In a piece recently published in the New York Times under the title “Should We Cancel Aristotle?,” Agnes Collard, a philosopher at the University of Chicago, argues that “Aristotle did not merely condone slavery, he defended it.” She nevertheless argues that we should not cancel Aristotle precisely because of the benefits of engaging with him. There are no good guys and bad guys in philosophy, she claims, simply arguments. Reading Aristotle, says Collard, “can help us identify the grounds of our own egalitarian commitments.”

I admire Professor Collard’s attempt to defend Aristotle despite his views on slavery. My question is whether he actually held the views she attributes to him.

We must avoid two common responses that seem to me misguided. The first is to reject Aristotle out of hand because his views do not conform to our own moral beliefs and judgments. The second is to engage with Aristotle, but minimize views that seem to us mistaken, in order to concentrate instead on what seems to us valid and useful.

Before responding at all, I think we must first take care to understand, as best we can, what Aristotle actually believed; to do that, we must learn to read closely.

The first point worth noting is that Aristotle frames his discussion of slavery as a debate. There are some, he writes, who believe that slavery is natural, that there exist slaves and masters by nature; there are others, he writes, who believe slavery is purely conventional, a product of laws and customs. The one side believes that relations of mastery and slavery are etched into human nature; the other holds that slavery is the result of custom and habit. Even in Aristotle’s time, opinions differed widely on slavery, and how it had become an institution.

Aristotle first turns to those who believe that slavery is conventional. This was a view held by other teachers in Athens at the time. He agrees with those who think that slavery cannot be justified by war or conquest. Wars, he remarks, are not always just, so we cannot assume that those taken captive in a war have been justly enslaved.

Similarly, he disputes the claim often made in those days that slavery is suitable only to non-Greeks. The Greeks typically regarded all foreigners as barbarians because their language sounded to them like “ba-ba-ba.” But Aristotle denies that there are any biological, racial, or ethnic characteristics that might distinguish a slave from a master. There is no hint of what we call “racism” in Aristotle’s views.

Aristotle next turns to those who believe slavery is natural. If so, he asks, what are the characteristics that will define the natural slave? It would be useful, he remarks, if free men differed from slaves in the way that statues of the gods do from men. But here he says something truly astounding. While nature may intend to distinguish the free person from the slave, “the opposite often results.” Earlier in the book, Aristotle famously claimed that “nature does nothing in vain.” Now he implies that nature is not a reliable guide. There is no mark of Cain that designates the natural slave.

Perhaps, he continues, the natural slave is marked by some defect of the soul: maybe there are people whose minds naturally equip them for the activities of free persons — activities like politics and philosophy — while there are others who are marked out for a life of drudgery and labor. The difference between the free person and the slave might be a matter of rationality, or of the beauty of a soul. But here, too, Aristotle adds that if nature fails to distinguish clearly between the bodies of free persons and slaves, it is even more difficult to discern “beauty of the soul.”

Yet after casting doubt in all these comments on the foundations for slavery, Aristotle does not entirely reject it. He is not an abolitionist. There is within each of us, he says, a natural hierarchy of the faculties. Slavery is natural because we enslave ourselves, in the sense that reason cannot rule our selves without restraint of the passions. The need for these shackles is, apparently, as natural as freedom. We still speak of people as being enslaved to their passions and the control of the passions as a form of self-mastery. Restraint or self-control is natural because it is necessary for self-government, for being independent.

Who, then, is the slave by nature? It is almost impossible to say. If the natural slave is someone so bereft of reason that he is only able to follow the orders of another, it is hard to know who that person would be, especially as Aristotle defines human beings as the rational and political animals. It seems that no one is a slave by nature — or that everyone is, because reason shackles our passions.

Here is one of those moments where Aristotle seems almost maddeningly equivocal. In the extant texts that we can read, he is willing to entertain arguments from all sides while not clearly endorsing any. Was he confused? Why does he make an apparently simple argument so convoluted? Are parts of the texts corrupt? Did he rehearse different arguments on this topic in the dialogues and other written works he also wrote, but that no longer survive?

I want to offer an alternative reading. Slavery was a universally recognized practice in the ancient world. To doubt or question it would certainly leave one open to charges of advocating social revolution. Aristotle — a student of Plato’s — clearly knew the fate of Socrates who half a century earlier had been tried and found guilty of corrupting the young and not believing in the gods of the city.

On top of this, Aristotle was not an Athenian. He hailed from Stagira in the northern province of Macedonia. He did not enjoy the privileges and immunities that Athenian citizenship could confer. His position in Athens was that of a resident metic, someone who, we might say, was there on a visa.

Aristotle’s practice was to tread lightly. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that is deeply revealing of his character. Near the end of his life, Athens was swept up in a wave of anti-Macedonian hostility. Rather than remain and be forced to drink the hemlock like Socrates, Aristotle — always prudent — preferred to leave the city remarking that he did not wish to see the Athenians sin against philosophy for a second time.

He exercised the same sort of caution in his texts on slavery. Rather than flat-footedly stating his own point of view, he argued dialectically, often circling around a question, considering it from all points of view, while letting readers draw their own conclusions. He raised probing questions and created nagging doubts, but was careful not to show his hand or to advocate for wholesale social reform.

Aristotle did not imagine Platonic cities in the air but saw the job of the critic as an exercise of political judgment. Judgment is an exercise in “how much” and “how little.” He was less concerned with how things ought to be than with how they might be under existing conditions. He was content to move the ball by inches rather than feet.

For those of us who often take our first amendment freedoms for granted, Aristotle’s form of critique will seem far too cautious. Maybe it was. What Aristotle’s true views on slavery might have been is probably impossible to say. He remains the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

At the very least, however, this should force us to reconsider the view that Aristotle was simply a defender of slavery.

I agree with Professor Collard that Aristotle deserves to retain his place in the Western canon. This is not despite the fact he believed in slavery — but because he subtly shows us how to undermine it.

Steven B. Smith is Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science and professor of philosophy at Yale University.

One thought on “What Did Aristotle Think About Slavery?

  1. This is perhaps the best explanation of Aristotle’s commentary, which has been unjustly exploited in our modern era to condemn Aristotle. For example in the Smithsonian Magazine’s “Dark Side of Jefferson” the author kicks off the article with: “’all men are created equal’—Thomas Jefferson undid Aristotle’s ancient formula, which had governed human affairs until 1776: “From the hour of their birth, some men are marked out for subjection, others for rule.”
    Professor Smith rightly places the comments in the context of both a fuller understanding of Aristotle’s profound thinking, and the context of the times in which he wrote the statements.
    Today we try to interpret Aristotle’s commentary from our modern definitions of slavery.
    I would like to see how scholars translated the original Greek to determine if Aristotle was only speaking to the issue of the institution of slavery, or if he was speaking more metaphysically — akin to Henley’s closing lines of Invictus — I am the master of my fate and captain of my soul.
    In this context, when Aristotle speaks of master and slave, he is speaking not to the institution of slavery, but to the heroic or victimized qualities of the soul.

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