Ideology and Hypocrisy Amid Slavery and Democracy - Strange Bedfellows from Time Immemorial By: Stephen Joseph ScottRead Now
The history of the existence of slavery as an institution in antiquity and beyond is one of the most common; and, at the same time, one of the most complex tales to be told. Virtually every society, touching almost all the continents of the world, has had its own form of enslavement. The implication being that, nearly, every group of humankind whether racially, ethnically, or culturally categorized as diverse, unattached, or essentially separate, has been marked by the legacy and tradition of human bondage geographically and/or ancestrally. This work will be focusing on the origins and culturally supportive underpinnings of ancient Greek identity, its philosophy, law, ideology, and ethnicity; and, those extant essentialist elements, such as class, that not only made slavery in the ancient Greek world possible but normalized its place within a societal hierarchy that helped define who and what an ancient Athenian was - pitched against a broader Mediterranean ethos. Beyond that, this work will address how ancient Greek thought, as to what essentially constituted a slave versus a free person, later ignites a heated counterpoint which asserts hypocrisy lies at the core of ancient Greek thinking when it comes to the fundamental differences: physical, psychological, and emotional, that inexorably lie between free-persons and human-beings in captivity – made evident by how that debate rages to this day in contemporary historiography….
It is best that we start at the beginning with Homer: ancient Greek storyteller and legendary poet, who lived as early as the 8th century BCE; and, is still considered one of the most celebrated and influential writers of antiquity - for good reason. Homer is brought to the fore because his illustration as evidenced below reveals the essential deleterious effect of human bondage, which, poignantly foreshadows the debate mentioned above by millennia, ‘For Zeus who views the wide world takes away half the manhood of a man, that day he goes into captivity and slavery’ (Homer, Odyssey 17.367-9). Homer is explicitly defining the enslavement of a man as the diminishment, in a purely ontological sense, of one’s inherent human dignity. Aristotle, on the other hand (ancient aristocratic Greek philosopher and polymath extraordinaire), who penned his work in the latter 4th century BCE, some four hundred years after Homer, sets a foundational opposition and enduring precedent of his very own when it comes to the quality, status, value, and condition of enslaved persons.
Aristotle, as is broadly known, defined an enslaved person (doulos), that is, a human-being held in bondage, as ‘a live article of property’ (Aristotle, Pol. 1253b33). The great thinker himself, speaking on behalf of his class interests, goes on to define the value he derived from such persons defined as property, ‘Of property, the first and most indispensable kind is that which is … most amenable to Housecraft; and this is the human chattel.’ He then goes on, with a decisively imperialist tone, ‘Our first step therefore must be to procure good slaves (doulous)’ (Arist. Oec. 1344a23-26). Aristotle makes clear his essentialist views which not only defined a slave as property, but goes further, stating that the value, status, utility, and material condition of persons classified as slaves is not only a useful one, but a natural one:
These considerations therefore make clear the nature of the slave and his essential quality; one who is a human being (anthrôpos) belonging by nature not to himself but to another is by nature a slave, and a human being belongs to another if, although a human being, he is a piece of property (ktêma) (Arist. Pol. 1254a14-18).
Aristotle’s proposition is an important one given this work’s purpose which is to bring forth these precise notions, or conflicting theories, that have significantly undergirded, influenced and/or reinforced conceptions of class, personhood, value, and status interwoven within western thought throughout the ages.
