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Oct 14, 2015

Master and Slave: Aristotle

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How Aristotle’s Politics Exhibits Ambivalence Toward Slavery

Department of English
New York Institute of Technology

Aristotle, in his Politics, elides the notions of slaves and tools, thereby calling forth the idea of artificial slaves, primarily by focusing on all potential providers of intelligent labor (humans, horses, even tools) as objectified sets of functions—in other words, he elides the ideas of things, animals and people, focusing on what Norbert Wiener would call their “operative images” rather than their physical character.  His focus on operation, or function, over form provides Aristotle with a precedent for thinking of a conglomeration of individual entities as one tool, anticipating the idea of intelligent networks.  But, perhaps more importantly, we can see in these formulations of Aristotle’s ambivalence toward slavery (defined here as chattel slaves that can be bought and sold, versus serf-like groups, such as the helots of Sparta or the penestae of Thessaly).

Aristotle sees slaves primarily in teleological and pragmatic terms: they are animate tools that the master uses to achieve an end.[i]  The particular end of the servant is action, as opposed to production.  For the householder or the craftsman, a servant is a type of tool whose chief function is to use other tools, which then produce material results.  In essence, Aristotle thinks of human slaves as part of a network of tools that allow the master to “live well” or to conduct his business effectively.  This network, as Aristotle defines it, is hierarchical: “a possession is a tool for living, and one’s possessions are a collection of tools; a slave, then, is a particular sort of animate tool, and every servant is a tool prior to other tools” (1253b31-33). 

It is clear that, because of this teleological focus, in which a slave is merely “a tool prior to other tools,” or a tool of higher position in the hierarchy of instruments, function is paramount (1253b33).  The ability of a human servant to take orders and translate them into action is at the heart of a slave’s purpose.  Therefore, the humanness of the servant’s form is important only as it contributes to function: human hands can move the shuttle on a loom; human understanding (as opposed to rational thought, which Aristotle contends is absent in slaves) [ii] allows orders to be followed.  This focus on function is evident from the terms in which Aristotle contemplates the possibility of artificial servants.  Even though his fantasy about artificial servants is meant to illustrate why human slaves are necessary, he does not speak of the human shape as integral to his notions; instead, he imagines its erasure.  “If,” he postulates, “a shuttle worked by itself and a plectrum struck the chords of a lyre by itself…masters would have no need of [human] slaves” (1253b38-40).  Accordingly, a reified capacity for intelligent work, rather than the human form, as such, is at the heart of his vision of the artificial slave.  “Suppose,” he continues, “that each tool could follow orders, or could itself perceive in advance what is needed, and so could complete its work by itself” (1253b34-35).  It is clear that Aristotle’s end in articulating this notion of self-guiding tools is to make functionality more economical and direct.  He is, in essence, imagining the elimination of the troublesome “middleman” that the fully-embodied, human slave represents.

The fact that he clearly envisions all servants, artificial or human, as essentially mobile, intelligent instruments, is further demonstrated by the remarkable absence of the human shape in Aristotle’s other examples of artificial servants.  For instance, the moving tripods that Hephaestus fashions in the Iliad, which are mentioned in Book 18 of Homer’s epic, and which Aristotle uses as one of his models, are supposed to wait on the gods in their banquet hall; yet, despite this patently human function, they have simple, non-human, utilitarian shapes.  They are essentially intelligent serving-trays on wheels that go from Hephaestus’ house to the gods’ assemblies and, presumably, from guest to guest.[iii] 

The instrumental view that Aristotle has of servants does not mean that he sees no attachment or relationship between master and servant.  On the contrary, he considers servants to be associated in a kind of network with their master, as organs are to the body.  As he puts it, “The slave is a sort of part of the master since, though he is separated from his master’s body, he is a sort of animate part of it” (1255b11-12).  In other words, one could say that, for Aristotle, servants are tantamount to extensions of the master’s body.  This is signaled by the fact that Aristotle uses the word organon to denote both tools and bodily organs.  He sees them as one in the same because they both work toward the same telos, the well being of the master.  The servant is a part of the master in that he is “an animate tool…for living” (1253b31-33).  Aristotle’s use of a ship’s rudder and human lookout as examples of the kinds of tools he is speaking of is revealing:  “The pilot [of a ship]…uses the rudder as an inanimate tool, and the lookout as an animate tool” (1253b28-30).  In other words, the rudder acts as a modified extension of the pilot’s arms, and the lookout acts as an enhancement of his eyes—they are, in effect, prostheses, augmentations of the master’s body and senses, and the distinction between animate and inanimate form is secondary.[iv]

