Most of us take it for granted that slavery is no longer a significant part of the human experience. We herald that change as evidence of the human species’ capacity for moral progress. A subtler examination of the subject, however, should give us pause.
Slavery has been a part of human culture since the dawn of recorded history. Until the first third of the 19th century, the institution was considered normal, embossed into the warp and woof of human societies, part and parcel of a supposed natural hierarchy. Today it is almost universally rejected as the equality principle has made its way around the planet. Save for a few isolated spots in the Sahel, no government gives leave for slavery to exist.
Of course, anti-capitalist reformers and radicals have contended since at least the middle of the 19th century that slavery never really disappeared, since inequality demanded and reified by markets created “wage slavery.” Now this leftist abstraction of slavery has been abstracted further. Some millennial radicals have recast it as a complaint of interference with their mostly affluent, cushy, entitled lives. Corey Robin, a Brooklyn College political scientist, supportively explains the plaint as follows:
The socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree. When my well-being depends upon your whim, when the basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination. Socialists want to end that domination: to establish freedom from rule by the boss, from the need to smile for the sake of a sale, from the obligation to sell for the sake of survival.
The idea that capitalism alone, or even mainly, is what compels hierarchy in human relations is bizarre; the idea that socialism equates to freedom even more so, all the way to Orwellian. Just as it takes an intellectual to think truly crazy thoughts, it takes a narcissist to blame others for any disturbance of his unearned privilege. We might as well insist on doing away with families of every description if we want to get rid of all bosses, all need for politeness, small talk, and uses for persuasion skills.
But to return to the historical, it was not just the spread of the equality principle, born in incubus millennia ago in the bosom of the Abrahamic revolution but launched globally by European powers only in the wake of the Enlightenment-driven American and French Revolutions, that accounts for the great attitudinal shift on slavery. Technology, via the Industrial Revolution, undermined slavery’s economic rationale, and did so rather quickly as historical moments go. Once machines could massively substitute for human labor, and once the scale of commercial agriculture could generate enough profit to support free labor, slavery increasingly became bad business and slaves superfluous.
As capacious and diverse as cultural history has been, it is natural that the social history of slavery has been likewise diverse. Early records indicate that most slaves were conquered peoples absorbed into spreading ancient proto-empires. Enslaving one’s own social peers was much less common, even as post-agricultural revolution class systems evolved over time in tandem with labor divisions and status stratification. Differences thus emerged in many ancient cultures between slaves, who were considered property, and indentured servants–temporary by contract or permanent by mutual agreement–who were not.
The Hebrew Bible testifies to this distinction. Conquered Canaanites could and according to the law should be enslaved, for example, but not fellow Hebrews, whose willingness to work for others was considered anomalous. Why? Because the land was apportioned by tribes, and within the tribes by clans and families. Individuals did not own land. So everyone had work to do as part of the hierarchical communal division of labor. If families had to alienate some or all of their apportioned land for some reason, the law stipulated that every fifty years would be a Jubilee Year, where the original economic arrangement would snap back: Land would return to the original divisions and all related debts would be cancelled. It was history’s first recorded re-set template. To fall out of this system so that a person would offer his labor to someone to whom he was not related took unusual, and unfortunate, circumstances.
In time, technology again catalysed a critical innovation in slave economics. When vast demand for slave labor emerged but could not be obtained by conquering others in contiguous lands, the development of blue-water-capable vessels of adequate number and size flipped the formula: Instead of slaves being put to work in their own conquered lands by new foreign masters, slaves were now transported away from their lands to work for stay-at-home masters in alien climes.
Such trade, along with trade in other valuables, goes back to at least the 10th century BCE, as archaeological evidence related to the maritime commerce between East Asia and the Middle East attests. Overland trafficking in slaves developed as well. Germanic tribes, for example, trafficked in captured Slavic peoples at least as early as the 4th century CE, moving them all the way from eastern Europe to pre-Almoravid, Visigothic Spain. That is, of course, where the English word “slave” comes from–from “Slav.”
The Abrahamic Exception
From the great number of examples of slavery in various cultures in every habitable continent over tens of centuries, we know of only one omnibus example in which the humane treatment of slaves and servants occupied a major role in the moral reasoning of the masters’ culture: the aforementioned revolutionary Abrahamic example. That example produced three basic variations, in chronological order: Jewish, Christian, and Islamic.
It would take an entire book to lay out the attitudes of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam toward slavery as they evolved over time. For our purposes, however, a bare-bones summary will suffice.
