The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, by David Brion Davis

The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture

The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture is the first of a trilogy of scholarly works on slavery written over the course of decades by David Brion Davis. They are not so much about the history of slavery itself as the history of the ideas and debates about it. So not what happened, but what people said and wrote about what happened, and how they approved or disapproved of it. In the course of presenting people’s opinions about slavery, naturally Davis mentions a certain amount about slavery itself, but this book is not intended to cover its history in a systematic and thorough way.

This first volume covers from basically the beginning of western civilization, or at least the farthest back in history from which we have any writings or other evidence of attitudes toward slavery, up to but not including the American Revolutionary War. The other two volumes have dates in their subtitles, with the second covering the period starting 1770. This one does not have a subtitle with dates, but if the next subtitle is accurate then we can infer this covers through 1769. Those aren’t strict limitations though; there are plenty of references to the later 18th century and the 19th century in this first volume.

This book (and I assume it’s true of all three volumes) strikes me as far more valuable as a reference work or as a source to consult if you’re writing an academic paper than as an entertaining read or something that I would recommend to a layman who wanted to better understand the institution of slavery. I’m certainly not saying it has zero value if you’re a non-academic who is interested in slavery, but it’s pretty dry, and I at least experienced much of it as dull. It’s mostly just hundreds of pages of recitation of this philosopher wrote this about slavery, and this politician said this about slavery, and this abolitionist pamphlet included this claim about slavery that was borrowed from this older book, etc., etc.

There’s far too much material in The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture for me to summarize it all, so what I’ll do is just mention a few themes from the book or reactions I had to certain of the material.

There is no “good” slavery, but slavery conditions can differ a great deal from time to time and place to place. In some cultures there were people who lacked personal freedom in a way that probably puts them within the definition of a “slave,” but their actual day-to-day life was closer to that of, say, a live-in nanny, or a younger member of a hierarchical patriarchal family. They were not hated and constantly verbally and physically abused, not treated as a loathsome “other,” but they had less authority and less personal autonomy within the household than some other members did.

On the other hand, what most people nowadays probably picture when they think of slavery—the racial, plantation sort of slavery practiced in the United States before the Civil War—was worse than most types of slavery in history. Slaves were regarded as subhuman property, and the legal and customary limitations on what you could do to and with such property were minimal, neither of which is an essential or even common trait of slavery. So the pros and cons of slavery debated centuries or millennia ago cannot be simplistically applied to American slavery, since our slavery may be relevantly different from the slavery they had in mind.

As bad as New World slavery was, the slavery in Latin America tended to be less severe than that in the United States. Davis, however, warns not to overstate the degree of difference. He believes that the evidence taken as a whole supports only a modest difference, and that many or most historians of slavery have been misled into seeing a more substantial difference. If you were a slave in Brazil, your life was probably almost as bad as if you were a slave in Alabama.

Though I knew that the Indians in both North and South America had been killed, stolen from, cheated, etc., I did not picture them as having been captured and turned into slaves as was done to Africans. But I gather from this book that there actually was a decent amount of slavery of Indians like that. Still not remotely on the scale of slavery of Africans, but some.

Davis points out that there was some tension in attitudes of whites toward the African and Indian races. Most commentators saw their primitiveness as indicating that they were inferior, that they were closer to animals than human beings, that they were not suited to any life better than slavery. At the same time there was a thread running through Western thought that regarded them as a sort of throwback to some idyllic past that whites had tragically lost—a simpler time when people lived communally, were more in touch with nature, more childlike and innocent. Much of the difference came down to people’s attitudes about modern civilization in general: If you saw it all as remarkable and admirable progress, then you probably saw the nonwhites as backward people who weren’t good enough to keep up, whereas if you were overwhelmed by all the filth, cruelty, vice, etc. of the modern world, then you probably saw the nonwhites as wise, or at least lucky, to have avoided it.

Some folks combined the attitudes, seeing the Indians as the good kind of primitives that it was a sin to conquer and enslave, and the Africans as the bad kind of primitives that were fair game.

What I’m struck by probably as much as anything reading this book is just how awful the pro-slavery arguments were. Indeed, Davis points out that for much of history you don’t find much in the way of pro or anti-slavery arguments because it was the kind of thing that was so normal and mainstream as to not need defending because it wasn’t challenged.

But once they did get around to arguing for it, what people came up with was completely lame. It’s amazing how people can rationalize just about anything if they have some motive of self-interest or ideology to do so.

A common argument for New World slavery was that the African slaves were typically bought from the winners of internal African wars and that they would have been put to death if not sold as slaves. So on the principle that your behavior toward someone cannot be wrong if your refraining from that behavior would have been even worse for them, Europeans were not wronging Africans by making them slaves when they would have instead wound up as corpses.

What a moronic argument. Let’s look at a few reasons why:

1. It’s not self-evident that slavery was indeed preferable to death. Where suicide was an option, it was commonly chosen over slavery. That’s why crews of slave ships went to great pains to make suicide as difficult as possible, putting up netting and various barriers to prevent jumping overboard, for example.

2. I find out my neighbor Carl has kidnapped seven year old Billy and now keeps him locked in a closet except for the ten times a week he hauls him out and tortures and anally rapes him. I sneak over and snatch Billy when Carl is at the 7-Eleven and take him back to my house, where I treat him the same except I only torture and anally rape him five times a week. I’m not guilty of doing anything wrong to Billy, right?

