A Modern Reconciliation of Aristotle’s Views on Slavery and the Subordination of Women


Kevin Gillespie

December 17, 2010

A Modern Reconciliation of Aristotle’s Views on Slavery and the Subordination of Women

It is a common practice to judge past societies from our own modern perspective.  We must remember however that ancient civilizations did not have access to the subsequent build-up of centuries of knowledge and experience that is now available to us.  We should, therefore, attempt to avoid the trap of judging them from our own cultural point of view.  With that in mind, Aristotle seemingly supports both the subordinate place of women and the naturalness of slavery within even the most enlightened political communities of his time—two ideas that are fundamentally incompatible with today’s modern western values.  This does not mean however, that all of Aristotle’s political philosophy should be thrown out; other elements, such as Aristotle’s concept of citizenship, remain remarkably relevant to this day.  Aristotle’s writings themselves can also be used to adapt his political philosophy to the modern world.  He writes of an imaginary world—quite similar to our present day society—in which relationships of subordination, like the relationship between master and slave, would be unneeded.  This view, combined with his belief that the good of the community is the greatest good, shows us that Aristotle’s political philosophy can be adapted to a society which believes in the fundamental equality of all humanity.

Aristotle was a product of Ancient Greece; he was raised and encultured in a time and place with markedly different cultural mores and beliefs than can be found in today’s modern society—one of the most notorious differences being the socially accepted status of sexual relationships between older men and young boys in ancient Grecian culture (Osbourne, 2004).  Aristotle is known to seemingly accept and support many of these commonly-held beliefs and behaviours, two of which are the subordinate status of women in Greek society and the idea that slavery is a natural human condition.  In his Politics for instance, Aristotle writes that “there must necessarily be a union of the naturally ruling element with the element which is naturally ruled, for the preservation of both” (I.2, 1252a). He goes on to argue that both the subordinate status of women and the concept of slavery are justified as a result of this natural relationship.  In Book I for example, Aristotle states that “the relationship of male to female is naturally that of the superior to the inferior, of the ruling to the ruled” (I.5, 1254b).  On the topic of slavery, he describes it as a natural human condition that benefits both slave and master, writing:

The element which is able, by virtue of its intelligence, to exercise forethought, is naturally a ruling and master element; the element which is able, by virtue of its bodily power, to do the physical work, is a ruled element, which is naturally in a state of slavery; and master and slave have accordingly a common interest (Politics, I.2, 1252a).

With the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, western society has come to reject the fundamental inequality of women and the existence of natural slaves.  Knowledge builds upon knowledge; we keep what’s good and we discard the rest.  This does not mean however that ancient Greeks were incapable of achieving valuable philosophical insight in other areas of enquiry.   For instance, Aristotle’s concept of citizenship as a legal construct delineating the possession of political rights is remarkably similar to the modern reality of citizenship, which is defined by law and varies across jurisdictions.  In Canada for instance, citizenship is legally defined under the Citizenship Act, with only citizens eligible to vote or run for political office, or to be selected for jury duty.  This modern idea of citizenship is quite similar to Aristotle’s view that citizenship is constitutionally defined in law (Politics, III.1, 1275a), and is made up of those who are “entitled to share in deliberative or judicial office” (III.2, 1275b).  What this discussion of citizenship attempts to show is that, while some of Aristotle’s beliefs seem to be incompatible with modern western values, others nevertheless remain remarkably relevant.  In this way, Aristotle’s political philosophy can be adapted to a society which rejects the subjugation of women and the existence of natural slavery.

A somewhat sneakier way of reconciling Aristotle’s views on natural slavery with our modern liberal society can be found in his own writings about slavery.  In Book I of his Politics, Aristotle paints a picture of an alternative world which seems to eerily mirror present day society.  He imagines a situation in which “each instrument could do its own work, at the word of command or by intelligent anticipation” (I.4, 1253b)—a description which fits remarkably well with today’s technologically advanced society.  In the same paragraph, Aristotle goes on to state that in such a situation, “managers would not need subordinates and masters would not need slaves.”  If this imaginary world can indeed be equated with our own technologically-driven society, then according to Aristotle himself, we have no need for slaves.  If this is the case, then Aristotle’s belief in the existence of natural slavery become almost a moot point.  There is no need for us to discard this element of his political philosophy, as he seems to have already done it himself!

Not only would slavery be abolished in Aristotle’s imaginary world, but the subordinate status of women would also presumably be eliminated.  Although he makes no specific mention of women in his made-up world, he does write that “managers would not need subordinates” (emphasis added) (Politics I.4, 1253b).  To me, this clearly implies that any relationship of subordination within such a society would be unnecessary—this includes the subordinate status of women.

Another roundabout way of reconciling Aristotle’s repressive view of women with today’s liberal society is found in The Nicomachean Ethics.  In it he writes:

[It] is clearly a greater and more perfect thing to achieve and preserve [the good of the] community; for while it is desirable to secure what is good in the case of an individual, to do so in the case of a people or a state is something finer and more sublime (I.2, 1094b).

It is clear that Aristotle valued the wellbeing of society above all other.  In a culture which values and promotes the equal participation of women in civic life, the equal status of women in society contributes to its wellbeing—after all, half of society is made up of women!  In this way, Aristotle’s political philosophy can be adapted to a society whose wellbeing depends partly on the equal status of women.

Aristotle’s belief in the greater good of the community, combined with his claims that subordinate relationships would be unnecessary in a society similar to our own, can easily be used to adapt his political philosophy to a society which rejects the inequality of women and the idea of natural slavery.  Aristotle however, seemingly does support both the subordinate place of women and the naturalness of slavery within ancient Greek society.  While we might find these positions totally incompatible with our modern western society, it is worth remembering that Aristotle was a product of ancient Greek culture and was thus subject to the dominant worldview of the time.  When we judge him for such seemingly unenlightened views we are doing it from a  modern vantage point with the added benefit of 20/20 hindsight.  Moreover, it does not mean that other areas of his political philosophy are equally incompatible with modern life; his concept of citizenship for instance, remains remarkably similar to the present reality of citizenship.  Aristotle’s political philosophy, in these ways, can easily be adapted to our modern western society.

Bibliography:

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. (J. A. K. Thomson, Trans.). London: Penguin Books.

Aristotle. Politics. (E. Barker, Trans.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Osbourn, R. (2004). Greek History. London: Routledge.

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