Were the Stoics Effective Critics of Slavery Essay Example
Were the Stoics Effective Critics of Slavery Essay Example

Were the Stoics Effective Critics of Slavery Essay Example

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  • Pages: 11 (3025 words)
  • Published: December 24, 2017
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The word 'effective' in the title of this paper has two meanings, which have the potential to cause ambiguity. This being, that the definition of 'effective' can have a meaning of, 'having a desired effect' and also, 'having definite effect'. Thus, the question can be restated for clarity as being 'Did the Stoics Have a Desired or Definite Effect as Critics of Slavery? ' The issue that these definitions raise is one of perception.

The 'having a desired effect' definition is found through attempting to look at what the Stoics themselves desired as 'critics of slavery', whereas the 'having a definite effect' definition is more subjective and involves considering the Stoic effects upon slavery through valued judgements. On the former definition of 'effective' this paper will show the Stoics to have achieved what was desired, whic


h as a consequence will be shown to be the reason why they failed to achieve the second definition of effective.In other words, it was because the Stoics in their criticisms achieved what they desired, that they failed to have any definite effects on slavery. This leads to the questioning of the Stoics position as 'critics of slavery'.

Stoicism is named after the Stoa Poecile (painted porch), where it was first taught. Founded by Zeno of Citiam it was divided into three parts, namely logic, physics and ethics. After Zeno, Cleanthenes became head of the school and it seemed as though the philosophy would split into many factions due mainly to its holistic nature.Chrysippus of Solia, a pupil of Cleanthenes is generally regarded to have saved Stoicism by creating a formulation which was accepted as the general standard. That is not

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to say that Stoics did not disagree, but there were generally agreed principles.

In relation to the question of this paper the Stoics held complicated beliefs that at first seem contradictory. They believed in exceptionless laws of fate in which everything happened according to providence, at the same time as being 'combatibilists', in which human action is morally responsible.Also, the Stoics held the view that virtue was sufficient for happiness and that nothing except virtue was good. These beliefs in themselves are not enough in themselves to be compatible with a slave society, but it will be shown that those concerning fate and virtue were the tools the Stoics used to not be at odds with slavery. Little is known about the effect of Stoicism on the early Hellenistic world that it was created in.

It was not until Diogenes of Babylon (240-152 BC), Panaetius from Rhodes (185-109 BC) and Posidonius (135-51 BC) that evidence becomes significant.This period is called the 'Middle Stoa' and is significant for being a time when Stoicism changed to make itself more accessible to educated Romans. The 'Late Stoa' was marked by a period where the there was a move away from philosophical argument, and a move towards presenting Stoicism as a moral way of life. This can be seen in the letters and essays of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the essays of Musonius Rufus, the reported lectures of Epictetus and the meditations of Marcus Aurelius.Despite changes in Stoicism to suit the Roman world, from philosophical to moralising concerns, Stoicism maintained its essential principles.

The Roman Empire like the Athenian polis is termed a slave society, being a society in which

slaves were part of its intrinsic makeup. Bradley makes the point that 'Slavery was not ignored'. 1 From a modern perspective it is surprising how often slaves are discussed by the Stoics. We have work that discusses slaves from most of the major figures in Stoicism during the Roman period. This is primarily due to two factors.Firstly we can see in the work of the Stoic writer Aulus Geliius2 that it was not uncommon for slaves to become philosophers.

He points out that Phaedon of Elis, Menippus. Pompylus, Peraeus, Mys, Diogenes the Cynic and Epictetus were all slaves. This link, less common in other facets or the Roman world must have made slavery a topic often discussed, and therefore a topic for philosophical discourse. Secondly, and more importantly, discussion on slaves was a useful philosophical tool to illustrate that a free man according to classical standards could be a slave unless he seeks virtue.Apart from the slaves who managed to become philosophers, Stoicism like all philosophy was the pursuit of the upper classes.

