Aristotle (384-322 BC) is accepted as one of the founders of modern Western thought with his antecedents Socrates and Plato. Aristotle, who was tutored by Socrates’ student Plato, later became very influential in the development of the idea of scientism and scholastic ideology (St. Thomas Acquinas was mostly affected by him). Aristotle believed in the importance of observation and used “teleology”, the study of ends which claims that everything in this world goes purposely to an end. Aristotle explained this purposeful voyage with the word “nature”. In his famous work The Politics, he asserted that there are some people in the society who are naturally slaves whose purpose or end is to serve other people by using their bodily power.
Aristotle’s idea of natural slavery is based on his method of teleology like his other ideas so, in order to fully understand his theories we have to comprehend teleology. In Aristotle’s utopian state every individual, creature and object has a purpose defined according to their nature. According to him, nature of a thing is this thing’s end point and when it is reached it is not possible to go further because at this end point the thing obtained perfection. He asserted that the nature of human beings (political animals) is to live socially and form a state which would provide all men’s needs. (material, social, religious) Thus, the state is a natural thing. “This association is the end of those others, and nature is itself an end; for whatever is the end-product of the coming existence of any object, that is what we call its nature-of a man, for instance, or a horse or a household.”(Aristotle, p. 59) He claimed that the nature endowed human beings the capacity of speech and practical wisdom, two great powers that will help political animals to discover their nature and form a perfect association: the state. Aristotle liked hierarchy and believed that there is always hierarchy in social life. He asserted that human beings are superior to animals, similarly men to women, ruler to ruled and master to slave.
Aristotle in his works talked about two types of slavery: the natural slavery and the legal slavery. Although nowadays it seems extremely cruel and disturbing thing, 2500 years ago in ancient Greece slavery was very common and acceptable. In ancient Greek system, slaves as well as women, non-Greeks and merchants, were not accepted as citizens. In addition, slaves had not got any rights. Their role was to serve their master and use their bodily strength according to their masters’ orders. As far as Aristotle can concern, natural slaves were people who have physical power but no capacity to think and use practical wisdom. He even saw natural slaves as tools, properties that help handling household affaires and increasing production. “So any piece of property is an assemblage of such tools, a slave is a sort of living piece of property; and like any other servant is a tool in charge of other tools”. (Aristotle, p. 65) Aristotle defended his theory with the help of nature concept. He said that these natural slaves were born as slaves and it is their fate to be ruled by someone who is able to think rationally. Natural slaves’ nature requires them to be slaves, their purpose in this life is to serve their masters and nothing better can be expected from them because nature endowed them bodily strength for this purpose. Practical wisdom was not implanted, was not given to natural slaves by nature because their end was related to physical power rather than wisdom. Nature donated some people with practical wisdom but not with bodily power as much as slaves because these people were designated to develop themselves in the intellectual era, to hold a public office and to choose the best for society, for the common interest. In other words, these people were naturally born as rulers but they must first realize their nature and work according to this nature. Aristotle believed that natural slaves are kind of tools, properties created by nature that belong to their masters. “So a slave is not only his master’s slave but belongs to him tout court, while the master is his slave’s master but does not belong to him” (Aristotle, p. 65).
Aristotle, while defending natural slavery by profiting from teleology, criticizes legal slavery by which you force people who caught in war and have practical wisdom to be slaves. Aristotle always trusted in nature and thought that you cannot force a reasonable person to be a slave because this person’s nature is not convenient for slavery. He said that this type of slavery requires the coercion and only the master profits from this relationship. In addition, there is not a good relationship in legal slavery considering the feelings towards each other. However, in natural slavery there is a kind of friendship and mutual benefit. “For this reason there is an interest in common and a feeling of friendship between master and slave, wherever they are by nature fitted for this relationship; but not when the relationship arises out of the use of force and by the law which we have been discussing”. (Aristotle, p. 73) Another criterion of being a natural slave that differs from legal slavery determined by Aristotle is to recognize wisdom while not possessing it. “For the slave by nature is he that can and therefore does belong to another and he that participate in reason so far as to recognize it but not so as to possess it”. (Aristotle, p. 69) This is a very debatable phrase because in order to fully recognize something, you should have, possess some knowledge about it. For instance, you have to possess at least some knowledge about a giraffe in order to recognize it. This knowledge can be large or small, first hand or second hand but you should at least know or heard about its shape or its color etc. some characteristics that will help us to recognize it. Similarly, slaves should have some large or small, first hand or second hand knowledge about wisdom if they recognize it when they saw it. In addition, even if there are people who really do not know anything, do not have a piece of wisdom, for me it would not be acceptable to treat them like slaves.
Problems arising while reading ancient Greek philosophers are mostly related with nature concept. So, let us try to find what is natural. My definition about natural is something that is not made artificially with the use of mind or technology, something that existed according to the rules of nature and changed only because of environmental effects or did not change. In my understanding, a computer is not a natural thing whereas a stone is natural. Humans make a computer by combining many different metal pieces, circuits. However, a stone is natural because it appears due to many reasons related to nature: a piece of magma-lava squirted from a volcano or a piece of rock that came off etc... If a stone is made under lab conditions by humans, in my opinion it will not be a natural stone. Seaside cliff or chimney rock are also natural things because although they changed during the time, the cause of this change is not humans and the use of technology but instead the wind and waves, again two natural things. In this sense, the state cannot be a natural concept because it is again formed, organized by humans. Now, I will try to analyze natural relationships.
