Photo: Nick Thompson, 4th Century BC Sculpture of Aristotle from the Ludovisi collection, Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Altemps, Rome, from Flickr
Aristotle and the Argument for American Slavery
By Olivia Haynie
Throughout history, philosophers and authors from ancient Greece and Rome have inspired later civilizations and generations. Their ideas on governance, morality, and democracy have launched countless movements for political liberty and justice. However, they have also inspired proponents of bigotry: The Involuntary Celibate (Incel) Movement drew inspiration from Ovid and the Stoics, the Third Reich was influenced by Tacitus, and in antebellum America, proponents of slavery found an advocate in Aristotle.1, 2 Several of the most well-known justifications for slavery in the U.S. stemmed from the ideas of Aristotle. However, Aristotle’s words were occasionally manipulated by American proponents of slavery to make stronger arguments for aspects of slavery that Aristotle would not have necessarily agreed with. It is important to acknowledge the controversial views of classical thinkers that we now see as unfavorable and the harm that these views can cause, but it is also important to not let people claim these thinkers as figureheads of their prejudicial movements. Pointing out the fallacies in how classical work has been appropriated for dishonorable ends is important for preserving the legacy of classics. This paper explores how Aristotle’s views on slavery in Politics were used to argue for slavery in antebellum America and the varying degrees of appropriateness with which these writings were applied.
Supporters of slavery shifted the perception of their movement by using Aristotle as a spokesperson for slavery. Employing Aristotle’s ideas helped pro-slavery advocates turn the argument into a matter of principle and intellectual reasoning instead of an argument based purely on racial bias. Slavery proponent George Fitzhugh wrote much in his book Cannibals All! about the importance of Aristotle’s ideas on slavery and stated how helpful it was to have Aristotle on the side of slaveholders:
“With the world at large our authority was merely repulsive, whilst the same doctrine, coming from Aristotle, had, besides his name, two thousand years of human approval and concurrence in its favor…”4
Here, Fitzhugh shows just how much credit was given to ancient authors. George Frederick Holmes emphasizes this concept. While writing on Aristotle’s idea of the natural slave, he states: “Let it be remembered that this is the deliberate conclusion of him, who has been justly termed ‘the master of the wise.’”5 This quote reveals how high of a pedestal Aristotle was placed on and how that lent credibility to those who cited him. It also helped that Aristotle was a Greek philosopher. Since Aristotle hailed from what Americans perceived as one of the greatest democracies known to history, his words likely seemed even more powerful to the members of the new democracy.6
Laying the Groundwork for American Arguments
In Politics 1, Aristotle makes several arguments for the idea of “natural slavery.” One key Aristotelian idea echoed in the later arguments for American slavery was that of the “natural slave.” Aristotle states that the relationship between slave and master is fundamental to the law of nature: “In the first place, there must be a union of those who cannot exist without each other; namely, of male and female, that the race may continue…and of natural ruler and subject, that both may be preserved.”7
By comparing the union of a “natural ruler” and subject to the relationship between man and woman, not only does Aristotle imply that the distinction between “natural ruler” and “natural subject” is as inherent as the distinction between the biological sexes, but he also argues that those who are slaves and those who are masters need each other to survive. In order for humans to prosper, Aristotle argues that the dynamic of slave and master must exist in a household. In Politics 1, Aristotle states that the master of any household must know “the art of wealth-getting.” As Aristotle claims, acquiring wealth is the ultimate goal of a household. This acquisition of wealth includes property, and since slaves are considered property by their owners, they are considered an essential part of obtaining wealth.
