The Roots of the Confederacy: Augustine and Slavery
This is a sloppy public draft, because deconstruction is a thing now.
From Morgan Hunter, to which I respond:
I’m coming to increasingly suspect something that I desperately don’t want to be true.
It‘s beginning to seem to me like the majority (post-Constantinian, at least) Patristic point of view was actually more pro-slavery than the conventional Stoic-influenced pagan philosophical view of the time, which was reflected in Imperial Roman legal theory.
The fundamental differences were:
1) Stoicism (and Roman law) regarded slavery as arising solely as the result of *human* custom — the “law of nations.” God or Nature certainly tolerated slavery — neither Stoics nor Roman legal theorists were abolitionists — but they did not in any sense actively institute it. As 2nd-c. CE jurist Ulpian put it: “Since by the natural law all people are born free…slavery would be unknown, but by the law of nations slavery entered in [the word he uses is “invasit” — a word with an often-negative connotation, like “invade” or “usurp”]..and although by nature human beings are called by one name, by the law of nations there began to be three groups [slaves, freedpeople, and free persons.]“ (Digest 1.1.4)
2) Unlike Aristotle, Stoicism denied that there were any people who were “naturally” meant to be slaves — who benefited from being “paternalistically” controlled in this way. All human beings possessed the same rational nature, and all were capable of practicing virtue.
I had previously naively thought that the general Patristic view was that slavery was one of many tragically-inevitable evils of this fallen world, but not in any sense a good or divinely-ordained thing. This is what DBH claims in “Atheist Delusions”, when he says that even at its worst the early Christian attitude toward slavery was as admirable as that of the Stoics.
But it appears that, in fact, the general view among the Church Fathers who attempted to explain and justify the phenomenon of slavery was not to regard it as merely a matter of human custom, but as something actively instituted by God as a punishment for sin. Similarly, they argued that its purpose was to control those who were morally or intellectually incapable of controlling themselves, and so actually benefited from enslavement — the old, generally-rejected, Aristotelian position. (They did acknowledge that there were of course many slaves who were morally and intellectually superior to their masters, and had been enslaved purely on the “conventional” grounds of poverty or defeat in war — but unlike Aristotle, they never suggested that only natural slaves could be legitimately enslaved.)
The position above was enunciated by Ambrose, Basil, John Chrysostom, Augustine, and Isidore of Seville. Isidore (who was the furthest thing in the world from an original theologian, and would not have given this view had it not been the “conventional” one that he had inherited from the tradition) gives perhaps the pithiest encapsulation when he says:
“On account of the sin of the first man, the punishment of slavery was divinely introduced, so that He might mercifully impose slavery on those whom he saw freedom would not suit. And although [this came about] through a sin of human origin, nevertheless God justly divided up the lives of human beings, making some servants and others masters, so that the slaves’ liberty to act badly might be restrained by the masters’ power.” (Sententiae Libri III 47.1)
Chrysostom, Basil, and Ambrose all date the divine institution of slavery to the Curse of Ham rather than to the Fall itself, but all share the same “paternalistic” justification for it.
In short, with the unique exception of Gregory of Nyssa, pre-modern Christian views of slavery seem only rarely — at their very best — to reach the same level as the Stoic view that was conventionally accepted in Imperial Roman legal theory.
I’m really struggling to understand why this should have been the case. Why would the very same Fathers — Ambrose, Basil, and Chrysostom — who were so keen to defend justice for the poor, and to insist that the goods of this world rightfully belonged to all people equally, actively defend chattel slavery as good and necessary? How could one read the New Testament and come away more inclined to defend slavery as actively beneficial and divinely ordained than the conventional Roman pagan opinion of the time?
One would a priori expect the Stoics — with their commitment to the idea that all things are providentially ordained for the best in this best of all possible worlds — to defend the idea that slavery was divinely ordained for the benefit of the slaves themselves, but no Stoic philosophers ever enunciated such an idea.
