(Technology) Slaves & Automatic Machine Gods (Aristotle)

The question of technology (techne) runs across the entire Aristotelean corpus. Its most famous instantiation is in the Nicomachean Ethics. It’s there also in the Physics and Metaphysics. It pops up in the Politics in relation to the institution of slavery. As a concept and controlling metaphor, what we would today call art and craft and skill and instrumentalization are essential to understanding the harsh relation between form and matter, causation, potentiality and actuality, and the “nature” of human being as such and in relation to the gods.

It’s a peculiar moment in the Politics (1:4), the contents of which I am re-ordering for my own purpose. Aristotle will himself go off in the next section to talk  about those who are born naturally to rule and those who are born to be slaves, “just like” the soul rules over the body (1:5).

Aristotle would have understood that “Property is a part of the household, and the art of acquiring property is a part of the art of managing the household; for no man can live well, or indeed live at all, unless he be provided with necessaries. And as in the arts which have a definite sphere the workers must have their own proper instruments for the accomplishment of their work, so it is in the management of a household.” The point of a techne is to produce ends. In this cruel equation, slaves were a tool for producing wealth without which there is no way to live.   

For Aristotle, there were two kinds of instrument: inanimate and human-animate. A slave for him is a living instrument for maintaining life. “Now instruments are of various sorts; some are living, others lifeless; in the rudder, the pilot of a ship has a lifeless, in the look-out man, a living instrument; for in the arts the servant is a kind of instrument. Thus, too, a possession is an instrument for maintaining life. And so, in the arrangement of the family, a slave is a living possession, and property a number of such instruments; and the servant is himself an instrument which takes precedence of all other instruments.”

Mapping this forward, for a modern reader, this discussion fits into the larger schema of restricted human personhood in ancient Greek philosophy. We see that schema in the modern period in respect to the institution of the African slave trade.

Then we can map that schema into future that we inhabit now and the far distant future just over the horizon. There would be a third kind of instrument, not animate, but not exactly inanimate either. These would be automatic.

If there were automatic instruments, Aristotle thought, there would be no need for human slaves. “If, in like manner, the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves. These automata would, he said, enter a plane of existence higher than the human. “For if every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others, like the statues of Daedalus, or the tripods of Hephaestus, which, says the poet, “of their own accord entered the assembly of the Gods.”

Imagining the future, machine-apotheosis would do nothing to resolve the problem of slavery.

(translated by Benjamin Jowett).]

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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