Social Groups In A Polis Who Are Not Recognized As Citizens
Depending on the polis, citizenship varies; in some cases, artisans and farmers and other groups are included within the definition.
However, in an ideal polis, Aristotle maintains that “a citizen should not lead the life of a [vulgar] artisan or a tradesman; for such life is degrading and inconsistent with virtue. Nor should a citizen who is to be [happy] lead the life of a farmer; for he should have the leisure to acquire virtue and to perform [good] political actions”.
Citizens ought to pursue the virtuous life because it is the best life to live, but it requires the ability to reason and deliberate and time to participate in government. Slaves lack the capacity to reason and therefore cannot be of any use to the government. Women are seen as inferior to men and thus cannot pursue the virtuous life either. Farmers and artisans have the capability to pursue this life, but their tasks are such that they leave little time to develop virtues and to participate in government. In this section I explore Aristotle’s treatment of these groups. I also discuss the roles these groups have in a polis.
One of the most polemical subjects that Aristotle argues for is slavery. In talking about slavery, it is useful to understand some of the context of Aristotle’s time. Slavery in Athens differs from the type of slavery employed for over 200 years in the United States. In 431 BC, the slave population was approximately 100,000 in Attica to the 50,000 adult male citizens that lived in the same region.
These facts demonstrate that it was not only the wealthy minority that owned slaves; those who could afford to own slaves did. Slaves also outnumbered the number of adult citizens, so it is likely that households owned more than one slave. In addition, most slaves were foreigners to Athens, so the probability that many of the slaves were conquered by ancient Athens was high.
According to Aristotle, there are two different kinds of slaves: one can be a “slave by law who serves a master” and one becomes a slave because the slave is conquered and thus “[belongs] to the conquerors”. In other words, it seems that Aristotle believes that slavery is a natural institution, especially because Aristotle considers a slave as “an animate possession” of any given household. More support for this view occurs further on: “for a slave by nature is a man who can belong to another […] and who can participate in reason […] but [who cannot possess] it”. From this quotation we can infer that there are slaves who are naturally servants whether by nature or by being conquered.
Aristotle defines a slave as “an individual who […] is by his nature not his own but belongs [wholly] to another [man]; and a man is said to belong to another if, being a man, he is a thing possessed; and as a possession he is an instrument which, existing separately, can be used [by the master] for action”. A slave belongs to a master as a mere tool that is used at the master’s discretion. While the slave completes all of the difficult tasks that involve working with the hands, the master is able to fully pursue “higher activities” such as “politics, poetry, music, and the like”.
The menial work that the slave performs prevents the master from activities that may “dull his mind”. Such tasks involve manual labor such as cooking, cleaning, tending the crops, house repairs, etc. Since the slave spends much of the time carrying out the master’s tasks, it follows that the slave does not have the time to pursue to virtue.
This same view is out of context in most of today’s households because slavery is illegal and/or looked down upon in some countries. However, we do have occupations that may seem to function similarly to slaves – butlers and maids, custodians, window and car washers, etc.
However, there are major differences between these types of work. During Aristotle’s time period, treating slaves poorly and unfairly would be more of a social and ethical concern that may or may not be addressed, whereas in today’s society mistreating a butler or a custodian could lead to more severe consequences. Slaves undertake all the hard manual labor work so that the master can pursue other, higher faculties. In contrast, custodians take care of buildings and keep places clean so that when people come to visit they do not become sick due to unsanitary conditions. In a modern context, it is more appropriate to consider butlers and maids, custodians, and similar parties as a part of the Aristotelian conception of the farmer and artisan category. This shows that slavery has become a dying practice and thus does not fit into a modern conception.
Kraut sums up one rebuttal against this claim by saying that “some human beings are by nature slaves”. Looking back to the definition that Aristotle gives, it is shocking to notice how he objectifies the slave as an instrument and not as a human being to help the master become more of a virtuous person. Aristotle wants the reader to think about the master-slave relationship in terms of a tangible example about possession.
