Aristotle and John Locke on Property

In his treatment “Of Property” in the fifth chapter of his Second Essay Concerning Civil Government, John Locke evinces the various ways in which he has been significant influenced by the thought of Aristotle on the subjects of wealth and property ownership. He also, however, departs from and makes meaningful additions to the theories of Aristotle on key points, thereby forging a theory of his own from the foundation provided by Aristotle.

Both Aristotle and Locke begin their exploration of the origins of property with the notion of an original human family which held all property in common. Aristotle asserts that “the first community . . . which is the family . . . originally had all things in common.” Locke, adding to this the biblical names of Adam and Noah as the forefathers of the collective human family, similarly states that God granted the entire world to “Adam, and to Noah, and his sons,” from which “it is very clear, that God . . . has given the earth to the children of men; given it to mankind in common.”

From this original collective ownership of the earth, both Aristotle and Locke explain, there was a departure in favor of private ownership, from which, in turn, resulted the development of exchange and, later still, the use of money. It is in the reasons they provide for this departure from a primitive collectivism that Aristotle and Locke begin to depart from each other in their respective theories. Aristotle puts forward the notion that the development of private ownership out of the early collective economy of the primeval human family was the result of the growth of the population. “Later, when the family divided into parts,” says Aristotle, “the parts shared in many things, and different parts in different things.” The division of property among private owners, then, is the result of the limitation of one’s purview to those things that are of direct concern to one.

Locke, however, offers a theory that, while not in conflict with Aristotle’s ideas, provides an alternative explanation for the development of private property out of early common ownership. Locke sees this development as a natural extension of the private ownership each person naturally possesses over his or her own body. “Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men,” says Locke, “yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself.” Because of this natural ownership over one’s own body, it is also the case that anything one uses one’s body to produce is also one’s own. “The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his,” according to Locke.

While Locke’s theory of the origin of private property does not stand in opposition to the theory of Aristotle on the same subject, and the two are even potentially complementary, there is a clear difference in their perspectives on this point. After this brief departure from another another, however, Locke returns again to an agreement with Aristotle in his theories of the origins of exchange and money, adding to Aristotle while relying upon Aristotle’s earlier assessments.

Commenting on the origins of an exchange economy, Aristotle states that “the art of exchange extends . . . arises at first from what is natural, from the circumstance that some have too little, others too much” of certain goods. As a result, an individual exchanges that which he has too much of for that which he has too little of with another individual who finds himself in the inverse situation. The use of money developed, continues Aristotle, because the “various necessaries of life are not easily carried about, and hence men agreed to employ in their dealings with each other something which was intrinsically useful and easily applicable to the purposes of life, for example, iron, silver, and the like.”

While holding to a nearly identical theory regarding the development of an exchange economy and the use of money, Locke adds to Aristotle’s idea the observation that those goods which are necessary to life are generally perishable goods. “And thus came in the use of money,” writes Locke, “some lasting thing that men might keep without spoiling, and that by mutual consent men would take in exchange for the truly useful, but perishable supports of life.”

While departing slightly in some places and proposing slightly divergent alternative theories in others, Locke largely relies upon Aristotle’s account regarding the origins of private property, the exchange economy, and the use of money. Given the clear reliance of Locke upon Aristotle’s ideas, it is perhaps useful to view Locke’s writing on the subject as a commentary upon the earlier work of Aristotle upon the same.

Chaucer’s philosophical history

The Monk’s Tale, one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, presents an interesting challenge to Aristotle’s famous assertion that “poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.” The moralizing monk of Chaucer, however, presents a series of short biographies of powerful men and their respective downfalls that his listeners might “be warned by these examples, true and old.” In so doing, Chaucer’s monk calls into question Aristotle’s contention about the limits of history. By transforming history into poetry Chaucer has universalized the otherwise singular historical personage, thereby raising history to the level of the philosophic and gravely important occupied by poetry.

