Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Looking Through the Wrong End of the Telescope

Slavery is now universally (and rightfully) regarded with revulsion…

This thought should be kept in mind while reading this post.  Two key takeaways: first, just because I write about slavery does not mean I am supportive of the institution (amazingly, such things need to be stated); second, the key words in the statement above are “is now.”

Casey offers that slavery is one of the oldest and longest lasting institutions known to man.  He cites Thomas Sowell, who offers that slavery was virtually universal throughout the world for thousands of years.

No great religion or great teacher condemned the practice; Christianity was not alone in this regard.  John Vincent writes, “even slaves did not wish for slavery to end….”  Now, one who only sees the American experience from two centuries ago cannot stomach this thought; a read of Casey suggests that they are looking at history in the wrong direction.

Perhaps there is no region on earth that at one time did not harbor the institution.  “Probably there is no group of people whose ancestors were not at one time slaves or slaveholders,” according to “the historian of slavery,” Orlando Patterson. 

I modify this: probably there is no group of people whose ancestors were not at different times both slaves and slaveholders.  I feel I am standing on quite safe ground when I suggest that every single one of us has blood ancestors that were both victim and perpetrator in just about any atrocity one can fathom.  Here again, tough to stomach when one is looking at history the wrong way.

The lex talionis recommends an eye for an eye.  It is considered by many to be a crude reform of revenge today, if not barbaric.  Yet, when introduced, it was a tremendous moral advance.  The previously accepted practice was for twenty or even one hundred eyes for an eye.  Just so for slavery:

…when [slavery] began, it represented a moral advance on the previous custom of killing, torturing and sometimes eating prisoners taken in war.

When looked at this way…one must say slavery was an improvement to being eaten.  Even the slave would likely agree, as Vincent suggests.  Augustine also noted this aspect of slavery when compared to what came before.  Yes, it is not fashionable, but fashionable and true are often two totally different things.

Casey considers slavery in Greece and Rome, offering that there were many types of slavery: debt bondage, clientship, peonage, helotage, and serfdom.  Chattel slavery, however, is of a different sort.  A serf, for example, still had a measure of legal personhood; he held certain legal rights.  From my earlier reading, I recall: a serf could marry and had the right to stay married and keep his family; a serf could own property and pass it on to his heirs; a serf had access to courts.  The chattel slave held nothing of the sort; his rights were like that of any other piece of property, nothing more.

Some slaves were better off than the free people of Rome.  Again, I recall reading elsewhere that during the slow downfall of Rome and the advance of the Germanic tribes, many “free” Roman citizens voluntarily gave themselves to the invaders as slaves; this option offered an improvement to what was available under Roman rule.

Other than Aristotle, no prominent thinker of the time offered a defense of or even a statement about slavery.  None was offered because none was expected: slavery was the norm not just of European society, but, it seems, globally.  At least Aristotle felt some need to mention the practice: given his views on ends and purpose, it seems this was unavoidable.  Yet Casey offers that Aristotle’s defense was less than convincing, certainly given Aristotle’s own philosophical framework.

Slavery also existed among the Hebrews.  Christians, as noted, made little immediate impact on the institution; one can point to many passages from Paul and Augustine that are, in fact, to the contrary.  Like others in the region and globally, to early Christians, it sees, slavery was accepted as a normal practice.  Perhaps the more appropriate question: why, after perhaps 1800 years, did the church begin to protest this institution?

As Thomas Sowell notes, for centuries before the origin of slavery on the North American continent, Europeans had enslaved other Europeans, Asians had enslaved other Asians, and Africans had enslaved other Africans.

It wasn’t racism that gave rise to slavery; racism became a convenient tool used by slavery’s supporters to defend the institution when all other support disappeared.