This seems to show that, contra David Bentley Hart’s claim in “Atheist Delusions”, the Christian doctrine of the Fall may have made slavery and other forms of oppression easier to justify, by introducing a third possibility beyond the two known to pagan philosophers for the origin of the institution. For pagans, the question was whether or not slavery arose “by nature” or “by convention” — whether slavery was a wholly positive good and part of God’s initial plan (as Aristotle thought), or was introduced purely by human custom, tolerated but not actively ordained by God (as the Stoics thought). Christians could say that slavery wasn’t “by nature” in the sense of not being part of God’s original, prelapsarian, plan, but was actively ordained by God in the current postlapsarian order as a punishment for sin.
My response to Morgan:
I’m drawing on this for more context, but if you have a summary by a scholar of the period that would be welcome.
A note on Zeno (and Epictetus) and their social status/location, which may be a factor here. Also worth thinking about monasticism as a broader anti-slavery response. Essentially, to not own slaves was inseparable from being economically marginal.
Some people have taken the following anecdote from Diogenes Laertius to imply that Zeno owned a slave:
We are told that he was once chastising a slave for stealing, and when the latter pleaded that it was his fate to steal, “Yes, and to be beaten too,” said Zeno. (7.23)
However, this passage makes a point of saying “a slave” not “his slave” — there’s nothing in it to suggest that Zeno was the owner of the slave in question, it’s more likely that it refers to someone else’s slave. At least according to one account, Zeno lost his fortune at sea and subsequently lived like a beggar, as follower of the Cynic Crates, and he continued in a similar austere lifestyle after founding the Stoic school. If he had no property, he’s unlikely to have owned slaves. The Cynic way of life is generally taken to involve renunciation of wealth, and by implication slaves. According to tradition, the true Cynic only owns what he can fit in his satchel — which would presumably have insufficient room for a slave!
Moreover, Zeno was a metic or foreign resident of Athens, not an Athenian citizen. As such he had few rights, and his status was somewhat between that of a slave and a citizen. Technically, foreign residents could own slaves, by law, but they could not own property. So unable to own his own home, Zeno appears later in life to have lived as the household guest of his student Persaeus. Without property at Athens, though, it seems unlikely that Zeno would have owned slaves. Indeed, Seneca says that it was well-known in his time that Zeno had no slaves.
Much of what goes for Zeno goes for Paul, including this:
All distinctions between superior and inferior, slave or free, being abolished from this Republic, and slaves being admitted, it appears once again that the Stoic ideal musts involve the abolition of slavery.
And this very nicely raises and frames the question: how did we get from Paul to post-Constantinian patristics?
We might also ask a similar question about Zeno and the middle Stoics, where there appears to be a degree of re-introduction of Aristotelian thinking on slavery.
Now in terms of how Christianity ends up there, I’d point at two related processes: narrative disruption and lived hypocrisy.
1) Lived Hypocrisy
The further Christians move from the solidaristic poverty of the early church, the more they drift from the material and social conditions that make Christianity intelligible. In very simple terms, once you’re not in material conditions that approximate those of Zeno, Epictetus, Jesus or Paul (etc) you’ve broken faith. While you may understand Christianity intellectually through the work of historical reconstruction, you no longer have the bodily Christian know-how that comes from the obedience of faith. You also have something that is coated with the sickly stink of hypocrisy. So you end up with things like the idealization of poverty and slavery and serfdom that we find in Honorius Augustodunensis in medieval Europe: the serf/slave descendants of Ham deserve their lower status now but are the virtuous ones who will receive the greater reward in the afterlife. They get pie in the sky when they die, and today they can only relish this fact: the very nobles who propagate the idea condemn or critique themselves but don’t act on their critique. Yes, we’re the “real slaves” in spirit because we remain slaves to our passions … but my brother will become a monk, and maybe 1 in 100 of these noble monk brothers will attempt a monastic reform that involves actually acting like a monk. And so on.
What breaks down here, even in the monkish reform idea, is the social form that actually develops when people actually live in joyful solidarity with the poor and pool their resources. A form that genuinely resembles the early church to a substantial degree, although it always required rigorous training to achieve this. See, for example, Kreider’s “Patient Ferment of the Early Church.”
One thing worth considering here is the social location of patristic authors. They weren’t representative of a typical Christian in the first 3 centuries. Instead, they generally occupied a position of enormously greater political status and power. Even when they lived in a monastic way, I think there’s an interesting disconnect that comes from the social location of anyone who can generate volumes of text in the ancient world. Still, a large measure of economic simplicity seems necessary for a truly coherent anti-slavery position, if not sufficient to articulate or envision the beloved community that arises where faithfulness to Jesus is practiced. Doing without oppression must include doing without the fruits of oppression.
