Slavery: The Republic

Click here to read  An Argument Against Slavery in the Republic (PDF)


The Republic contains three pages that discuss slavery. They describe how the Best City’s soldiers will deal with enemies in wartime. On the supposition the Best City is a Greek city, the first item mentioned is that the Best City will not enslave fellow Greeks; call this the Greek Reform. Some other reforms are proposed. Subsequently, in the midst of proposing more reforms Socrates states that the Best City will act on the principle that benefits granted to Greeks in wartime are denied to barbarians. The backwards inference is clear. The Greek Reform benefits Greeks, hence this benefit is denied to barbarians.  Hence a Greek Best City can possess barbarian slaves. It is important to note that the text does not explicitly state that barbarian slavery is justified.  Plato had to decide whether the sanctioning of barbarian slavery would be stated explicitly or implicitly. He chose to assert it implicitly. This decision is consistent with an abolitionist cast of mind and agenda. In this case, the agenda is meliorist. It accepts a partial reform: the Greek Reform, which has a price tag of allowing Greeks to have barbarian slaves. Two more points from these pages need to be stated. One, Socrates asserts that the Greek Reform is warranted because Greeks worship the same gods. Two, the text unambiguously asserts that slavery is both unjust and inhumane, although at this point it is only Greeks who benefit from this judgment.

Plato extends the cover of this judgment to include all human beings, Greeks and barbarians. This emerges as an implicit conclusion from the following.  First, the Best City can occur at any place and anytime. In the context of asserting this, Socrates states it could even be a barbarian city. Immediately one is puzzled as to how the Greek Reform will apply in the case of an, e.g. Persian Best City. Second, throughout the lengthy description of the Best City, once it is complete,  Socrates not only pointedly avoids any reference to it as Greek but also indicates something of its character as a universal city.  He flashes the markers that indicate it is a Greek City but fails to make good on them. He makes no mention of the Olympian gods. Instead, he offers phenomena common to all human beings, such as the Sun, as divinities. These features of the City are consistent with the claim that it can occur at any place and at any time and hence does not need to be Greek

If the Republic truly allows for the implicit inference that slavery is unjust and inhumane universally, it must offer a commonality between human beings that warrants this inference. The Greek Reform has the warrant that Greeks worship the same gods. What commonality between human beings as such warrants extending this Reform universally? The argument for Sexual Equality asserts such a warrant. (Incidentally the three pages that contain the Greek Reform occur in the same context as the argument for Sexual Equality.) Female and male are equal because the arts are common to them. For example both female and male can be competent doctors. Arts require teaching and learning and, Plato asserts, they are a common human possession. In other words according to the Republic, human beings are akin insofar as they possess logos (reason/speech) because it is the basis of the capacity to teach and learn. Moreover we know from the Greek Reform that kin do not enslave kin because it is unjust and inhumane. Therefore it follows that slavery is unjust and inhumane once and for all. That the major premise of this argument, which asserts a universal kinship, is left implicit, and so, that the argument against slavery is implicit, contains a Platonic lesson about not sacrificing the good (the Greek Reform) for the sake of the best (an explicit argument against slavery.) The lesson is that when one promulgates the good, it must not be sacrificed for the best, but the best, if it is the enemy of the good, nonetheless must not be left out in the cold.

If you turn to the article and, let’s say, find it tedious, please turn to it’s conclusion. (It begins on p. 22.) By my lights, it contains a decisive rationale as to the implausibility of Plato defending slavery.