Collectively, the pilot’s inanimate and animate tools provide a sort of extended somatic network that allow him to more effectively steer his ship—a network which, with its parts, is an extension of the master himself.  By implication, then, the pilot’s apparatus of human slaves and other, “inanimate tools” is essentially one large tool—a system driven by a collection of intelligences, but centered on the master as its major node, an arrangement which enhances the master’s power to act upon his environment.  In terms of the relationship between the master and the slave, the foregoing reinforces Aristotle’s view of the slave as a “possession” of the master (1254a-b), as a “tool for living,” and it suggests that servants’ bodily forms are unimportant to Aristotle except for the functions they may provide the master’s body, functions that Aristotle would gladly see transferred to non-human, artificial forms, if possible. 

The most obvious implication of Aristotle’s focus on function in his discussion of slaves—and of his couplings of the somatic and the artificial, of the organic and the inorganic, the sentient and the owned—is that, by equating the human and the tool, the master can feel comfortable about his domination of the Other.  For a tool is not human, like the master, and therefore not within his circle of empathy.  This objectification makes ownership acceptable.  For example, the concept of slaves as simply part of a network makes them seem less human than if they were seen as individuals.  The pilot’s servants are, for Aristotle, just a collection of parts, an apparatus, mere addenda to the master’s body.  Whatever semblance of humanity, reason, or capacity for independent action they may possess, the only true human is the pilot their actions center on and whose agency they extend.  Furthermore, Aristotle’s idea of the artificial servant—an intelligent tool that is a product of human craft—reinforces this sense of license toward the Other, for we generally equate making and owning.  His notion of the artificial servant is, in this sense, an ethical convenience because it allows him to skirt the questions inherent in the subjugation of those who may not fit his criteria for “natural slaves.”

Nevertheless, Aristotle’s argument for the notion of the natural slave, and his presumable use of it as a defense of the widespread practice of slavery in Greece, runs into some problems.  In Book 1, chapter 5 of the Politics, he struggles to explain the difference between the purportedly inferior, “thinking” slave, and the supposedly superior, “reasoning” master—making the somewhat contradictory distinction that slaves can think well enough to perceive reason in another, but do not themselves have the ability to reason (1254b, 21-23).  The strain in this distinction of Aristotle’s is clearer in his earlier contemplation of artificial servants, where he notes that one of the ways in which they would be useful is that they could, implicitly like human slaves, “perceive in advance what is needed, and so could complete [their] work by [themselves]” (1253b34-35). ).  It is hard to see how “perceiving in advance what is needed” is not a form of reasoning.  And since he is implicitly equating these automatic, reasoning tools to human slaves, he is also implicitly contradicting his own argument that these humans are natural slaves—which is also to call into question the innate superiority of the master, a problem that becomes more pointed when he turns to the issues of aristocrats who are forced into slavery by law or war, and of human volition.

