We are all familiar with the fact that Aristotle thought that some people are natural slaves. But I don’t think we always think through the full implications of what Aristotle was saying.
For Aristotle, nature is the active, vital principle in something that makes it what it is. It is the fundamental driving force that directs an organism’s development in one direction rather than another. To say that someone is a natural slave, then, means that his nature tends toward slavery. In a real but perhaps unconscious manner, he desires to be a slave. Just as a ball will naturally roll down a hill unless something prevents it from doing so, so the natural slave will gravitate toward slavery unless something prevents him from doing so.
Now it was self-evident for Aristotle that nature should be fulfilled rather than thwarted. If some people are natural slaves, then it is right and good that their natures should be fulfilled in slavery. Before we leap up in outrage, we should understand that Aristotle means by “slavery” something a bit different than what we normally understand by it. When we think of “slavery”, we think of the modern institution of pure exploitation. We think of the Spanish capturing Africans and dragging them to the New World to work on plantations until they dropped. The Spanish, as well as the later English, Dutch and American slave traders, were not motivated by an Aristotelian understanding of slavery. They were motivated by the lure of pure profit and the slaves were entirely expendable in pursuit of that profit.
Aristotle’s understanding of slavery is not that of an institution of simple exploitation. It is something that should work for the benefit of both master and slave. It is an example of the “ruler/ruled” relationship that Aristotle finds everywhere in life; he sees the master/slave relationship as analogous with the father/son relationship. If we must find a modern image of Aristotelian slavery, then probably the best is the “noble obligation” that British colonialists felt in their rule over India. The British thought that their superiority of culture gave them the right to conquer and rule over India, but also that it carried with it the obligation to rule for the benefit of the Indians as well as themselves; a very Aristotelian view of things.
My point in the present essay is not to argue whether the Aristotelian institution of slavery is just, or whether the British rule of India was ultimately good or bad for that subcontinent. It is to ask the question: Was Aristotle right that some people are natural slaves?
I have argued in an earlier post that most people want to be told what to do. That is an admission, I suppose, that I believe Aristotle was right that there are such things as natural slaves; even that most people are by nature slaves. But that doesn’t mean that I am any less dedicated to the proposition that all men should be free. It does mean that I think that making men free, and keeping them that way, is a lot harder than we suppose it to be. We are running against the grain of their natures.
If some men are by nature slaves, and nature should be fulfilled rather than thwarted, then how do we avoid Aristotle’s conclusion that slavery is just or, at least, that it is inevitable? There is one possibility: Men must be given a new nature, a nature that is naturally free rather than inclined to slavery. This is the nature that Jesus Christ offers us through being re-born in Him. It is in this way that the Gospel is the true foundation of every kind of freedom in the world, including political freedom. It is also the reason that, as Christianity declines in the Western world, political freedom declines with it. Western man is returning to his old nature of a natural slave. In his depths he no longer desires to be free, but only that someone will tell him what to do and relieve him of the burdens of freedom.
It is often remarked that nowhere in the New Testament is there an explicit condemnation of the institutions of slavery. This is because Jesus Christ was after a much deeper target; he was after the natural slavery that is in the heart of every man. An attack on the public institutions of slavery is meaningless without a change in the natural inclination man has toward slavery; a new institution of slavery would soon be built on the rubble of the last. Once man’s original slave-nature is re-born in the free-nature found in Jesus Christ, conventional slavery will eventually disappear as a matter of course; for it will no longer be based on nature. Western history bears this out. The Western world once took slavery for granted, as every civilization has, but the Western world is the only one that eventually actively abolished it; and that for the reason that it had become unnatural.
We see the beginnings of true freedom in the Book of Exodus. Moses leads the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt, but it is by way of summons and command. Many times they demand that Moses turn back; they want to go back to slavery in Egypt. They are still natural slaves. But God forces them out of slavery and into freedom; a feat of such irony that only God could pull it off. God’s Law is a law of freedom but it is not perceived as such. One day in seven must be set aside from the demands of the world and be a day of rest. It is, in fact, a day of true freedom, a day of freedom for slaves as well as masters.
The Old Testament is a preparation for the true freedom that is found in Jesus Christ, the true freedom that can only be found by being re-born in a new nature. The nature of this new freedom is wonderfully expressed in St. Paul’s letter to Philemon. Paul does not demand that Philemon free Onesimus. He does not attack the institution of slavery directly. But he asks Philemon to reconsider the meaning of slavery in light of the new life into which he, Paul and Onesimus have been born.
For perhaps he was therefore parted from thee for a season, that thou shouldest have him for ever; no longer as a servant, but more than a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much rather to thee, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
Onesimus was once just “a servant”, a natural slave. Now he is “more than a servant”, a man born into a new freedom in Jesus Christ, and Paul asks Philemon to respect that freedom. What meaning can conventional slavery have when its foundation in natural slavery has been overthrown by Christ? Paul is not asking Philemon to go against the grain of nature. He is asking Philemon to fulfill what has now become natural for Paul, Philemon and Onesimus: To be free.