There are, however, some reasons to object to Chaucer’s derivation of morals from historical events. Descartes, for example, asserts in his Discourse on Method that “those who regulate their conduct” by the examples provided in history, “are liable to fall into the extravagances of the knights-errant of Romance, and form projects beyond their power of performance.” Descartes’s objection, though, extends wider than the purview of this essay in his rejection of extracting guidance for present conduct not only from history but from literature and poetry as well. Descartes rejects the moral guidance of narrative in a more general sense. He worries that because a narrative may be fictional or extravagant it may inspire a reader to the impossible. Given his allusion to Don Quixote, who did just the sort of thing about which he expresses his worries, however, it may legitimately be wondered whether a world full of men who imitate the Romances and so live their lives according to a strict code of honor and valor, virtues universally ascribed to Don Quixote by the other characters in his eponymous novel, would be such an undesirable place after all. Descartes’s statement brings him close to rejecting the study of history and literature altogether. If the past were indeed as distant and foreign as Descartes holds it to be, it might be legitimate to do so. Thucydides seems closer to the mark in his assertion in his History of the Peloponnesian War that “there is … no advantage in reflections on the past further than may be of service to the present.”

That the past is of service to the present seems self-evident, though Descartes may find room for disagreement. The means by which the past can be of service to the present, however, is a subject of debate. Dewey repositions the historical as the singular, for example, in his attempt to use the education of the young in history as a means by which to provide them with the impetus and ability to alter current social conditions. In his Education and Experience, Dewey claims that “the issues and problems of present social life are in such intimate and direct connection with the past that students cannot be prepared to understand either these problems or the best way of dealing with them without delving into their roots in the past.” Dewey, then, agrees with Chaucer in his belief that the experience of the past is a necessary source from which to learn how to act in the present. Dewey departs from Chaucer, however, in his beliefs about the nature of this knowledge. Whereas Chaucer sees the past as a mine filled with examples to be imitated or avoided, Dewey desires the student of history to study the root causes of the problems of the present in order to change them in the future.

There is at issue here a divergence in understandings of human nature as well as of a man’s place in society. Chaucer’s view relies upon an understanding of the immutability of human nature. Man must be the same sort of creature today as he was long ago for Chaucer’s use of the past as a source of moral guidance to be practicable. As a society consists of just such creatures, while the particulars, such as technology, government, and custom, may differ greatly in various eras, the essential nature of society qua society does not change. While a man or a society may be improved, in Chaucer’s view, the essential nature of man and society, generally, abides. Dewey, on the other hand, adheres to an ideology which seeks the improvement of man and society generally. Within this framework, history can be little more than a record of the follies of unimproved individual men and societies within the wider narrative of gradual improvement of man and society over time.

More than Dewey, Marx submerges the individual within this social and general paradigm in his view of history. For Marx, history is much more the record of the effects of abstract, general, and impersonal forces, what he calls “the natural laws of [a society’s] movement,” than it is of particular persons or peoples. If the great forces behind any given society are indeed abstract and impersonal, however, Chaucer’s extrapolation of moral guidance from history is misguided and unnecessary.

Chaucer’s moralization of history is only legitimate within the framework of the philosophy of history he espouses, one in which history is the record of the chosen activities of particular persons whose nature does not differ substantially from the persons of earlier or later ages. Chaucer’s very ability to draw meaningful guidance for persons in the present from the activities of persons in the past, however, also stands as an argument against the lack of utility in historical study as believed by Descartes, the belief in history as a record of the causes of society’s ills espoused by Dewey, and the impersonalization of history attempted by Marx. It may, in addition, belie Aristotle’s belief in the inferiority of history to poetry. Through his universalization of history, Chaucer, the great English poet, was able to raise history to the dignity and relevance of poetry.

Alexander the Great (Introduction to Western Civilization 3.11)

Aristotle had many outstanding students. One of his students, a man named Theophrastus, for example, wrote two of the earliest books on botany. Perhaps the most famous and important of Aristotle’s students, however, was a young prince named Alexander.