3. The wars and the slave trade were not independent events. It’s not like there was some certain set number of prisoners of war vulnerable to being executed and the Europeans decreased this number by purchasing some as slaves. The awareness that prisoners could be sold as slaves was a strong impetus to war. Many of the “wars” indeed were little more than raids to capture potential slaves. Had the Europeans not been eager customers, most of these folks would have ended up neither executed as prisoners of war nor turned into slaves.

But really the point is that this whole idea—that slavery is justified when you save people from being killed by enslaving them—is too dumb to need refutation. Yet for a time it struck almost everyone as either an excellent point, or at least a plausible enough one that needed debating.

And then how about the religious justifications? The primary one that New World slave owners and slavery defenders liked to cite was that Africans were descended from Ham, and the Old Testament God cursed Ham and his descendants, so really keeping them as slaves constitutes obeying God’s will.

Not that the Bible really says that, without being creatively interpreted. But why give two shits even if it said precisely that? It’s like defending slavery with a daily horoscope. Yes, one problem is that you’re taking some vague, ambiguous, or metaphorically-worded supernatural source and spinning it to make it say what you want it to say, but a second problem is that it’s irrelevant what a daily horoscope or a grotesque collection of legends and fairy tales from thousands of years ago has to say about slavery, or anything, ambiguous or not.

Of course people on both sides were quick to claim the Bible was on the same side as them. Abolitionists saw slavery as a gross violation of Jesus’ ethical teachings about loving your neighbor and all that.

There are plenty of passages in the Bible from Paul and others about the imperative to free people, but Davis contends that typically these weren’t pro or anti-slavery sentiments, but instead had to do with freeing people from sin, freeing people from attachment to the material world when they should instead be concentrating on God and undergoing the approved rituals to accept Jesus’ offer to redeem them for their sins, etc. These writings came from a time when slavery was largely unquestioned, and it’s a stretch to interpret them as taking the radical step of challenging the overwhelming consensus. Mostly the Christian message was to acquiesce in whatever social circumstances you found yourself in—slave or slave owner, rich or poor, whatever—because the world was going to end in a matter of months or years at most anyway. Focusing on whether this world is better off with slavery or without would be like focusing on what color you’d prefer your bedroom walls painted in your present house when Jesus just came home to announce he got a raise and we’ll all be moving to a better neighborhood shortly.

By the way, speaking of religious rationalizations, I wonder if the doctrine of karma and the way it is used to justify inequality and untouchability is even worse than Bible-based defenses of slavery. This nonsense about Ham was just some ad hoc thing people came up with when they started to be challenged about slavery, and most people nowadays probably aren’t even familiar with it; it’s not a doctrine that is essential to Christianity. Whereas the karma thing—that people who are having a shitty life deserve it due to their misdeeds in some earlier life—is a much, much bigger part of Hinduism.

But anyway, I come back to this point that for much of history slavery was either not questioned at all, or was defended with absurd arguments that never deserved to be taken anywhere near as seriously as they were. It’s like some kind of collective insanity, where there was a moral monstrosity staring people in the face and yet they couldn’t see it.

It makes me think about how people in the future—if humans even survive much longer—will see us. Is there anything today at all like slavery (slavery in ancient times especially, not when a sizable number of people challenged it in more recent times) in the sense that it’s a horrible practice that is so much a normal and accepted part of society that we don’t even think to criticize it? Is there anything like that that folks will look back and say “How could they have been so morally blind or stupid?”

One response is that anything like that by hypothesis we would be unaware of, so we couldn’t identify it now. But there’s a difference between a society as a whole being under some kind of moral delusion and every single individual in that society suffering from it. I’m sure even in 300 BC or whenever there were scattered individuals who thought slavery was clearly an evil practice; they just weren’t the sort of people who write philosophy books or religious tracts, or give the kind of public speeches that find their way into the history books. So really I’m not talking about something that everyone is blind to, but instead something that only a few maverick, thinking-outside-the-box types see.

It couldn’t be something like abortion or homosexuality, because those are extremely controversial. I have in mind something that is nearly universally accepted and unquestioned (and that would be seen as horrific in a more enlightened time).

War? I mean, I know that’s seen as morally bad in a sense, but really there are very, very few total pacifists today. Most people see wars as necessary evils, at least the ones their country fights in. Will it someday seem absurd that for most of human history people kept falling back on this “last resort” and going to war?

Maybe incarceration? It seems clearly necessary to most people nowadays that massive numbers of people should be kept in cages for the bulk of their lives (if not killed outright). I mean, otherwise criminals would just run amuck, right? Will people in the future shake their head at such a notion?

If I had to settle on one, I might well go with capitalism, or specifically the so-called “wage slavery” aspect of it. I know that’s certainly been questioned by Marxists and such for the last century or two, but in America today I think it’s still pretty close to universally accepted that it’s perfectly right and natural that the overwhelming majority of people in society should have to sell their labor to survive, and sell it in a situation of grossly unequal bargaining power.

When you think about it, most people in this country get up every day and spend the day doing something they do not want to do, under someone else’s authority. There are the same kind of lame rationalizations that purport to prove that people deserve their status as were offered for slavery. (You know, like that those with the capital to enable them to be in charge worked harder, delayed gratification, and were more meritorious in general, which in 99 cases out of a hundred isn’t even true.) But would people really believe and espouse such arguments if doing so were not part of a collective ideological insanity that favors the richest and most powerful people who have the most influence on public opinion? Will people look back and wonder how we could have acquiesced in institutions that rendered so many lives so unfree and so much less happy and fulfilled than they could have been?

I mean, today it may be hard to imagine an alternative. But once it was hard to imagine an alternative to slavery. Maybe in the future people will come up with something better, and recognize the brutalities and injustice of the “free” market as morally intolerable, and wonder why we didn’t.


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