There are mostly dominant-dominated relationships in the nature like Aristotle mentioned. Strong animals eat weaker ones, weaker animals eat weakest ones or different kinds of livings such as plants. Human race seems to be the most sophisticated creature in this world due to their ability to think, discover and to cooperate. Humans tame most of other livings and profit from them or at least protect themselves from dangerous ones. Humans cooperate and form buildings, cities; discover new tools, machines that are not found in the nature at the beginning. So, we can say that human rationality, wisdom prevails over nature and changes the nature by cooperating. Humans did not try to oppress each other but instead, they worked together, helped each other against the nature. Of course in some conditions such as when one side is accepted as the ultimate power, problems occur due to defects in human psychology. However, in general sense, humans learned how to live together, cooperate for their sake and they beat the nature. Although there are still some disasters that humans cannot predict and prevent such as earthquakes, floods, tornado etc., humans mostly have achieved to have authority over the nature. In addition, technological innovations still continue and maybe after some decades humans will learn how to solve most of our problems caused by nature.
Human mind as I said before changes the nature and makes the impossible, possible. Between humans like in the nature there is hierarchy; some people are more intelligent, some are stronger, taller or fatter... When we classify humans according to nature, we can easily reach this conclusion: the stronger or the most intelligent should prevail over the weak or less intelligent and should rule. However, as a requirement of human mind’s dominance over nature, humans try change this equilibrium and choose the best option for the whole livings of its race. When the most intelligent becomes the ruler the situation is not perfect. The supreme person generally forgets his/her real aim and the tyranny appears. Humans are not perfect creatures, they have the defect of feelings (ambition, love, jealousy, hate etc.) although they possess practical wisdom. Also, having the ultimate power or in other words playing God’s role makes individuals dangerous. So, the ruling function cannot be given to a single person even if this person is the strongest or the most intelligent among all individuals of its kind. The ruling power cannot be given to a group of people too because the same negative effect will occur again not for a single person but for a group of people. What humans are looking for is a ruling system which will try to provide the common interest of human race as much as possible by acting according to people’s needs. When all people somehow participate to the ruling function, everybody choose the best for themselves, and the decisions are taken by rulers according to the percentage of these “bests” -the system what we call democracy today- people prevent each other to profit too much. In my opinion the same is available also for other social relations, the relations between men and women, employer and employee. When there is not necessary deterrent laws, the party superior to other may try to abuse this superiority by using natural issue and profit too much.
When we apply these views to Aristotle’s theory of natural slavery, we can say that when you call strong people that have less intelligence as natural slaves, the masters will profit too much from them. The ruling action should not be given to a single hand or at least the abuse of this one hand power should be prevented. Of course there are some people who are more intelligent than us, as well as people who are less intelligent around us. In addition, there are disabled or mentally ill people. However, we cannot treat people inferior to us as slaves because as I said before humans decided very long time ago to change the simplest rule of nature: stronger dominates weaker. So, even if there are some people who can only recognize practical wisdom, we do not have to oppress and use them cruelly for our profit but instead try to cooperate with them for example by giving good salaries for their work or by trying to educate them. Today, we have some concepts such as “human rights” that is accepted by the most of the world population and reveals that humans are equal, free and fraternal from their birth. The laws are arranged considering this principle and humans continue to change the nature’s some rules. In addition, religions and moral believes also do not support slavery nowadays. If we start to oppress people who are inferior to us, soon people who are superior to us would start to oppress us and our lives will be like jungle life in which stronger kills weaker.
We should also not forget that conditions are also very effective in shaping people’s situations. In order to classify people according to their capacity, their merit (meritocracy), you should first provide them equal chances, opportunities to develop themselves. In Aristotelian ideology, a strong person who was not a member of a noble family should become a slave. However, being strong that does not require being stupid. This strong person may become a better ruler or philosopher if we provide him possibilities to develop himself. Think about this example; if Einstein was born in ancient Greece with a more muscular, stronger body he would probably become a slave. However, we know that he was one of the smartest guys in the history. So, it is wrong to behave in a prejudiced manner. What is made in ancient Greece (considering strong people as natural slaves) for me is not different from what Hitler tried during 1930s (considering blond, blue-eyed people -Arian race- as superior). We see that the nature concept is very open to be abused because human mind passed the nature and sometimes tried to use nature issue for its profit.
Finally, to sum up we can say that we do not have right to treat stupid people as slaves because the system does not provide equal chances to everybody and the classification made does not represent the real situation. Life brings good luck and good opportunities to some people and also the opposite for other people. Even if the classification made completely represents the real potential of people, treating inferior people as slaves is a very dangerous thing because there will be always somebody superior to us and there would be chaos. Humans starting from long time ago, have been trying to finish wars and establish a peaceful, cooperative, modern life. The only war we are dealing with is our struggle against the nature and it seems that we are going very well in this war. Although there were many events, people who tried to deviate humanity from this way, we chose to go further in this way and to surpass the nature by using our practical wisdom.
- Aristotle, 1992, The Politics, London: Penguin Books