Aristotle’s Conception of Freedom

Moira M Walsh. Journal of the History of Philosophy. Volume 35, Issue 4. October 1997.


There is no place in the Nicomachean Ethics, or the Politics, where Aristotle provides us with an explicit definition of freedom. Nevertheless, it is possible to glean Aristotle’s notion of freedom from a series of passages in the Politics, in which Aristotle discusses such matters as the existence of the natural slave, and the understanding of freedom underlying certain forms of democracy. This effort is useful insofar as it not only helps us to understand Aristotle, but also presents us with a conception of freedom interestingly different from many contemporary versions and perhaps worth our consideration. I will focus in this paper on Aristotle’s use of the term eleutheria, and its cognates. Eleutheria, usually translated as ‘liberty’ or ‘freedom,’ is conceived by Aristotle in terms more moral and political than metaphysical, i.e., he considers tyranny and slavery, rather than determinism, to be its principal contraries. Self-direction, rather than bare spontaneity, is the crucial characteristic of the free person. In this respect, Aristotle is similar to many political philosophers of our time. As we will see, however, there is an important difference: while many contemporary theorists think of freedom as simply the capacity to guide one’s own actions, without reference to the object or objects sought through action, Aristotle conceives of freedom as the capacity to direct oneself to those ends which one’s reason rightly recognizes as choiceworthy. This concept of freedom as rational self-direction can be found underlying Aristotle’s discussions of natural slavery and democracy.

Freedom and Slavery

Book I of the Politics contains an analysis of the relationships among the individual, the household, and the polis. In Chapters 2 and 5 of this book, Aristotle presents an interpretation of one of the relations within the household, namely, that of master and slave. He there makes a distinction between the political status of slavery, and the naturally slavish condition which alone can make this political status legitimate. Aristotle’s discussion of the difference between the man who is naturally suited for slavery and the man naturally suited for freedom gives us a basis upon which we may build a definition of freedom as a condition of soul, rather than as a conventionally granted civil status. Our first clue is found in Chapter 2, in which the master-slave relationship is first discussed: “For that which can foresee with the mind [to dunamenon tei dianoiai prooran] is the naturally ruling and naturally mastering element, while that which can do these things with the body is the naturally ruled and slave” (1252a31-35).

The naturally ruling man has a certain intellectual capacity that the natural slave lacks: he is able to “foresee with the mind.” Aristotle does not tell us precisely what it is that he is able to foresee. Perhaps he is able to predict the results of certain actions and events, for this would give him the knowledge of what tasks he must command in order to achieve his purposes. This capacity, the capacity to see which means will lead to given ends, is part of the excellence of the deliberative faculty. Aristotle claims that the slave is “wholly lacking the deliberative element” (1260a12-13), which would seem to make him incapable of cleverness as well as that form of deliberation particular to phronesis. Alternatively, and, given that Aristotle seems to admit that there can be clever slaves, perhaps more plausibly, it could be that the naturally free man is able to foresee with the mind which ends he objectively ought to pursue; this is the feature that differentiates the deliberation of cleverness from that of phronesis.

In either case, from these texts we have already learned something about the free man: he has foresight and a capacity for deliberation. He is capable of attaining cleverness, i.e., skill in choosing means to given ends. More importantly, he is capable of attaining phronesis, i.e., facility not only in determining means to arbitrarily given ends, but in choosing means towards appropriate ends apprehended as such through the use of reason. Once we consider the fact that deliberation is one of the characteristic tasks of the free man or eleutheros, we can better understand Aristotle’s remark that a people without any deliberative responsibilities in the polis would be “enslaved and an enemy to the constitution” (1274a17).

Aristotle says more about natural slavery in Chapter 5 of Book I: “Accordingly, those who are as different [from other men] as the soul from the body or man from beast-and they are in this state if their work is the use of the body, and if this is the best that can come from them-are slaves by nature … For he is a slave by nature who is capable of belonging to another—which is also why he belongs to another-and who participates in reason only to the extent of perceiving it, but does not have it” (1254b16-24).

Again, while Aristotle does not say so explicitly, it does not seem extravagant to conclude that if the natural slave is the one who does not have reason, but only perceives it, then the naturally free man is the one who not only perceives but also possesses reason. With respect to practical matters, the free man can see for himself what is the good to be pursued in action, and the means by which he may pursue it. His own reason provides the judgment which the natural slave can recognize as rational, but not produce. While the slave depends on the master in order to know what ought to be done, the free man, the man fitted to be a master, can see for himself what is good; he has the rational capacity of apprehending suitable ends, and choosing appropriate means to those ends. Thus possessing reason, he is as different from the slave “as the soul from the body or man from beast”—he is, in fact, different in the same way. The soul has reason, the body does not; man has reason, the beast does not; the free man has reason, the slave does not. The best work that can come from the slave is the use of the body, while the free man is capable of more; he is capable of the work of the intellect.