Both Judaism and, later, Christianity and Islam, took the existence of slavery as an institution for granted. It was so pervasive in pre-modern times that to have stood categorically against it would have been both futile and counterproductive, even had it occurred to anyone to do so. The texts of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Quran reflect this taken-for-granted point of view.
But the Hebrew Bible deviated sharply from the tone of its times with regard to how slaves and servants may and may not be treated. Even before the advent of rabbinic Judaism, insensitivity, cruelty, and wanton rapine are ruled out, and the Torah repeatedly (Exodus 20:22, Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:33, Deuteronomy 24:18) gives the same reason: “For you were slaves in the land of Egypt.” In other words, you should remember your own suffering and know better than to visit the same on others. More, and this is crucial, if you harden your heart against your servants, then you will become like Pharaoh: You will become your own worst enemy.
Jewish suffering did not end with the exodus from Egypt. Hellenistic and especially Roman rule showed Jews new kinds of slavery. The nature of slavery in the Hellenistic world was complex: Slaves, despite being property, could occasionally become respected members of households, and some were even literate as amanuenses to their masters. But that was not the rule, and even less so was it the rule in the Roman Empire’s “occupied territories.” Some wealthy Jews owned slaves in Hellenic times, and then the tables turned and some became slaves on account of the several failed rebellions against Roman rule. This diverse experience affected early rabbinic attitudes toward slavery.
Thus Ben Sira, a 2nd-century BCE scholar, favoured the freeing of slaves. He advised his fellow Jews during Second Temple times: “Let your soul love intelligent slaves; do not withhold from them their freedom.”
Some centuries later, the sage Abaye, recorded in the Talmud in Kiddushin 20a, states that a Jew must treat a servant exactly like himself. The master cannot eat fine bread and feed his eved ivri–Jewish servant–poor bread; he cannot drink aged wine and have his servant drink poorer quality wine; he cannot sleep on cushions and have his servant sleeping on straw. The passage concludes with the expression, “anyone who purchases a slave has bought a master for himself.” The point? Avoid buying slaves.
Elsewhere in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 60b) the sages press the point, saying that it is better to hire a poor Jew for jobs as necessary than to own slaves or keep permanent servants. Here is how the Gemara (the newer, Aramaic part of the Talmud) put it:
Adornment of a person, what is it? It is as in that incident involving a certain elderly slave who went and dyed his head and beard black to create a younger impression. He came before Rava and said to him: Purchase me as your slave. Rava said to him that there is a rabbinic adage: Let the poor be members of your household. I follow their advice and therefore do not require a slave. If I need assistance, the mendicants who frequent my house can assist me.
We see the same basic attitude in Maimonides (1138-1204), the greatest medieval Jewish exegete. But to understand what he had to say, one must realize that he wrote more than 1,300 years after any Jew had owed a Canaanite slave, or since any group of people were still called Canaanites. In his master work Mishneh Torah, in the twelfth book or section, called “acquisitions [kinyan]”, there is a subsection called “Hilchot Avadim”, or laws concerning slaves. In part 9, Maimonides moves quickly from the letter of the biblical law to the spirit of the rabbinic perspective:
It is permissible to have a Canaanite slave perform excruciating labor. Although this is the law, the attribute of piety and the way of wisdom is for a person to be merciful and to pursue justice, not to make his slaves carry a heavy yoke, nor cause them distress. He should allow them to partake of all the food and drink he serves. This was the practice of the Sages of the first generations who would give their slaves from every dish of which they themselves would partake. And they would provide food for their animals and slaves before partaking of their own meals. . . . Similarly, we should not embarrass a slave by our deeds or with words, for the Torah prescribed that they perform service, not that they be humiliated. Nor should one shout or vent anger upon them extensively. Instead, one should speak to them gently, and listen to their claims. . . . Cruelty and arrogance are found only among idol-worshipping gentiles. By contrast, the descendants of Abraham our patriarch. . . . are merciful to all.
Maimonides elaborated the basic moral obligation further in his famous Guide for the Perplexed, specifically 3:39. Here he took a hermeneutical approach, merging the laws concerning slaves into a larger framework of moral reasoning by citing a common thread in
. . . the rules about things to be “valued” and things “devoted”, and those concerning “lender and borrower”, and slaves. When you examine these precepts you will clearly see the use of every one of them: They teach us to sympathize with the poor and infirm, to assist the needy in various ways; not to hurt the feelings of those in want, and not to vex those in a helpless condition.
