Note: A stock part of the NT class I regularly
teach is discussion on the views on slavery in the ancient world and in early
Christianity. I usually stress the
pre-Christian “natural slave theory” of Aristotle, who offered the well known
observation, rightly much offensive to modern ears, that slaves were mere
“talking tools.” I then contrast this
with the more egalitarian views of early Christianity, as reflected in places
like the household codes (cf. Eph 5-6; Col 3) and in Galatians 3:28. I also
stress that although early Christianity was not a social revolutionary movement
and did not advocate the immediate overthrow of slavery (cf. Paul’s views in 1
Cor 7:20-24 and, especially in Philemon), it did contain within it the seed
that led to the flowering of abolition, at least in the West (cf. already the
denunciation of “menstealers” in 1 Tim 1:10 and of those who traffic in
“slaves, and souls of men” in Rev 18:13).
To learn more, I recently read Peter Garnsey’s book Ideas of Slavery from
Aristotle to Augustine. Garnsey’s work is
noteworthy for pointing out criticisms and challenges to slavery even in the
pre-Christian world. He also makes some
interesting parallels to the defense of slavery in the ancient world and in the
antebellum American South (including the appeal of some pro-slavery Southern intellectuals
to classical thinkers, like Aristotle). Oddly
enough, Garnsey finds less to affirm in the role of early Christianity in opposing
slavery. For him it is a mixed bag. Though he notes the views of Gregory of Nyssa in
opposing slavery, he places emphasis on the more status quo affirming views of Augustine
and others. Garnsey seems to ignore the obvious, however, that
the rise of Christianity eventually led to the decline of slavery in every culture
where it had influence.
Here are some of my notes reviewing the book's content:
Peter Garnsey, Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine
(Cambridge University Press, 1996): 269
This book is a revised and extended edition of Garnsey’s 1995
Stanford lectures at Trinity College, Dublin.
As the title indicates it provides a survey of views on slavery in the
classical world, from the ancient Greeks to early Christianity. He suggests there have been few “slave
societies” like that found in ancient Greece and Rome or in antebellum
America. Along the way he has some
interesting comparisons between ancient justifications of slavery and
pro-slavery views in the American South.
Though admitting there was no true abolition movement in the ancient
world, he makes the case that there was criticism and critique of slavery in
the ancient world.
The author makes clear his disdain for slavery: “Slavery is the most degrading and
exploitative institution invented by man” (p. 5).
He says slavery was not universal in the ancient world or the
“typical labor system in the ancient Mediterranean world” but admits it cannot
be dismissed as “marginal” (p. 5).
Slavery was a “structural element” in ancient society (p. 9).
He cites R. W. Fogel, Without
Consent or Contract: the Rise and Fall
of American Slavery (1989, p. 201):
For 3,000 years—from the time of
Moses to the end of the 17th century—virtually every major
statesman, philosopher, theologian, writer, and critic accepted the existence
and legitimacy of slavery. The word
‘accepted’ is chosen deliberately, for these men of affairs and molders of
thought neither excused, condoned, pardoned, nor forgave the institution. They did not have to; they were not burdened
by the view that slavery was wrong.
Slavery was considered to be part of the natural scheme of things. ‘From the hour of their birth,’ said
Aristotle, ‘some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.’ (p. 9).
Ancient views of slavery cannot be limited to the “natural
slave theory” of Aristotle (p. 13).
Slavery also came to have metaphorical use among early Christians.
Part I: Attitudes to Slavery (pp. 23-102):
Chapter 2: Slavery
accepted (pp. 23-34):
Garnsey points not just to Plato and Aristotle acceptance of
slavery but also others, including early Christians. He points to the sermons of Augustine and
John Chrysostom which presume the existence of the slave system. He also cites the will of Gregory of
Nazianzus, showing he had been a slave owner.
Justifications of slavery (pp. 35-52).
He notes Aristotle’s “natural slave theory” in which he
expressed the view that some men by nature were meant to be enslaved and controlled
by superior men as their masters. Again,
he points to other ancients, including some early Christian writers, who
reflected this viewpoint.
Chapter 4: Slave
systems criticized (pp. 53-63).
A number of authors find fault with
the slave system as it operated in practice, including the way slaves were
treated, and with certain aspects of slave acquisition. The criticisms that are leveled are concrete
and raise practical concerns. They are
limited in objective and do not question the existence of slavery as an
institution. Hence they have to carefully
distinguished from what appear to be genuine critiques of slavery (see ch. 6)
Chapter 5: Fair words
This chapter addresses the labeling of slaves “as inherently
bad or stupid (cf. ‘Sambo’)” as “the crudest way of justifying the institution”
Chapter 6: Slavery
criticized (pp. 75-86).
He cites examples of largely anonymous critics of slavery
(cited as opponents by men like Aristotle) who attacked slavery. These were “social radicals” (p. 86).
Among Christian writers Gregory of Nyssa stands out for his
arguments for the abolition of slavery (pp. 80-85).
Chapter 7: Slavery
eased (pp. 87-101).
This chapter deals with how slaves were treated in the ancient world.
Garnsey argues that with the rise of Christianity to imperil
power “we find very little sign of change in the law of slavery and the way it
was administered” (p. 101).
Part II: Theories of Slavery (pp. 103-243):
Section 1: Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman
Chapter 8: Aristotle
slavery as presented by Aristotle is a battered shipwreck of a theory” (p.
He addresses Aristotle’s assessment that slaves are “tools”
used by their masters (p. 122). He saw
slaves as “subhuman” (p. 124).
Chapter 9: The Stoics
“The contribution of Stoicism to slave theory was to shift
the focus of attention from legal to moral slavery” (p. 150). Stoicism believed in the rationality of all
men (including slaves) and was deterministic. “The message for slaves, explicit
in the Late Stoics, was to stay put and serve their masters well. Therein lay moral goodness, and therefore
happiness” (p. 151).
Section 2: Early theologians
Chapter 10: Philo (pp.
Philo reflected stoic influence in distinguishing physical
from moral slavery. He wrote a work
titled “Every Good Man is Free” another (lost) “Every Bad Man is a Slave.”
Chapter 11: Paul (pp.
He sees Paul as like Stoics and Philo in adopting a moral
view of slavery.
“Paul like everyone else accepted legal slavery” (p.
176). He addressed relationships of
slaves and masters.
“Perhaps Paul’s outlook was no better integrated and no more
internally consistent than that of Philo” (p. 188).
Section 3: Church Fathers
Chapter 12: Ambrose (pp. 191-205).
Ambrose reflects classical views but begins to look at the
origins of slavery in sin.
Chapter 13: Augustine
“In response to the ubiquity of institutional slavery and the
inevitability of spiritual slavery of one kind or another, Augustine produced,
on the one hand, a moral theology of slavery, or pastoral advice about the way
masters and slaves should comport themselves in relation to one another, and,
on the other, a dogmatic theology of slavery, or a theoretical statement about
the place of slavery in the divine order” (p. 206).
He sees the origin of sin in man’s fallen nature.
Chapter 14: Slavery as
metaphor (pp. 220-235).
Christians used slave metaphor for spiritual purposes. The “two worlds” of their theology and
Greco-Roman society “seem to me to have intersected surprisingly little” (p.