In 1253b26-54a18, Aristotle explains what he means by his claim that the slave is “by nature capable of belonging to another.” A slave, he says, belongs wholly to his master, as an instrumentally useful animate possession. Since he is merely an “instrument of action,” he has no purpose or reason for being in himself, but only that purpose given to him by his master. Aristotle compares the status of the slave, as a possession, to that of a part of one’s body. My hand, for example, has no inherent purpose and cannot direct itself; it receives its purpose from me or from my intellect, which commands it to move in a particular way. The natural slave is likewise incapable of directing himself, and needs the master to indicate to him the ends for which he ought to act. The slave’s only “purpose” is to fulfill the purpose given it by the master. One who “belongs to another” is thus not capable of self-direction. He does not have the intelligence to apprehend for himself his own good or his master’s good. He must have his end given to him, as an animate tool.

There is another notable characteristic possessed by one who “belongs to another” in addition to the incapacity for self-direction. One who belongs to another works primarily for an end which is outside himself. While it is beneficial for the slave to be ruled, the master does not rule the slave for the sake of the slave’s well-being. Aristotle is explicit about this: the slave is better off for being ruled, but his benefit is only incidental to the benefit of the master and the master’s household, for the sake of which the slave is being ruled (cf. Politics, 1254b19-20, 1278b30-37; NE, 1160b29-31). The incidental benefit to the slave may be compared to the incidental benefit accruing to the body when it is ruled by the soul, or to the tame beast when it is ruled by man. Slavery is not defined by having to act without concern for one’s own good, since it is allegedly good for a slave to obey his master’s commands. Nevertheless, the slave is commanded to act primarily for the sake of the master’s good, and only indirectly for his own. Thus, the natural slave acts for the end set him by his master, an end which is outside himself.

Again, while we might disagree (and hopefully do disagree) with Aristotle about the existence of such pathetic creatures as natural slaves, we can learn something about his conception of freedom from his description of slavery. If the natural slave is one who cannot direct himself to an end without the direction of his master, the naturally free man is the one who is capable of self-direction, and who is perhaps also capable of directing others. The free man can, as we said above, see for himself through the use of his reason the ends he ought to pursue; he need not be assigned an end by another person. Moreover, the free man acts not for an end outside himself, but for the sake of his own well-being, and for that of those with whom he is united in a partnership, when this partnership is formed for the sake of a good of which his own good is a constitutive part. That human being “is free, we say, who exists for his own sake and not for another’s” (Metaphysics, 982b25-26).

If to be free is to have the deliberative capacity of apprehending appropriate ends for oneself and directing oneself towards them, then the perfection of freedom, the fulfillment of the ergon of a free man as such, is to do so well. The most manifestly free man is the one who apprehends the best end achievable in human action, and successfully directs himself towards it. Thus, it would not be fitting for a free man as such to direct himself towards a limited end as if it were his final end; it would be slavish to work for the sake of any good less than the virtuous life. Hence Aristotle, when he defines the principles of education befitting a free man, is careful to forbid that a free person be taught music, drawing, or any other art in such a manner that the student might be tempted to exercise these skills for pay or for the pleasure of a base crowd. If a free man were to act for the sake of pay rather than virtue, he would be making a poor exercise of his freedom, inasmuch as he would be displaying faulty deliberation. Moreover, he would put himself at risk of losing the ability to exercise freedom at all, as one who works for pay or to please a crowd cannot act for the end he sees to be appropriate, but must always act for the end set him by his employers (cf. 1341b9-18).

Through our consideration of Aristotle’s definition of the natural slave, we have been able to derive a rudimentary conception of freedom. The naturally free man not only perceives reason, but himself possesses it: he is capable of foresight and deliberation; he can apprehend appropriate ends and means towards those ends by the use of his own reason. He belongs to himself: he directs himself towards an end which is not outside himself, i.e., an end which is or includes his own flourishing. His freedom is most manifest when he successfully directs himself towards what is in fact the best good for a human being achievable in action; whether or not his freedom reaches this fruition will depend in part upon his state in life and education.

