The Revelance of the Classical Greek Conception of Slavery for Our Times

We read in the 2002 Encyclopedia Britannica that “the origins of slavery are lost to human memory.”1 Slavery has been with us from the beginning of recorded history. It was present in ancient Sumeria, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. It existed in the Middle Ages and even in modern times in lands that professed themselves to be Christian. The official abolition of slavery began in the eighteenth century. In the encyclopedia we also may read that the last place where slavery has been abolished was the Arabian Peninsula in 1962. What of today, the year 2002? “It is probable that slavery no longer exists as a legal phenomenon recognized by a political authority or government any place in the world.”2 While nowhere is slavery legally endorsed, research conducted under the auspices of the United Nations shows that there are more slaves in the world now than at any other time in history. The numbers are shocking. In the Roman Empire every year about half a million persons were enslaved. In the course of 350 years 13 million slaves were brought to North America from Africa. Today there are about 200 million slaves in the world. It is most likely that slavery will continue to the end of human history as it has existed from the beginning.4

Slavery has more than one cause and more than one variety. Some were prisoners of war. Others were kidnapped. In some cases slavery was imposed as a punishment for grave crimes and debts. Some have been sold into slavery, or even sold themselves. Some slaves were born into the condition of slavery, especially when born of a mother who was a slave. When we speak of slavery, we primarily mean political and economic slavery. The status of the slave was most precisely defined in Roman law. The slave was not a legal subject with any rights under the civil law. He was treated as if he were nobody and had no legal capacity.5 The slave was under the dominion of his owner who had power over his life and death. The slave possessed no private property, and what he acquired was acquired for his master. The slave could be bought and sold against his will. Although slavery was widespread, ancient thinkers recognized that there was no basis for slavery in the natural law. The Romans were influenced by the Stoic philosophers and thought that according to natural law all men are equal (“…quod ad ius naturale attinet, omnes homines aequales sunt”—with regard to the natural law, all men are equal—Ulpian). While it had no basis in the natural law, the institution of slavery was supported in the law of the nations (“ius gentium”).6 Roman law defined a slave as one who is the movable property or chattel of another man.7

The political and economic aspects of slavery have been studied in greater depth in modern and contemporary times. Scholars have studied slavery in connection with the expansion of colonialism. Ideologies played a role in scholarly interest in slavery: liberalism has taught that men are politically equal, and socialism has taught that they are also economically equal. While these may be noble sentiments, these ideologies also presented a false conception of man and society and so they led to new hidden forms of slavery that were more refined than anything that had existed before. Advances in technology in turn has enabled the expansion of slavery on an unprecedented scale.

While slavery in the political and economic sense is a visible phenomenon and one that modern scholars feel equipped to deal with, the ancient authors also spoke of various forms of inner slavery. In our day we have forgotten about this more insidious kind of slavery, and it is even paradoxically presented as a sign of freedom. Inner slavery strikes at the core of what it is to be human, and so if it was a danger in the past, it continues to be so.

There is a subjective aspect and an objective aspect to inner slavery. Today people speak of freedom primarily in a subjective sense, as “freedom of choice”. This freedom is treated not only as the choice between good and evil, but in terms of the choice itself independently of good and evil as such. The fact that it is possible to make a choice is regarded as most important. Freedom could be regarded as an absolute because freedom was treated in isolation. Freedom is isolated from its subject— the real individual man who makes choices—and it is isolated from the object and good as that which is chosen. This approach presents freedom in a false light. When we consider freedom in its subjective aspect, we cannot disregard the subject who chooses. In turn, he who makes a choice also chooses some particular thing. His choice is directed to some object and good. That object and good becomes an object in his intention.8 The problem is not whether man is free, but how he is free. Man cannot avoid being free in a subjective sense. The drama is not whether he can choose, but what he can choose, and whether, when he is able to choose some particular thing, he in fact does choose it. The problems of freedom are not associated with the act of choice as such, but with the object or good, and with the act of the will whereby we can determine ourselves with respect to a good that we recognize as fitting and right. By the same token, slavery does not imply that the slave cannot make decisions at all, but it implies that the objects presented to him as possible choices are harmful to him.

The ancient writers were subtler and more realistic than we are in their views on slavery. In a classical text on inner slavery, the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote: “‘He is a slave’. But he is a man with a free spirit. ‘He is a slave’. Shall this harm him? Show who is not a slave. One man is a slave to his lusts, another is a slave to greed, another a slave of ambition, and all are slaves to hope and fear.”9 Seneca makes a distinction between external slavery under civil law and internal slavery. Someone could be a slave in a legal sense while remaining spiritually free. When a man is spiritually free, external slavery does not harm him. Moreover, someone who is externally free may be a slave within himself in many ways when he allows himself to be led by his feelings and and vices.