Alexander, who would later be known as Alexander the Great, was not a Greek. Instead, he lived in a small kingdom just north of Greece called Macedonia. His father, Philip, was the king there. Aristotle was hired by Philip to be Aristotle’s personal teacher. Alexander learned many things from Aristotle. Among the subjects Alexander most enjoyed learning about were philosophy, religion, and art. Alexander was also very interested in literature. He loved the works of Homer so much that Aristotle gave him his own copy of the Iliad. Alexander later carried the book with him every time he left home.

In 336 BC, Alexander’s father, Philip, died and Alexander became king of Macedonia. Alexander had been eagerly waiting for the day when he would become king. He was very inspired by the stories of the great warriors and kings who had come before him. He dreamed of a conquering a vast empire like the conquerors he had read about.

Alexander set out on his conquests almost immediately. Within twelve years, Alexander conquered the largest empire that the world had ever seen. Alexander’s conquests included even the once-powerful kingdom of Egypt and the Persian Empire. In all of the twelve years he spent on his conquests, Alexander never lost a single battle. By the time Alexander was 32, his empire stretched from Macedonia to India.

He probably would have continued to conquer more land and expand his empire. At the age of 32, however, Alexander suddenly fell ill and died. After his death, Alexander’s empire was divided up among his top generals. The world would not see another empire as large as Alexander’s empire until the formation of the Roman Empire several hundred years later.

Although Alexander lived a short life and his empire broke up very quickly, he still had a very large impact on history. Through his conquests, Alexander spread Greek culture to other lands far away from Greece, such as Egypt. Greek language very quickly became the most popular and important language nearly everywhere around the Mediterranean Sea. Greek ideas, such as those of Plato and Aristotle, also spread nearly everywhere around the Mediterranean and changed the way that people thought. Most of all, Alexander’s conquests set the stage for the conquests of the Romans that would soon come.


Review Questions

 1. Who was Alexander the Great’s teacher?

2. What happened to Alexander’s empire after he died?

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (Introduction to Western Civilization 3.10)

Because of the excellent education they received and the freedom they had to develop and share their own ideas, the Athenians produced some of the greatest thinkers in all of human history. Among these thinkers are three men, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, whose ideas have influenced nearly everyone since then. All three of these men were philosophers. The word “philosophy” means “love of wisdom” in Greek. Philosophers are people who use reason to search for the truth about important things like human life, God, and nature.

While there were many philosophers before Socrates, Socrates is almost always considered the greatest of philosophers and so the Greek who was most important in beginning the Greek tradition of philosophy. Within his lifetime, Socrates became very well known for wandering around the agora, the marketplace in the center of Athens where all of the men went to meet. There, he would ask people questions about what they believed. He would try to figure out what people believed and why they believed those things. Through his questions, many people discovered that they could not explain their beliefs well or did not have good reasons for believing those things. It was asking too many questions that got Socrates in trouble.

Socrates was put on trial in Athens in 399 BC. He was charged with two crimes. His first crime, they said, was introducing new gods. By this, they meant that Socrates was encouraging people to question the existence of the traditional gods of the Greeks, the gods of Mount Olympus, and was encouraging them instead to worship other gods. His second crime, his accusers claimed, was corrupting the youth. By this they meant that Socrates was encouraging young people to question their parents and other authorities. They believed that by asking so many questions and making people look bad Socrates was leading the young men of Athens to disrespect for their elders.

At his trial, Socrates defended himself by claiming that he had committed neither of these crimes. Instead, he said that he had been led by God to do what he did. Years ago, said Socrates, a man had gone to the Oracle of Apollo, a temple where people went to ask for advice and wisdom from the god Apollo, in the Greek city of Delphi. The man had asked the god there who was the wisest man in the world. The god had told him that Socrates was the wisest man in the world.

When Socrates was told of Apollo’s answer, he could not believe that he was the wisest man in the world. He set out to prove the god wrong. He went to various people he thought must be wiser than himself and asked them questions to find out if they were indeed wise. After questioning many people, Socrates concluded that most people believe they are wise but really are not. Socrates understood that he was the wisest man in the world because he was the only man who knew he was not wise. He said that since that time God had made him continue to question people in his search for wisdom.

