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Aristotle on slavery, Plato on individual and state


To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Aristotle on slavery, Plato on individual and state
Date: 12th May 2009 11:58

Dear Sachiko,

Thank you for your email of 11 May with your essay for the University of London module in Political Philosophy, in response to the question, 'Can Aristotle adequately defend his view that some people are slaves by nature?', and also for your email of 12 may, with your Political Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'How compelling is Plato's analogy between justice in the individual and justice in the state?'

Aristotle on slavery

The first thing I notice about this question is that it asks you to come to Aristotle's aid: can he adequately defend his view on slavery? So it is asking more than merely an evaluation of the arguments which Aristotle explicitly gives for the view that some people are 'slaves by nature'. What arguments *can* Aristotle muster, consistently with his own views, in particular with his views on what constitutes the 'nature' of something?

There is a danger, which you have succumbed to to some extent, in getting bogged down in the nature-nurture debate. You infer from Aristotle's statement, 'from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule' that being a natural slave is 'a matter of genetics rather than development'. Yet, by the end of your essay you conclude, 'The natural slave is properly a developmental failure rather than a genetic one'.

I can't quite see how you managed to make this transition. However, I think that in terms of Aristotle's own theory of 'nature', it can be justified.

In your essay, you try to unpack what Aristotle means by a 'slavish' mental set, whether or not this is a natural endowment. It has something to do with the incapacity for deliberation, or, rather, a certain kind of deliberation. What you might expect Aristotle to say is that the difference is that a slave can only deliberate about means to given ends, whereas a non-slave is also able to exercise 'practical wisdom' in deliberating about ends. That would make sense. Are you sure Aristotle doesn't say this?

If there is such a thing as a slavish mental set or mentality, then there would as you say be the potential for a 'symbiotic relationship' between a human individual who has the mentality of a master and one who has the mentality of a slave. One question to ask here is whether this kind of relationship might exist, even if there is no such thing as a 'natural' slave, that is to say, if slaves are made rather than born.

On the face of it, this is a different question from asking whether it is right or wrong to enslave persons who do not have a slavish mentality, although the line becomes a little blurred if you consider the possibility that a conquered people (say, if the Spartans conquered the Athenians) might over time accept the role of slaves, in which case according to Aristotle's account it would no longer be wrong to enslave them.

You can see what a slippery slope we are on here. It seems there must be natural slaves, otherwise Aristotle's defence of slavery falls apart. If there are not natural slaves, than any people can enslave any other people, because over time the conquered will in their own self-interest acquiesce to the conquerors' desires to make slaves of them.

This is the point where we have to go back to Aristotle's account of what it is for something to have a 'nature'. The notion of genetics would mean nothing to Aristotle, given his hostility to microstructural explanation (e.g. the theories of the Greek atomists). The nature of a thing -- be it animal, vegetable or mineral -- can be discovered through observation of its characteristic functioning in its natural environment: the way it grows, or interacts with the things around it etc. Aristotelian explanation, which we find rather quaint (indeed tautological) takes the form: Entity A X's because it is part of A's nature or essence to X. When the substance water freezes, the ultimate explanation is that its potentiality to freeze is activated by the cold.

Aristotle would defend his view that some persons are slaves 'by nature' by pointing out the evident fact that slaves do indeed behave like slaves. They are unable to pursue an intelligent plan of action without the direction of their master. However, if this were taken as the last word, then surely it would be very cruel to free any slave. Yet, as you report, according to Aristotle 'freedom should be offered as a reward for their services'.

Can we say then, that when we are talking about the 'nature' of different kinds of man or woman, we are talking about something which, although constant for the most part, has (given enough time) a certain tendency towards plasticity. Conquered people can become slavish. Slaves can in time learn enough from their masters to be able to be set free. The view of human nature as plastic rather than set in stone would be consistent with the claim that some persons are, in fact, 'marked for subjection'. Aristotle's view that this is determined 'from the hour of their birth' would apply if they are are born into a household of slaves, or amongst a subjected people. But it is also consistent with the view that some persons who are, in fact, slaves were not 'slaves' from birth.

