How was slavery justified by ancient philosophers


Hans Joas

To person

Dr. phil., Dr. h.c., born 1948; Sociologist and social philosopher; Ernst Troeltsch honorary professor at the theological faculty of the Humboldt University in Berlin. [email protected]

In the eighteenth century, torture as a legitimate tool disappeared from the legal systems of all European countries. In the following, the nineteenth century, slavery was abolished in the USA, but also in all other societies in the western hemisphere in which it had developed into a central economic institution, most recently in Brazil in 1888. For me, but certainly not only for me, these two processes are among the most important chapters in the history of human rights. This is true regardless of whether in the rhetoric of the time term Human rights matter or not. The decades of intellectual disputes and social struggles that were connected with both processes make it immediately clear that the corresponding legal changes were far more than mere changes in the legal situation. (...)

It is therefore not enough just to look at the processes of the abolition of torture and slavery. Rather, we need a realistic picture of the reasons why torture and slavery have been considered legitimate for so long and have not been abolished. Specifically, this means that it must be investigated why precisely some of the allegedly freedom-loving peoples of the North Atlantic world, before they abolished it, systematized and made slavery more effective in a way that had never been done before. (...)

As is well known, slavery is an extremely heterogeneous phenomenon. An important distinction was introduced by the ancient historian Moses Finley and accepted by many, including Jürgen Osterhammel. [1] It's about the difference between Societies with slaves one hand (and that is, the majority of societies in human history) and Slave holding societies or Slave societies on the other hand. The second case concerns societies in which slaves form a large part of the population and are central to the production process. If we limit ourselves to "slave societies" in this narrower sense, then we find that they all seem to belong to the "Western" tradition. We then think of ancient Greece, certain phases of Roman history, Brazil, the Caribbean and the colonies or states in the south of North America. (…) Two main features separate the modern from the ancient slave societies: the role of race and racism and the fact that the colonial powers kept slave societies away from their heartland - on the periphery of their colonial empires.

Since this geographical distance makes it easy for Europeans to relieve their conscience and to ignore their own role in the history of slavery - they tend not to regard the inhabitants of such "peripheral areas" as Europeans - it is important to to emphasize that slavery in this sense affected "every seafaring European nation, every people bordering the Atlantic Ocean (and a few others) and every country on the American double continent" [2].

None of the esteemed cultural sources of alleged European values ​​provided the basis for consistent resistance to slavery or enslavement. Plato and Aristotle, as the representative thinkers of ancient Greece, either took slavery for granted - at least as far as foreigners and not Hellenes were concerned - or even provided an explicit justification for it. Whenever, in later phases of European history, a new "renaissance" of ancient Greek or Roman culture took place, it was certain that no opposition to slavery could be derived from it. (...) If we turn away from the "pagan" Greeks and Romans to the Bible, we may be relieved to learn that the law of Moses forbade the enslavement of Jews, but again it is sobering that slaves should be owned other peoples was expressly encouraged. "Take my instructions seriously and do not force any Israelite into slave labor. If you need slaves, you can buy them from your neighboring peoples (...) You can keep them forever as your property and also bequeath them to your sons; they do not have to be released" (Lev 25, 43-46). And although on paper Jews were not allowed to be enslaved by Jews and slaves were to be released after six years, both norms seem to have been violated frequently. Christianity and the Stoa made the humanization of slavery one of their ethical goals, but not its abolition. Even the development of modern "liberal" political theory from Hobbes to Locke and beyond produced numerous justifications for slavery. Some of their representatives - like John Locke - personally invested in slave trading companies.

This whole theoretical development, which for many today represents the normative point of reference par excellence for a liberal historical project, coincided with a constant expansion of the slave trade and slavery. More slaves were imported from the United States between 1787 and 1807 than in any previous twenty-year period. The number of slaves in the US increased five-fold between the end of the American Revolution in 1783 and the start of the Civil War in 1861. After the end of the import of slaves to the USA, the slave trade within the country became more and more important. The working and living conditions of the slaves deteriorated, while the economic importance of slavery for the emerging industrial capitalism increased. So anyone who thinks slavery is a premodern relic in a rapidly modernizing world is going astray. It seems, however, that the ideas about freedom in Europe saved the Europeans themselves from enslavement, but at the same time paradoxically contributed to the development and expansion of the system of plantation slavery through the conception of unrestricted property rights.

