Nature would like to distinguish between the bodies of freemen and slaves, making the one strong for servile labor, the other upright, and although useless for such services, useful for political life in the arts both of war and peace. But the opposite often happens--that some have the souls and others have the bodies of freemen. And doubtless if men differed from one another in the mere forms of their bodies as much as the statues of the Gods do from men, all would acknowledge that the inferior class should be slaves of the superior. And if this is true of the body, how much more just that a similar distinction should exist in the soul? but the beauty of the body is seen, whereas the beauty of the soul is not seen. It is clear, then, that some men are by nature free, and others slaves, and that for these latter slavery is both expedient and right.
- The Politics, Aristotle (no later than 322BC)
I am currently reading Aristotle's "The Politics" and the first thing that struck me (of course being very early in the discourse) is the a priori stance that Aristotle takes on slavery. The word "politics" itself means "the city" or possibly "the citizens"; either way the polis referred to the way that the Greek city-states were organised and it is to this audience that Aristotle writes. Naturally as you'd expect, being someone who derives his employment from philosophy and who would have had patrons who came to see him talk in the same way that a modern university might have patrons, Aristotle wouldn't have condemned the practice of slavery because the people who commanded slaves, were the same people from which he derived his income.
Writing for that particular society Aristotle arrives at the conclusion that slaves were in such a state because their very souls were faulty. They must have lacked reason and the ability to think for themselves and thus actually required masters to tell them what to do and how to live. As a result slavery must be good for some people, for otherwise, they would be lost and simple unable to function or run their lives properly.
If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and serves you six years, then in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you send him away free from you, you shall not let him go away empty-handed; you shall supply him liberally from your flock, from your threshing floor, and from your winepress. From what the Lord your God has blessed you with, you shall give to him. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing today.
And if it happens that he says to you, ‘I will not go away from you,’ because he loves you and your house, since he prospers with you, then you shall take an awl and thrust it through his ear to the door, and he shall be your servant forever. Also to your female servant you shall do likewise. It shall not seem hard to you when you send him away free from you; for he has been worth a double hired servant in serving you six years. Then the Lord your God will bless you in all that you do.
- Deuteronomy 15:12-18
Hebrew Law contained provisions for many things which God considered horrible such as Divorce or even the Israelite people having a king. Nevertheless, the law regarding slavery still provided for manumission after seven years and included the proviso that ex-slaves be rewarded when they left; a little like a redundancy payment or stipend I suppose.
Incidentally, tradition held that the value of the three gifts of livestock, wine and grain was to be valued at a months wages. Tradition eventually gave way to standard law which codified this. I'd never thought about this before but the 30 denarii paid by the chief priests to Judas Iscariot was also a month's wages. I'm sure that there is supposed to be a symbolic parallel with regards slavery here, but I haven't quite tied up all the connections here. Still it's, something to think about.
It is into this world of Jewish Law and prevailing Aristotlic thinking that Paul wrote his letters to the fledgling church. I find it curious that Paul doesn't explicit condemn the practice, although given that Christians were already being persecuted and didn't really have the political power to change the Roman Empire in the 50s and 60s, his writings are instructions to change the underlying relationships between slaves and their masters.
Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so.
- 1 Corinthians 7:21
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.
- Ephesians 6:5-8
Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.
- Titus 2:9-10
Paul's letter to Philemon also doesn't necessarily address the rightness of the concept of slavery. Technically, Philemon had the power to track down and kill the runaway slave Onesimus; in fact the name Onesimus itselg might be symbolic as the Greek word means "useful". If anything, the letter to Philemon is more a letter of tact and a plea for Onesiums' life than a discourse on the idea of slavery.
Paul's ambiguousness coupled with the Roman Empire's adoption of Christianity as the official state religion, meant that the question of the morality of slavery was never questioned for hundreds of years. Right throughout the dark ages and middle ages, very little if anything was ever done to address the question.
There are suggestions that there may have been provisions in Magna Carta to do with slavery but these may have just have been in consequence, for the barons who held King John to it, were really only concerned with their own power.
No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.
- Section 39, Magna Carta (1215)
Slavery itself remained sort of on the statute books in the UK and the British Empire and sort of withered on the vine within England as the rise of mercantilists took hold. The next major conflict on the journey would occur with the slave trade from Africa to the Americas. Africans were held to be less than human by many Europeans, which shows that in two-thousand odd years, people hadn't really progressed much beyond Aristotle on their thinking.
People often think that the increases of taxation and the lack of representation were the sole factors in the war of American independence but English Common Law also had its part to play.
James Somerset, an enslaved African, was purchased by Charles Stewart who was a Customs officer in Boston, Massachusetts. As the thirteen American colonies were British possessions, they were also bound by British Common Law. Somerset's case would have a profound effect on America and also probably led in its small way, to America declaring its independence.
The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law [ statute ], which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.
- Somerset v Stewart (1772)
Slavery in the United States was never properly addressed and would eventually be one of the root causes of the Civil War some 85 years later. In the UK though, key cases such as Knight's Case in 1777 helped to change public opinion.
The Slave Trade Act 1807 saw the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, but not slavery itself and the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 finally saw slavery abolished throughout the British Empire (with certain exceptions which were later eliminated in 1843).
It would also take two world wars for most of the rest of the world to finally abolish slavery officially if they already hadn't done so, with the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights following World War Two.
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
- Article 4, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).
I wonder though, in the two thousand three hundred years since Aristotle, have we really learned anything? Slavery at least carried with it, the responsibility of masters to look after their slaves. Now that slavery has been abolished and the payment of wages uncouple that responsibility, have people's lives really improved?
When more than 1100 people died as a result of the 2013 Savar building collapse in Bangladesh, most of the workers in the building were being paid less than $14 a week. Is that even less care being paid to the working conditions of people than had they been slaves in name? There are reports of people in modern factories being beaten if they do not work or if they demand pay increases.
The sad thing is that I think that having uncoupled wages from responsibility, the very existence of markets interacting with regards market labour price has eroded the standing moral values of society. How long is it before people again see slavery or wage slavery as just a consequence of nature? How long will it be before the operation of the market deems wage slavery as both expedient and right, if it already hasn't done so?