This was primarily due to time money and tradition in the classical world. Before the beliefs on slavery that the Stoics held are to be considered the position in society that the major Stoics held needs to be established, because Stoics could not have been effective critics of slavery if they did not hold positions of power to influence and implement opinions and laws.Panaetius of Rhodes (185-109 BC) was of noble birth, he moved to Rome in 140's and like Polybius he was part of the entourage of Paullus Carnelius Scipio Aemilianus, who reached the position of consul and censor. In this

role Panaetius would have been in a position of power. So too would Posidonius (135-51 BC) from Apamea who settled in Rhodes where he set up a Stoic school that became the very best. This attracted many powerful Romans including Pompey and Caesar.

One of our best sources for the Stoic 'humanitarian' views on slavery was Lucius Annaeus Seneca from Cordoba.Undoubtedly, one of the most powerful Stoics and people in the Roman world, he was born into a wealthy family of Italian stock. In AD 54 he was given power through the accession of the emperor Nero, and with this went from being Nero's tutor to that of political advisor and minister. The historian Cassius Dio paints a picture of Seneca initiating legislation and reform, but it seems that this is an over-exaggeration of his role.

However, for most of his time with Nero, Seneca was amicus princeps, and as Griffen concludes on the issue of his position, 'Seneca's power was ill-defined but real'. Epictetus (mid 1st century-2nd century AD) from Hierapolis in Phrygia set up a Stoic school in Nicopolis in Epirus that attracted and had the potential to influence many upper class Romans, including the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Although often described as a Stoic, Marcus Aurelius (emperor AD 161-180) was eclectic in his philosophical beliefs. His 'Meditations' illustrate his interest in Platonism and Epicureanism, though Stoicism was central to his way of thinking.

It can be taken for granted that an emperor would have been in a position to effect change.These examples make it clear, especially in the cases of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius that the Stoics were in positions of political power.

Roman law was decided by the emperor and by senators who were the only class capable of becoming magistrates. Stoics held these positions and so there is no doubt that if the Stoics objected to the institution of slavery or the treatment of slaves, that they had the power to change it.

However, laws protecting slaves are rare and cannot be traced to any Stoics or the influence of Stoics.In fact, it can be argued that the laws that were introduced on slavery do not show humanitarianism but as Bradley states, 'Roman legislation although showing an interest in the public regulation of slavery, was primarily driven by the aim of perpetuating the slavery system as it was and did little to effect permanent improvement'. 4 This is apparent if the 'Institutes' of Gaius, 'Codex 7' and 'Digest 47' are considered. All are concerned with the regulation of practical aspects of law on slavery, rather than improving the live of slaves.The Stoics did not effect changes for the benefit of slaves, but before they are accused of hypocrisy an analysis of what they did believe is essential.

The most fundamental fact that comes through in all the Stoic thought we have on slavery is that not once is the institution of slavery questioned. In the modern world it is almost unanimously taken for granted that slavery is an inexcusable institution that cannot be defended upon any account. Ever since early eighteenth century philosophers and religious thinkers started questioning slavery, it has become more and more unacceptable to modern thought.In reference to the definitions of 'effective' laid out at the start though, the Stoics at the time

of writing had no desire to stop slavery as an institution.

Although Zeno conceived of a utopian state that lived in peace, equality and without private property (therefore without slaves), in the 'Middle' and 'Late Stoa' this ideal had no relevance and was not even considered for hypothetical discussion. For Stoics, slavery was an intrinsic part of life, and as will be shown, an irrelevance to their philosophy.Stoics certainly offered a view of slavery that was more liberal than the contemporary views of the rest of society, and were united by the belief that masters should treat their slaves in a more humane way than they seem to have generally been treated. In Diodorus Siculus' account of the Sicilian slave-rising of 135-132 BC, much of what he wrote was heavily drawn from the Stoic philosopher Posidonius. Crucially, the depraved natures of the rich slave-owners such as Damophilus are blamed for the behaviour of the slaves rather than the slave's innate savagery.Posidonius views illustrate the importance Stoics placed on relationships between slaves and free, which is the general method for most Stoic writing on slaves.

