Ancient Greece was arguably one of the greatest civilizations of all time. Beginning in the 8th century BC and ending around 146 BC, this era introduced some of the greatest innovations in literature, technology, and philosophy. But with such a large civilization came many conflicts that created internalized rifts. Afflicted with economic instability, wars such as the Peloponnesian war, and political tension, Ancient Greece began to split up into “poleis”, or city-states (singular: ‘polis’). As opposed to a centralized governmental system, dividing up into these city-states allowed each polis to gain political and economic independence, while also providing better protection and safety for its inhabitants.
As a result, distinct cultures and beliefs arose within these poleis, harvesting some of the greatest scientists, warriors, and philosophers to ever exist. Born in Stagira, Aristotle grew up learning in a top-notch educational system. At only 17 years old, he fled to Athens, where he studied under the great philosopher Plato. Soon enough, Aristotle proved to have his own philospohical eminence and began to create works of his own. In one of his greatest works, Politics, Aristotle investigates the concept and structure of a polis, and the various ways it influences the existence of man in Ancient Greece. Utilizing his analytical method of thinking, he argues that man can only achieve true goodness and virtue by becoming an active member of a polis.
However, Aristotle’s argument that the ‘polis’ is the greatest form of human association, comes with many flaws. He suggests that slavery is a key component of a successful polis and that it is “natural”. However, as Aristotle explores this concept of “natural slavery”, many contradictions arise in his argument, as well as shortcomings in what Aristotelian ideology defines as “natural” in a polis. Before addressing the pitfalls in Aristotle’s argument, one must examine what exactly a polis is in Aristotelian terms. Aristotle begins his work by discussing the foundation upon which an ideal polis is built. He first states that a polis is “natural”, and that it consists of a hierarchy of associations, where the constituents of each association work towards the common goal of achieving virtue. This idea that a polis is “natural” is based upon the fact that humans have the natural inclination to form a hierarchy. Thus, an Aristotelian polis is made up of multiple hierarchical “stages” that work coherently to provide for the common good. At the lowest stage, are associations between individuals, such as man/woman, master/slave, and ruler/ruled. These associations are formed due to the fact that neither individual is capable of living without the other. When multiple ‘pair’ associations come together, they form the next stage of the polis: households. From a collection of many households arises a village, and from many villages becomes a self-sufficient, virtuous state. To Aristotle, the state is considered the pinnacle human association because it ensures a “good life” for those who decide to be a part of it. This exploration of a polis’s structure is what lays down the groundwork for other topics discussed in the following chapters. As the book progresses, Aristotle analyzes key aspects of a successful polis.
One component of Aristotle’s rhetoric is that slavery is necessary for a polis to properly function. In Chapter V, Aristotle delves into the idea that slavery is natural and serves as a catalyst for the polis’s economic efficiency. To justify the reasoning as to why slavery is natural, he relates the relationship between master and slave to other natural relationships, such as mind and emotion: “In these relationships it is clear that it is both natural and expedient for the body to be ruled by the soul, and for the emotional part of our natures to be ruled by the mind, the part which possesses reason” (1254b2). Here he suggests that the mind controls people’s emotional nature because the mind possesses reasoning that is strong enough to tame one’s emotions. Thus, it is only natural for the mind to be the “ruler” over emotions because the mind is able to rationalize and make justified decisions, whereas emotions often lead people to impulsive and irrational behavior. Aristotle relates the mind and emotion relationship to the master and slave relationship in the sense that the master is more capable of reasoning than the slave and is able to rationalize, thus entitling him to be the “ruler” in the relationship over the slave. Though the mind and emotion relationship is indeed true, the master and slave relationship is simply incomparable. First, it is impossible in this sense to compare the intangibility of mind and emotion to the tangibility of people. The mind and the master have different characteristics that ultimately affect the dynamic of their respective relationships in disparate ways.
For example, while the mind and emotion work coherently in order to better the person as a whole, the relationship between master and slave is often one sided and in favour of the master. Though he considers there to be humans meant for slavery and not, master and slave relationships oftentimes revolve around varying degrees of oppressive force in order for it to function properly. Secondly, Aristotle’s argument that the master and slave relationship is natural is based heavily upon the assumption that the master will act in a rational and reasonable manner to the slave. Though there may be marginal cases where this is true, history has proven time and time again that most masters were irrational individuals that treated their slaves inhumanely, making Aristotle’s claim highly conditional and valid only to a certain extent. If a master in a master/slave relationship is irrational, the claim that a polis is “natural”, as well as Aristotle’s argument, is immediately disproved. Continuing with his claim that slavery is natural, Aristotle compares the idea that the relationship between a master and his slave is equal to the relationship between a man and an animal.
In Chapter V he states: “This is also true as between man and the other animals; for tame animals are by nature better than wild, and it is better for them to be ruled by men, because it secures their safety” (1254b2). Here, Aristotle is denoting that a relationship between a man and an animal is natural because the animal benefits from becoming tamed, and in return, the man gains from the animal’s use as a tool for increasing productivity. He then relates this back to the relationship between master and slave, claiming that these relationships are the same in the sense that the master “tames” the slave for his own use, and in return, the slave is given purpose and guidance. However, like the mind and emotion analogy, this comparison is flawed. Though slaves are considered “property” in a polis, they are still humans in the end. As Aristotle stated previously, all humans are capable of reasoning and rational thought, but the concept of slavery is what systematically oppresses slaves from even becoming capable of becoming rational human beings, thus making it unnatural.
On the contrary, there are no animals that are able to attain rational thought under any circumstances, thus making this comparison invalid and misaligned with the Aristotle’s original argument. Upon further analysis, it is evident that Aristotle’s advocation for slavery as a key aspect of a successful polis contains multiple ideological flaws. Furthermore, the analogies Aristotle utilizes to discuss “natural slavery” contradicts his main argument on multiple occasions, indicating a lack of clarity in what is considered “natural” in a polis under Aristotelian terms. One reason a person might find these ancient beliefs disagreeable is due to the rapid increase in progressiveness over time. In modern times, it is evident that advocation for human rights has become much more popular and has affected the ways we reflect on ancient philosphies. This comes to show that further examining Aristotelian ideologies with a progressive mindset reveals many ideological shortcomings and inconsistencies, indicating weak points in these beliefs.
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