Natural slavery

When I was on staff at the Western Herald, I often promised (or threatened, depending on one’s perspective) to write a column in defense of Aristotle’s theory of natural slavery.

To recap:  Aristotle often takes heat for defending the institution of Greek slavery.  It should be noted, of course, that Greek-style slavery was substantially different from the American experience with African slavery.  Aristotle argued that some people were “slaves by nature” – that is, their capabilities and their outlook left them especially well-suited to the life of a slave.  Contemporary commentators forget the myriad points of departure from today’s Judeo-Christian moral climate and the virtue-based environment of antiquity, which accorded honor and moral praise to those who most completely fulfilled their social function; it is therefore not especially difficult to understand Greek slavery and the rationale behind Aristotle’s defense thereof in light of the history of moral philosophy.

Slavery is illegal in the United States.  But the institution of “natural slavery” seems to be as strong as ever.  Want proof?  Look at the local gas-station attendants or grocery-store cashiers.  It’s one thing to do menial work for minimal remuneration for extended periods; for some, circumstances do not allow for a realistic exit from this economic reality.  But for others, this scenario is escapable but the “natural slave” has absolutely no desire to do anything different.  He or she fully understands how to work the cash register and finds some degree of fulfillment in being promoted to chief clerk or assistant manager.

Indeed, I met many of these people during my first job.  I worked as a clerk at a grocery store while in high school.  We had a number of senior cashiers, some of whom had been employed for longer than I had been alive, whose daily working life focused on who got to be the shift team leader or who was given their very own supervisor number for the cash registers.  Some of these people even had college degrees, but they lacked ambition.  They were comfortable working as retail clerks.  They were good at it, and whatever their aspirations, they did not possess the gumption to improve their lot in life.

Slavery is possible even lacking whips and chains.  We are slaves to our own needs, wants and desires.  It is trite to observe that we are our own worst enemies, but if the shoe fits ….

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