Freedom and Democracy

Aristotle’s discussion of the conceptions of freedom underlying democratic constitutions can shed some light on the provisional definition of eleutheria we have derived from his notion of slavery. Freedom is generally thought to be one of the defining features of democracy (cf. Politics, 1290biff., 1291b33, 1310a27-2g, 1317a4off.). Unfortunately, according to Aristotle, many democracies fail because those in ruling office “define freedom badly” (1310a26). We will understand Aristotelian freedom better if we can determine the way in which he considers the democratic conception of freedom to be inadequate. How did those who favored democracy generally conceive of freedom, and how was this a distortion of freedom’s true nature?

Now the presupposition of the democratic sort of regime is freedom … The justice that is characteristically popular is to have equality on the basis of number and not on the basis of merit; where justice is of this sort, the multitude must necessarily have authority, and what is resolved by the majority must be final and must be justice, for, they assert, each of the citizens must have an equal share … This, then, is one mark of freedom, and it is regarded by those of the popular sort as the defining principle of the regime. Another is to live as one wants. For this is, they assert, the work of freedom [eleutherias ergon], since not living as one wants is characteristic of a person who is enslaved. This, then, is the second defining principle of democracy. (1317a40-b15)

The two “marks” of democratic freedom, according to this passage, are (a) living as one wishes, and (b) having a share in ruling office equal to that of one’s fellow citizens. Aristotle’s description of democratic freedom may be confirmed by a comparison with the following excerpt from Thucydides’ rendition of the funeral oration of Pericles, in which he praises the democratic character of Athens:

Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty. And, just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other. We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbor if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the kind of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people’s feelings. We are free and tolerant in our private lives, but in public affairs we keep to the law. (II.37)

Pericles here praises Athens for possessing the two “marks of freedom” indicated by Aristotle, as well as a third: citizens not only live as they wish, and share equally in public responsibility, but are treated equally by the law. These “marks” make democratic freedom a recognizable cousin of the freedom of the natural master described above. One who lives as he wishes can be said to “belong to himself” inasmuch as he directs himself and is not assigned an end by another. Similarly, a man who shares in rule is recognized as self-possessed; he is allowed to share in deliberation and decision. He is a true citizen, and not a mere subject of the polis. Since he is a citizen, moreover, the good of the polis includes his own good as a constituent part.

In what way do those who favor democracy fail to capture the true nature of freedom? It seems that Aristotle would find fault with the democrats for failing to recognize that freedom is not just the ability to move oneself towards whatever end one happens to desire, but the ability to order one’s life towards the end apprehended by right reason. The two “marks” of democratic freedom make no reference either to the object of one’s boulesis, or to the end for the sake of which one rules, and they thus delineate a freedom which is rather too broadly construed. In Aristotle’s view, I may be doing only what I desire, and still fail to be free, if my desires are slavish, or if what I desire cannot be ordered to my ultimate end. Aristotle’s free man not only does what he desires, but he desires that which is truly good. The free man directs himself towards the telos which he has discovered through the use of his reason and deliberative capacity.

Consider the following passage, which we have already alluded to above:

… on the other hand, in those democracies which are held to be most particularly democratic, what has become established [with respect to education] is the opposite of what is advantageous. The cause of this is that they define freedom badly. For there are two things by which democracy is held to be defined: the majority having authority, and freedom … So in democracies of this sort everyone lives as he wants and “toward whatever [end he happens] to crave,” as Euripides says. But this is a poor thing. To live for the sake of the order of the city should not be supposed to be slavery, but preservation. (i31oa26-35)

Those who define freedom as doing what one likes and moving towards whatever one craves, according to Aristotle, define it badly. To act always as one’s desires dictate is not freedom, but slavery, and slavery to a hard master. Living as one wishes is in one sense a mark of freedom; strictly speaking, however, this is so only when one wishes in a truly rational manner. A slave or an animal can live according to its desires. Only a free man can live according to desires informed by the dictates of his reason.

Aristotle asserts, in addition, that true freedom is not compromised by living for the sake of the polis. While living for the city would certainly prevent a man from following just any whim that struck him, it would be perfectly compatible with freedom rightly understood. In a well-ordered democratic city, all the naturally free inhabitants are full citizens, sharing in decision and office. The genuine well-being of the democratic polis thus includes the well-being of each free inhabitant as a constitutive element. To act for the sake of the city is not to act slavishly for an end which is outside oneself, but to pursue a good which includes one’s own good as an essential element.

