Productive Slaves

Part of the problem in looking to Plato or Aristotle for theories of “craft” is the low social status of artisans in their schema of a perfect world. It’s a class thing, and people who made things were beneath the heads of household that made up the polis in the ancient world. It’s confusing, because both might occasionally speak glowingly of techné (art and craft) one moment and then speak as if artisans were barely a step above slaves. The difference, as I see it, is a thorny distinction between productive and practical crafts. But determining the difference difficult: rhetoric, for example, is classed as productive by Aristotle although it’s product (persuasion) is hardly tangible in the same sense as say, pottery.

In the Nicomachean Ethics 6:4 Aristotle defines techné as a “reasoned habit of making,” as distinguished from habits of doing. In other words, action is a separate matter which though it might require reasoned habits as well, but doing is separate from making. Things that come into being by accident are atechnic, while things that are consciously brought into being are the result of a techné. You’d think that being excellent or skilled as a maker of things would be well respected, but they aren’t— there’s an anxiety that is hard to figure out.

The problematic passage that has occupied me for several days is 1:12 of Politics. It begins:

Thus it is clear that household management attends more to men than the acquisition of inanimate things and to human excellence more than the excellence of property which we call wealth, and to the excellence of freemen more than the excellence of slaves. A question may indeed be raised, whether there is any excellence at all in a slave beyond those of an instrument and of a servant— whether he can have the excellences of temperance, courage, justice, and the like; or whether slaves possess only bodily services. And, whichever way we answer the question a difficulty arises; for, if they have excellence, in what will they differ from freemen?

It’s a thorny issue, given even greater depth as artificial intelligence makes it possible that “thinking machines” will soon work along side us. If machines or tools have “excellence” then at what point do they have the same privileges as the masters? Aristotle argues from what he considers to be a “natural” hierarchy, for differences in kind and degree:

All classes must be deemed to have their special attributes; as the poet says of women, “silence is a woman’s glory” but this is not equally the glory of man. The child is imperfect, and therefore his excellence is not relative to himself alone, but the perfect man and his teacher, and in like manner the excellence of the slave is relative to a master.

It’s my understanding that the introduction of differences in kind was a move to distance him to the simple distinctions of degree in Plato’s Republic, but it’s obviously a difficult move to support. One of the problems of this argument from analogy is trying to introduce degrees of slavery. That’s where the artisans come in:

Now we determined that a slave is useful for the wants in life, and therefore he will obviously require only so much excellence as will prevent him from failing in his function through cowardice or lack of self control. Someone will ask whether, if what we are saying is true, excellence will not be required also in the artisans, for they often fail in their work through a lack of self-control. But is there not a greater difference in the two cases? For the slave shares in his master’s life; the artisan is less closely connected with him, and only attains excellence in proportion as he becomes a slave.

Now it might be possible to read this generously that being a “slave to art” is a good thing, but the next line makes it clear that Aristotle isn’t thinking of that:

The meaner sort of mechanic has a special and separate slavery, whereas the slave exists by nature, not so the shoemaker or other artisan. It is manifest, then, that the master ought to be the source of such excellence in the slave and not a mere possessor of the art of the art of mastership which trains the slave in his functions.

The distinction is that the slave is “natural” whereas the artisan pursues his special form of slavery by choice. To the degree that the artisan (as a special slave)  is subservient to the master/purchaser of his wares, he might become excellent. The argument seems particularly weak here. The best selling (or at least those who sell to the best people) are therefore the best?

Holt N. Parker reads this a bit differently, distinguishing two analogical chains:

Master -> slave -> tool -> product
Craftsman (ἀρχιτέκτων) -> assistant (ὑπηρέτης) -> tool -> product

The move, as he sees it, is distancing the master/craftsman from the tools through an intermediary, literally keeping their hands clean:

Between the master and the tool is the slave/assistant, a tool for using tools (1253b33)49. The master does not weave: he orders the slave (the ensouled/intelligent-at-least-to-the-point-of-understanding orders/endowed-with-a-soul-albeit-a-defective-one possession) to weave on a loom (the tool) which produces cloth, another type of possession. Aristotle then reverses this argument by analogy. Since slaves are the ones who handle tools, anyone who handles tools ought (in a well-run polis) to be a slave. (87)

Curiously, this argument isn’t sustained through the Politics. Aristotle reverts to a body/soul analogy to argue for natural slaves. In short, any hierarchy in service he could marshall to support the status quo. I was really most amused by Parker’s notation of Eric A. Havelock’s observation regarding the Politics in a footnote:

The Politics is an arid treatise, intensely condensed and codified, the work of a mind that has now perfected its own self-analysis and brought every one of its prejudices and moods to total abstraction (382)

Women, slaves, artisans— Aristotle clearly wanted to look down upon them all.

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