Monday, June 8, 2009

Great Books: Aristotle's Politics Book One (Part 2)

The first part of this essay can be read here.

It is ironic that Aristotle posits speech as integrally linked to the uniquely human virtues of good and evil/justice and injustice and asserts that an “association of living beings who have this sense [of speech] makes a family and a state” [446]. In singling out speech as the virtue that gives humanity the knowledge of good and evil, Aristotle leaves us with the impression that the first, speech, was developed in order to facilitate the development of the family and then the state. Contemporary research does suggest that human speech developed, among other reasons, as a social lubricant between the males and females of a particular unit. Women, armed with the knowledge that sex could lead to childbirth which might very well itself lead to death, had to be as sure as they could that potential partners would exhibit the requisite character traits to nurture and not abandon her children.

State-building, on the other hand, was probably the last thing on the primitive human mind that developed and perfected speech. If anything, the complexity of ideas allowable through the development of speech (abstract thinking) made the evolution of ever-more complex social and political systems possible. One of the key factors that unify people in a particular culture is a shared language. With it, even geographic proximity is unnecessary while without it, that same proximity often led to outright violence.

Having established to his own satisfaction the relationship of the household to the development of the State, Aristotle returns to his “three relationships” argument and begins to break them down, one-by-one, beginning with that of master to servant. It is clear from the outset that Aristotle is arguing that a) slaves are an integral part of a household and that b) slavery is natural and therefore, in principle, good. Still, he concedes early on that “others affirm that the rule of a master over slaves is contrary to nature, and that the distinction between slave and freeman exists by law only, and not by nature; and being an interference with nature is unjust” [447].

Just as the family is composed of man, woman, child, and slave, so is the household the whole of which property is a part. In this sense, acquiring property is part of managing a household. Property, he says, “is an instrument for maintaining life” and a slave, he argues, is “a living possession…that takes precedence over all other instruments” by virtue of a slave's ability to be trained. Inanimate property he describes as instruments of production and living property as instruments of action. If repulsed by his logic, one cannot fault the precision with which Aristotle takes stock of the world around him, and, indeed, the world for many centuries to come. The existence and economy of a leisure class was, is, and will forever be predicated by the existence of a slave class, regardless of the label we attach to it. The idea of ruling and the ruled, for Aristotle, is a cold mechanism of existence built into the ways that humans think and understand the world. “For all things,” he writes, “which form a composite whole and which are made up of parts…a distinction between the ruling and the subject element comes to light” [447].

Aristotle then defends his argument that slavery is natural by examining three presumably natural relationships in which an inequity in power is clear. He cites, first, two aspects of the human experience that show clear dominion over others, even if the nature of that rule differ in some respects. The Soul, he suggests, rules over the body as a king would his subjects; that is, with absolute monarchical authority. Similarly, the Intellect rules over the Appetites but does so by constitutional authority, segregating various impulses into two camps; those which may be indulged without punishment and those which must be resisted by threat of punishment of death. Both of these relationships are natural and therefore good because, in both cases, when the players are co-equal or inverted in their authority, the person is said to be corrupted.

Though we may quibble with his language, Aristotle’s argument here is fundamentally sound. His second, Humanity’s dominion over Nature gives some cause for pause. “Tame animals,” he argues, “have a better nature than wild, and all tame animals are better off when they are ruled by man” [448]. While a statement like that may have been perfectly reasonable (if ill-founded in its anthropocentrism) in Aristotle’s time, I sincerely doubt that the species dying off in record number in our time due to human intervention into the cycles of nature can be said to be better off from our “rule.” The same would apply to the innumerable exotic animals shipped to various parts of ancient Rome for public slaughter in the name of games. Dogs and cats are still getting the better part of the bargain, at least in the West, but they are part of a lonely segment of the animal kingdom that benefits greatly rather than suffers profoundly from our intervention into their lives.

Finally, Aristotle caps off his arguments defending slavery by examining his interpretation of the natural relationship between a man and a woman where the latter is ruled by the former. This is such a foregone conclusion (“the male is by nature superior and the female inferior; the one rules and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind” [448]) that it only merits only line in the section and receives such scant attention in addressing a contrary position that we can only believe that Aristotle couldn’t imagine one! Based then on these three natural precedents for Slavery, Aristotle concludes his argument by restating it.

When then there is such difference as that between soul and body or between men and animals…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. [448]


  1. I naturally found your commentary on Aristotle's anthropocentrism and his argument that the animal kingdom is better off under the rule of man intriguing. It is true that from a broad view, dogs and cats have been the greatest "benificiaries" of this relationship. But I would also put forth the consideration that our intervention in their wild ancestry has produced the requirement that we rule over, and provide them with care. When examining the extreme results of breeding for specific, "desireable" traits, we have in many instances created such tremendous imbalances, that these species would not survive on their own. While we seem Hell-bent on destroying habitats, over-hunting, fishing, etc., at least our wild animals are left with the dignity of retaining their naturally evolving forms, and are not made lifelong "infants" as a result of our pursuit of aesthetics and domestication. They are not purely under our care--they are at our mercy.

    While I know this aspect of the conversation is not at the heart of the piece, it's the one that struck me.

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  3. Well said. When Kendra worked at a zoo, we spent many hours in contemplation of the chasm that yawned between the experience of a wild animal and one in captivity. While it was impossible to defend the position that either was inherently superior to the other in every case, the binary nature of the question always intrigued us. Our relationship with our pets is so shaped by culture that it is often nigh impossible to ascertain whether the relationship is genuinely beneficent or just so instinctual that we are unable to recognize the little cruelties we visit on those animals whom we presume to love for what they are.