Aristotle and the Politicization of the Soul

  • Elizabeth V. Spelman
Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 161)


In Book I of the Politics Aristotle argues that men are by nature the rulers of women. The conclusion of the argument, which has to do with relationships between people — in particular, political relationships between men and women — is said to be based on what is known about relationships within people: in particular, relationships between the rational and irrational elements of the human soul. That is, this part of Aristotle’s political theory is said to rest on his metaphysics or theory of the soul. I hope to show that not the least of the reasons for examining Aristotle’s argument is that doing so sheds light on the question of whether metaphysical positions are politically innocent. To ask this question is a defining if not necessarily a distinguishing characteristic of a feminist perspective in philosophy.


Rational Part Rational Element Rational Principle Political Relationship Nature Rule 
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  1. 1.
    Cf. Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. I, Ch. 13.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Even in the De Anima, as Hamlyn has pointed out, “Aristotle does not often live up to this remark”. D. W. Hamlyn, Aristotle’s De Anima (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), p. 81.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    _Most recently, in W. W. Fortenbaugh’s ‘Aristotle on Slaves and Women’, in Articles on Aristotle: 2. Ethics and Politics, eds. Jonathan Barnes, Malcolm Schofield, Richard Sorabji (London: Duckworth, 1977), pp. 135–139.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Barker thinks that the fact that Aristotle refers to “a general principle of rule and subordination” saves him from the charge that he appears to argue in a circle. Ernest Barker, The Politics of Aristotle (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), p. 35, fn. 1. In what follows I explain why I don’t think Barker’s view can be sustained.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    As mentioned in fn. 2 above, Aristotle sometimes uses personalized language in the De Anima. But interestingly it is not also politicized language.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    Marshall Sahlins, The Use and Abuse of Biology: An Anthropological Critique of Sociobiology (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1977), pp. xii and xv. See also Donna Haraway, ‘Animal Sociology and a Natural Economy of the Body Politic’ (two parts), Signs 4 (1978), 21-60, and The Biological Enterprise: Sex, Mind and Profit from Human Engineering to Sociobiology’, Radical History Review 20 (1979), 206-237;Paul Thorn,’ stiff Cheese for Women’, Philosophical Forum 8 (1976), 94-107.Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    Fortenbaugh, Malcolm Schofield, Richard Sorabji (London: Duckworth, 1977), pp. 135–139 op. cit. Further page references in text are to this article.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Elizabeth V. Spelman
    • 1
  1. 1.Smith CollegeUSA

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