If Catholics or Protestants hope that their traditions would have countered slavery more forcefully, they too will be disappointed. Although documents of papal condemnation of slavery exist, they were never unconditional before the nineteenth century. [3] Mostly the condemnation was the enslavement of Christians or also of Indians, but not of the "Negros". Pope Innocent VIII distributed prisoners as gifts to the clergy - during a consistory in 1488 - and many monasteries in the New World owned slaves. When individual missionaries protested, their orders usually forced them to leave the colony and return to Europe. From the 1550s onwards, Spanish ships arriving in the West Indies (the Caribbean) brought with them a document that had to be read out in front of the Indians by a notary (in Spanish). This so-called "Requerimiento" "was supposed to explain to the Indians the theory of the worldly power of St. Peter and the Popes as developed in the thirteenth century. The Indians should be informed that the Pope gave their territory to the King of Spain (…) And his daughter (…) as a gift and that they should recognize them as their sovereign. They should allow the missionaries to preach and they should freely accept the Catholic faith in a reasonable time refused to recognize the sovereignty of the Spanish monarchy, then war would be waged against them. They themselves, their wives and children would be captured, enslaved, sold or otherwise used. " (...)

The picture is similar on the Protestant side. For a long time, well into the eighteenth century, there were opposition voices, but they were mostly drowned out and marginalized by others. In 1642, the Protestant Synod in Rouen had to reprimand "excessively scrupulous" persons who considered it illegal for Protestant merchants to trade in slaves. And when some Baptists in South Carolina wrote home to England asking for instructions on how to deal with a confrere of their denomination who had castrated his slave, the answer was that they should not risk quarreling in their movement over "minor things." or indifferent disputes ". [4]

But it would be insufficient just to point out the willingness of the representatives of the Christian faith to come up with the most astonishing argumentative justifications for slavery. In North America, Christianity - and in this case primarily the Anglican variant - played a key role in shaping ethical ideas about the appropriate behavior of planters and slaves in their dealings with one another. Research on the religious history of the British colonies in North America has shown - for example through the evaluation of received sermon texts - how strongly the discussions of the question of whether slaves should be baptized were pervaded by the fear that the slaves might empower themselves as Christians to demand their release feel or at least to claim freedom of conscience when the commands of a slave owner contradict divine commandments. Protestant freedom pathos and the conditions of slavery had to be put in relation to each other.

Some colonial legislators managed to deny slaves the ability to become Christians because of their "barbarity", "rudeness", "weakness and shallowness of their minds". This of course contradicted Jesus' mandate to go to all the peoples of the world, to baptize and teach them (Mt 28, 18-20). Others came up with the idea of ​​introducing a special ritual that preceded the baptism ceremony. This consisted of having the baptized in the presence of their Lord take an oath that they would not derive any entitlement to release or restriction of absolute obedience from baptism. Perhaps then it is not surprising to observe how much the sermons are interspersed with appeals to the slaves to regard their master as appointed by God and to be grateful to him that he always cares for them, even in sickness and old age.

Even more important than such moral sermons was the contribution made by Christian preachers to the legal rationalization of slavery in the form of the regulations that emerged, which also made precise regulations for the slave owners. These regulations hardly ever served to restrict their power of disposal over the slaves, but on the contrary represented safeguards against possible leniency and negligence on the part of the slave owners. Punishing slaves was not simply a right of the slave owners, it was their duty. (...)

I certainly do not want to trivialize or ignore the voices of the opposition and the discourse against slavery that is also present. There were such voices and such discourse, e.g. in the Spanish late scholasticism and among the Quakers, in the discussion of modern slavery. It already existed in a few cases with patristic and medieval thinkers dealing with ancient and medieval forms, and of course it existed in the Enlightenment. So my point is not that there has never been any serious criticism of slavery, but that criticism and resistance have been so weak and inconsistent. But this applies to all great religious and philosophical traditions. I cannot demonstrate this on all of them here; others have done this in relation to Islam, but also Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. [5] Each of them shows how axial-temporal claims and social realities interact. It is depressingly confirmed that it is a fruitless endeavor to argue about whether human rights are primarily or even exclusively of secular or Christian origin. (...)

"No religion," wrote a French scholar (Jacques Jomier), "may throw the first stone in the matter of slavery." [6] One could add: And no tradition of secular humanism is immune to this or similar misconduct. Slavery was abolished in the French colonies in 1794 under the influence of the Haitian Revolution, but was confirmed again by Napoleon a few years later (1802). Instead of the retrospective self-celebration of a tradition, a precise understanding of how the often ineffective potential can be mobilized and when it was historically mobilized, for example why the timid criticism of Christian slavery at a certain point led to a mightily swelling movement must take place was "awakened". We have to ask what shifts in interests, including what cognitive changes, play a role, what the (often transnational) conditions are for the success of such moral movements, and whether there is a historically evolving pattern for successful mobilizations of this kind. (...)

With my remarks I wanted (...) to remind you that the results of a productive overcoming of our history of violence (may not symbolize) a cultural triumphalism, according to which human rights appear like a firmly established property that proves the superiority of one's own culture. " When talking about "European values", too, I often hear less the challenge of self-criticism and more the tone of safe ownership. Such a use of universalistic values, however, is self-contradictory in a way that is similar to that which we know from the "use of the central symbol of suffering and sacrifice of Christian culture, namely the cross, as a symbol of war and victory".