According to Aristotle, nature not only justifies the relationship between slave and master but also determines who is meant to be a slave. He argues that not all people have the ability to perform high levels of mental reasoning nor have the mental capacities to be more than physical laborers. He states:
“He who participates in rational principle enough to apprehend, but not to have, such a principle, is a slave by nature. Whereas the lower animals cannot even apprehend a principle; they obey their instincts. And indeed the use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different; for both with their bodies minister to the needs of life.”8
The argument Aristotle makes here is echoed in nineteenth-century American discussions about the natural mental inferiority of blacks and their natural place as slaves. Aristotle also makes a comparison between natural slaves and animals, something later applied to blacks in many writings on slavery. For example, Thomas Jefferson, in his famous Notes on the State of Virginia, compares blacks to animals in terms of their “pulmonary glands,” and the vast majority of white Americans at the time believed blacks were physiologically more similar to animals than to white humans.9
Aristotle also argues that the relationship between slave and master is mutually beneficial to both parties. He states:
“The science of the slave…may…include cookery and similar menial arts…But all such branches of knowledge are servile. There is likewise a science of the master, which teaches the use of slaves…Yet this so-called science is not anything great or wonderful; for the master need only know how to order that which the slave must know how to execute. Hence those who are in a position which places them above toil have stewards who attend to their households while they occupy themselves with philosophy or with politics.”10
Here, Aristotle essentially argues that the slave and master are both enhanced by their relationship; the slave becomes more knowledgeable about skills related to his natural role as a laborer, and the master gains wealth and free time for intellectual growth. Undoubtedly, it is deeply troubling that Aristotle presents a slave learning how to be a better slave and a master making money as equal forms of reward. But this argument is similar to those made by proponents of American slavery — that slaves gained as much out of their work as the masters did because it gave them a purpose that they could not have otherwise found due to their mental inferiority.11 Fitzhugh also argued that free blacks suffered more than the enslaved ones did because they had to compete for jobs with whites, while enslaved blacks had guaranteed labor.12 This, of course, ignores the fact that while enslaved blacks were given job security, they were not provided with proper compensation.
Manipulation of Aristotle
Often, Aristotle’s words were manipulated by supporters of slavery for political gain. American proponents of slavery habitually pointed to certain parts of Aristotle for guidance while ignoring other parts. One critical way Aristotle’s argument about natural slaves differs from those made by American slave advocates is his proposal that what is inside the brain and soul, in addition to physical characteristics, marks who is a natural slave and who is not:
“Nature would like to distinguish between the bodies of freemen and slaves, making the one strong for servile labor, the other upright, and although useless for such services, useful for political life in the arts both of war and peace. But the opposite often happens – that some have the souls and others have the bodies of freemen…but the beauty of the body is seen, whereas the beauty of the soul is not seen.”13
This quote reprimands those who assign the master and slave roles by physical qualities alone, pointing out that men who have bodies fit for physical labor can also have minds fit for levels of reasoning appropriate to freemen. Also important to acknowledge is the fact that nowhere in Politics 1 does skin color factor into the discussion of slavery. In Book 7 of Politics, Aristotle does, however, point to specific ethnic groups that he considers naturally submissive:
“Those who live in a cold climate and in Europe are full of spirit, but wanting in intelligence and skill…they retain comparative freedom, but have no political organization, and are incapable of ruling over others. Whereas the natives of Asia are intelligent and inventive, but they are wanting in spirit…they are always in a state of subjection and slavery.”14
However, Aristotle’s argument is not that every individual in these groups is naturally a slave, as he recognizes that the minds and spirits of individuals can differ within groups. Rather, his logic only indicates that members of these ethnic categories would be more likely to function in the capacities of natural slaves. This nuance is essentially ignored by proponents of slavery in America. The pro-slavery writer George Frederick Holmes does acknowledge that Aristotle labeled some European ethnicities as “natural slaves,” but argues that Aristotle was influenced by his environment:
“It is true that the natural relation between master and slave, in the tenor of Aristotle’s remarks, is exhibited by him in a form abhorrent from the general feelings and opinions of modern times, but this may be traced, in a great measure to the peculiar prejudices of the Greeks.”15
The irony of this statement, of course, is that the view Holmes and his compatriots had on African American enslavement was influenced by their own “peculiar prejudices.”