Of course, the jury at his trial was not happy with this. They found Socrates guilty of both charges and sentenced him to death. Socrates was executed a few days later. He was forced to drink a poison called hemlock. Socrates was 70 years old when he died.

One of Socrates’s young students, a boy named Plato, grew up to write many books about Socrates and his ideas. Plato also founded a school called the Academy where he taught young men about Socrates and Socrates’s ideas. In his books, Plato continued the tradition that Socrates’s had started of questioning everything in a search for perfect wisdom.

One of Plato’s most important ideas is his theory of the forms. Plato believed that we can know what something is only because we already have, in our souls, a perfect idea of that thing. For example, even though all apples look different when we look at each one of them closely, we can recognize any apple as an apple because we know, somewhere inside of us, what a perfect apple looks like. This is also how we judge whether an apple is a good apple or a bad apple. The more similar to the perfect apple (the form) it is, the closer it is to being a good apple. The further it is from looking like the perfect apple (the form), the closer it is to being a bad apple or perhaps not even being an apple at all.

If there are perfect apples, Plato said, there must also be perfect human beings. Plato believed that human souls are made of three parts: desire, will, and reason. Desire is what makes us want things. Will is how we control our wants. And reason is what helps us decide which desires to follow and which ones not to. If these three are not properly balanced, a person becomes bad. A person who lets their desires rule them, for example, might steal whatever they want or hit people just because they get mad. Instead, said Plato, we have to learn how to bring all three of these parts of our souls into harmony. The reason should help us decide which desires are good and which are bad and the will should help direct us to the right things. If someone balances the three parts of their soul, they will become a virtuous person. A virtuous person, says Plato, is the perfect kind of person.

Plato had many students at his Academy. One of them was Aristotle, who went on to found his own school called the Lyceum. Aristotle developed a philosophy that was both very similar to Plato’s and also different in some important ways.

Aristotle believed that the one thing that all people want is happiness. He said that everything else we do we do for some other purpose. For example, people like money, but we like money because we can buy things with it. We buy these things because they make us happy. Therefore, everything we do we do for happiness.

Aristotle went on to explain that each thing functions best when it does what it was made to do. The hammer functions best when it is used to hammer in nails. The tree functions best when it is allowed to grow large and bear fruit. Human beings, then, will function best if they do what they were made to do. And, if they are allowed to function best, they will be happiest.

He then explained that the function of human beings is in the virtues. Human beings were made to behave virtuously. Humans must, then, be virtuous in order to be truly happy.

In addition to his ideas about virtue and happiness, Aristotle is also famous for his scientific research. He wrote some of the earliest books on topics in science, including zoology and biology. He used to spend much of his time walking up and down the shore of the Aegean Sea near his home, looking for new plant and animal specimens that washed up.

Although Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were different from each other in some of their ideas, they did have some important things in common. First, all three of them knew that virtue is very important. They recognized that without virtue a person can never be completely happy and fulfilled. All three of them were also very curious about people and about the world around them. The ideas of these three men continue to influence us in many ways even today.


Review Questions

 1. What were the two crimes for which Socrates was executed?

2. What was the name of the school founded by Plato?

3. In a paragraph, describe what Aristotle believed people had to do in order to be happy.


Vocabulary Words

Philosophy – in Greek, “philosophy” means “love of wisdom;” philosophers are people who use reason to search for the truth about important things like human life, God, and nature.

Reason – the ability of the human mind to think, understand, and form judgments.

Plato and Aristotle on Drama and Poetry

Plato and Aristotle differ from each other in some important ways in their views of poetry and drama. The primary difference between the ideas of Plato and Aristotle on the subject is in what each considers the function of these arts. It is from this point of departure that the rest of their disagreements on the subject arise.