The two types of possession that Aristotle draws attention to are inanimate and animate. Inanimate possessions are like rudders: they do not move on their own because animate possessions (in this example, the lookout person) move them. The lookout person makes sure that the person who steers the ship does not run into ships, rocks, or other hazards. To sum up, slaves are animate possessions (lookout people) that are used by the master (the person steering the ship) in order to promote the betterment of the entire household (ship). In this sense, slaves serve as animate tools and not living, breathing individuals.
Nevertheless, Aristotle believes that the master does have some positive effect on the slave. Since slaves lack virtue and “the deliberative part of the soul” and because a good master possesses virtues, the slave can learn some of what the master either teaches or demonstrates. Unfortunately, a slave is only useful “for the necessities of life; so it is clear that he requires but little virtue, as much as is needed to prevent him from failing to perform his work because of intemperance or cowardice”. To a certain extent, slaves require some acquisition of virtue. However, a slave does not need to pursue complete virtue in order to perform these daily tasks because the slaves’ duties do not call for complete virtue. In an ideal polis, since slaves cannot pursue the virtuous life, and because citizens are required to develop virtues in order to be good citizens, slaves cannot become citizens in an ideal polis.
Similar to slaves, women are not regarded highly in Athens. Aside from the obvious fact that in both texts the male presides as the dominant figure both as a figure and within the masculine language, the male is “by nature superior to the female, and [it is better for] the male to rule and the female to be ruled”.
Kraut would interpret this quotation by arguing that “all human beings—including women and natural slaves—naturally want to join with others […] but only free man are political in the more specific sense; only they (Aristotle wrongly supposes) have an impetus to participate in civic life”. Aristotle thinks that women do not want to participate in political affairs, which is why he concludes that women are better off being ruled. This may also be seen as Aristotle’s view that women are inferior to men.
Another, more direct reason why Aristotle sees women as subordinate to men is because “the male is by nature more able to lead than the female,” and Aristotle compares this relationship to that of a kingship: “for a king, although of the same race as his subjects, should be by nature superior to them”. Even though man and woman come from the same race, Aristotle maintains that man is by nature superior to women with regard to ruling, so man should hold that high position. The same kind of ruling occurs in a marriage as well, for a man also rules over his wife politically.
A woman lacks the ability to rule because she “has [the deliberative part of the soul] but it has no authority”. A woman seems to be capable of pursuing the virtuous life, but since she lacks the authority and is not as worthy as men to rule, she cannot participate in government, as authority is a crucial component of ruling. From this it is clear that Aristotle does not see women as worthy enough of being called a citizen because of the lack of authority and the inferiority to the male dominance.
In an ideal polis, farmers and artisans rank slightly above women and slaves, but Aristotle does not consider them as full citizens like the adult males in the society. However, he does recognize that both types of people are necessary to the polis, but they are not actually a part of it like its citizens are.
Why is it that “the tradesmen and craftsmen are recognized as necessary to the existence of the State, but (to a modern eye) seem to enjoy none of its privileges, and are too easily declared to be debarred by the nature of their work from political ‘virtue’”? The work that farmers and artisans perform is not within the scope of the political virtues. Aristotle does not see the artisan or the farmer as part of an ideal polis because “a citizen should not
lead the life of a [vulgar] artisan or a tradesman; for such life is degrading and inconsistent with virtue. Nor should a citizen who is to be [happy] lead the life of a farmer; for he should have the leisure to acquire virtue and to perform [good] political actions”.
These groups are too consumed with trying to provide the polis with materials necessary for the polis to exist and thus do not have time to pursue the virtuous life. Moreover, these groups of people lack the time and the lifestyle appropriate for a citizen to pursue. They could not participate in government because they do not lead or pursue virtuous lives, and it is probable that they do not pay close attention to political affairs due to their duties as farmers or artisans.
I conclude that this is how Aristotle sees the ideal polis. However, Aristotle also acknowledges the importance of looking at other political systems as well, for it is important for a ruler to have an understanding of more than one political association. We will see why that is when we begin to examine other non-ideal political systems and the key items that rulers can learn from them.