Which brings us inevitably to the longstanding property versus domination argument spearheaded, in modern scholarship, by Orlando Patterson in his 1982 book entitled Slavery and Social Death. Patterson delivers a scathing rebuke to Aristotle’s customary formulation of slavery in terms of property. He unequivocally argues that slavery, from his learned vantagepoint, is, in fact, ‘the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons’. Which poignantly parallels Homer’s description that human beings, held in captivity against their will, are not only persons dominated physically, but are individuals essentially diminished morally, emotionally, and psychologically. The conventional view, as presented by Aristotle, is unsound, according to Patterson based on two distinct factors. Firstly, Patterson argues, ‘to define slavery … as property fails as a definition, since it does not really specify any distinct category of persons.’ Because everyone, whether ‘beggar or king, can be the object of a property relation.’ One can only construe that what Patterson is saying, when it comes specifically to slavery, is that the term ‘property’ obscures, diminishes or diverts one’s attention away from the overt and brutal nature of an enslaved person’s everyday lived experience. Secondly, Patterson contends that the term property is inconsistent in substance when it comes to diversity of culture - meaning many societies, however archaic, lacked the very concept of ownership. Denoting that slavery has accompanied mankind through time immemorial, from primitive village societies to ancient Mesopotamia and beyond, where, he argues, the laws and social mores of any given society didn’t precisely match that of Aristotle’s definition of property – therefore it generally fails as a classification of slavery .
David M. Lewis counters Patterson’s argument on the ‘property point’ as stated above by proclaiming that during the Neo-Babylonian and Persian periods, the evidence clearly demonstrates in abundant detail, that the circumstance between slave and master, in legal terms, was ‘a relationship based on the fact that the slave was the property of his or her owner’-exhibiting all the elementary features necessary, per legal theory, to reach the standard of ‘property’ . Lewis challenges Patterson’s stance further by stating:
[The popular] view that esteems private property rights to be an advanced development of Roman legal theory ignores the findings of almost a century of legal anthropology, which has observed private property systems in a variety of tribal social systems that were far less advanced in terms of technological and social complexity than even the society imagined in Homer’s epics .
While Lewis’ examination proves ‘slavery as a form of property’ in a legal context, there is still validity in Patterson’s position given the fact that persons in bondage (from a humanist perspective) reduced to the level of property in a solely ‘legal sense’ nullifies their individual agency and all that essentially makes them human.
In fact, slavery, and democracy, in ancient Athens and beyond is a multidimensional and multifaceted story of innate human capacity and agency, dignity, adaptability, fortitude, and resistance. Meaning, ‘…slaves were not passive objects, whose identity and existence was completely dominated by their masters.’ As described by Xenophon (Greek military leader and philosopher), there were without a doubt slaves forced into strenuous domestic work: ‘baking, cooking, spinning’ and scrubbing under their owner’s will (Xen. Oec. 9.9). That said, we are also told of others that gained valuable skill-sets outside the home, coinciding with their inherent intelligence and creativity, from potters to builders to bankers and shoemakers (Hyperides, 3.1-9; and Aeschines, 1.97). These slaves participated in communal undertakings (such as workshops and spiritual associations) together with other free and enslaved persons. Even Aristotle, who had little love (agape) for the underclasses, had to acknowledge, albeit cautiously, the inherent democratic nature (and/or threat thereof) made evident by the sheer numbers of this uniquely collective phenomenon - what the great theorist himself branded as koinônia, simply defined as fellowship of the masses. But the politikê koinônia (he warns) was specifically formed for the benefit of its members (Arist. Eth. Nic. 1160a4-6). Influenced by his celebrated teacher, renowned philosopher Plato, who argued that the limits of citizenship and its influence correlate with ‘the precise form of constitution and law’ in place (Plato, Laws 714c) - Aristotle’s well-known anti-democratic discourse on ‘mob-rule’ and the necessity for the ‘rule of law’ as fundamental to ‘the natural order of things’ thus becomes most evident. While in agreement with Pericles’ famed proclamation on the importance of the ‘rule of law’ in the ancient Greek city-state; when it came to what Pericles professed as the virtues of democracy defined, the two-men parted ways in dramatic fashion. In what is considered the ideal of a democratic philosophical vision, Pericles outlines demokratia (in his famed funeral speech of 431 BCE), as follows:
Its administration favors the many instead of the few…equal justice to all…class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way. The freedom which we enjoy in our government…[teaches] us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly as regard [to] the protection of the injured (Thucydides, 2.37).