In the case of a well-ordered polis, this is even more clear. The well-being of a polis which is constituted for the sake of the virtue of its citizens is the best good to which a human being could hope to contribute through his action (cf. NE, log4b7-12). If a man is able to recognize the flourishing of this properly ordered city as the highest good, and to shape his desires and actions in accordance with this recognition, he has reached the perfection of freedom: for the free man is not the one who simply lives as he likes, but the man who lives in accordance with-indeed, orders his life by-his rational apprehension of the good. Note that by this interpretation of 1310a26-35, I do not intend to agree with W. L. Newman, who asserts that “Aristotle would probably define freedom as obedience to rightly constituted law.”Is Mere obedience does not suffice, for one can obey rightly constituted laws either in a slavish way or in a way befitting a free man. Rather, I am suggesting that Aristotle’s notion of perfected freedom is compatible with the capacity to see that the good of the rightly ordered city is the highest good, and to choose the means which contribute to its flourishing and to the agent’s own flourishing within it.

Freedom as Rational Self-Direction

As we have seen, Aristotle’s notion of freedom is intimately connected with his notion of rationality. Indeed, it is difficult to find a significant difference between his conceptions of what it is to be an eleutheros and what it is to be a rational animal. Rationality in the system of Aristotle is not merely the instrumental deliberative capacity of discovering means to ends, but also is the capacity to apprehend ends, including both intermediate ends and the final end of human happiness, where the ends in question are demanded by one’s own essential nature and accidental circumstances. Freedom, in turn, is not just the capacity to move oneself towards whatever ends one wishes, but the capacity to order one’s life by right reason, i.e., to move oneself towards the telos that one’s reason has discovered. The human being who has achieved the fullest expression of his rational and free human nature is the one who has the most developed capacity to apprehend reality, including the reality of his own inherent telos, and of the particular circumstances of his situation affecting the range of actions which may be seen as means to the fulfillment of this telos. The free man’s rational apprehension of reality must be confirmed and made effective in his practice, through his developed habit of bringing his passions and desires to embrace that which his reason apprehends as good. His freedom is thus not the democratic freedom of doing whatever he likes, but rather of living his life in accordance with his accurate apprehension of the highest good, or rather in some way from this apprehension.

Freedom requires the intellectual virtues needed for seeing what the good life demands, and the moral virtues that lead one to desire and to act in accordance with this vision. In its most perfect state, this will include activity on behalf of the polis as a whole. It remains only to state an obvious fact: this sort of freedom is something that we can possess in greater or lesser degrees, according to the level of development of our rational faculties, the strength of the habit of bringing our passions and desires into cooperation with our reason, and the richness of our experience.

Aristotle’s Eleutheria and Contemporary Notions of Freedom

I have tried in this article to glean Aristotle’s notion of eleutheria from his discussions of slavery and democracy in the Politics. If I have understood the texts properly, Aristotle’s notion of freedom is surely distinct from that put forward by many contemporary political theorists; indeed, their views of freedom often resemble that attributed by Aristotle to the democrats of his day. Amy Gutmann, for example, suggests that a life characterized by freedom is “one that a person recognizes [as a good life], lived from the inside, according to one’s own best lights.” In this, she agrees with Aristotle. Her conception of freedom departs sharply from his, however, when she sets “living according to one’s own best lights” in opposition to living in accordance with reason’s correct apprehension of objectively good ends.

Aristotle’s conception of freedom, then, is clearly distinct from the usual contemporary notions. It remains to be seen whether it is worth embracing as an ideal, or even worth considering as a viable competitor to these contemporary notions. A final determination of this question would be beyond the scope of this work, but I take the liberty of suggesting some considerations that may be useful in this regard.

One might be initially tempted to reject Aristotelian eleutheria, as the exclusive province of aristocratic slave-owners, inappropriate as an ideal for our more egalitarian times. Such a rejection, however, would be overly hasty. To begin with, one need not believe that there are in fact any human beings fitting the description of “natural slave” in order to find Aristotle’s notion of freedom intriguing. One could concur with Aristotle’s understanding of freedom while arguing that this freedom ought to be ascribed to every human being without exception, and not only to certain Greek men. Moreover, it is possible to be free-a natural master, in Aristotle’s terms-without possessing any slaves, as his definition of a natural master contains no essential reference to the possession of slaves.