2) Narrative Disruption
Narrative disruption is the intellectual parallel to lived hypocrisy, and is linked to it by the similarity of “breaking faith” (as a category of behavior) and “losing the thread” (as a category of cognition.)
There is in the Hebrew Bible a basic idea that the conquest of Judah by Babylon and the destruction of the Second Temple represents God’s fulfillment of covenant promises. Specifically consider the covenant curses that mark out the end of Deuteronomy, from 27 to 34, the narrative conclusion of the Torah. Deuteronomic catastrophe is the dominant type that structures the entirety of Christian Scriptures, which is nicely-summarized as “A Tale of Three Temples”. All three of the temples are destroyed, but one of them, Jesus, is rebuilt.
In a basic sense, this superficially Deuteronomical story affirms the traditional ancient norm of rationalizing slavery for the conquered. What is fascinating and strange about the Hebrew Bible (and Christian Scriptures as well) is that it provides an account of this not from the standpoint of the victors, but of the defeated. And it is a story of how, even as slaves, Israel/Jacob resist and hold fast to their commitments, and how God (yes, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures) is larger and more generous than the Mosaic covenant. It represents, from the standpoint of a repeatedly enslaved people, the bursting of slavery from within. As such, it also ultimately and repeatedly articulates the cry of the enslaved and embodies the same sort of perspective we find in Zeno and Epictetus, summarized powerfully and especially succinctly by Jesus and Paul.
The trouble arises when Christians “get stuck” on the earlier parts of the narrative instead of holding the entire story in view. It is only when we read it as a whole, when we read the account with soul, that we can feel the shocking twist ending that transforms our understanding of everything that came before. Only from that standpoint can we hear Paul rightly in Galatians, for example, with his repeated refrains about a grace and a faith that transcends the Mosaic land covenant.
If we hold this in view intellectually, we will understand that the only way forward that represents a comprehension of the narrative is a life of simple of joyful solidarity with the poor. This process, however, is routinely disrupted (even when understood) by the thorns: the worries and cares of status and wealth, which choke out the proper “hearing” of the word. (Hearing and obedience/faithfulness are closely connected in Hebrew.)
Ramelli’s work on the close connection of asceticism and anti-slavery is also informative here, I think. And I think the plethora of theological confusions that involve “losing the thread” generally have their roots in patterns of breaking faith. Chopping each theological mistake down is like fighting a hydra. Better to stab the thing in the heart: these are texts of, by, and for people at the margins. It takes an enormous amount of work for someone who isn’t marginal to understand how they work, and if they truly hear it they will not romanticize the margins from afar. Instead it will be because they have felt the value of the survival strategy from within, in its place. They will occupy the margins instead of idealizing them, and they will stage their non-violent, counter-Imperial conquest from there.
Where asceticism sometimes tips into rationalizing abuse and slavery, I think this represents a sort of “Stockholm Syndrome” that is important to understand and avoid. I also think it can be understood, intellectually, as a kind of “losing the thread.”
I also suspect there’s a real connection between Nyssa’s universalism and anti-slavery. Both represent a remarkable capacity to hold to the thread, and his life suggests that he also lived in a way that kept faith.
Back to this, to start:
There’s also Augustine’s justification of slavery (City of God 19.15–16)
I want to encourage us to cite and read this entire section, because I think it is really important to read it soulfully, as a whole. How much does Augustine retain the thread and basic beats of the Biblical narrative? Mapping this back to the Bible’s narrative thread, Augustine goes from the Temple’s destruction and the subsequent enslavement of Daniel to John 8 and 2 Peter, and is notably reflecting on ‘slavery to passions’ in a quite Stoic way. Let’s start with chapter 15:
This is prescribed by the order of nature: it is thus that God has created man. For let them, He says, have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every creeping thing which creeps on the earth. Genesis 1:26 He did not intend that His rational creature, who was made in His image, should have dominion over anything but the irrational creation, — not man over man, but man over the beasts.