On the contrary, Aristotle’s depiction of a ‘democratic regime’ and/or constitution is one with an inherent propensity toward ‘license and lawlessness.’ He defines, ‘radical democracy,’ in that of Athens for example, as having two critical flaws: firstly, the influence of the demos can potentially supersede the law (Arist. Pol. 1292a4ff.); and secondly, the demos hold the power to impeach magistrates for wrongdoing (such as malfeasance) which Aristotle intimates are both a step too far (Arist. Pol. 1292a30, and cf.1298a29-35). That said, as threatening as he might have interpreted it, the concept of koinônia permits us to observe enslaved persons actively utilizing their intrinsic agency within a broader collective milieu.
Returning to the question as stated at the outset of this work, Lewis’ focus on the laws of ancient societies, in lieu of the contention outlined above, is immensely valuable when it comes to understanding the conventions per Athenian slave society and their ramifications. Broadly viewed as a protection mechanism for slaves, given a singular example, the Greek law on ‘hybris,’ in ancient Athens, expressly defined as the negation of the deliberate implementation of violence to humiliate, demean, or degrade - is not as straightforward as it might appear. Yet again, hypocrisy abounds as evidenced: to presume that the Athenian law pertained to an owner’s mis-conduct toward his ‘property’ obliges us to disregard the ‘abundant proof’ of regular and generally habitual violence toward slaves by their masters (Lewis, 2018, 43). Beyond that, it is difficult to correlate the law as ‘protectionary’ given this evocative assertion by Plato, ‘[a slave] when wronged or insulted, is unable to protect himself or anyone else for whom he cares’ (Plato, Gorg. 483b). The following statement is as definitive as it gets when revealing the underlying deceit interwoven within Athenian law itself when it came to enslaved persons and their standing, ‘[the] law included slaves [simply] because the lawgiver wished to curtail the spread of hubristic [or anti-social] behaviour among the citizens tout court … the hubris law was designed to engender respect and orderly conduct among citizens not to protect slaves’ . Meaning, that the Athenian lawgivers were not overly concerned with the physical wellbeing of persons classified as slaves, but perhaps were more intent on curtailing their judicial workload.
The reality was that the right of masters to physically abuse their slaves in ancient Athens was, if not absolute, certainly extensive. Xenophon affirms the practical necessity on behalf of owners to punish their slaves, but simply asks for them not to do so in a state of rage (Xen. Hell. 5.3.7; cf. Hdt. 1.137). Demonstrating that, violence toward persons in bondage in ancient Athens was perfectly acceptable if it was executed in a manner of equanimity. According to Xenophon, however, slaves should never resist. He goes on to say, that masters could, or should, ‘clap fetters on them so that they can’t run away’ (Xen. Mem. 2.1.16). Hence, so it is argued, in summary, that what helps clarify, or defend, Aristotle’s assertion that ‘the slave [is] an article of property imbued with a soul’ (Arist. Pol. 1253b32), is justified due to the fact that ‘this view of the slave as an article of property’ was a generally held belief of society at large when it came to the status of enslaved persons within the ancient Greek ethos .
That said, when it comes to hypocrisy, the law and excessive abuse – domination, as defined by Patterson permeates the historical record. A poignant example of the common acceptance in ancient Athens of emotional and physical abuse (or the threat thereof) cast upon slaves, and the like, is provided by Lysias, where he describes in detail the testimony of a plaintiff in an Athenian court recounting the brutal (and pervasive) threat of torture (and even death) that hung over the heads of enslaved mill workers - commonly known ‘as mill-roaches’ (Lysias 1. 18-22). In addition, owners of enslaved persons were generally granted legal leeway, under the authority of judges, to sexually abuse their slaves. Signifying that when a slave was purchased, they were in fact the owners’ possession to do with as they desired - which helps lend even more credence to Patterson’s analyses of domination as described.
