Aristotle’s it was common for Athenians to be

Aristotle’s Politics
is considered one of the most acclaimed and influential pieces of political
philosophy since its publication. While this may be true, it is also considered
highly controversial for Aristotle’s view and discussion of natural slavery. In
Politics, Aristotle outlines his
belief in “natural slaves,” who are not only enslaved in a morally just way,
but who could also benefit from enslavement. Scholars have long debated his positions,
with some questioning their validity and seeking to expose its “inconsistency
and incoherence,” and others pointing to its veiled attack on the institution
of slavery itself.1


            This paper
does not seek to agree with Aristotle’s theory on slavery, but it does provide
a framework showcasing how his arguments were justifiable. I will do this by
viewing his assertions through a lens in-line with the context of his time and
place, without modern day viewpoints of slavery. Further, I will discuss
Aristotle’s views on slaves being socialized out of their condition and how, in
all, his words represented a significant critique and restriction on the practice
of slavery during his time.

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clearly offends modern sensibilities, but it is important to note its abundance
and usage during and after Aristotle’s time.2
Slavery was a widely-accepted practice of the time and it was not long before
Aristotle wrote the Politics that it
was common for Athenians to be sold into slavery for their inability to repay a
loan.3 In
a time when slaves were “simply accepted as facts,” Aristotle’s notions and
contemplations regarding slavery were quite admirable.4 Aristotle
rejects the notion of conventional slavery when he recognizes that some men are
naturally inclined for slavery, and some are not – “for it must be admitted
that some are slaves everywhere, others nowhere”.5 He
notes that by basing slavery solely on “legal sanctions and superior power,” it
is not just disadvantageous to both master and slave, but also unjust.6
For Aristotle to understand that slavery is in place because of its normality
in human nature, but also note that in some ways it is unjust, shows the extent
to which he endorses the institution of slavery. (MORE…?)


            The significance of Aristotle’s rejection of
conventional slavery cannot be understated, especially in the context of
ancient Athens. As the predominant sources of slaves in Athens were the
enslavement of war captives and reproduction among the slave population, it is
evident that Aristotle considered the actual practice of slavery in his time
as being unjust.7
This points to his view on how slavery as a form of punishment should have been
nullified in Athens altogether. In Aristotle’s view, should a slave not be
naturally predisposed to his enslavement, his master has no moral right to
force the slave to continue doing so.8
Therefore, can we assume that Aristotle is saying a slave had an implicit moral
right to choose whether he wished to continue as a slave or not? Further, we
see Aristotle’s contemplation regarding not only who should be slaves, but also
why should there be slavery at all. Slavery should not be done just because one
can, but only if it is necessary.9


            Aristotle’s account on the possibility for a slave to
exit their slavishness is entirely up to debate. In the Politics as well as his will, Aristotle is too vague for audiences
to come to a clear conclusion on his views. He recommends in the Politics that masters should promise
their slaves freedom as a reward, although he is not specific with his
reasoning for this.10
If slavery is not innate, as is a socialized process, then it seems to be
entirely possibly that one can socialize themselves out of natural slavery. Aristotle specified in his will that his
slaves be freed if his executors deemed them worthy of freedom.11  Incomprehensibly, Aristotle does not give a
clear enough indication whether he is referring to natural slaves or
conventional ones. If he was not referring to natural slaves, then according to
his theories on slavery, it would be morally incomprehensible to enslave them
in the first place.12
Is the condition of natural slavery permanent? If so, then freeing natural
slaves would be unjust since it would “deny them benefits of having a master.”13
Aristotle does not go on in his account of natural slavery to say that freeing,
or not enslaving natural slaves is unjust. By observation of their master, and
learning to understand the nobility of their superior, slaves might have the
opportunity to be educated out of slavery – so long as they have a virtuous and
forgiving master. In all, Aristotle explains that the only unjust aspect of
slavery is enslaving individuals who are not natural slaves, and that slaves,
if given the opportunity, are morally obligated freedom, if their master wishes
that upon them.


            With insight into the time, place and general context of
Athens when Aristotle wrote Politics,
one can more easily objectively assess his accounts on natural slavery. If one
were to read them within the modern-day context of how society generally feels
about slavery, then his writing would be deemed unjustifiable and
unintelligent. But Aristotle, who is aware of the uses of slavery in his time,
writes to educate on how particular aspects of enslavement are unjust, and
where they are perfectly acceptable. His endorsement of this institution is
clear, in which some men are deemed natural slaves, but he also recognizes that
we cannot base slavery solely on superior power or legal enforcement. With
every bit of evidence for enforcing slavery, Aristotle goes on to critique his
own way of thinking, and/or the institution itself, leading readers to believe
his account could be seen as justifiable – specifically within the context of
Athens at the time this was written.

1 Darrell Dobbs, “Natural Right and
the Problem of Aristotle’s Defense of Slavery,” The Journal of Politics 56, No.1 (1994): 71-2.

2 Cite the paper used (online)

3 Robert Schaefer, “Greek Theories of
Slavery from Homer to Aristotle,” Harvard
Studies in Classical Philology 47 (1936): 177.

4 Ibid.,



7 Jill Frank, “Citizens, Slaves, and
Foreigners: Aristotle on Human Nature,” The
American Political Science Review 98, No. 1 (2004): 94; P.A. Brunt, Studies in Greek History and Thought (Oxford:
Clarendon Press,1993), 350





Nicholas D. Smith,
“Aristotle’s Theory of Natural Slavery,” Phoenix 37, No. 2 (1983): 111