Understanding the ancient world is often difficult for those who were raised in a Christian Culture. It is very hard to believe that slavery was ubiquitous in the ancient world. Why did they tolerate it? It seems like they just treated it as we treat different roles. Some people will own the restaurant some will bus the tables and some will cook etc. People can own animals, and people are animals, so why not? Aristotle expressed this view:
“And indeed the use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different; for both with their bodies minister to the needs of life.”
At first blush Paul’s exhortation to seems take the view that being a slave is just another role people have:
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.
And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.”
At one level this passage seems to accept these roles. At that level this passage reminds me of my father telling me he didn’t care what I did just whatever I did I should, do it well. Of course, today we don’t see slavery as just another role.
But, he says “And masters treat your slaves in the same way” right after he describes how a slave should treat their master. What?!? This is often overlooked by people when they are trying to be critical of Paul and Christianity. So how should a master treat his slave “the same way” Paul wants a slave to treat his master? Well let’s fill that in:
“Obey your earthly [slaves] with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.”
Whoa, that’s pretty crazy stuff for his time. But, of course, it naturally follows from the view that “the first will be last and the last will be first” Mathew 20:16 and “I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Mathew 25:40. I mean if this is really what that God wanted us to believe you would expect him who has power over us to come and do something like wash the feet of his own creation. John 13.
Paul and Christ are doing much more than arguing for a change of legal codes. They want our heart, mind, and soul to point in the direction of love for another as opposed to us seeing others as tools. They want us to view our relationships with other people in an entirely different way that cannot be captured in law and works regardless of the laws we live under.
Clearly this passage like so many others in Christianity turns what was the common view on its head. We are all to be servants of Christ and by that we do what he wants which is to be servants of each other. Not because we are forced but because of the love he wants us to build for each other.
But slavery was accepted everywhere for so long, why did people change their view and start thinking peopled should not own other people? We see Paul is starting to really upset the apple cart but he still seems to accept the institutional roles themselves at least superficially. How did we start to see this differently, and start to see the institution of slavery as immoral? Of course If morality is defined as whatever we want then it seems the change would just be arbitrary like the wind.
One way to at least approach an answer to this question, is to examine the reasons given by the first person we know of to argue against Slavery as flat out being immoral. This will give us an idea of the original grounds to break from that long established but immoral tradition.
There were certain Stoics who took a view somewhat similar to Paul’s, in that we are meant to be free in a spiritual sense and this can be extended to the physical sense. And indeed the Stoic Dr. Piggliucci quotes, Seneca the younger, was so loved by early Christians that he was often referred to as a proto-christian Saint by them!
I would liken some of these statements from Stoics to some of Paul’s. E.g., Paul asks Philemon that he free his slave out of love rather than have him order to do what he ought to do, and there is no such thing as slave or free in Christ, and that it is good that slaves become free and that they stay free First Corinthians 7:21-24. Paul like these stoics stopped short of giving a giving lengthy attack on slavery itself.
Dr. Piggliucci says “That said, it is certainly the case that no Stoic questioned the very institution of slavery. But it is rather unfair to criticize Stoicism in particular for this failure. Every single ancient philosophy and religion, including Christianity, has incurred in the same failure.” He may be right about other ancient philosphys and religions but based on what I say below I think Christianity is indeed different. Even if we don’t count the teachings of Jesus and Paul as making slavery obsolete we have at least one Ancient Christian attacking slavery.
I would also question Dr. Piggliucci suggesting racism had nothing to do with ancient justification for slavery. He says:
“The Colonial idea of slavery was intrinsically racist, founded on the conceit that some people are literally sub-human, not worthy of the same consideration as the rest of us. That was not the case in Ancient Greece and Rome, where one could become a slave by losing a battle.”
Consider this quote from Plato:
“…nature herself intimates that it is just for the better to have more than the worse, the more powerful than the weaker; and in many ways she shows, among men as well as among animals, and indeed among whole cities and races, that justice consists in the superior ruling over and having more than the inferior.”
Moreover, Aristotle specifically addressed this case and said that if a person who was not naturally a slave was made a slave after being captured in battle (a legal slave) it would be wrong for them not to be freed. And if a person who was a natural slave was freed by law that would also be wrong not to re-enslave him. See politics book 1 part 6.
What made someone naturally a slave and another naturally a ruler? That is somewhat unclear but he seems fairly sympathetic to the view that “Helenes” (Greeks) are fit to rule. Whereas non-Greeks “barbarians” have no one fit to rule as they are all natural slaves. “But among barbarians no distinction is made between women and slaves, because there is no natural ruler among them: they are a community of slaves, male and female.” Politics book one part 2.
Aristotle also talks about the inability to understand certain things would make someone more fit to be a slave. But whatever the details it is fairly clear he sees the natural slaves as inferior to the natural masters. Here is a quote that also gives us some insight as to some other moral views Christianity inherited from the ancient world:
“And it is clear that the rule of the soul over the body, and of the mind and the rational element over the passionate, is natural and expedient; whereas the equality of the two or the rule of the inferior is always hurtful. The same holds good of animals in relation to men; for tame animals have a better nature than wild, and all tame animals are better off when they are ruled by man; for then they are preserved. Again, the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind.”
Aristotle politics book 1 part 5.
It is for these reasons I would question Dr. Piggliucci’s statement suggesting the bigotry of the later centuries was not around in ancient times.
In any case the first known assault on the very notion of slavery comes from Saint Gregory, the Bishop of Nyssa. He lived from @335- @395 AD. I quote a translation of his attack on slavery from a homily on ecclesiastics where the person boasts of owning slaves. I will offer a rather lengthy quote because it is important to get the reasoning. The reasoning of the first people to take a different view is evidence of what caused the gradual change to our current views. Moreover, the first known argument against slavery is in my opinion a text worth reading in its own right.