A question of further importance is what defined, or signified, a slave and their station in ancient Athens? Was it one of ideology or innate difference that helped delineate the distinction between a Greek and a non-Greek? As understood in the broadest sense of the term, barbarian is the word used to describe not only a non-Greek speaking immigrant, but in fact, a definitional term which explicitly portrayed an enslaved person of foreign origin, as, ‘non-Greeks imported from foreign lands via the slave trade’. An Athenian essentialist view, as noted, between native slave and foreign slave, (that is, between natural born Greeks and outsiders) is underscored by Aristotle’s description of an enslaved Greek as ‘an accident contrary to nature’ (Arist. Pol. 1255a1). These Greek essentialist views, of one people’s ethnic superiority over another, are noteworthy because they significantly impact western thought and societal conditions throughout the ages – emphasizing race and class as inherent points of difference develop into a clear normative of class hierarchy.
Fast forwarding to the 18th century Anglo-world for example, Francis Hutcheson (elite 18th century British moral philosopher) proclaimed that permanent enslavement should be ‘the ordinary punishment of … idle vagrants.’ ‘Idle vagrants,’ being defined as most anyone with what Hutcheson considered, ‘slave like attributes,’ from the idle poor and indigent to confiscated and subjugated human cargo - principally Africans . Conversely, in something of a confessional, Thomas Jefferson (slave owner, philosopher, and 18th century American statesman) recognized and voiced the odious elements of the dominion argument, as defined, some two hundred years prior to Orlando Patterson, ‘[the] commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of … the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.’ He then goes on in a revelatory tone, to inform just how these elite classes, throughout the millennia, bequeathed attitudes of dominion from one generation to the next. Stating that, the children of the elite were thus ‘nursed, educated and exercised in the daily art of tyranny.’ Virginia’s slave plantations as he describes, were by their very nature, ‘schools of iniquity and domination’. Consequently, Aristotle’s, early, and pervasive, theory of the ‘natural order of things,’ when it comes to class and ethnicity, is made brazenly evident (Arist. Pol. 1252a-1253b).
Finally, how common place was slave society in the ancient Greek world and what was its magnitude? It is said that the importation of slaves was a lasting one, being that Greek slave society lasted enduringly throughout both the archaic and classical periods until its absorption by Rome in 146 BCE. Although the Roman slave trade surpassed that of the Greek numerically, given Rome’s imperial might over the Mediterranean world, it is said that ‘the Greek slave system was both the elder and the longer-lived.’ The Greeks had helped set a historic precedent by perfecting their own imperial prowess through the conquering of their neighbors . But, where in fact were these subjugated and enslaved persons extracted from and how common were they in ancient Greece? Ancient Greek inscriptions help make evident that enslaved peoples, represented a wide breadth of humanity throughout the known world at the time. These people included men, women, and children in a variety of hues, from such far-off places as Thrace, Phrygia, Syria, Caria in southwest Anatolia, Illyria on the western Balkan Isthmus, Scythians from eastern Iran; and, Colchians from the eastern Black Sea - depicted by Herodotus, in the 5th century BCE, as a ‘dark-skinned and woolly haired’ people (Hdt. 2.104.2). What Herodotus’ quote helps to highlight for us is an ancient Athenian social construct. That being, the prevalent belief (when it came to the stature of imported slaves), of a clear and innate delineation based on race (and/or phenotype), accentuating a natural taxonomic classification or difference between indigenous Greeks and all others – especially slaves.
