Are Aristotle’s Natural Slaves Real People?

He who participates in reason enough to apprehend, but not to have reason, is a slave by nature. Whereas the lower animals cannot even apprehend reason, they obey their instincts.

So Aristotle said when defining the nature of slavery in book 1, chapter 5, of his Politics.

Since we live in an age of mass hysteria, let me say that I’m not agreeing with or defending Aristotle’s conclusions on this topic in the Politics. Even his contemporaries recognized that they were flawed (not least of which because human beings are by nature not firstly rational beings and that we are therefore all subject to being what Aristotle would call “natural slaves”). Aristotle and his point about “natural slaves” is merely a useful point of reference in the admonishment of this essay.

Back to our topic.

2020 is winding down and it, more than any other year in my lifetime, has revealed much about human nature. Unfortunately, the worst aspects were on display. As implied in the disclaimer, trust in authority and following the herd are two inescapable parts of who we are, but there are degrees to which this is useful or destructive. Since we’re talking about him, Aristotle brought up this exact concept when he spoke about virtue being found in the proper balance between excess and deficiency.

I doubt you would disagree that we have gone far into excess when it comes to trusting (certain) authorities this year. Demagogues, traitors, and opportunists have used the Chinese coronavirus saga to consolidate their power and lord it over the rest of us – as if we were the slaves, all the while they continue on as usual, showing up in posh restaurants inside without bearing the masks they say are more important than the vaccine.

It’s almost as if they know something they don’t want you to, isn’t there?

As Marcus Aurelius would teach us, however, this behavior is to be expected of bad men. Let us not go crazy, but be angry in the right way. Their nature is that they are social climbers more than meritocratic, so we should expect them to fall for Chinese psyops. Since they are by nature insecure, we should expect them to cover their asses by doubling down. Since they are by nature rapacious, we should expect them to benefit themselves and their friends with their lockdowns. At this point, none of this should surprise or unnerve you.

The bigger disgrace, by far, and directly relevant to Aristotle’s arguments about natural slaves, is that we are putting up with it. Worse, a crucial segment of the population is actually celebrating and welcoming this unaccountable overlordship. Witness one of the biggest disgraces I’ve seen so far:

When describing people he viewed as natural slaves, Aristotle also noted:

The master is only the master of the slave, he does not belong to him, whereas the slave is not only the slave of his master, but wholly belongs to him. Hence we see what is the nature and office of a slave; he who is by nature not his own but another’s and yet a man, is by nature a slave; and he may be said to belong to another who, being a human being, is also a possession. And a possession may be defined as an instrument of action, separable from the possessor. (Politics 1.4)

This quote from Aristotle is most revealing when we deal with the reference point of natural slaves. We have seen echoes of this behavior all over the place in the year 2020. Specifically, think about the part where Aristotle talks about people who are, by nature, not their own, but another’s.

Now look at the automatic, panicked reactions among certain factions of people whenever the media reports about increasing coronavirus “cases.” If you can stomach it, look at the responses in this thread to see a notable example.

Note how few reasoned responses may be found. Nothing about how this hysteric’s statistics are nonsense (1% of all infected people are not going to die). Nothing about us knowing how to treat the virus or how vaccines are on the way. Nothing about other considerations concerning the social costs of her and her respondents’ hysteria and how they will negatively affect much broader segments of society in the future (this impulse is what Thomas Sowell called a “Crusade of the Anointed“).

While the Chinese coronavirus is the most disgraceful and damaging episode, this behavior has become commonplace and powerful over the last decade, as we’ve gone from one mass hysteria to the next.

Consider that every time Orange Man tweets, certain segments of society react as if they were programmed.

Consider that with every sensationalized media story, they react as if they were programmed. I need not tell you the countless examples in recent years. Surely, some of them come to your mind on their own.

Now consider Aristotle again. These people seem to act not autonomously, but as if they were another’s, don’t they? I doubt that you will come to a different conclusion. Their thoughts, feelings, even physical actions appear less like their own and more as if they belonged to another. Their animus is less self-possessed and more possessed by another.

Frederick Douglass had his own thoughts on what constituted something like a natural slave:

“A slave should know nothing but to obey his master – to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best slave in the world. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable and of no value to his master.”

These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been a most perplexing difficulty – to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.

In the Politics, Aristotle draws the distinction between natural slaves, and those who were slaves merely by misfortune. Frederick Douglass would fall into the latter category. Throughout his Narrative, it is clear that, though he was a slave by circumstance, he never belonged to another. He was always his own man. Furthermore. Frederick Douglass, unlike the “natural slaves,” was not controlled by his appetite:

We may observe in living creatures both a despotical and a constitutional rule; for the soul rules the body with a despotical rule, whereas the intellect rules the appetites with a constitutional rule. And it is clear that the rule of the soul over the body and of the mind and the rational element over the passionate is natural and expedient; whereas the equality of the two or the rule of the inferior is always hurtful. (Politics 1.5)

“The lower sort are by nature slaves,” Aristotle goes on to say.

Aristotle Natural Slaves

As mentioned in the disclaimer, there are problems with Aristotle here. He uses these observations to conclude that slavery is natural and right, an argument even contemporaries found questionable (even if his doubtful premise was true, we must mind the is-ought gap). How accurate is he, then?

Again, we are not wholly or even firstly rational creatures, so there are some problems with these ideas off the bat. Nevertheless, some people are certainly more prone to being “ruled by their appetites” or the actions of others. Look at the last four years. Orange Man was constantly on the minds of certain segments of society, as if their lives were his and not their own. They flew off the handle involuntarily at everything he did. To be fair, certain conservatives did this too when Obama was in power, but it was nowhere near as widespread or, more importantly, mainstream.

Aristotle’s fatal conceit was that he neglected the possibility of change and the variation of human nature. At times, we will act in accord with the better aspects of our nature, and at times not. Fate and circumstance dictates much. The point of this exercise, though, is that we’ve been incentivized in all the wrong ways, to act as if we really were what he described as natural slaves. We have clearly seen this over the last decade and this year especially. Each of us must resist this course as best we can.

Why help Aristotle to justify his defense of slavery?

Point being: We should not even echo what he called natural slaves. China certainly wants us to.

This post was a preview of some themes you’ll find in essay 29 of Lives of the Luminaries.

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