The ensuing discussion details and sources these principles. For example, Maimonides stresses the law saying that a slave must be freed if a master harms an eye or a tooth (Exodus 21: 26-7); that if a master strikes a slave too hard and kills him, he is punished with death as for ordinary murder; and the commandment that, “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant that is escaped from his master” (Deuteronomy 13:15).
And why? To stress that if we owe justice in these and other respects to the lowest among men, to the slave, then how much more must we respect the dignity of the freeborn? In other words, Maimonides sees in the treatment of slaves and servants a quality that carries over into the very nature of the society, and that informs the character of the people who compose it. If masters are physically and psychologically cruel to slaves, then they and those who witness their behaviour will more readily be cruel to others, as well.
In my view, Maimonides derives his interpretation in a manner totally consistent with Jewish thinking going back to early rabbinic times, and even before. Nevertheless, he wrote the Guide originally in Arabic, lived his whole life within Dar al-Islam, moving from Córdoba to Fez to Cairo, and even attended al-Qarawiyyin University in Morocco! So Islamic thinking about slavery may have influenced his mature analysis. Still, it is likely an exaggeration to claim, as the historian Jonathan E. Brockopp does, that:
Other cultures limit a master’s right to harm a slave but few exhort masters to treat their slaves kindly, and the placement of slaves in the same category as other weak members of society who deserve protection is unknown outside the Quran. The unique contribution of the Quran, then, is to be found in its emphasis on the place of slaves in society and society’s responsibility toward the slave, perhaps the most progressive legislation on slavery in its time.
In general, Islamic law follows and elaborates in context its Jewish inheritance. Note that the development of the Talmud in its latter stages, the Gemara specifically as mentioned above, continued into and through the rise and consolidation of Islam. It was first codified in writing around 500 CE but not finalized until about 750-800. So it was in active development during the early centuries of Islam, both in Jerusalem and in Pumbedita and Sura in Mesopotamia, where the main Talmudic academies were located. Certainly, Umayyad-era (661-750) and Abbasid-era (750-1258) scholars would have known of them and their works going forward inside Dar al-Islam.
So it is not obvious which Abrahamic traditions influenced which, how, and when. The influence probably passed in both directions over time. It is enough, I think, to stress the fundamental commonality of principles and moral reasoning among them concerning yhe treatment of slaves and servants. Judaism and Islam differ on a few details, but on no significant ethical or legal point concerning this subject.
What of the Christians? Early Christians were victims of Rome no less than were Jews, and from their Jewish conceptual origins developed attitudes toward slavery no less negative. Yet centuries later many Christians–Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, Danish, French, English, and others–engaged in the slave trade as it developed on the west coast of Africa. Christians in what became the United States after 1776 did so, too. Portuguese and then Dutch imperialists adapted the existing system of native slavery in the East Indies and continued it until the British later closed it down. The Spanish also despoiled and enslaved native populations in the New World, as well, after the fashion of the ancient empires of the Old World.
As did some wealthy Jews in Persian and Hellenistic times, as did wealthy Muslims in many times, so did Christians when power, wealth, and opportunity availed: They misconstrued their freedom as freedom to do what they wanted to do, not what they ought to have done. The oversight is hardly a rare one.
The American Exception
There is much too much history here even to summarize it. But the American chapter in the history of slavery warrants a brief description, for it is germane to my yet-to-be-revealed purpose.
Ancient Old World slavery certainly turned on in-group/out-group distinctions; conflict based on differences in language and religion is as old as human collective memory. But never, until the Anglo-American chapter on slavery opened, were in-group/out-group identities defined so sharply on the basis of skin color, or what was then (mis)understood to be the basics of race. In no other legal tradition did the pseudo-racial concept of “coloured” develop, meaning that if a person had but a single drop of non-“white” blood then he or she was considered “coloured.”
The other key factor to note was a coincidence. North American slavery did not begin in earnest until the 1680s; before then, numbers had been very small. It picked up considerable momentum after Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793. But by this time mostly Protestant religious objections to slavery were fast gaining adherents in Britain and America. In 1808, during the Jefferson Administration, the slave trade was banned in the United States, and slavery altogether was banned in Britain and throughout the British Empire in 1833. In other words, just as the “business” was developing in America, the normative environment shifted in such a way as to erode the philosophical basis and moral justification for it.