Internal slavery is slavery in the primary sense, while external slavery is secondary. Inner freedom or freedom of the spirit is higher than external slavery. St. Thomas Aquinas affirms this when he writes: “…servitus, qua homo homini subjicitiur, ad corpus pertinet, non ad animam, quae libera manet…”—“the slavery whereby one man is subject to another pertains to the body, not to the soul, which remains free.”10 While external slavery in a civil and legal sense is an external relation of one man to another, internal slavery devours someone from within in the realm where he alone has access. This kind of slavery is more important since it touches upon a man’s essence and pertains to his very being.

One man may be subject to another only in a bodily and external sense without being internally and spiritually enslaved. Freedom of the spirit is prior to bodily freedom. It is more important to possess spiritual freedom than bodily freedom. Internal freedom can be threatened by a lack of freedom of the spirit. Freedom of the spirit is lacking when someone is subject to feelings such as lust, greed, pride, hope, and fear. Then internal slavery is clearly worse than external slavery. Why do we regard such inner subjection as slavery? Man is a composite being. His basic components are body and soul. Since the soul is higher and superior to the body, the body should be subordinate to the soul. In turn, there are many functions, and an hierarchy of functions, in the soul itself, first in its relation to the body, and then within itself. The more incorporeal something is, the higher it is. The reason is supreme over all else. The reason should rule the body, the feelings, and the senses. A man is internally free when his higher faculties are not subordinate to his lower faculties.11.

The classical analysis of inner freedom primarily refers to the hierarchy in man’s structure and powers. A disregard for this hierarchy leads to a voluntary state of inner slavery. Man as man is internally free, and this internal freedom is part of his essence. Only he can enslave himself internally. Only he can subordinate what is higher to what is lower. Man’s faculties as parts of his being and the functions of those faculties come into play. It is obvious that the act of choice itself is not the problem.

The contemporary accent on the act of choice as the most important component of freedom is rooted in the modern reductionist view of man. The concern there is to save freedom in the face of materialism and sensualism. The human spirit and the human will as a spiritual power have vanished from view, yet without this foundation can we speak of choice in a meaningful way? How will a choice differ from an arbitrary whim or from sensual appetite? The apotheosis of freedom arose on the dust of humanity, when the composite and hierarchical structure of the human being was being destroyed.

There is another important aspect. The object of choice is no less important in the conception of freedom than the power to choose and the act of choosing. We find a very important passage in one of Aristotle’s early works, the Protrepticus or Encouragement to Philosophy. In this little known work, Aristotle writes: “Some thoughts are free, namely those which can be chosen for their own sake, while thoughts that lead to knowledge concerning something else are similar to slaves. That which possesses its end in itself is always superior to that which serves as a means to something else, and that which is free is always superior to what is not free.“12 Aristotle here shows us the objective criterion of freedom: that which is free is in itself, while that which by nature serves something else is not free. Freedom and slavery flow from the nature of things. They are not arbitrary categories. The hand is not the end of man, but a tool that man uses. From a purely objective point of view the hand is a slave or servant.

We see an objective approach to freedom also in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, where he considers wisdom as the highest science. All the other sciences should be subordinate like slaves to this highest science. “Inasmuch as Wisdom is the most sovereign and authoritative kind of knowledge, which the other sciences like obedient slaves may not contradict, the knowledge of the end and of the Good resembles Wisdom, since everything else is for the sake of the good.”13 Freedom is identified here not so much with the possibility of choice, but with existence in itself, with existence for its own sake. Freedom of choice is only the beginning of freedom. Freedom is essentially ordered to what is chosen. Depending upon the object of choice, a man may be able to exist in himself and for his own sake, or he may exist for someone else as a tool for their purposes. He may even be internally divided against himself as his higher faculties are put under the dominion of his lower faculties.

The idea that the subjective act of choosing is the only element or most important element of freedom resulted from a wrong conception of man. This idea has had serious repercussion for civilization in general. People who have been manipulated at the level of their knowledge and weakened at a spiritual level “choose” means as if they were ends. While they become more and more enslaved, they are even led to approve of their condition.