To bring this full circle, consider that history progresses in only one direction no matter what modern sensibilities might wish.  Citing Sowell:

“North Africa’s Barbary Coast pirates alone captured and enslaved at least a million Europeans from 1500 to 1800, carrying more Europeans into bondage in North Africa than there were Africans brought into bondage to the United States and to the American colonies from which it was formed.  Moreover, Europeans were still being bought and sold in the slave markets of the Islamic world, decades after blacks were freed in the United States.”

The march through history goes only one way, and for much of that march slavery was considered quite a normal practice – and an improvement on the alternatives.  Wishing otherwise doesn’t make it so.


  1. "North Africa’s Barbary Coast pirates alone captured and enslaved at least a million Europeans..."

    Wow that whole quote is eye opening. We're not taught that in public school. I knew this sort of slavery occurred, but I had no idea the numbers. Where are my reparations Muslims? Lol

    "Some slaves were better off than the free people of Rome. "

    I think John C. Calhoun gets flak for having said something like this when comparing how Southern white slave owners treated their slaves with how Northern white factory owners treated their workers.

    It's interesting to me that liberals and progressives, our contemporary crusaders of social justice who bemoan the evils of African slavery in the American South to such a hyperbolic extent that they think it justifies condemning and purging the entire culture and its history - except insofar as it reminds us that white males once enslaved blacks! ...those folks, would have us believe that freedom means a closer and closer approximation of the system of slavery the American blacks experienced all those years ago.

    White slave owners provided free housing, medical care, and care in old age to their slaves. They provided free education as well (probably not education useful off the plantation, but still an education). According to today's liberals, they were free! We should be so lucky!

    One thing I don't hear anybody talking about is this: maybe a few hundred years of slavery was a small price to pay for modern American blacks being able take part in a civilization on equal terms much farther advanced than the one from which they came - the one that sold their ancestors into slavery and the one dominated today by murderous warlords, child rape gangs, Islam, socialism, and a general disregard for liberty and property. For all the belly aching (by some, not all), I don't see many blacks going back to Africa. It's more likely that their old culture is going to follow them here with mass subsidized immigration (the new slave ships) and an ever-expanding welfare system. Just look at Europe.

    I'm all for grafting people of every color onto our 'tree of liberty' in the West (or what's left of it), but in doing so, we have to make sure the roots can support the new additions, and we must trim the branches, grafted or not, that have become rotten.

    (to be clear, by "trim" I mean physical and political separation, not genocide)

    1. "(probably not education useful off the plantation, but still an education)"

      I think you need not have made this caveat. The free education provided by the state today is also not useful off the plantation.

      As to the condition of blacks in America today vs. had slaves not been imported...none of us alive today can do a thing about the injustices done to our ancestors one, two or twenty generations ago.

      What we can do (at least for those of us who, as a result of the tragedies, ended up in the more prosperous and relatively peaceful societies), is thank God for the silver lining. No one with a heart would wish that there ancestors suffered this fate in exchange for our blessing, but here we are.

      I suspect the last thing such ancestors would wish is that the generation alive today buries themselves in the mud of their tragedy.

      As I have mentioned here before, I am a result of just such a history.

    2. "I think you need not have made this caveat."

      Good point.

      "No one with a heart would wish that there ancestors suffered this fate in exchange for our blessing, but here we are."

      I agree. Or the ancestors of others. I wish nobody had to go through slavery.

      "...buries themselves in the mud of their tragedy."

      Yeah. It's good to know and remember the history (correctly and in context), but don't define your whole future by it. Don't use it as an excuse for all the failings of your community into the future. This victim culture will only lead to slavery of a different sort: public rather than private. And unfortunately, all the various victim cultures (not just blacks) in America will drag the rest of us and our children with them down into the same fate. They'll bury us all in the mud to prove their victim-hood.

    3. Spread the word: 1600 years before the (Christian) abolitionists went on a rampage against slavery, escaped slave St. Patrick, missionary to the Irish, wrote scathing letters to his Christian brothers in England demanding an end to the practice by some of both peooles of raiding each other's coasts for slaves. His influence carried forward into the rest of Europe, manifesting in the end, generally, to slavery in Europe.