Now, European and American slave traders and buyers lacked the Jewish-Muslim sensibility concerning how slaves ought to be treated. Chattel slavery in America was always based on more dogmatic, pseudo-religious distortions of the Bible, and was always harsher and more violent than slavery within Dar al-Islam. These cross-cutting factors combined in due course to produce some serious dissonance and genuine thoughtfulness about slavery. Two slave-owning Virginians, George Washington and George Mason, the author of the Bill of Rights, are excellent examples of such dissonance and thoughtfulness. But no one tops the bill like fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson, master of Monticello, owned many slaves, and he knew that his plantation could not function profitably without them given the primitive technology otherwise at hand and the paucity of free labor to hire. But he was not blind. In his famous 1781 book Notes on the State of Virginia, in Query XVII, he wrote:
There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal.
Of course slaves saw the same phenomenon, and a few were fortunate enough to be able to write about it. “Such unlimited power,” Austin Steward wrote in his 1857 book Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman, “transforms the man into a tyrant, the brother into a demon.” Harriet Jacobs generalized the observation in her 1861 book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: “Slavery is a curse to the whites as well as to the blacks.” Jefferson, Steward, and Jacobs were paraphrasing Maimonides, and no doubt many other Jewish and Muslim exegetes, without knowing it.
To the Gist
Now, when a doctor or a nurse holding a needle tells a little kid that this shot I’m about to give you “is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you”, that’s a lie meant to momentarily confuse and distract. But when we think about the relationship between masters and slaves, the possibility that the relationship harms the master as well as the slave is neither a lie nor a distraction. It’s an undeniable truth.
Where did Pharaoh’s hardening of his heart get him? It got him disaster at the Red Sea. Every evil he ordered done to the Hebrew slaves he got back in direct parallel, plague for plague for plague ten times over. The lesson is there in the text, and it matches all subsequent experience. Domination often breeds hubris and pridefulness, arrogance and haughtiness. It breeds laziness and complacency. It breeds insensitivity, self-righteousness, and hence a kind of self-induced emotional autism. It breeds alienation from the creative and self-disciplining experience of one’s own work.
Even worse, perhaps, the will to dominate others passes often enough to the master’s wife and children. Just as Jefferson warned, the sum of it all is to corrode the spirit of an entire community. It is, as Ibn Khaldun suggested in the Muqaddimah, to invite an ultimately lethal combination of decadence and fatalism.
On Passover, Jews are enjoined to think of themselves as having personally been slaves in Egypt and as having been personally redeemed. Jews eat unleavened bread (matza) called the “bread of affliction” and avoid all yeasty products to symbolize the need to decompress and eject the spirit of haughtiness and self-satisfaction from the soul. It is a time, too, to search for new threats of slavery so as to prevent their ill-effects: Who is a slave to money, to work, to status, to wielding authority over others, to sexual impulses, even perhaps to the IT devices that so many have become addicted to in recent years.
Think about that last kind of new slavery for a moment. For many thousands of years tools have been extensions of human senses and limbs, so constituting substitute means of doing physical work. These new machines are different: They are not extensions of our bodies or calorie-additives for labor, but rather devices that left unbridled substitute for and can cause atrophy in human thought. When the proliferation of labor-saving devices causes our bodies to get flabby, we can go to the gym. What do we do when the proliferation of IT-devices causes many minds to get flabby? Those affected don’t know what to do; they don’t recognize the new slavery…..because their minds have gotten too flabby to see it coming. Like Pharaoh, they think they are the masters and the machines are their slaves. They don’t see the plagues looming until too late.
Eid al-Fitr serves purposes for Muslims in some ways similar to those of Passover for Jews. My Muslim friends have taught me how Ramadan requires patience and discipline, this year perhaps more than ever under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic. They have taught me how its ascetic element encourages introspection and a taking stock of one’s character, deeds, and relationships. It is similar in that way to the “bread of affliction” in that it pleads with us that we gain a realistic appreciation of our shortcomings, particularly our pridefulness and lack of gratitude, and resolve to do something about them.
Alas, humanity has not put the evil of slavery behind it, not quite yet. Nor have we escaped the depredations and punishments that go with it. It’s just that slavery’s enticements can be subtle, and the enticements of our sleek new gadgets are certainly subtle. They are so subtle that they can confuse us as to who is master and who is slave. In light of old and new threats to the spirit alike, observing Ramadan and marking the Eid may be more important for Muslims today than ever. So in that spirit, let me wish all my Muslim friends a very slighted belated Eid Mubarak!