It is important to look at the objective foundations of freedom because of two moments. First, the human act of choice does not occur in an axiological vacuum. We see a phenomenon where choice is conditioned, as it were, where conditions are created in which an individual will be inclined to make one choice rather than another without being coerced (Rousseau). Today, social technology (or social engineering) has been refined for his purpose. Second, on a broader scale, a person’s choice will be connected with the conditions of the particular civilization in which he lives. Every civilization presents a certain hierarchy of goods that provides a reference system when the members of the civilization make decisions.

The choice of the good can guarantee human freedom only when the objective hierarchy of goods is preserved. Only then can human freedom play its proper role of enabling us to reach our end and to realize the good. If we depart from this objective hierarchy, freedom will have a destructive role.

Our inclination to one good rather than another is based on a connaturality between ourselves and the good. Our psyche is colored by the culture and civilization in which we live. We treat the good as our culture presents it as objective because it is close to us. While in absolute terms we are still free to reject it, we have a greater inclination to choose it.

We cannot treat freedom as an absolute in isolation from man as the subject of freedom, or in isolation from the object, which is the good conceived analogically. There is no freedom in itself. Man is free for something. Slavery involves either the destruction of the subject or the destruction of the object. When the subject’s knowledge of reality is manipulated he is corrupted as a subject. When the objective hierarchy of the good is upset, and means and ends are confused, the object of freedom is corrupted.

The economy of our times has developed from a liberal ideology based on consumption. It has contributed to man’s enslavement at two levels: from within by the apotheosis of sensuality where the life of the spirit, the life which is in itself, has disappeared, and externally by an avalanche of mass culture lacking in any profound spiritual values. While it is impossible for man as such to divest himself of the act of choice, his choice loses its connection with the authentic good in itself, and in this way the act of choice contributes to the objective enslavement of the subject that the choice was intended to serve. Slavery consists in the loss of the relation to being in itself, namely the relation to a being that by its nature is free and by its nature does not serve some other being.

We cannot define slavery simply as being at the service of someone else. In the classical conception of freedom, voluntary service to one’s fellow man is something most sublime and is a gift. It is higher than mere unqualified freedom. Service may resemble servitude, but since it is voluntary it is not servitude. In this perspective, we may gain a better understanding of the theological dimension of freedom and love, first where these concern God, and then human love modeled on divine live. The meaning of this love is apparent when we understand the greatness of the good we choose. The greatness of the good in and for itself shows the true way to the good, and this road is a great gift. By the gift of service, man can find true liberation.

translated by Hugh McDonald


1. Slavery, Historical Survery, in Encyclopedia Brittanica 2002, DVD version.

2. ibid., “Ways of Ending Slavery”.

3. Cf. Z. Pańpuch, Problem niewolnictwa u Arystotelesa [The Problem of Slavery in Aristotle], in “Wierność rzeczywistości. Księga Pamiątkowa z okazjii jubileusza 50-lecia pracy naukowej na KUL O. prof. Mieczysława A. Krąpca” [Fidelity to reality: memorial book on the occasion of the 50th anniversy of Mieczysław A. Krąpiec’s scientific work at the Catholic University of Lublin], Lublin 2001, p. 519 f.

4, St. Thomas Aquinas explained slavery in terms of the effects of original sin. “Quod attinet ad ius civile, servi pro nullis habentur” (Ulpian). Cf. W. Rozwadowski, Prawo rzymskie. Zaryz wykładu wraz z wyborem źróldeł [Roman law. Outline of a lecture with a selection of of sources], Warsaw 1991, p. 247.

6. ibid., p. 247 f.

7. Encyclopedia Brittanica, “Slavery”.

8. Cf. M. A. Krąpiec, I-Man, New Britain Connecticut, 1983, p. p. 202–206.

9. Seneca Moral letters to Lucilius, letter 47, 17. “ ‘Servus est.’ Sed fortasse liber animo. ‘Servus est.’ Hoc illi nocebit? Ostende quis non sit: alius libidini servit, alius avaritiae, alius ambitioni, omnes spei, omnes timori.”

10. Summa Theologica, II–II, q. 105, a. 6, ad 1.

11. Plato, Republic, 590 A–D.

12, Aristotle, Protrepticos [Encouragement to Philosophy], n. 25. Cited after Polish translation of K. Leśniak, Warsaw 1988.

13. Aristotle, Metaphysics, III, 2, 996 b 10–15. In this passage we see the origin of the conception of philosophy as the handmaid of theology. For more on this, cf. P. Jaroszyński, Nauka w kulturze [Science in Culture], Radom 2002, p. 133 (publication of English translation expected in 2003).