THR Blog   /   August 13, 2020

Aristotle, Literally

I don’t think Aristotle is our enemy. I consider him a friend.

Matt Dinan

( Aristotle, Alvaro Marques Hijazo (2018). Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

Cancellation has a long and revered history in Western philosophy. Long before G.W.F. Hegel made it the lynchpin of his system of philosophical logic, the Athenians cancelled Socrates. Upon the occasion of the death of Alexander, legend has it that Aristotle fled Athens, explaining that he would not allow it to cancel philosophy a second time.

I’ve always thought this apocryphal sketch captured something deeply true about Aristotle—his surprising wit, his prudence, and also his shiftiness. Perhaps these qualities account for his notorious resistance to cancelation: Despite the best efforts of such behemoths as Francis Bacon, René Descartes, and Thomas Hobbes, we read him still. Arguably, ever since Aristotle was definitively un-cancelled in the West by Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle has become almost synonymous with philosophy itself. In a memorable joke in the ABC sitcom The Good Place, the character Eleanor Shellstrop asks philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye “who died and left Aristotle in charge of ethics?” to which Chidi calmly responds: “Plato.” Just so.

Well, I, like Thomas Aquinas, am an avid reader of Aristotle, and so I took notice when my vacation attempt at not thinking about Aristotle was interrupted by University of Chicago professor Agnes Callard asking New York Times readers if we ought to succeed where the ancient Athenians and modern thinkers alike had failed, and, finally, cancel Aristotle. Callard thinks according to the contemporary rules of the game, we would be justified in canceling Aristotle for his pernicious political views; specifically, a deep inegalitarianism that is a feature, not a bug, of his ethical and political theory. Unlike thinkers like Immanuel Kant, whose problematic views, are offset by the fact that their theories offer tools for bringing those same views into question, Book I of Aristotle’s Politics seems to present a full-throated defence of “natural” slavery.

Despite his apparent defence of slavery, however, Callard thinks that Aristotle’s name should remain on library facades, paintings of him in museums, and his books on syllabi. Why? Because “philosophers must countenance the possibility of radical disagreement on the most fundamental questions,” even arguments justifying the most dangerous and demeaning institutions. This is because, for Callard, there is no danger in genuinely philosophical argumentation. Whatever a certain class of ancient Athenian thought of the threat posed by Socrates, Callard suggests that the real dangers are posed by “messaging,” which she contrasts with the “literal speech” of philosophers: “literal speech employs systematically truth-directed methods of persuasion—argument and evidence—messaging exerts some kind of nonrational pressure on its recipient.” When we argue about freedom of speech and cancelation, we are in fact arguing for the freedom to pursue literal philosophical speech, as opposed to messaging, which is rightly condemned.

Like Callard, I don’t think Aristotle is our enemy. I consider him a friend. But unlike Callard, I think Aristotle is our friend not because he is a sort of “alien,” whose views represent a world view so foreign to our own they might be from a different planet, but because I think his account of slavery is meant to challenge a deeply unjust element of ancient Greek political life. Indeed, as Christopher Frey points out in a recent article on the subject for Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal when read in the “literal” way that Callard recommends, we soon discover that Aristotle’s views seem “borderline incoherent.” As Callard implies in her own article, incoherence from a philosopher, let alone from Aristotle, whose Organon was held to be “the instrument” of logic for most of Western intellectual history, is perhaps surprising.

As Jill Frank has observed, Aristotle’s account of slavery in the Politics is deeply implicated in his attempts to discern the “naturalness” of political life more broadly. From the very beginning of the Politics the status of what might be considered natural and how is fraught: the emergence of the city is described as “natural” in two different ways. Political communities are said to be natural both because human beings require one another for reproduction and preservation, and because as the animal with speech or reason (logos), human beings can only fully exercise that reason in revealing “the advantageous and the harmful, and hence also the just and the unjust” with one another. As Mary Nichols argues, nature, as Aristotle first presents it, is characterized by a sort of doubleness, corresponding to necessity as well as nobility.

It is therefore interesting that Aristotle’s first mention of slavery in the Politics is to show how it is unjust and only dubiously natural. Speaking of the “barbarian” custom of conflating women with slaves, Aristotle suggests that nature makes nothing in “an economizing spirit,” and that the nature of women is not the same as the nature of slaves. Therefore, since women have some other, undefined, “natural” purpose, it is unjust. Do men, similarly, have a natural purpose that differs from the purpose of the slave? If this is so, then we must question the natural justice of slavery not only for women but for men as well.