…..as for a human being to think himself the master of his own kind? “I got me slaves and slave-girls”, he says, and homebred slaves were born for me.
Do you notice the enormity of the boast? This kind of language is raised up as a challenge to God. For we hear from prophecy that all things are the slaves of the power that transcends all (Ps 119/118,91). So, when someone turns the property of God into his own property and arrogates dominion to his own kind, so as to think himself the owner of men and women, what is he doing but overstepping his own nature through pride, regarding himself as something different from his subordinates?
I got me slaves and slave-girls. What do you mean? You condemn man to slavery, when his nature is free and possesses free will, and you legislate in competition with God, overturning his law for the human species. The one made on the specific terms that he should be the owner of the earth, and appointed to government by the Creator – him you bring under the yoke of slavery, as though defying and fighting against the divine decree.
You have forgotten the limits of your authority, and that your rule is confined to control over things without reason. For it says Let them rule over winged creatures and fishes and four-footed things and creeping things (Gen, 1,26). Why do you go beyond what is subject to you and raise yourself up against the very species which is free, counting your own kind on a level with four-footed things and even footless things? You have subjected all things to man, declares the word through the prophecy, and in the text it lists the things subject, cattle and oxen and sheep (Ps 8,7- 8). Surely human beings have not been produced from your cattle? Surely cows have not conceived human stock? Irrational beasts are the only slaves of mankind. But to you these things are of small account. Raising fodder for the cattle, and green plants for the slaves of men, it says (Ps 1041 103,14). But by dividing the human species in two with ‘slavery’ and ‘ownership’ you have caused it to be enslaved to itself, and to be the owner of itself.
I got me slaves and slave-girls. For what price, tell me? What did you find in existence worth as much as this human nature? What price did you put on rationality? How many obols did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God? How many staters did you get for selling the being shaped by God? God said, Let us make man in our own image and likeness (Gen 1,26). If he is in the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? who is his seller? To God alone belongs this power; or rather, not even to God himself. For his gracious gifts, it says, are irrevocable (Rom 11,29). God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?
How too shall the ruler of the whole earth and all earthly things be put up for sale? For the property of the person sold is bound to be sold with him, too. So how much do we think the whole earth is worth? And how much all the things on the earth (Gen 1,26)? If they are priceless, what price is the one above them worth, tell me? Though you were to say the whole world, even so you have not found the price he is worth (Mat 16,26; Mk 8,36). He who knew the nature of mankind rightly said that the whole world was not worth giving in exchange for a human soul. Whenever a human being is for sale, therefore, nothing less than the owner of the earth is led into the sale-room. Presumably, then, the property belonging to him is up for auction too. That means the earth, the islands, the sea, and all that is in them. What will the buyer pay, and what will the vendor accept, considering how much property is entailed in the deal?
But has the scrap of paper, and the written contract, and the counting out of obols deceived you into thinking yourself the master of the image of God? What folly! …
The Bishop’s indignation is palpable. So while many of the ancients seemed to see people as an animal that would have value often based on traits they had no control over, such as intelligence or race etc. Christianity and Judaism introduced a different way to understand who we are separated by God from the other animals and things of creation.
- Humans are priceless. God gave us everything in the world and that is priceless and so as owners clearly we are priceless.
- God gave us authority over animals and plants but not other people. Our God given authority does not go that far.
- The least shall be first and first shall be last, and how we treat the least is how we treat God himself. (This one was not in the Bishop’s text but permeates the Christian message.)
- And yes we are made in the image of God! Jesus built on this idea in saying we should refer to God as our Father. Hence, we are all children of God. We don’t try to analyze the worth of human being based on traits like race, ethnicity, intelligence or ability/disability. We are all Children of God made in his image. We all know we would not want our own children to be used and thought of as tools for someone else, we can rest assured God does not want that for his children made in his image either.
These are the seeds that lead inevitably to the assured destruction of slavery. So long as we hold to these principles it seems impossible that people would ever treat other people as property again. But we can also see how the reasoning of the pre-christians (that can indeed lead to our value being reduced based on certain traits) is slipping back into the ethical discourse. As people, for whatever reason, want to distance their views from Christianity they seem to be saying personhood and our worth is based on certain traits we have rather than affirming the four principles I list above that reveal the sanctity of all human life regardless of the traits that person has.
It took far too long because our views were so different from God’s. The Christian (or Jewish view when you consider the arguments from Genesis) view was not the view held by any other ancient people. We believe all humans are connected to God in important ways. For others mastery of everything was good. So what could be better than mastery over other humans? “And there are many kinds both of rulers and subjects and that rule is the better which is exercised over better subjects- for example, to rule over men is better than to rule over wild beasts;” Aristotle Politics Book 1. To the ancients, people were fungible and their value was assessed by their traits, like the value of any other animal or thing.
But once we started to understand our role and that of God’s it was inevitable slavery would go. So long as we hold onto that understanding it can never return. Genesis was a huge part of this understanding. Those who read Genesis as nothing but a scientific text miss so much. (or even primarily a scientific text) It portrays us differently than other myths in important ways. But when people just read it like any other creation myth they miss out on the most important parts.
Saint Gregory, the Bishop of Nyssa, offered his congregation good reasons to reject slavery when he wrote that Homily. Many of the views would be repeated today and throughout history to provide the truest and best foundation for humanism generally.
If I said I am in favor of banning slavery based on the arguments presented by Saint Gregory would I be charged with “forcing my religious views on others?”