And hence the righteous men in primitive times were made shepherds of cattle rather than kings of men, God intending thus to teach us what the relative position of the creatures is, and what the desert of sin; for it is with justice, we believe, that the condition of slavery is the result of sin. And this is why we do not find the word slave in any part of Scripture until righteous Noah branded the sin of his son with this name. It is a name, therefore, introduced by sin and not by nature.
Note: this is explicitly an argument against the idea that slavery is natural. Men aren’t intrinsically cattle. Through exegesis about the “image of God” being universal rather than ascribed only to kings/priests/idols, we might also draw out a similar message from Genesis. Notably, even as “sin” enters the discussion here, it is SUPPLANTING the view that it is by nature. Importantly, this also carries with it the powerful anti-slavery idea that opposition to sin involves opposition to slavery in at least some sense. One key question and ambiguity here is whether Christian opposition to slavery is ONLY preventative (preventing sin and therefore preventing slavery) or is ALSO restorative (bringing forgiveness, reconciliation and healing, and therefore eliminating slavery post hoc.) Theologically and following the basic thread, once the idea of its roots in sin enter the picture, one is also committed to its abolition through healing the effects of sin. Where this part of “keeping faith” or “narrative completion” is absent, it is because someone has lost the thread of the story that Augustine has started telling here. Properly understood, this is an abolitionist story so far.
The origin of the Latin word for slave is supposed to be found in the circumstance that those who by the law of war were liable to be killed were sometimes preserved by their victors, and were hence called servants. And these circumstances could never have arisen save through sin. For even when we wage a just war, our adversaries must be sinning; and every victory, even though gained by wicked men, is a result of the first judgment of God, who humbles the vanquished either for the sake of removing or of punishing their sins. Witness that man of God, Daniel, who, when he was in captivity, confessed to God his own sins and the sins of his people, and declares with pious grief that these were the cause of the captivity. The prime cause, then, of slavery is sin, which brings man under the dominion of his fellow — that which does not happen save by the judgment of God, with whom is no unrighteousness, and who knows how to award fit punishments to every variety of offense.
Note here that in its Jewish context, Daniel’s viewpoint is rooted in Deuteronomy 28, for example. This is a fulfillment of the Mosaic covenant, in Jewish terms: God’s promises of enslavement and destruction and expulsion from the land have been fulfilled. Those were the terms of the agreement. Now if we’ve absorbed the fuller narrative of Scripture, we should be able to simultaneously understand that this makes perfectly good sense in one way, and is also catastrophically incomplete in a way that badly warps the image of God (humans) and our understanding of God in another way. Where will Augustine go? Will he continue to follow the thread of the narrative, or will he break the thread here?
But our Master in heaven says, Every one who does sin is the servant of sin. John 8:34 And thus there are many wicked masters who have religious men as their slaves, and who are yet themselves in bondage; for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage. 2 Peter 2:19 And beyond question it is a happier thing to be the slave of a man than of a lust; for even this very lust of ruling, to mention no others, lays waste men’s hearts with the most ruthless dominion. Moreover, when men are subjected to one another in a peaceful order, the lowly position does as much good to the servant as the proud position does harm to the master. But by nature, as God first created us, no one is the slave either of man or of sin. This servitude is, however, penal, and is appointed by that law which enjoins the preservation of the natural order and forbids its disturbance; for if nothing had been done in violation of that law, there would have been nothing to restrain by penal servitude. And therefore the apostle admonishes slaves to be subject to their masters, and to serve them heartily and with good-will, so that, if they cannot be freed by their masters, they may themselves make their slavery in some sort free, by serving not in crafty fear, but in faithful love, until all unrighteousness pass away, and all principality and every human power be brought to nothing, and God be all in all.
Notice that in context, there’s not quite a full “purity of arms” here for Augustine. There’s no sense in which the war-winning, slave-making master is sinless because they are the agent of justice. Just as Babylon was held accountable for enforcing God’s covenant (!), so too slave masters are held accountable for enforcing God’s justice … and in fact, as the master they are worse off for it. Woe to those who transgress God’s covenant, and woe to those who enforce God’s covenant! How odd to our ears, and I imagine to ancient ones. What we have here is Jewish history and audacity in a nutshell. This is what it looks like to say “We were in the wrong, and you are yet more in the wrong” from the perspective of the conquered; it makes perfect sense from that standpoint, but feels shocking and bizarre from a top-down standpoint. Importantly, though, this posture makes perfectly good logical sense. Of course, we can all be in the wrong! (And isn’t that just what Romans is all about? The early church is about rectifying the situation in which we’re all in the wrong.)