Supporters of slavery would sometimes take Aristotle’s words out of context and push his ideas to extremes. Inspired by Aristotle, Fitzhugh argues in Cannibals All! that the downfall of slavery would lead to the downfall of the family. He begins by arguing that family is a sacred and fundamental part of society. He goes on to state that while this was recognized in early civilizations,
“As conquest and commerce introduced wealth and corrupted morals… the family was corrupted and disrupted…From that era till slavery arose in the South, the family never resumed its dignity and importance.” 16
Here, Fitzhugh draws an interesting association between the institution of slavery and the sanctity of family units. Then, he brings in his classical evidence for this argument:
“Aristotle understood this subject thoroughly…He commences his treatise on Politics and Economics with the family, and discourses first of the slaves as a part of the family. He assumes…that the family, including husband, wife, children, and slaves, is the first and most natural development of that social nature. As States are composed of families, and as a sound and healthy whole cannot be formed of rotten parts…As all human beings live the greatest part of their lives in families, it is all-important that they should look to the wise arrangement of this old and universal institution.”17
Fitzhugh suggests that a society built on families without slaves cannot stand, as these families are “rotten parts.” However, Aristotle did not say this; while he does argue that a prosperous household must have slaves, he does not say that it would be detrimental to family values if slaves were absent from the household. Aristotle is concerned with monetary prosperity, not the “sanctity” of a family unit. In no way does he suggest that having households without slaves would lead to the collapse of society, as Fitzhugh implies.
Another way the writing of Aristotle was misapplied to justify American slavery was a discrepancy in translation. The 1853 Walford translation of Aristotle provides readers with this line: “From the hour of their birth, some are marked out for the purpose of obeying, and others for ruling.”18 The term “marked out” is translated from the Greek word diestēke which means “to separate out”. However, by translating it as “marked out,” a physical and visible differentiation between natural slaves and natural masters — such as race — is implied.19
Antebellum proponents of slavery harnessed ancient models of slavery to give their own arguments more credibility. One point this paper aimed to explore was how appropriately slave owners applied Aristotle’s philosophy to justify slavery. The majority of evidence suggests that they distorted his philosophy. Mistranslation and misinterpretation contributed to the misapplication of Aristotle’s works in the justification of American slavery and the dismissal of certain arguments. The proponents of American slavery were also influenced by the racial biases that had been ingrained in them all their lives. They took those modern biases and applied them to Aristotle’s words, seeing what they wanted to see in his writing and making it fit their own worldview. This usage of Aristotle demonstrates the credibility given to him thousands of years after his death but also shows how classical writings can be manipulated to bolster modern arguments. While anyone can be inspired by ancient thinkers, it becomes an issue when the classical work is manipulated and claimed solely for one movement, especially for one that promoted treating other human beings as inferior. Critically examining both the problems with classical thinkers’ arguments and how their words are manipulated is important for keeping classics safe for all.
Olivia Haynie is a student at the University of Pennsylvania (C’24) majoring in Sociology with a concentration in Culture and Diversity. She is also minoring in Religious Studies and is a member of the ’22-’25 CAMRA Fellows.
Calhoun, John. “Slavery a Positive Good.” Teaching American History, 10 Sept. 2021, https://teachingamericanhistory.org/document/slavery-a-positive-good/.
Fitzhugh, George. Cannibals All!: or, Slaves without Masters. Applewood Books, 2008.
Holmes, George. “Observations on a Passage in the Politics of Aristotle relative to Slavery.” The Southern Literary Messenger, Apr. 1850,
“The Internet Classics Archive: Politics by Aristotle.” The Internet Classics Archive | Politics by Aristotle, classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.1.one.html.
Jefferson, Thomas, and William Harwood Peden. Notes on the State of Virginia. Norton, 1972.
Krebs, Christopher B. A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’s Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich. W.W. Norton, 2012.
Monoson, S. Sara. “Recollecting Aristotle.” Ancient Slavery and Abolition: from Hobbes to Hollywood, edited by Richard Alston, et al. Oxford University Press, 2011.
Rae, Noel. “How Christian Slaveholders Used the Bible to Justify Slavery.” Time, Time, 23 Feb. 2018, time.com/5171819/christianity-slavery-book-excerpt/..
Ricks, Thomas E. First Principles What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country. HarperCollins Publishers, 2021.
Timmons, Greg. “How Slavery Became the Economic Engine of the South.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 6 Mar. 2018, www.history.com/news/slavery-profitable-southern-economy.
Zuckerberg, Donna. Not All Dead White Men Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age. Harvard University Press, 2019.
3 Monoson 259
4 Fitzhugh xxii
7 Aristotle 1.2
8 Aristotle 1.5
9 Jefferson 201
10 Aristotle 1.7
12 Monosson 263
13 Aristotle 1.5
14 Aristotle 7.7
16 Fitzhugh 285
17 Fitzhugh 286
18 Monoson 266
19 Monoson 267