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January 18, 2016


The notion of slavery has been at the forefront of philosophical thought for centuries. A
substantial amount of evidence has the proposed by multiple philosophers arguing for the
benefits and detriments of slavery. Although many philosophers have proposed that slavery is an
unjust institution that is a direct violation of an individuals natural rights, Aristotle believed that
the institution of slavery is justified and compare the possession of a slave with the possession of
other material objects. Aristotle was adamant that a slave is one with no reasoning power and
possesses no ability to understand and follow their own intellect. As a result, a slave was unable
to duly control their own lives and their masters were a controlling entity that had their best
interest in mind. Even though this best interest was a livelihood of slavery, Aristotle argued that
natural slaves are those who understand reason but possess no reasonability. Therefore, Aristotle
believed that slavery was an appropriate venture that should not be looked upon with disdain.
With that being said, the purpose of this paper will be to critically analyze Aristotles view on
slavery by reviewing the Politics. Numerous examples will be provided that argue in favor of
slavery, even though it is a direct violation of contemporary societys laws. This paper will be
concluded by reiterating the main ideas and by providing the authors opinion on slavery.
Analysis of Slavery in the Politics
According to Aristotle, a slave is the property of its master, and that any piece of property
can be regarded "as a tool enabling a man to live". The slave, therefore, is a living tool of the
master, whose purpose is to allow the master to live well. A slave belongs to a master, but a
master doesn't belong to a slave. The rule of a master over a slave, then, is exercised with a view
to the master's and the slave's goals or interests. He represents slaves as a tool in his definition of
slavery. Aristotle continues his definition of slave by explaining that those people who are
slaves are naturally born as slaves and they are naturally the property of someone else.
Those who are as different [from other men] as the soul from the body or man
from beast and they are in this state if their work is the use of the body, and if this
is the best that can come from them are slaves by nature. For he is a slave by
nature who is capable of belonging to another which is also why he belongs to
another and who participates in reason only to the extent of perceiving it, but does
not have it.1
Slaves are tools but they are alive and they belong to their masters. But when he widens
his explanations about slavery, he states that all slavery instituted by human convention is not
compatible with justice by saying the distinction between slave and free is one of convention
only, and in nature there is no difference, so that this form of rule is based on force and is
therefore not just.2 Therefore, if someone is not naturally born as a slave, it is unjust to refer
him as a slave in his opinion. This critic of Aristotle means that if the slavery is built up my laws
or is enforced by some particular communities; these are unjust because they are unnatural and

Aristotle and Saunders, T.J., 1982. Aristotle: the politics. Penguin: 60.

Ibid., 72.


they have no equivalency in nature. In his arguments, the people the laws treat as slaves and
those they treat as free which could justify the legal difference are indistinguishable.
So, when Aristotle claims are scrutinized it is obvious to see that in some points Aristotle
seems as accepting that some in fact, some legal methods which make people slaves are unjust.
But he defends some differences between people and these differences make slavery just. If legal
slavery represents these inherent differences it is just, but if it is contrary to his then it is totally
unjust. Aristotle also states in Politics that:
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. ... 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 and this claim takes us to the point that distinguishing the differences
among people.3
Also, there are some natural differences between people and these differences can justify
slavery or being someone's living tool. Human beings are divided into groups according to
different categorizations. The first partnerships among human beings would have been between
persons who cannot exist without one another.4 There are two groups of people in this case;
male and female for the sake of reproduction.5 and he continuous this discrimination by
explaining the second partnership: the naturally ruling and ruled, on account of preservation.6
First, the ones who have less knowledge and who have more knowledge to manage with life.
First group cannot properly exercise the practical virtues on their own and they have less chance
to achieve the happiness. So, to treat someone as a living tool as Aristotle did, is not a
complication to achieve the happiness.7 Furthermore, it is better to do so in order to give him the
best possible use of that entity for the happiness.
Where then there is such a difference as that between soul and body, or between
men and animals, the lower sort is 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.8