By way of contrast, though, let’s turn back to the deposit of the faith, because this is where Augustine starts to sever the thread of the tradition. Consider 1 Cor 7. I’d really like to emphasize that “if they cannot be freed by their masters” basically means “if their masters continue, regrettably, in sin”. Here I think we see 1 Cor 7 in the background here, with Paul’s abolitionist agenda most directly articulated. An intereseting thing to note on 1 Cor 7 is that the general argument is that people should stay in their current social situation, although Paul remarkably breaks the logic of his own argument to make an exception for slavery in 7:21; stay in your own situation unless you’re a slave who is able to achieve freedom, and in that case do so. (Philemon is also an interesting study here, but scholarship around it leads into a more complex discussion and I think it helps to start with the much clearer case of 1 Cor 7. Also, 1 Cor is the best letter all around in my view, and I appreciate any opportunity to talk about it.) I’d also suggest that we need an inaugurated eschatological understanding of the eschatological references here. Where the “Kingdom of Jesus”, which is utterly free from slavery is pushed into the eschatological future, we entirely lose the thread. Reading this not as an urgent call to manumit slaves, lest one continue in grievous sin and risk God’s wrath, but as “pie in the sky when you die” is one way to break the thread of the narrative. Even here, though, the person who has lost the thread is still held in the narrative: they are transparently hypocrites condemning themselves, even if they can’t read the story to the end. They’ve lost the story, but the story hasn’t lost them. It puts them right in their place, as the damned, whether they realize it or not. Whatever Paul was going for in Philemon, he notably didn’t tell Philemon to keep Onesimus a slave so that Onesiumus could go to heaven one day. Effectively, I think he told Philemon to manumit Onesimus so that Philemon would not be barred by his sin from the Kingdom today.
Does Augustine turn this into pie in the sky when you die (like his Medieval successors), or does he proclaim the good news of the Kingdom and repentance today?
Let’s keep reading to see. On to chapter 16:
And therefore, although our righteous fathers had slaves, and administered their domestic affairs so as to distinguish between the condition of slaves and the heirship of sons in regard to the blessings of this life, yet in regard to the worship of God, in whom we hope for eternal blessings, they took an equally loving oversight of all the members of their household. And this is so much in accordance with the natural order, that the head of the household was called paterfamilias; and this name has been so generally accepted, that even those whose rule is unrighteous are glad to apply it to themselves. But those who are true fathers of their households desire and endeavor that all the members of their household, equally with their own children, should worship and win God, and should come to that heavenly home in which the duty of ruling men is no longer necessary, because the duty of caring for their everlasting happiness has also ceased; but, until they reach that home, masters ought to feel their position of authority a greater burden than servants their service. And if any member of the family interrupts the domestic peace by disobedience, he is corrected either by word or blow, or some kind of just and legitimate punishment, such as society permits, that he may himself be the better for it, and be readjusted to the family harmony from which he had dislocated himself. For as it is not benevolent to give a man help at the expense of some greater benefit he might receive, so it is not innocent to spare a man at the risk of his falling into graver sin. To be innocent, we must not only do harm to no man, but also restrain him from sin or punish his sin, so that either the man himself who is punished may profit by his experience, or others be warned by his example. Since, then, the house ought to be the beginning or element of the city, and every beginning bears reference to some end of its own kind, and every element to the integrity of the whole of which it is an element, it follows plainly enough that domestic peace has a relation to civic peace — in other words, that the well-ordered concord of domestic obedience and domestic rule has a relation to the well-ordered concord of civic obedience and civic rule. And therefore it follows, further, that the father of the family ought to frame his domestic rule in accordance with the law of the city, so that the household may be in harmony with the civic order.
