Freedom's Progress?: A History of Political Thought, by Gerard Casey
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.