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Aristotle on Automation – A Preindustrial Political Theory of Technology


It would appear that our present age of advanced automation technologies is becoming less democratic. I argue that understanding the historical interaction between political thought and technological development provides insight into the relations between automation and democratic decline today. The preindustrial period serves as a foundation for this contemporary problematic, and it is Aristotle, in fact, who offers us an early political theory of automation. Moreover, we can trace the reception and rediscovery of Aristotle’s theory into medieval and early modern political thought. These periods, I argue, are often completely overlooked or misunderstood in contemporary discourses about automation because of linguistic and philological barriers that separate contemporary scholars of economics and technology from premodernity. But they show the resistance of Aristotle’s theory of automation throughout history.

Ideas about automation are therefore neither new nor unique to the modern period. Aristotle’s Politics contains one of the earliest specifications of the relation between automated tools, work, and slavery in the context of political formation. Originally for Aristotle, neither automated tools nor workers required higher ‘intelligence’ to perform work. Aristotle’s idea of automation is moreover rooted in an extreme despotism, while dubiously associating freer and more democratic regimes with the substitution of work by automated tools. By interpreting Aristotle’s theory for the first time, as mediated through medieval and early Renaissance thinkers like Moerbeke, Magnus, Aquinas, Oresme, and Bruni, as well as the early modern political thought of Hobbes, I show i) the historic and enduring entanglement of political thought and technology, ii) the preindustrial period’s underappreciated role in shaping contemporary technology and politics, iii) a different, technological kind of Aristotle, and iv) a corrective to the ongoing uses and misuses of Aristotle’s theory in the Politics.

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