And here, tellingly at just the point that slavery and civic order meet in violence, I think he completely loses the thread. At this point we need to say that this is no longer related to the deposit of the faith by its faithfulness, but precisely by its radical betrayal. He falls away from Pauline “brotherhood” and into imperial paternalism. Instead of using his ‘paternal’ and bishoply authority to instate universal brotherhood, he uses it to destroy it. He warps the story rather subtly, especially around the understanding of love among people, and shifts from the perspective of the enslaved to the perspective of the master. Here we also see some of the deepest roots of the Confederacy; this is precisely the way they talked about the God-ordained order of the Confederacy. It is in no small part thanks to Augustine that neo-Confederates today still look back wistfully on the horrors of the old South as a manifestation of God’s right and natural order. They are his disciples, not Christ’s.
It is this sort of thing that I think makes Augustine the prime exemplar of an imperial court theologian. Drawing on his Manichean experience (itself a fantastic exemplar of imperial court theology) he gives instructions on slave-keeping over the “children”. This contrasts sharply with Paul, who gives instructions on forgiveness and manumission of the “brother”. To the slave Paul is a brother, and only to the slave-master is he a father, so that by that paternal authority he can destroy that authority. (Paul uses the language of authority consistently to move things in an equalizing direction, in a way that reflects the later Trinitarian understanding of the relationship between Father and Son.)
Here we see the roots of “pie in the sky” and “Two Kingdoms” theology, in contrast to the inbreaking Kingdom of Paul. Here we see proud nobles wallowing in their sin with a wink and a nod, as they tell their slaves that the slaves will go to heaven though they may go to hell. And in time the “though they may go to hell” routinely atrophies in the light of the need to rationalize an existing system and “just world” thinking, and the masters see themselves as the elect and their slaves as the damned. And they even see Esau, in whom Jacob sees the face of God after repenting to him, as the damned non-elect! Another narrative thread severed. Consider the centrality of severing Romans 9 from its narrative thread in 9–11 in Calvinist thought. This is soulless reading, the sort that draws slave-makers like flames allegedly draw moths. Still, completely unaware of the story they’re telling, they are still held in the story that damns them, even as they think it vindicates them.
With that transformation rooted in practice, the language and images of Christianity can all remain in place even as their valence and appropriate application are entirely reversed. And eventually you end up in the utterly degraded state of anti-Christianity that picks up the Sermon on the Mount/Plain and puzzles at the “impossibility” of it and finds various ways to completely re-read it. A popular one is to say that it shows the impossibility of following God, and so you need some sort of ritual observance instead; whether it is a properly magical priesthood or a properly magical ‘sinner’s prayer’ doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the unjust and sinful social order is preserved by finding some desperate way to erase the New Covenant by hiding it in plain sight, reducing it to a sign pointing toward a ritual instead of the commands that Jesus so clearly issues. Why do they call him Lord, Lord and don’t do what he says? Why do they claim he orders the cosmos, but brazenly contravene his orders? Because they want to take his name in vain and so they build on sand.
So to tie this back to the OP:
Augustine has inherited from his Jewish and Christian forbearers the narrative that explains the need for manumission now. It is rooted precisely in the notion that slavery is a result of sin, all around. Reconciliation and repentance (turning from sin) logically and directly results in human brotherhood and manumission.
It is by subverting this narrative at a key moment of application, the moral exhortation that slave-holders become brothers with their slaves, and the invocation of an incompatible paternalistic ideal, that Augustine breaks faith and loses the thread of the narrative.
The fault is not in the identification of slavery and sin. That is a crucial component of the cure. The fault is in Augustine’s faithlessness, at a moment when the church was poised to establish a norm of manumission, as Nyssa’s good example illustrates by radical contrast. I imagine Augustine faced a choice of sorts: he could say what the Empire wanted to hear and become the West’s most celebrated theologian, or he could keep faith and soldier on and merely be a Christian. Fatefully, he chose the first and rejected the second.
Nyssa was faithful, and his star will burn brighter as time goes on. Augustine was a master of faithlessness, and for what he has done his legacy from his time here will forever be one of ignominy. Maybe God can save Augustine, through fire. If God is truly good, then God surely will. But the process will be excruciating as Augustine faces the bitter and poisonous fruit of his supposed knowledge of good and evil, carried down proudly from generation to generation to generation, until the last syllable of admiration for him has been spoken. I suspect that we reduce his ultimate burden by admiring him no more.