He gets stuck on the issue of volition—of human slaves’ capacity for independent action—in Book 1, chapter 6, finally admitting that there are those who never make good slaves because they refuse to see themselves as such—usually because they are slaves by law or force rather than by birth, and so not “natural slaves.”  Notably, Aristotle frames this admission in somatic terms.  He talks of how these kinds of rebellious individuals do not serve as good extensions of the master’s body, whereas the truly “natural” slave benefits from the rule of the master for reasons having to do with telos—Aristotle’s idea that complementary parts are meant to complete a larger whole.  He describes the difference between natural and unnatural slaves as follows:
For the same thing is expedient for the part as for the whole…and the slave is…a sort of animate part of [the master’s body].  Hence the same thing is expedient for slave and master, and there is friendship between them, if they are naturally worthy of these positions; but the contrary is true of those who are slaves only by convention and force and do not deserve to be slaves. (1255b9-15)
Aristotle’s acknowledgement that certain slaves are the products of convention or force and that there will be friction between these servants and their masters, and also that these kinds of slaves will feel that they deserve to be included among the society of masters, signals strain in his justification of the common Greek practice of slavery.  He allows that some slavery is not workable and, implicitly, not proper because some slaves, such as aristocrats captured in battle, do not readily fit the definition of “natural” slave, nor can they be convinced that they do.
            Because of this, and because, for the Greeks, high social status was presumed to be coincident with higher powers, such as reason, Aristotle’s statement also implies that those of higher social station who become slaves by convention or force can be a danger to their master because they are more powerful than the average slave, and they know it.  Much closer to our time, Hegel deals with the dangers of forced enslavement more explicitly in his discussion of the master-slave dialectic.  In Hegel’s conception, society is constantly unsettled because those who are masters always attain their status by some kind of force; moreover, their slaves (or “bondsmen,” as Hegel puts it) eventually gain power through their constant labor, their remaking of nature, which allows them a sense of self and power formerly denied by their subordination to the master.  Simultaneously, the masters, as those bondsmen gain a stronger sense of self and power, suffer an erosion of self-consciousness and power both because their sense of self is dependent upon the weak recognition given them by their bondsmen, and because they have an ever-decreasing contact with work and the natural world.  This shifting power differential threatens to reverse the master-slave relationship.  Thus, certain slaves, not only by dint of their birth (as Aristotle would have it), but also by their awareness of the very power disparity between them and their master, in terms of their control over material means of production, become rebellious.[v]  This weakens any network of servitude (a point on which Marx capitalizes later, in his work).  In light of these considerations, we can say that Aristotle’s dream of automatic slaves is not simply a fantasy about having a more efficient source of slave labor, but also another type of tacit admission of the tension that underlies his (and implicitly his society’s) attempts to rationalize slavery.  Aristotle’s very comparison of his idea of automatic slaves to the automata created by the gods carries an implicit anticipation of Hegel’s notions, a recognition of the differential in power that might exist between the truly useful, powerful servant and his master.
Thus we see that the effective end of servitude for Aristotle—the element that is most important to him—is also the most dangerous: the slave, along with other, inanimate tools, provides a system that extends the master’s practical functions and thereby provides an augmentation of his means of working his will upon nature.  However, this potential that inheres in the servant to augment the master’s domination of nature is also a prime source of friction between servant and master.  Aristotle tacitly admits the difficulty of controlling such powerful, sentient “tools” as human slaves when he states that the main advantage of an artificially made slave would be that “master-craftsmen would have no need of servants, and masters would have no need of slaves” (1254a, 1-2).  Why dream of getting rid of human slaves at all, if not for the pesky business of keeping a hold over rebellious servants, as well as of maintaining them?[vi]  But besides this inconvenience, there is also, as is clear from my previous discussion, his ambivalence about the propriety of enslaving certain classes of people, and his difficulty explaining how some humans can be considered “natural” slaves.  Indeed, the very need to defend the idea that “natural slaves” exist points to qualms about his compatriots’, and perhaps about his, views of slavery.  Thus, there are numerous indications in his own writing that Aristotle may not have been completely convinced of his own arguments in support of slavery.


[i] My source for Aristotle’s discussion of servants and slavery is his Politics, from the recent translation: Aristotle: Selections, trans. Terence Irwin and Gail Fine (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1995) 450-460.
[ii] Aristotle maintains that, although the servant like any other beast of burden has enough intelligence to understand instructions and even, unlike beasts, to know reason when he hears it, the slave does not possess the ability to reason.
[iii] Iliad 18:368; Aristotle, 1253b36-37.
[iv] As Katherine Hayles has pointed out, prosthetic devices, though conventionally thought of as “modifications intended to compensate for deficiencies,” can also include additive functions, “interventions designed to enhance normal functioning.”  See How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999) 84.
[v] G. F. W.  Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit.  IV.A.
[vi] Although it is clear that the main reason to dream of doing away with human slaves is to decrease the owner’s trouble and expense, a number of things also, as I have mentioned, point to some ambivalence in Greek society and on Aristotle’s part toward owning other humans.  Not least among the evidence of this is the very need to defend the idea that “natural slaves” exist.  Aristotle’s discussion in the Politics seems to indicate that, though reluctant to admit it, he is aware of the dehumanizing force of slavery on both master and slave.

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