But perhaps Aristotle’s concept of eleutheria is designed to apply exclusively to the wealthy aristocrat. Aristotle’s claim that true freedom is incompatible with manual or paid labor has led some to interpret his description of hoi eleutheroi phusei (or “those who are free by nature”) as a purely rhetorical antidemocratic ploy. Kurt Raaflaub suggests that Aristotle redefined eleutheros deliberately so that it would fit only members of the propertied, educated class. According to Raaflaub, the democratic slogan, “All free men should rule,” was too popular to be explicitly and persuasively refuted. Aristotle, then, to defend aristocracy, simply appropriated the slogan for his purposes by adding that only truly free men should rule, while presenting an aristocratic, elitist definition of freedom.

Ellen Meiksins Wood levels a similar charge:

A new aristocratic concept of eleutheria was invoked as a way of excluding the demos from the life of true citizenship by defining freedom to exclude the condition of those who must labour for a livelihood. This exclusive conception, however, required a departure from conventional usage … For ordinary Athenians, the peasants and craftsmen who constituted the bulk of the citizen body, eleutheria meant freedom from subjection to another, whether as a slave or in some other condition of dependence. It was only for those of aristocratic persuasion, who opposed the democracy precisely because it treated peasants and craftsmen as eleutherioi, that the notion of servility might be expanded to include anyone who was obliged to labour for a livelihood.

Can any response be made to such charges? Clearly, Raaflaub and Wood are right to notice a certain elitism on Aristotle’s part. He certainly did not think the average wage-earner capable of living a life befitting a free man, whether because wage-earning was slavish in itself, or because the nature of manual work and wage-earning were such that they precluded the education that fruitful exercise of freedom presupposes. Aristotle seems to look down upon paid labor for both reasons: it is slavish in itself, because a paid worker must obey his employer as a slave would his master (in Wood’s terms, wage-earning is a “condition of dependence”); moreover, one who is paid for his work is open to the temptation to work for the sake of pay, rather than for the work’s own sake.

I will not deny that Aristotle’s view of paid labor led him to hold that only the wealthy, free from material necessity, could be eleutheroi phusei. Nor do I believe it is possible to determine whether it was indeed antidemocratic sentiment that led Aristotle to form his concept of freedom as he did. But it should be noted, in defense of Aristotelian eleutheria, that one could embrace Aristotle’s notion of freedom while thoroughly rejecting his elitism. As I understand it, and as I have been trying to indicate, Aristotelian freedom requires certain intellectual capacities and a fitting education. It does not, of itself, require enormous wealth. Aristotle’s elitism derives from his notion of natural freedom only when combined with the further premise that it is impossible to develop such capacities or obtain such an education when one is obliged to work for one’s living. One may retain Aristotle’s notion of freedom, while rejecting his elitism, by denying this further premise.

I do not seek to excuse Aristotle’s prejudices against manual labor and wage-earning, any more than I wish to excuse his apparent endorsement of slavery. I am rather suggesting that despite these prejudices, there may be something worth examining in Aristotle’s notion of freedom, something that can be extracted from what most of us would consider his more unfortunate views regarding slavery and paid labor. One could argue that it is possible to be free, in Aristotle’s understanding of that term, while yet working for a living. Eleutheria, in short, need not be the exclusive province of the independently wealthy.

More general sorts of objections come from those who argue against any form of what Isaiah Berlin called “positive” freedom, of which Aristotelian eleuthera is certainly a variety. Berlin, for example, argued that conceptions of freedom as rational self-governance almost necessarily lead to totalitarian coercion. The inclusion of reference to objective ends in the definition of freedom, he claimed, leads to the conclusion that a man could be made free by being forced to act for the sake of these ends. Such a claim is, I think, unwarranted, at least in the case of the conception of freedom I have been discussing. A man who was forced to act in any particular way, even in an objectively good way, would resemble Aristotle’s natural slave more than the eleutheros, insofar as he would not be self-directed, but would have his end set for him by another.

It is possible in a short space to defend Aristotelian freedom against objections such as these; but to argue positively on its behalf would take us far afield into discussions of philosophical anthropology, ethics, and politics. Here, I would merely suggest that Aristotle’s notion of freedom as rational self-direction is at least worth further consideration: for it precludes both totalitarian coercion and self-destructive license. The free man can never be forced to do what is good, for he must direct himself to ends that he himself sees are choice worthy. But the defender of Aristotelian freedom need not prize the alleged “right to do wrong” spoken of so frequently by contemporary theorists, for he can recognize the possibility of choosing badly for what it is, namely, an unfortunate consequence of his capacity for freedom. For now, I wish merely to suggest that the conception of freedom as rational self—direction is worthy of our consideration. Anything more than mere suggestion to this effect will have to wait for another occasion.