Plato sees the primary function of poetry as the presentation of examples which the viewer is intended to, or inevitably does, imitate. Plato believes that the viewer is seduced into entering into a state of empathy and even identification with the characters witnessed on the stage or told about in the story. As a result, the viewer comes to sympathize with subjects for which he should rather feel “disgust” than “enjoyment and admiration.”1  This delight in entering into the fiction being portrayed, says Plato, leads us to imitate such behavior because “what we feel for other people must infect what we feel for ourselves.”2  According to Plato, then, “bad taste in the theatre may insensibly lead you into becoming a buffoon at home.”3  In other words, one comes through the fictions of poetry and drama to identify with the bad behavior of bad characters and so to behave badly and to become bad oneself.

As a remedy to this potentially insidious influence of poetry, Plato recommends banning many of the great classics of Greek theater from his ideal state, including even those written by Homer. He orders instead that “the only poetry that should be allowed in a state is hymns to the gods and paeans in praise of good men.”4  In other words, Plato believes that, because the hearers of poetry naturally imitate what they hear, they should only be allowed to hear poems which incite them to piety and to the imitation of the great deeds of good men.

Aristotle views the function of poetry and drama quite differently. According to Aristotle, the primary function of these arts is katharsis. Through viewing a tragedy, says Aristotle, the viewer is “accomplishing by means of pity and fear the cleansing [katharsis] of these [negative] states and feelings.”5  For Aristotle as for Plato, drama is imitation, but Aristotle’s ideas concerning who is doing the imitating and who is being imitated are very different from those of Plato. Whereas Plato believed that viewers imitate the characters they see on the stage, Aristotle instead sees the actors as the imitators of plausible but ultimately fictional events. The viewers share in this imitation and, as a result, are cleansed through the “pity and fear” they feel for and with the characters. The viewers, then, vicariously participate in the tragedy and are, in fact, motivated to the opposite course of action from imitating what they have seen. This view led Aristotle to declare that “poetry is a more philosophical and more serious thing than history.”6  Rather than merely recounting the facts of a matter, says Aristotle, poetry purifies the viewer and prepares him to choose the right course of action.

For this reason, Aristotle believed that the persons portrayed in drama should be neither of an especially good character nor of an especially bad character, but somewhere in between these two extremes. The individual portrayed should be, according to Aristotle, “the sort of person who is not surpassing in virtue and justice, but does not change into misfortune through bad character and vice.”7  In other words, he should be normal, relatable, and sympathetic. He should be someone with whom the average viewer of the drama can easily identify. And his “misfortune” should result from “some missing of the mark,” a single error, rather than from some connatural or ineradicable defect of character. For similar reasons, he also expressed an apparent disdain for biography, recommending that poets tell the story of a single part of a person’s life rather than the whole of it at once.

All of this stands in stark contrast to Plato’s view. Whereas Plato preferred the biographies of great men of history in order to inspire others to imitate their great deeds, Aristotle recommends instead the recounting of particular incidents involving errors committed by fairly average men in order to allow the viewer to participate vicariously in these errors and so avoid them in the future. Where Plato and Aristotle do agree, however, is in one basic but rather important assumption; they agree that the arts of poetry and drama have a significant effect on those who view them and on the societies of which they are a part. Although they disagree on what this effect is and how this effect is accomplished, the starting point for both is essentially identical. As such, each sees the issue of poetry as of great importance. In spite of this common beginning, however, their respective views diverge significantly from each other.

1 Plato, “Poets Banned from the Ideal State,” from The Republic, trans. Desmond Lee, 203.

2 Ibid., 203-204.

3 Ibid., 204.

4 Ibid., 204.

5 Aristotle, Poetics, ch. 6, trans. Joe Sachs (Newburyport: Focus Publishing, 2006), 26.

6 Ibid., ch. 9, 32.

7 Ibid., ch. 13, 37.

Personhood in Medieval Philosophy (Personhood Part VI)

The history of medieval thought is largely a history of attempts by various thinkers to bridge the gap between and create a synthesis of biblical faith and Greco-Roman philosophy within the context of the Christian Church. As is to be expected from any attempt to reconcile such disparate sources as Plato, Aristotle, and Genesis, and to create a coherent whole out of this reconciliation, this medieval synthesis of Western thought was often an uncomfortable amalgam of contradictory elements. Medieval ideas about personhood are largely the result of this tension and combination.