When Aristotle returns to the subject of slavery a few pages later, his framing of the issue is similarly revealing. He examines existing opinions about slavery, and particularly the thesis held by “some” that despotic rule or “mastery” and “political” rule are the same, while “others” believe that “exercising mastery” is only conventional. Aristotle is concerned about the conflation of politics with mastery, and the role that nature plays in our thinking about such things. Despotic rule is characterized by the use of other human beings as property, as tools—but as Aristotle describes what that might look like, his example is the magical tools of the god Hephaestus, which, according to Homer, “of their own accord came to the gods’ gathering.” The tools of the gods, like those who are enslaved, have agency or foresight: In order for a slave to be useful, he must possess something of the foresight which is apparently the unique province of masters. Upon consideration, everything that would “justify” slavery exposes it as tyrannical.

Aristotle makes a similar move in his ostensible defence of “natural slavery,” where he suggests that the relationship between “masters” and “slaves” is justified according to nature where the difference between master and slave is as stark as the difference between body and soul. The same principle of natural simplicity originally used to question the institution of conflating women with slaves is now used to defend it. Setting aside the fact that Aristotle himself evidently does not view the soul as separable from the body in De Anima, he is unable to show the existence of such a person in fact. As Nichols puts it, Aristotle carries the “notion of [natural] simplicity underlying despotism to absurd lengths. Despotism is just only between simple beings, who are all body and all soul.” Since all humans are in fact complex beings with bodies and souls, slavery is impermissible according to Aristotle’s own argument. In addition to calling for the education of slaves, Aristotle even concludes this section of the Politics by denigrating “mastery” as having “nothing great or dignified about it” since the “master must know how to command the things that the slave must know how to do.” The indolent masters simply ordering the more capable slaves is a perfect capstone to an account designed to accomplish something like the opposite of what it is often taken to do—demonstrating the indignity of tyrannizing others.

Crucially, Aristotle thereby demonstrates that politics, which occurs between free and equal persons, is radically at odds with the Greek practice of slavery. Despotic rule, characterized by a permanent distinction between the rulers and the ruled, is anathema to political life well understood. A system of slavery must assume human beings as simpler than they are, and they often do so with pernicious accounts of the nature of nature. Aristotle might not be a modern egalitarian, but his perspective on politics might not be so different from ours as to make him an inscrutable cypher.

Furthermore, a “literal” reading of Aristotle, like the one I’ve presented here, calls into question the possibility of literal readings as envisioned by Callard. As ancient commentators like Olympiodorus have observed, Aristotle “was deliberately obscure when writing because he wanted to make eager and careless youths undergo a trial.” As I think most people who have read Aristotle will admit, his way of seeking the truth is not straightforward: It’s dialogical, protreptic (that is, intended to persuade), question-begging, and therefore question-raising. To read Aristotle “literally” is to be confronted with questions borne of dealing with complexity.

Toward the end of the Nicomachean Ethics, the direct “prequel” to the Politics, Aristotle warns that in matters of passion and activity, we must always compare words (logoi) with deeds (erga). When the words are at odds with the deeds, he tells us, they bring the words themselves into disrepute. This is not only a useful way for telling what someone really believes but a useful hermeneutic for reading Aristotle himself. Even philosophical words “do” something beyond the “literal” purpose of truth-seeking because human beings are not simple rational beings, but complex, passionate beings, engaged in a variety of activities at any given time. While the “words” of Aristotle therefore seem to defend natural slavery, his “deeds” not only call it into question, but show how such complexity requires an approach to politics that is similarly complex.

Callard’s view of Aristotle unfortunately elides the very parts of his political thought that are most relevant to a sclerotic and decadent political culture like ours. For Aristotle, political life at its best is about sharing speeches about the just and the noble things, but such speeches can be shared only among people who have given up modelling politics on despotic rule, where silence—and silencing—reigns. Indeed, the ones who are the enemies of politics as Aristotle understands it are those, like contemporary racists or misogynists, who aim to present as simple what is complex. We should not cancel Aristotle, even if we could. This is so not because of the specific way he argues, but because what he argues in the Politics responds to the conditions in which giving up on persuasion and moving towards cancellation can occur in the first place.