Summa Theologiae
and other texts

Paris Breviary, 1414

Excerpted from: Slavery in the Writings of Thomas Aquinas, Ralph Neill, April 4, 2011 

THOMAS agrees [with Aristotle] that the status of women is much higher than the status of slaves. In the Summa Theologiae he writes:

A wife, though she is something belonging to the husband, since she stands related to him as to her own body, as the Apostle declares (Eph. 5:28), is nevertheless more distinct from her husband, than a son from his father or a slave from his master: for she is received into a kind of social life, that of matrimony, wherefore according to the Philosopher (Ethics V.6) there is more scope for justice between husband and wife than between father and son, or master and slave" (II-II, q.57, a.5, co.).

When it comes to natural slavery, there is a common interest between a master and his slave. In his Commentary on the Politics, Thomas writes:

It is advantageous for slaves and masters, fit to be such by nature, that one be the master, and the other the slave. And so there can be friendship between them, since the association of both in what is advantageous for each is the essence of friendship (1.4.11).

Thomas defines a slave in the following way:

We posit instrument as the genus and add five specific differences. By the fact that we call the instrument living, we distinguish it from inanimate instruments. By the fact that we call the instrument useful for activity, we distinguish it from a craftsman’s assistant, who is a living instrument of production. By the fact that we say that the instrument belongs to another, we distinguish a slave from a free person, who sometimes serves in a household freely or for pay, not as property. By the fact that we call the instrument separate, we distinguish it from a part like the hand, which belongs to something else but is not separate. And by the fact that we call the instrument a human being, we distinguish it from irrational animals, which are separate property (1.2.11).

In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas makes use of Aristotle’s distinction of two kinds of servitude or two kinds of subjection when he discusses the relationship between men and women:

Subjection is twofold. One is servile, by virtue of which a superior makes use of a subject for his own benefit, and this kind of subjection began after sin. There is another kind of subjection, which is called economic or civil, whereby the superior makes use of his subjects for their own benefit and good; and this kind of subjection existed even before sin (I, q.92, a.1, arg.2).

THOMAS makes similar comments when he discusses the rights of nations:

Considered absolutely, the fact that this particular man should be a slave rather than another man, is based, not on natural reason, but on some resultant utility, in that it is useful to this man to be ruled by a wiser man, and to the latter to be helped by the former, as the Philosopher states (Politics I.2) (II-II, q.57, a.3, arg.2).

Both Aristotle and Thomas therefore definitely approve of natural slavery on the basis of intelligence because it is mutually beneficial. Aristotle summarizes his position with the following comment: "It is clear, then, that some men are by nature free, and others slaves, and that for these latter slavery is both expedient and right" (1255a2-3). Thomas summarizes his position with the following:

Therefore, all human beings who differ from others as much as the soul does from the body, and as human beings do from irrational animals, are, because of the eminence of reason in them and the deficiency in others, by nature masters of the others. In this regard, Solomon also says in Proverbs 11:29: ‘The stupid will serve the wise.’ (Commentary 1.3.10).

[ARISTOTLE] Having outlined his position on natural slavery in the Politics, Aristotle writes: "Others affirm that the rule of a master over slaves is contrary to nature, and that the distinction between slave and free man exists by law only, and not by nature; and being an interference with nature is therefore unjust" (1253b20-2). He admits that those who hold this opposite opinion from his "have in a certain way right on their side" (1255a4). He then cites the convention that the victors of a war may take the vanquished as slaves. He points out that some people identify justice with goodwill and "detest the notion that, because one man has the power of doing violence and is superior in brute strength, another shall be his slave and subject" (1255a9-10). He points out that other people identify justice with the "mere rule of the stronger" and believe that "superior power is only found where there is superior excellence of some kind" (1255a14). ...Aristotle goes on to write that men "should seek to be masters only over those who deserve to be slaves" (1334a3). Here he does not define who exactly deserves to be enslaved.


Thomas makes ...  negative statements about slavery in his work entitled The Religious State, the Episcopate, and the Priestly Office. He writes:

"Nothing is so repugnant to human nature as slavery; and, therefore, there is no greater sacrifice (except that of life), which one man can make for another, than to give himself up to bondage for the sake of that other" (Chapter 10, p45).

He goes on to say:

The state of slavery does in some sort resemble death, and is therefore called civil death. For life is chiefly manifested in ability to move; he that cannot move save by the agency of others, may be accounted dead. Now, a slave has no power over himself, but is governed by the will of his master; and therefore this condition of bondage may be compared to death. Hence a man, who, for the love of another, delivers himself to bondage, practises the same perfection of charity, as he who exposes himself to death. Nay, we may say that he does more; for slavery is more abhorrent to our nature than is death. (Chapter 14, p79).

Thomas writes:

"Since slavery was imposed in punishment of sin, it follows that by slavery man forfeits something which otherwise would belong to him, namely the free disposal of his person, for a slave, as regards what he is, belongs to his master" (II-II, q.189, a.6, arg.2).

in his work entitled The Religious State, the Episcopate, and the Priestly Office. In the following section, Thomas explains the nature of making a vow:

We must remember, however, that a man may deprive himself of liberty either absolutely (simpliciter) or relatively (secundum quid). If he bind himself, either to God or man, to perform some specific work for some allotted time, he renounces his freedom, not absolutely but partially, i.e., with regard to the particular matter, about which he has laid himself under an obligation. If, however, he place himself entirely at the disposal of another, reserving to himself no liberty whatsoever, he makes himself a slave absolutely, and thereby absolutely alters his condition. Thus, if a person make a vow to God to perform some specified work, such as a pilgrimage or a fast, he does not change his condition entirely, but only partially, i.e., with regard to that particular work which he vows to accomplish" (Chapter 15, p85).








Tertia Pars,
Q. 1: On the Fitness of the Incarnation
Article 2






Whether it was necessary for the restoration of the human race that the Word of God should become incarnate?

 Utrum fuerit necessarium ad reparationem humani generis Verbum Dei incarnari.





  Objection 1: It would seem

Ad secundum





   And there are very many other advantages which accrued, above man’s apprehension.

Sunt autem et aliae plurimae utilitates quae consecutae sunt, supra comprehensionem sensus humani. 





  Reply to Objection 1: This reason has to do with the first kind of necessity, without which we cannot attain to the end.

Ad primum ergo dicendum quod ratio illa procedit secundum primum modum necessarii, sine quo ad finem perveniri non potest.










This Webpage was created for a workshop held at Saint Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo, California in 1995....x....   “”.