One relatively early example of this tension in Christian thought is demonstrated in the words of the fourth century bishop Gregory of Nyssa in his work “On Infants’ Early Deaths.” In that work, Gregory refers to a newborn who has died shortly after birth as passing away “before he is even human,” adding to this statement the parenthetical explanation that “the gift of reason is man’s peculiarity, and he has never had it in him.”69 For his belief that reason is the defining feature of humanity, Gregory drew upon the ideas of the extremely influential late second and early third century Christian author Origen, according to whose assertion, “we hold the resemblance to God to be preserved in the reasonable soul.”70 Origen, who drew heavily on Greek philosophy to explain biblical ideas, in turn, drew on that philosophy for this explanation of the content of the Imago Dei. The Bible itself, however, offers no such identification between human reason and the Imago Dei. In bringing together the Greek philosophical idea that reason is the defining feature of personhood and the biblical idea of the Imago Dei, the beginning of the uncomfortable synthesis of the Greco-Roman with the biblical is demonstrated. In spite of his denial of full personhood to an infant, however, an apparent departure from previous Christian understandings, Gregory nonetheless does not express doubt in the same work that said infants possess immortal and complete human souls.

Another fairly early example of this uncomfortable synthesis that marked medieval Christian thought occurs in Augustine of Hippo’s early fifth century work “On the Holy Trinity.” In that work, as in much else that he wrote, Augustine exhibits a bizarre mix of Platonism, Judaism, and Christianity. This amalgam leads him, in a discussion of women, to draw simultaneously on the opening chapters of Genesis and on 1 Corinthians 11:3-12, interpreting both through the lens of Neo-Platonic philosophy. The rather strange conclusion that he reaches is that a woman herself does not bear the Imago Dei but is the Imago Dei only in conjunction with her husband. According to Augustine, “woman herself alone … is not the image of God; but as regards the man alone, he is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman too is joined with him in one.”71 The uncomfortable mixture of the biblical and Platonic in Augustine’s thought runs throughout his discussion of the Imago Dei and reaches its high point when he, along with Origen and Gregory before him, identifies the Imago Dei with a “rational mind.”72 He is forced to admit, in order to remain true to the biblical text and to traditional Christian anthropology and soteriology but clearly in contradiction to what his previously stated views on women imply, that “it is clear, not men only, but also women have” full possession of this “rational mind.”73

Perhaps the most conspicuous example of the tension between the biblical and the Greco-Roman in medieval Christian thought on personhood is in the ideas of the thirteenth century theologian Thomas Aquinas, whose influence on Western Christianity is arguably less than only Paul and Augustine. Whereas Augustine struggled to find a synthesis between the Neo-Platonic and the biblical, Aquinas sought to bring Aristotle’s philosophy together with the Bible. Just as in Augustine’s work, this attempted synthesis creates a tension that is a palpable and ubiquitous presence in Aquinas’s works. His thoughts on women certainly present an outstanding example of this uncomfortable synthesis, as is exhibited by his discussion of women in his Summa Theologica’s Question 92.74 There, Aquinas almost desperately attempts to make the statements of Genesis in regards to the creation and dignity of women agree with Aristotle’s thought on women in his work On the Generation of Animals. In order to make two very different and ultimately mutually exclusive accounts agree, however, Aquinas is forced to perform strenuous mental gymnastics. In his First Article, Reply to Objection 1 in that section, for instance, he is forced to affirm both that woman is a good and complete creation of God, as Genesis claims, and that she is “defective and misbegotten,” as Aristotle claims. In spite of his very best mental gymnastics, Aquinas is clearly unable to make Genesis and Aristotle agree.75 


69 Gregory of Nyssa, “On Infants’ Early Deaths,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers , 2nd series, Vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

70 Origen, Against Celsus, book 7, ch. 66.

71 Augustine of Hippo, On the Holy Trinity, ch. 7, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers , 1st series, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

72 Ibid.

73 Ibid.

74 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Question 92, in Thomas Aquinas: I, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952).