All of this does not of course constitute a defence of Aristotle's view that slavery is an acceptable practice. Arguably the best critique of the seductive idea of two human beings happily existing in the symbiotic relationship of master and slave is Hegel's famous section of the Phenomenology of Spirit on 'Master and Slave' ('Lordship and Bondage' in the Baillie translation), which reads like a critique of Aristotle.

Plato on justice in the individual and in the state

I can see the point about circularity which you mentioned in your email, or, rather, what you seem think is a potential criticism of Plato on the grounds of circularity. You also make a valid point about 'n-order desires' as an alternative to Plato's tripartite analysis of the soul (more on that below). However, if I was marking this as an exam paper, my impression would be that there is quite a bit of waffle here.

Your idea regarding circularity seems to be this: we understand justice in the individual by considering the makeup of the ideally just state. The ideally just state has three classes. Ergo, the mind of the ideally just individual has three parts. However, if we ask what kind of persons are required to successfully fulfil the roles or functions of the classes in the ideally just state, it turns out that they are persons possessed of 'justice' defined in terms of the functioning of their tripartite souls.

If there is circularity in this account, it would be completely irrelevant that the just state and the just individual both 'partake of the form of Justice'. The whole point is to offer an analysis. it is assumed from the start that to be just is to partake in the form of Justice. The question we are trying to answer is what it is to participate in the form of Justice, i.e. what justice *is*.

However, you suggest a way to test the circularity criticism: 'If Plato's state had a fourth class, e.g. a priestly class with the virtue of piety, would the definition of justice in the state change?' In other words, would we then conclude that a just individual has a soul consisting of four parts instead of three? Well, that's a good question. Why not have a fifth part, consisting in the entertainers -- film stars and pop musicians (actors and lyre players if you insist)?

Plato's answer to this is that you judge the account by the appropriate criteria. Socrates goes to some lengths in the Republic to describe why a successful state made up of three (and only three) classes is the ideal state. One question we can ask is, How good is that account? are we convinced? if not, why not? *Another* question we can ask is, supposing we were convinced, would the conclusion that Plato/ Socrates is seeking to establish necessarily follow, i.e. that the soul of the just individual has three parts, corresponding to the three parts of the ideal state?

The conclusion would follow, if the arguments which apply to the state can also be applied to the individual; that is to say, if the reason why an ideally just state would have three classes who perform their designated tasks is also the reason why the just individual has a soul whose three parts perform their designated tasks.

There isn't anything about this in your essay (hence, the worry about 'waffle'), although I have the feeling that this could be the most important aspect of the question.

As mentioned above, I think you do have a valid point to make about n-order desires. The self or soul is not tripartite or bipartite but a unity. However, we can give a fully adequate explanation of cases like your debating over whether or not to eat the cheesecake in terms of 'reasons for action' (X satisfies my hunger, X is tasty, X is fattening etc.) and the appropriate n-order desires.

You do need to say more about how this works. If every time you see a cheesecake, the tastiness reason overrides lack of hunger or worries about your waistline, with consequent feelings of depression and self-recrimination after you have demolished the sweet, then you might form the second-order desire not to give in to temptation in the future. Two components of this process are the intellectual apprehension of the harm that eating cheesecake is doing to your health, as well as the strengthening of habit (in the Aristotelian sense) required to resist. Arguably, there are your three parts.

A further finesse occurs to me, however. If the analysis just given in terms of second-order desires is correct (we can ignore higher order desires, which would be pretty rare) then in a way it does constitute a vindication of Plato's account of the soul, not as the literal truth, but rather as a valid myth or picture. The analysis just offered gives the cash value of that picture. If someone believed that their 'soul' had three parts, their belief wouldn't be false, it just wouldn't be the most perspicuous representation of the actual truth.

In an exam, you can still use the point about circularity. You just have to preface it with, 'one might be tempted to think that...'. Or, you might still think that given what I've said, your point is valid, which is OK if you can find a clinching argument.

All the best,