When it comes to how common slaves were, Josiah Ober estimates the slave population of fourth-century BCE Athens to be around 35 per cent of the total population of roughly 227,000 . Which made slavery quite pervasive throughout ancient Athens and helps to explain the essentialist Greek/Other dichotomy as such. As Vincent Rosivach makes evident, ‘[When] Athenians thought about slaves, they habitually thought about barbaroi, and when they thought about barbaroi they habitually thought about slaves’. Suggesting that this was commonplace in classical Athens - legislatively undergirded by the proposed law of Pericles of 451 BCE which confined citizenship solely to persons of Athenian birthparents on both sides. Ultimately defining in ethnocentric terms, an essentialist difference (between Greeks and others), based on birth lineage and cultural origin (Arist. Const. Ath. 26.3). In paralleling slave societies throughout the epochs, ‘the slave system of the fourth-century Greek world was of roughly the same numerical magnitude as that of the United States ca. 1800.’ By the early 19th century, in the South, ‘30-40 percent of the population’ was made up of chattel slavery under the brutal control of concentrated wealth and political power, land, and resources… . Both societies (separated by millennia) became indulgently rich and hegemonically powerful in their respective spheres of influence – primarily based on the wealth created by their slave societies thus implemented. As mentioned, due to the commonality of the everyday interaction between slave and non-slave, and its oblique dangers in ancient Athens, elite class interests reinforced ‘the construction of local and wider Hellenic ethnicities, as well as of non-Greek ethnicities, must have been fundamentally imbricated with the ideological needs of the slave trade…’ . The main point being that the possibility of a unifying or coming together of freeborn citizens, of lower-class status, and slaves, posed a direct structural (and numerical) threat to the established order of things. Ideology, woven within Greek identity, plays a key role in the hegemonic control of social norms, but not an absolute one.
The understanding by the masses (and a small number of elites alike) that extreme concentrations of wealth played a destabilizing role in the Athenian political and social realms, when it came to privilege, power and class, is made obvious by the following quote from Demosthenes, ‘for the demos to have nothing and for those who oppose the demos to have a superabundance of wealth is an amazing and terrifying (thaumaston kai phoberon) state of affairs’ (Ober, 1990, 214; Dem. Ex. 2.3). Which helps make evident an ancient Athens as not only the well-known paradigm of direct democracy (or rule by the many), but also its intrinsic contradictions (or threats thereof) when it came to status, class, and wealth – which has echoed, as argued, throughout the centuries. As presented, Lewis and Canevaro, bring to the fore, a carefully crafted top-down societal prejudice designed to sow division amongst the masses using class distinctions and/or differences as its exclusionary tool of choice:
Since it was in fact slaves who were more naturally associated with manual labor—they were the prototypical manual laborers— elitist writers and reformers found in this proximity a productive avenue for attacking their suitability for political participation—for having a voice. For elite Greeks and Romans this was a productive strategy for denigrating and dehumanizing ‘the poor’ in political as well as daily life .
Paradoxically, these notions of disdain toward the poor (or the slavish), defined (mostly) by the ancient Greek elite as, ‘anyone who had to work for living’ (Arist. Pol. 1277b5-7; 1255b23-38), were not limited to the Athenian upper classes. In fact, as Lucia Cecchet suggests, due to the sheer force of elite ideological thought and its pervasive influence (in the 4th and 5th centuries), even within the jury courts of democratic Athens, the repulsion of poverty (including slaves) became commonly offered as a widely conventional view, ‘a communis opinio that the rich and poor shared alike’ ; attitudes that permeate western societies to this day, making evident, the powerful effects of elite capture through hegemonic cultural influence in ancient Athens and beyond.
