free people work with their minds and slaves with their bodies. Yet one might object that free people think, and slaves labor, because in either case, that is their job. To this Aristotle would say that some people are born to be slaves and others to be free.

The Politics of Aristotle

Let us first speak of master and slave, looking to the needs of practical life and also seeking to attain some better theory of their relation than exists at present.... 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 so, in the arrangement of the family, a slave is a living possession, and property a number of such instruments; and the slave is himself an instrument which takes precedence of all other instruments.... 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.

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? 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.... 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 [property] 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. 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 happensthat some have the souls and others have the bodies of free men. 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. 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

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). 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 unworthy 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.

What happened next...

Ancient Greece flourished in spite of its slave system; indeed, one might say it flourished in part because of slavery, which allowed free men the time and leisure to undertake some of the most brilliant writing and thinking in human history. Yet by Aristotle's time, the sun was setting on Greece's glory.

In the mid-330s B.C., Greece was under the control of Alexander the Great, Aristotle's old pupil. Although Alexander considered himself Greek, he was really a Macedonian, and the Greeks viewed him as an outsider. Thus the fact that he was able to bring all of Greece under his control signaled the weakening of Athens and the other city-states. As it turned out, Alexander's campaign of conquest, which resulted in an empire that stretched from Italy to India, was Greece's last hurrah.

During the two centuries that followed, Greek civilization, including its ideas about slavery, spread throughout the Mediterranean region. By then Rome was becoming an empire, however, and in 146 B.C. it added Greece to its territories. Romans had long admired and imitated Greek civilization, and as a result, Rome was destined to become a society dependent on the institution of slavery, just like Greece.

Did you know...

  • A wealthy household in ancient Greece typically owned between ten and twenty slaves.
  • The going rate for a healthy slave in ancient Greece was ten minae, or about $180.00. Old or otherwise undesirable slaves, including ones who refused to work, could sell for as little as 0.5 minae, or $9.00.
  • Surprisingly, Athens's police force was made up primarily of slaves. It is hard to imagine how the Athenians could have prevented a slave revolt if firearms had existed in ancient times.

For more information

Books

Aristotle. The Politics of Aristotle. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. New York: Colonial Press, 1900.

Sources

Books

Furan, Rodney. Twelve Great Philosophers. Mankato, Minn.: Oddo Publishing, 1968.

Illustrated Introduction to Philosophy. New York: DK Publishing, Inc., 1998.

Other

"Ancient History Sourcebook: Documents on Greek Slavery, c. 750-330 BCE." Ancient History Sourcebook. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/greek-slaves.html (accessed on January 13, 2000).

"Slavery in Ancient Greece." http://www-adm.pdx.edu/user/sinq/greekciv/sport/kirsten.html (accessed on January 18, 2000).