political animal and natural slavery

A student of Plato, Aristotle wrote his book Politics on fundamental political issues that we construct our theories or still debate today. He firstly addresses the city-state and its rule, and then the emergence and naturalness of the city-state and parts of the city-state that consist of household, master, and slave. In this essay, I will focus on the claim that man is a political animal by nature, and some are naturally slaves while some are free. And then, I will point out how these two ideas are related to each other and evaluate these concepts from a liberalist view.

To start with the phenomenon of the natural animal, Aristotle bases his argument on two points. Firstly, before defining the city-state, he focuses on the smallest agencies that contribute to its emergence: household, village, and city-state. All of these are cooperation at some point to achieve something good. Secondly, the city is natural as it enables people to accomplish their telos. For Aristotle, all beings in nature have a purpose, and the best thing for them is to reach and achieve that purpose. When he questions what is good for human beings and their functions, he concludes that any human being, just being human has a function built into them. He claims that human beings are distinct from animals because they have a capacity for reasoning. Human beings are natural animals as they respectively question the four causes, reach the final cause, and desire to know by nature, and finally, they are rational animals. For instance, all animals have a voice, and what human has beyond is their ability to think and communicate. Hence, they can debate about just and unjust, freedom or good life. Logos consists of speech and reason, giving a fundamental human attribute, the act of deliberation. Human beings evolve from rational animals to political animals when they are engaged in political communities to achieve their telos.

The second claim I will highlight is that some people are naturally slaves while some are free. From our modern point of view, the defense of slavery is unacceptable and would cause generating misconceptions about Aristotle. It is hard to engage in this idea today. However, we should consider his work’s this part and avoid rejecting Aristotle entirely. He grounds slavery on nature as he did in the political animal. Slavery is, by nature, the property of someone else that services for some purposes. Then, what makes people identified as slaves? In each sphere of life, there is always a governor and a governed: mind over wishes, men over women, human beings over animals. If a human resembles an animal, there is no reason to distinguish it from animals. Human beings are political animals as they have the ability to be rational, which enables reaching their purpose, telos. If one does not have self-discipline, and cannot go beyond its passions contrarily get stuck into them, one should not expect recognition from others. However, it can be argued that Aristotle’s slavery was a progressive idea in his period as it rejected the inheritance of slavery. We cannot guarantee that good people’s children will be good, and irrational, animal liked slaves’ children will not have self-discipline. Aristotle rejects slavery based on a constitution but promotes it with the condition that it is by nature.

These two concepts are related to each other as they are both constructed on being by nature and achieving telos. All beings have a purpose; human beings are rational animals; rational animals have a purpose; as they are rational, they can reach their purpose through speech in a political community. These natural political communities enable engaging in deliberation. If one is disabled to achieve self-realization, one cannot engage in decision-making, so naturally becomes a slave. Because its mind cannot govern its wishes, it cannot govern others either. Hence, one firstly should achieve itself before engaging in a political community. For instance, think of a rapper who is bad, distant from being good, and achieving telos. This person is not rational because if so, it would rationally know that rape is bad. An irrational rapper is, by nature, a slave.

In my opinion, Aristotle’s understanding of political animals and natural slavery can be evaluated from the liberalist point of view, which believes that all individuals are born equal. Humans possess many talents and potential, and each of them should have an equal opportunity to realize their potential. Aristotle’s city-state resembles liberalists’ view on the issue of achieving self-potential and corresponds to the liberalist view: in a proper environment, city-states that point, we can communicate and think hard on justice, regimes, states, ethics, human rights, good, bad, slavery, politics and more. The political environment’s actual existence is not to suppress people but to support them achieve themselves. However, Aristotle is precisely distinct from liberalists in terms of the equal opportunity given to citizens. Since all his arguments are based on naturality, people are born inequal and live the way they were born. They do not deserve any chance to reach telos, do not worth it. Irrational people are condemned to being slaves. In the example of a rapper, for Aristotle, this person should live as a servant of masters and do not have the right to try to achieve good in a city-state that allows people that. In the liberalist view, the state should enable the rapper to be a better version of him/herself.

To sum up, in his work Politics, Aristotle claims that human beings are political animals, and some of them were born a slave by nature. These two concepts are related to each other. If someone cannot use its rationality, which abuses him/her from being a political animal, s/he is inevitably a slave and does not have any chance to achieve the purpose.

*This paper is written for Pols 201 class of Boğaziçi University

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Elif Feyza Dinç

Elif Feyza Dinç

I am a sociology and political sciences & international relations student at Boğaziçi University. I publish the papers I write during my graduate period.