In conclusion, throughout western history, ancient Athens has been viewed as the ultimate model of democracy in a political, ideological, philosophical, and ethical sense – as presented in this work. At the same time, hypocrisy, pertaining to these epitomes of democracy (demokratia – or rule by the many – as outlined by Pericles), adversely permeated its upper classes and beyond with lasting ramifications. Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle and Xenophon, for example, were all critical of democracy, focusing their ire upon the populous; the possibility of its bad decision making; and (what they believed to be), as ‘the [intrinsic] ignorance … of the demos, demagoguery and civil strife’ . Again, these great theorists thought of democracy not as the rule of the many (which was the general Athenian ideal of demokratia), but they portrayed it in a more threatening or hostile sense, such as, ‘the rule of the poor or the mob,’ which helps taint Athenian demokratia within recorded history with a prejudicial top-down class perspective throughout the millennia . The proximity between, slave and poor within the democratic confines of ancient Athens, made them susceptible, in both high-level institutional deliberation and, sometimes, in daily collaborations, to manipulative stratagems which ‘aimed to denigrate and even disenfranchise them by stressing the “slavish” nature of their occupations, as incompatible with the virtue required for political participation’ . Furthermore, enslavement, as implemented in ancient Athens and across time, populations and locations could differ enormously or, in fact, possess significant similarities. As is inferred, by ancient Greek scholars throughout this work, the characteristics which helped mold Greek slave culture and its expansion comprised, but were in no way limited to, the amount of prosperity slavery added to the fundamental aspects of that society’s supposed wellbeing, especially its economic growth and military strength. In most instances, throughout the ancient world and beyond, the capturing and subjugation of persons classified as salves was meant to possess, chastise, and/or diminish an economic rival. Thus, as noted, chattel slavery was quite widespread throughout the ancient world and beyond. That said, the agency and humanity, as offered by Orlando Patterson, of subjugated persons, and their relentless struggle for freedom, permeates the historical record (from Athens to Virginia) - which cannot and should not be ignored. Enslaved human beings left behind a powerful legacy of opposition and struggle to free themselves and the family members they so loved. Through the common bond (of unrelenting misery) they forged powerful alliances of resistance and revolt, despite the cultural forces arrayed against them – their historical age or geographical setting.
Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Harvard University Press, 1982), 13.
David M. Lewis, Greek Slave Systems in Their Eastern Mediterranean Context, c.800-146 BC, First edition. (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2018), 34.
Kostas Vlassopoulos, “Greek Slavery: From Domination to Property and Back Again,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 131 (2011): 195.
Edward E. Cohen, Athenian Economy and Society: A Banking Perspective (Princeton University Press, 1992), 61–109.
Mirko Canevaro, “The Public Charge for Hubris Against Slaves: The Honour of the Victim and the Honour of the Hubristēs,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 138 (2018): 100–126.
Lewis, Greek Slave Systems in Their Eastern Mediterranean Context, c.800-146 BC, 42–43.
David M. Lewis and Mirko Canevaro, “Poverty, Race, and Ethnicity,” in A Cultural History of Poverty in Antiquity (500 BCE – 800 AD), ed. Claire Taylor (Bloomsbury).
Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: Norton, 1995), 324.
Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia: An Annotated Edition, Notes on the State of Virginia (Yale University Press, 2022), 249.
Lewis and Canevaro, “Poverty, Race, and Ethnicity,” 7.
Lewis and Canevaro, 4.
Josiah Ober, “Inequality in Late-Classical Democratic Athens: Evidence and Models,” in Democracy and an Open-Economy World Order, ed. George C. Bitros and Nicholas C. Kyriazis (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2017), 129–129.
Vincent J. Rosivach, “Enslaving ‘Barbaroi’ and the Athenian Ideology of Slavery,” Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte 48, no. 2 (1999): 129.
Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619-1877 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), 242.
Lewis and Canevaro, “Poverty, Race, and Ethnicity,” 15.
Thomas Harrison, “Classical Greek Ethnography and the Slave Trade,” Classical Antiquity 38, no. 1 (2019): 36–57.
Lewis and Canevaro, “Poverty, Race, and Ethnicity,” 29–30.
Lucia Cecchet, “Poverty as Argument in Athenian Forensic Speeches,” 2013, 61.
Ober quoted in Mirko Canevaro, “Democratic Deliberation in the Athenian Assembly: Procedures and Behaviours towards Legitimacy,” Annals HSS 73, 2019, 3.
Mogens Herman Hansen, The Tradition of Ancient Greek Democracy and Its Importance for Modern Democracy, Historisk-Filosofiske Meddelelser 93 (Copenhagen: Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, 2005), 8.
Lewis and Canevaro, “Poverty, Race, and Ethnicity,” 29–30.
Stephen Joseph Scott is an essayist associated with The University of Edinburgh, School of History; a singer/songwriter, humanist/activist – a self-taught musician, and performer. As a musician, he uses American Roots Music to illustrate the current American social and political landscape.