Aristotle on Pirates: Two Different Perspectives

Our good friend and erstwhile classical historian asked me about Aristotle and pirates this morning:


I couldn’t answer. So now I try.

Nicomachean Ethics, 1122a

“Shameful profiteering is common in [most occupations]. For everyone [in the baser pursuits] endures reproach for the sake of gain, no matter how small. Those men who make great profits by illegitimate means—for example, tyrants who defraud cities and despoil temples—we don’t call them mean or stingy [aneleutheuros, lit. “unfree”], but instead we consider them wretched, sacrilegious, and unjust. The gambler, the petty-thief, and the pirate are only ‘mean’ [the lesser evil] because they gain profit in a shameful manner insofar as they do whatever they can for profit; they endure reproaches, as some endure the greatest dangers for the sake of gain and others profit from their friends, the very people they should be giving to. Both categories are shameful because they wish to profit from the wrong places.”

κοινὸν δ’ ἐπ’ αὐτοῖς ἡ αἰσχροκέρδεια φαίνεται• πάντες γὰρ ἕνεκα κέρδους, καὶ τούτου μικροῦ, ὀνείδη ὑπομένουσιν. τοὺς γὰρ τὰ μεγάλα μὴ ὅθεν δὲ δεῖ λαμβάνοντας, μηδὲ ἃ δεῖ, οὐ λέγομεν ἀνελευθέρους, οἷον τοὺς τυράννους πόλεις πορθοῦντας καὶ ἱερὰ συλῶντας, ἀλλὰ πονηροὺς μᾶλλον καὶ ἀσεβεῖς καὶ ἀδίκους. ὁ μέντοι κυβευτὴς καὶ ὁ λωποδύτης καὶ ὁ λῃστὴς ὁ μέντοι κυβευτὴς καὶ ὁ λωποδύτης καὶ ὁ λῃστὴς τῶν ἀνελευθέρων εἰσίν• αἰσχροκερδεῖς γάρ. κέρδους γὰρ ἕνε-κα ἀμφότεροι πραγματεύονται καὶ ὀνείδη ὑπομένουσιν, καὶ οἳ μὲν κινδύνους τοὺς μεγίστους ἕνεκα τοῦ λήμματος, οἳ δ’ ἀπὸ τῶν φίλων κερδαίνουσιν, οἷς δεῖ διδόναι. ἀμφότεροι δὴ ὅθεν οὐ δεῖ κερδαίνειν βουλόμενοι αἰσχροκερδεῖς•

Politics, 1245a

“Some men survive by hunting; and different people hunt different things. For example, some men survive by piracy, others from fishing—and these are both men who live along the banks and shores of rivers or some kind of sea—and others hunt birds or wild animals. But the greatest portion of men live off the land and cultivated crops.”

γεωργοῦντες)• οἱ δ’ ἀπὸ θήρας ζῶσι, καὶ θήρας ἕτεροι ἑτέρας, οἷον οἱ μὲν ἀπὸ λῃστείας, οἱ δ’ ἀφ’ ἁλιείας, ὅσοι λίμνας καὶ ἕλη καὶ ποταμοὺς ἢ θάλατταν τοιαύτην προσοικοῦσιν, οἱ δ’ ἀπ’ ὀρνίθων ἢ θηρίων ἀγρίων• τὸ δὲ πλεῖστον γένος τῶν ἀνθρώπων ἀπὸ τῆς γῆς ζῇ καὶ τῶν ἡμέρων καρπῶν.

5 thoughts on “Aristotle on Pirates: Two Different Perspectives

  1. I think I conflated him putting pirates in a lesser category than tyrants and classing brigandry/piracy among other natural/unsophisticated occupations like hunting with him ranking professions as being further from the ideal of agriculture. This is what your memory does to you if you haven’t read a thing in almost 20 years!

    1. The conflation is just fine with me. The tyrants despoiling the city part made me immediately think of modern politicians and plutocrats. I definitely have a soft spot for actually pirates who risk their lives…

      1. One thing I love about ancient thinkers is that they were usually willing to just lay this kind of thing out there!

  2. I blame Christianity. I think it’s had a lingering effect of people hiding their “sinful” behavior behind cloaks of authority, respectability, etc.

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