  2. I get the impression that slavery was largely gotten rid of in England and a lot of western Europe. From what I recall slavery wasn't really recognized under common law in England. There was a question as to whether one could force ones slaves to stay if one brought them to England.

    In a sense it was re-introduced to English speaking peoples as they went conquering abroad.

    Anthony Johnson (b. c. 1600 – d. 1670) was a black Angolan who achieved freedom in the early 17th-century Colony of Virginia after serving his term of indenture. He became a property owner that owned slaves, and was one of the first people in Virginia to have his right to own a slave legally recognized.

    1. I have read that during the Middle Ages slavery was virtually non-existent in Europe. I don't know if this was due to an ethical concern, the economic difficulties, or the military challenges.

  3. The initial reaction of those who hear that someone condones some form of slavery is usually revulsion. This reaction is usually enough to completely destroy any and all critical thinking skills they may have possessed. Some prefer being incensed or insulted rather than looking critically at reality.

    Slavery is not universally or rightfully regarded with revulsion. Being forced to associate or work for someone against one's will is slavery. This is the law of the land in the US today, and it is quite readily accepted by a large segment of the population. If I refuse to bake a wedding cake for someone of the priviledged class, e.g. black, homosexual, transgendered, etc., then I won't be in business much longer.

    Not all slaves, or forms of slavery are created equal. As your own sources point out,many slaves preferred remaining enslaved. Most people prefer being told what to do by someone who knows better. Better to be the slave of a wealthy slave owner, than free and in abject perpetual poverty.

    In the US before, during and after the aboliton of slavery, there were plenty of poor black and white folk who would have given their right leg to be a slave on a plantation where they had a job, a roof over their head,clothing, a belly full of food, and even some grass to smoke to pacify any thoughts of escape.

    Incarceration is a form of slavery that is sought after by a large proportion of prison inmates. It is quite common now for those freed from prison to waltz into a convenience store, engage in petty crime,and wait for law enforcement to arrive to wisk them back home to prison.

    Lex talionis is not crude or barbaric. The problem is one of profound ignorance. The fact is that gouging out eyes, or knocking out teeth is well documented to have NEVER happened under lex talionis. An eye for an eye literally means, "the value of an eye for an eye". The proofs are numerous. Taking an example from the Mosaic law, when an ax flies from its handle and knocks out someone's eye, the Sages of Judaism point out that if the perpetrator has only one eye, to then gouge out their only remaining eye would blind them, and thus be considered cruel and excessive punishment. The value of a concert pianist's finger was worth more than that of a ditch digger's. Lex talionis was never taken literally by those who utilized it. If you damage someone else's property and pay for the damages, you're engaging in lex talionis.

    Again taking slavery as practiced under the Mosaic law, to be sold to a Hebrew slave owner, in most cases was one's only chance at freedom. A pagan slave who converted was, after completing their term as slave; granted all the privileges of a native born Hebrew, including never being enslaved again.

    When it comes to slavery, only the names have changed. Slavery today in first world countries like the US is far worse than it was in the past. Again, taking slavery as instituted under the Mosaic law, when one wronged another, and had no way to make amends, the offender could be forced into slavery to work off their debt. Today, when an intruder enters your home, breaks your leg, steals your property, and is apprehended, they are wisked off to prison to work off their debt to society. You get nothing because the State is who has been wronged, not you. The State is God, and therefore it is the State who must be appeased. It is the State who owns you.

    When the State can enter your home without a warrant, and wisk you away to a detention center indefinitely for no stated reason; you're a slave.

    A return to slavery as instituted under the Mosaic law would be a tremendous moral advancement over what we have today. Having the option to work off one's debt rather than being incarcerated, or the dignity to work instead of being handed a welfare check isn't going to be readily grasped by those who are quite comfortably and willingly enslaved.