I gave the example of a drug addict as a case in which we might agree. A drug addict knows that what they are doing is bad for them, and may even want to stop -- but their rational understanding and their ability to be ruled by their reason don't line up. It would be better for them to be ruled, Aristotle says, by someone who will help them achieve what they themselves know is best for them.
Joseph W. noted that Aristotle also lists barbarians as suitable for slavery, but actually he is quoting a poet rather than making that argument: "as if they thought that the barbarian and the slave were by nature." You have to be careful with Aristotle's citations, because a normal way in which he argues is to put forward the common opinions of the time before spelling out his own view. It's important to be clear about when he is giving his own view, and when he is citing or raising a common or alternative view.
Sometimes he isn't clear about why he raised a point, although here the 'as if they thought' suggests he doesn't agree. Many people think that what we have of Aristotle isn't formal writings, but something like lecture notes from his students. I'm not sure I agree -- I think his style is unique, and takes some adjustment from us. We expect contemporary writers to cater to us, but one of the rewarding things about reading an early writer is learning to shape our minds in a new way.
After today's readings we'll be moving on to Book II, where he talks about a sort-of communism that some Greek thinkers, including Plato, sometimes advocated.
I want to suggest that the big lesson from Book I is contained in the opening sentences.
Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good. But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.It's easy for contemporary Americans to get bogged down in the writing on sex and slavery, because these are so objectionable to us; or, possibly, with the question about the proper place of earning money in one's life.
We are thinking about the question of how to persuade people to allow us to govern, or possibly about what kind of a state we'd set up if we were to start fresh. Either question really revolves around this opening point. What is the purpose of a state? We don't establish one for no reason, as a sort of thoughtless reflex, but for some good we want to achieve.
"The highest good" for Aristotle is human happiness. He defines happiness as pursuing excellence (arete, which is both "excellence" and "virtue") with all your vital powers. The purpose of the state is to create the conditions in which such pursuit is possible.
The whole purpose of the state, Aristotle is suggesting, is supporting us in our pursuit of excellence. Supporting us how? Not by giving us anything -- Aristotle clearly thinks that the household is the chief economic unit. Rather, it exists to provide physical security and -- as we will see -- with good institutions that support the kind of culture needed for a free people.
What kind of culture is that? That's the real force of Aristotle's opening remarks on what is worthy of a free man and what is servile or irksome or injurious. Here we find significant common ground between Americans we might wish to persuade and Aristotle: he is suggesting enough focus on work to be able to be independent, but not letting it take over your life. He is giving advice on careers that is similar to the advice we give: don't end up digging ditches, or doing some other physically ruinous labor.
I pointed out in the comments below an alignment between Aristotle's remarks on being trapped in the household, and the mid-century feminist critique of the life of a housewife. It's a point on which I think they agree, and rightly: keeping a well-run house is a kind of necessary condition for happiness, but it's not enough for the good life. Some sort of public engagement is necessary too, whether it is with church or charity, public service, singing in a choir, or otherwise using your vital powers within the community.