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).

Happiness according to Aristotle and Christ

Aristotle identified the highest end and aim of man as happiness. According to Aristotle, happiness is both what men naturally aim to attain and is their greatest attainment. It was this idea that shaped his ethical theories as he formulated his idea of values as the means by which to attain happiness. According to Aristotle, attaining perfect virtue is the means by which to attain perfect happiness. In addition, Aristotle’s theory of virtues sees virtue as a mean between two vices, one of defect, the other of excess. For Aristotle, then, happiness is seen primarily as a state of equanimity rather than one of passionate pursuit of pleasure as, for instance, the hedonist might claim. Most of the specific content of these values that Aristotle claims as leading to the greatest happiness are, much like his assertions about happiness as man’s highest end which begin his ethical theories, little more than attempts to articulate and provide a justification for the conventional values of his time. This is the greatest point of weakness in his ethics, and in his philosophy as a whole, and the point from which he has been criticized by feminists and can be seen as fundamentally flawed in the light of a multicultural perspective.

Aristotle, like most Greek men of his time, was possessed of a prejudice which saw the values, beliefs, and ways of his own time and place as the best and the norm by which all others were to be judged. It is this prejudice that in large part inspired and informed the Greek disdain for non-Greeks as “barbarians” who, according to Aristotle in his Politics, lack the capacity for reason and are intended by nature to be slaves ruled by the Greeks. This presupposition on the part of Aristotle exposes him to an attack for which he seems to offer no good answer, in spite of some rather haphazard attempts, namely the question of why we should prefer the Greek values of Classical Antiquity over any other set of values from any other time or place.

Although the two were certainly unfamiliar with each other, Aristotle’s Chinese contemporary or near-contemporary, Chuang Tzu, offers just such a critique of a similar set of ideas to Aristotle’s, as found in Confucianism, in his writings. Just as Aristotle assumed the values and norms of contemporary Greece were the standard and perfect values and norms, Confucius made the same assumption about the values and norms of China, even identifying them with the Way of Heaven, the eternal order of things. The Taoists, including perhaps most notably Chuang Tzu, opposed this Confucian idea with the belief in and practice of a radical renunciation of social expectations and cultural mores. For the Taoist, it was in fact a rejection of conventional values that allowed one to discover and faithfully follow the Tao, or eternal order of things. In other words, in contrast to the Confucian and Aristotelian identification of a certain set of cultural values as eternal values, for the Taoists renouncing the values of one’s culture was among the first steps toward discovering and following the eternal values.

Many thinkers, especially among feminists, have also seen much that is lacking in Aristotle’s ideas and offered criticism of them on similar grounds. Eve Browning Cole, for example, sees Aristotle’s ideas regarding a perfect society as resting essentially on the exploitation of women and other marginalized groups as laborers while freeing a minority of aristocratic men for a life of the mind, which Aristotle views as the only fully human life. She concludes that although Aristotle’s belief that slaves and women lack reason and therefore lack the ability to function in a fully human way contradict other elements in his philosophy and reveal an inconsistency in his thought, it was necessary to the social order that he sought to justify to continue the subjection and exploitation of women and slaves. In essence, Aristotle’s thoughts on women and slaves are question-begging at its worst: women and slaves are seen as ignorant and lacking in reason, which assessment is, in turn, used to justify the status quo practice of denying them the very education and leisure time to apply that education that would correct their deficits in knowledge and reasoning.

I think perhaps the greatest counterargument to and undermining of the thought of Aristotle, and in fact of the Greco-Roman world in general, is the thought of the early Christians. Although they adopted the word and idea eudemonia, the state of happy equanimity which Aristotle had set as the aim of his ethics, the early Christians found this state in a very different set of values. Using the word makarios, a word Aristotle also uses occasionally in his Nicomachean Ethics, rather than eudemonia, for instance, the Gospel of Matthew (5:3-12) records Jesus exclaiming the happiness of those who are “poor in spirit” (verse 3), “meek” (verse 5), and “persecuted” (verse 10), a very different set of values from those found in Aristotle’s ideal of a magnanimous Greek aristocratic as the possessor of the greatest virtue. These values are, I believe, a set of values that have proven superior to those of Aristotle and the other Greeks of a similar mind both in their effect on human history and in embracing a significantly wider swathe of humanity and the human experience in their applicability.