75 I have adapted most of the preceding paragraph from a post to my blog. David Withun, “Aquinas’s uncomfortable synthesis,” Pious Fabrications, 4 April 2013, (accessed 20 April 2013).

Personhood in Hebrew and Jewish Thought and Practice (Personhood, Part III)

The conception of personhood which developed in the thought of the Ancient Near East and early became a cornerstone of Jewish anthropology stood in stark contrast with these Greco-Roman understandings. Ancient Near Eastern thought had included a concern for social justice as a central feature from a very early date, as is evidenced by, for instance, texts like the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian law code dating to about 1772 BC. In the thought of the Hebrews, this concern for social justice became a near obsession and formed the basis of nearly all of their law. The first book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis, declares in its first chapter (verse 27) that “God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him.”8 This idea, generally referred to under its Latin name as Imago Dei, permeated Jewish thought and practice concerning relationships between people. Every person was considered a bearer of the Imago Dei and, as such, entitled to dignity and respect, regardless of social or economic status, age, or gender. As scholar Thomas Cahill has succinctly stated, the “bias toward the underdog” throughout biblical law “is unique not only in ancient law but in the whole history of law.”9

In direct contradiction to Aristotle’s belief that foreigners should be subdued and ruled by his own nation, the biblical injunction regarding treatment of foreigners orders that “you shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him,” adding a justification from the Israelites’ own history and an appeal to empathy: “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”10 In the following chapter of Exodus, the Hebrews are ordered to leave their fields uncultivated every seventh year so “that the poor of your people may eat” from what is left in it.11 The Book of Exodus also presents a view of slavery that is nearly opposite that of the Greco-Roman world. The text explicitly denies a master the right to kill his servant, commanding “if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished.”12 The text even goes as far as ordering that a slave who loses his or her eye or tooth because of violence by his or her master must be freed.13 The phrase “male or female” in verses like these is also indicative of the treatment of women in the legal code outlined in the Bible. The law, including both the privileges it confers and the responsibilities it demands, is made to apply equally to men and women, as in the verses cited concerning slavery. Certain special privileges are even afforded to women in order to prevent their oppression or marginalization in Israelite society; for instance, it is ordered that if a man takes a woman’s virginity outside of marriage, a state which thereby rendered her almost entirely unmarriageable in the Ancient Near East, he must take her as his wife and support her for the rest of his life.14 In addition, the Jews regarded infanticide as abhorrent. The Torah offers unequivocal condemnation of infanticide, referring to it as an “abomination,” and, again in contrast to Greco-Roman thought which commended the practice and even explicitly ordered it in certain instances, demands that it should never be performed. Although the Torah is ambiguous on its treatment of abortion and may even endorse it at several points,15 by the first century AD Jews generally understood the condemnations of infanticide in their law as encompassing abortion as well; the prolific first century Jewish author and historian Josephus, for instance, reports as the common Jewish belief and practice that “the law, moreover, enjoins us to bring up all our offspring, and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward; and if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child, by destroying a living creature, and diminishing humankind.”16 These Jewish tendencies toward a broad view of personhood and a consuming desire for social justice were part of the legacy of biblical thought inherited by early Christians. Especially significant is the early Christian development of the idea of Imago Dei, a concept which, in spite of its centrality in Jewish thought, had remained largely underdeveloped. It was in early Christianity, and in a synthesis of Hellenic and Hebrew thought, that followers of the biblical tradition would most fully explore what the Imago Dei consisted of and what were the implications of that idea.


8 Genesis 1:27 (New King James Version).

9 Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 152.