Ibid., 110
Ibid., 78
Ibid., 79
Ibid., 79
Ibid., 81
Ibid., 103


By looking all these things Aristotle indicates about slavery, still it is not valid to defense
the existence of slavery no matter what. Because in Aristotle arguments he defends that to be a
natural slave is better for a slave, but to decide such an important in a human beings life is not
possible, therefore not valid or ethic.9 Because it is unknown that if someone really unable to
sustain his life and achieve the happiness especially for a short time of period. People may give
their whole life to achieve the happiness and they can reach this aim maybe at the end of their
lives, and die as a happy human being without being treated as a slave by someone else's
Aristotle claims that natural slaves are people whose condition is such that their function
is the use of their bodies and nothing better can be expected of them. But by saying that he does
not exactly mean not able to think or understand.11 Because if it was so that would be
impossible for masters to expect all those things that slaves make for them. What he must be
saying that slaves are unable to realize what true virtue is. But they are not the only one who are
incapable to understand it, it is the majority of the society. Thus, if that would be an acceptable
argument that, it would be necessary to agree that most people are incapable of true virtue and
therefore they are all slaves which is impossible and completely absurd. Also another issue can
be changed in a contrary way to what Aristotle claims. He distinguishes people as slaves and
non-slaves, or the ruled ones and the rulers. But this grouping method can be collected in one
group by using some techniques such as education.12 Even assuming that to be natural slave is
natural and just; it is quite logical to give a qualified education to group which includes the
slaves and elevate them to the identical level as the rulers are. It is much beneficial to look for
solutions rather than just categorizing people and treat them by some criteria without even
questioning their rationality.
Although the basic claims Aristotle makes, he is unable to explain not explain why some
people are both weak and also have lack of knowledge and why some people are both strong and
capable of knowledge. His arguments are also weak about why the children of natural slaves
appears like natural rulers and how someone can become a slave even that not being captured in
a war r how one can become a slave while he or she is the child of a natural master. When it is
looked from different perspectives and from the society that we live in, all these reasons given
above makes us to stand just opposite to Aristotle's thoughts and believing that it is unjust to
enslave someone no matter what.13 Nobody is capable enough to decide whether someone has
enough knowledge or not; or unable to sustain their lives and achieve the happiness, therefore it
does not make any sense to try clarify the slavery is just in today's conditions.
Concluding Remarks on Aristotles Slavery

Garnsey, P., 1996. Ideas of slavery from Aristotle to Augustine. Cambridge University Press: 33


Ibid., 36
Aristotle and Saunders, T.J., 1982. Aristotle: the politics: 69
Ambler, W., 1987. Aristotle on Nature and Politics: The Case of Slavery. Political Theory:
Davis, D.B., 1966. The problem of slavery in western culture. Oxford University Press:77


When trying to figure out the function of a human being, Aristotle says, "the remaining
possibility, then, is some sort of life of action of the [part of the soul] that has reason. One [part]
of it has reason as obeying reason; the other has it as itself having reason and thinkin.14 This
quotation explains that there are two kinds of people: the people who can reason for themselves,
and people who can only be habituated in obedience of reason. These citizens cannot reason for
themselves, they can only obey reason. Since they obey, they are best suited to be slaves because
obeying is what they do best. To Aristotle, this is called natural slavery: "if something is capable
of rational foresight, it is a natural ruler and master, whereas whatever can use its body to labor is
ruled and is a natural slave. That is why the same thing is beneficial for both master and slave.15
It is obvious that Aristotle believes that the master-slave system benefits both parties because the
master is capable of telling the slave what to do whereas the slave is only capable of obeying
what is asked of him, therefore giving him a role within the polis. This system makes the polis
self-sufficient in that everyone has a job.
However, Aristotle states, "Anyone who cannot form a community with no part
of a city-state - he is ...a beast."16 In other words, Aristotle means that any person that does not
have the mental capacity either reason or obey reason cannot be part of a city-state and therefore
is not a human being. This cannot be true because there are people in the world known as idiot
savants who are mentally deficient but are extraordinarily great in one highly specialized field,
such as mathematics or music. A person who is extremely gifted in math would not benefit
society by doing slave-work, especially in Aristotle's time when the great accomplishments in
math had not been discovered yet. Therefore, Aristotle's system is faulted in that it is hard to
identify the natural slave. Another error with Aristotle's opinion is that it is possible that the
people he believes should be slaves might discover on their own that they are meant to do menial
work. For example, today we do not have slavery but we do have people that work as janitors or
construction workers. Although the reason we have people to do these jobs is because they are
incapable of doing jobs that require reason, and they can naturally realize their place in the
workforce. Therefore, they are not enslaved while still fulfilling the beneficial relationship that
Aristotle describes. The fact that they do these jobs out their own free will is what separates it
from Aristotle's perception of slavery.


Ambler, W., 1987. Aristotle on Nature and Politics: The Case of Slavery. Political Theory:

Ibid., 402
Ibid., 404

Aristotle and Saunders, T.J., 1982. Aristotle: the politics. Penguin.
Ambler, W., 1987. Aristotle on Nature and Politics: The Case of Slavery. Political Theory,
Davis, D.B., 1966. The problem of slavery in western culture. Oxford University Press on
Garnsey, P., 1996. Ideas of slavery from Aristotle to Augustine. Cambridge University Press.