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Inequality and new forms of slavery

The issues of social justice, poverty, and all the forms of human trafficking, deployment, and oppression that can be grouped under the umbrella concept of “slavery” are problems that sorely affect the world today and urgently need concrete solutions. But they are not at all new problems; on the contrary, they were prominent and discussed already in antiquity and especially in late antiquity — a period in history that bears impressive similarities to our contemporary multi-cultural, multi-religious, and interconnected (“globalized”) world, with many conflicts to mediate and increasing inequality to correct. Investigating, and reflecting on, late antique history, society, philosophy, and religion can prove extremely valuable for humanity today, and for the improvement of human condition—what philosophy and religion should aim at.

Philosophical reflections on slavery and social, economic, and gender inequality, however, sometimes have proved to support the status quo instead of improving it. This is the case, for instance, with Aristotle: in his descriptive attitude—visually represented in Raphael’s School of Athens fresco—he provided a description and justification of existing relations of subordination (master-slave, man-woman, etc.) as normal and “natural”, whereas other philosophers, such as the sophists first and the Stoics after, questioned the naturalness of such relations of subordination. Consistently, Stoics and Epicureans admitted at school slaves, women, and people of every ethnic background, rejecting Aristotle’s theory of the inferiority of slaves, women, and barbarians “by nature” (notably, the same categories of inferiority—social, gender, and ethnic inferiority—were rejected by the Apostle Paul in Gal 3:28).

The Stoics, however, like many ancient Christian thinkers, by considering slavery and other forms of oppression and subordination something morally “indifferent” (neither good nor bad), diverted the attention from the injustice that is inherent to slavery, poverty, the inferiority of women, socioeconomic inequality, and the like, since they rather focused on the moral plane and insisted that the real problem was moral enslavement to passions. In this way, institutional slavery, subordination, and oppression fell into the background. Many Christian thinkers considered social injustice, slavery, the subordination of women, and the like, to be sad but inevitable consequences of the original sin (the so-called Fall), or even an expression of God’s will.

These late antique ascetic thinkers’ arguments and practice, which were met sometimes with interest but also with stark opposition, are highly relevant to the debate on social justice as part and parcel of human rights today.

But not all Christian thinkers in late antiquity maintained that God endorsed inequality, subordination, discrimination, and slavery as expressions of divine justice. On the contrary, refined Christian thinkers such as the Platonist follower of Origen of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, in the late fourth century rejected social injustice leading to poverty, the subordination of women, and especially slavery as contrary to God’s will and to God’s justice. This line of thought emerges especially within philosophical asceticism, in imperial and late antiquity, within Judaism and Christianity, and sometimes “pagan” philosophy, most probably because this kind of asceticism was related to a self-restraint that was not simply renunciation, or even hatred, of the body and of the world (as asceticism is sometimes simplistically portrayed), but was inspired by the ideal of justice.

Indeed, the very notion of social justice, entailing an even distribution of the goods of the earth and thus of wealth among all humans, is not only modern, but was already at work in some late antique thinkers within the tradition of philosophical asceticism. The connection between philosophical asceticism and justice was already established by Plato, but it is late antique philosophical ascetics that made the most of this connection, and also endeavored to apply it to the society that surrounded them. Their radical principle that wealth exceeding one’s needs is tantamount to theft, in that it deprives other people of what they need, on the grounds of the universal destination of the goods, was based on a principle of justice. Renouncing excessive wealth, or even any wealth in the case of strict ascetics, was a matter of justice towards other people. One’s relation to the divinity, they maintained (from the Christian-Pythagorean Sentences of Sextus to Gregory of Nyssa), is jeopardized by one’s injustice and oppression of other people. As Gregory puts it, spiritual asceticism is abstinence from oppressing others and “robbing the poor with injustice.” It also consists in prioritizing human beings over things (money, wealth).

These late antique ascetic thinkers’ arguments and practice, which were met sometimes with interest but also with stark opposition, are highly relevant to the debate on social justice as part and parcel of human rights today. The inclusion of socio-economic equality within human rights is not a novelty of some contemporary theories (on which see Holman 2015), but arguably goes back to the reflections and behaviors of late antique philosophical ascetics that are worth reading and studying carefully, and paying attention to.

Featured image credit: “Christ”, by Didgeman. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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