10 Exodus 22:21 (NKJV).

11 Exodus 23:11 (NKJV).

12 Exodus 21:20 (NKJV).

13 Exodus 21:26-7 (NKJV).

14 Deuteronomy 22:28-9 (NKJV).

15 Prescriptions of capital punishment for adulterous wives in such verses as Deuteronomy 22:22-4, for instance, seem to have been intended to be carried out immediately upon discovery of the act with no delay to observe for signs of pregnancy to prevent the loss of the life of a fetus the woman may be carrying. In fact, these laws seem to have been formulated specifically for the purpose of preventing illegitimate heirs who might usurp the property of the woman’s husband. Numbers 5:11-31 even seems to prescribe some kind of abortion ritual for unfaithful wives in which the woman drinks “bitter water that brings a curse” (verse 19, NKJV) which “makes [her] thigh rot and [her] belly swell” (verse 21, NKJV) if she is indeed unfaithful. Significantly, this ritual is presented as a punishment for adulterous wives, not something to be desired, and, following this apparent abortion, “the woman will become a curse among her people” (verse 27), indicating an overwhelmingly negative attitude to abortion. Verses such as Exodus 21:22-25, which commands the execution of a man who causes a woman to miscarry through violence against her, seem, on the other hand, to assign the fetus a moral value equal to that of other human beings. Although the Hebrew Bible is ambiguous on this point, the logical development of its thought is captured by its actual subsequent development: a condemnation of abortion.

16 Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, par. 25 in William Whiston, tr., The Works of Josephus (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1987).

Personhood in Greco-Roman Thought and Practice (Personhood, Part II)

Demonstration of the very narrow understanding of personhood in Greek thought begins with the earliest texts of Western civilization, the Iliad and the Odyssey, both attributed to the poet Homer and composed in about the eighth century BC.1 Both works limit their purview to the lives of male Greek aristocrats. The concerns of women and children are treated only insofar as they affect the men. The concerns of slaves, of the poor, of the handicapped, and other such groups are never considered at all. The world of Homer is the world of a small but powerful elite class.

Later developments in Greek thought served to justify this narrow definition of personhood. Aristotle, for instance, writing in the fourth century BC, provided a succinct list of groups explicitly excluded from the category of personhood as well as a justification for the exclusion of each in his Politics: “Although the parts of the soul are present in all of them, they are present in different degrees. For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority; and the child has, but it is immature.”2 Because of their lack of “the deliberative faculty,” Aristotle claims that slaves, along with “brute animals[,] … have no share in happiness or in a life based on choice.”3 Similarly, says Aristotle, “the female is, as it were, a mutilated male.”4 In addition, Aristotle also excluded the lower classes, the poor and even laborers from his definition of personhood, arguing, for instance, that “the life of mechanics and shopkeepers … is ignoble and inimical to goodness.”5 Aristotle also placed the entirety of the non-Greek population into the category of those lacking “the deliberative faculty,” asserting that “barbarians … are a community of slaves” who should rightfully be ruled by the Greeks.6

These negative assessments regarding the personhood of women, slaves, children, barbarians, and others in the writings of Aristotle can be taken as representative of Greco-Roman thought more generally. The Leges Duodecim Tabularum, or Law of the Twelve Tables, for instance, a document of the fifth century BC which formed the foundation of Roman law, institutionalized the systematic marginalization and oppression of these groups within Roman society.7 In the Twelve Tables, the male head of household was granted the right to dispose of the women, children, and slaves within his household in the same manner as he treats animals and other property under his control, including the right to sell them and even to kill them; he is, in fact, ordered by the Tables to kill any children born with deformities (Table IV). Women, being property themselves, are denied the rights of property ownership (Table VI). Marriages between members of the aristocracy and members of the lower classes were banned outright (Table XI). In short, only an adult male member of the Roman aristocracy was granted full personhood in this initial document which governed and defined Roman society. This narrow understanding of personhood remained the standard understanding in the Roman Empire until the fourth century.


1 Harold Bloom, Homer (New York: Infobase Publishing, Inc., 2009), 205.

2 Aristotle, Politics, in Aristotle: II, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 1260a10-14.

3 Ibid., 1280a32-34.

4 Aristotle, On the Generation of Animals, in Aristotle: I, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 737a26-7.

5 Aristotle, Politics, 1328b39-40.

6 Ibid., 1252b4-8.

7 The Laws of the Twelve Tables, (accessed 24 March 2013).