A slave is considered in relation to his or her master and is a tool for illustrating the nature of man and how he should behave. Cicero drew heavily on Stoicism as well as other philosophies. In 'On Duties' Cicero shows sympathy towards the plight of slaves, by stating that, 'the most inferior status and fate is that of slaves. '5 His solution to this was not the abolition of slavery, but that 'we must insist that they do their work, but grant them what is just.

6 Once again Stoic

thought is focussed upon the behaviour of the master and how he should behave to live in a humane way, rather than addressing the slave or the issue of slavery. The humanity of the slave is not the issue. The way that Stoics were able to reject the Aristotelian belief in 'natural slavery' and yet live in a slave society was through the philosophical concept of the body and soul being separate parts, which allowed for the possibility of freedom of the soul despite slavery of the body.Along these lines the Stoic and Cynic Dio Chrysostom (AD 40/50- after AD 110) when writing on slavery and freedom makes the observation that sons are slaves in that they are fed, beaten and have to follow their fathers wishes. Also he states that 'if a man is well-born in terms of virtue, then he ought to be called noble, even if no one knows who his parents or ancestors were'7 and so 'it is not possible for anyone to be noble without being well-born, or to be well-born without being free. 8 This illustrates that for the Stoic the boundary between free and slave in the conventional sense was irrelevant in terms of mans ability to be noble, well-born and to display virtue.

The Stoic doctrine as stated earlier in this paper, claimed that virtue was sufficient for happiness and that nothing but virtue was good. Thus, for Stoics, the fact that a slave was capable of virtue made slavery irrelevant. Perhaps our best source for the Stoic moralist view on how masters should treat their slaves is from Seneca. 'Letters 47' historically has been misinterpreted by

many scholars who have seen it as a condemnation of slavery.Lines such as 'the man whom you call your slave is born from the same seed, enjoys the same sky, breathes like you dies like you'9 and 'treat those whose status is inferior to your own in the same manner as you would wish your own superior to treat you'10 have been seen as criticisms of slavery.

It is obvious how on face value these observations though not condemning slavery as an institution, certainly make a strong case for treating slaves in a humane way. But other parts of 'Letters 47' give the true interest of Seneca. Show me who isn't a slave: some are to sex, others to money, some to social prestige, all are slaves to hope and fear. '11 This passage illustrates the lack of empathy to the plight of slaves. By comparing slavery in the literal sense to the superficial urges and wants of free men, Seneca and other Stoics by-pass the whole issue of slavery and the cruelty that slaves endured.

Thus, by claiming all men to be slaves except the most enlightened, the divide was not between free and slave but between enlightened and unenlightened, with the unenlightened being by definition a slave.So a slave in Stoic thought was capable of being free, because virtue was all that was needed for happiness and 'virtues door is barred to no man. '12 Seneca's 'On Benefits' is an example of how a master can be benefited by a slave. It is a good illustration of most of the traits common to Stoic thought on the subject of slavery. It primarily accepts

the aspects of chance, fate, and providence in putting slaves in their position.

It then questions the suitability of splitting society into free and slaves, which in turn lead to the way masters treat their slaves.Finally, it suggests that through behaving virtuously, even slaves can escape physical slavery, through the freedom of the mind. It has been illustrated that the abolition of slavery was not what was being suggested by the Stoics, but they were certainly trying to encourage masters to treat their slaves with greater humanity. Crucially though, this humanity was not for the physical welfare of the slaves but for the moral welfare of the master. Stoics were in a position to implement and encourage laws for the protection of slaves, but chose not to.

It seems absurd (as has been argued by scholars in the past) that Stoics were intending to convince readers to treat slaves better for humanitarian reasons, when they undoubtedly had enough power to implement and encourage law for their protection. 'Neither the material life of Graeco-Roman societies nor even their civilization at its most exquisite could be conceived of without the existence of this forced labour. '13 Bloch here highlights how intrinsically natural slavery seems to us in the Graeco-Roman world. It must have seemed the same at the time. Stoicism existed in a world endemic with slavery.It was created in one slave society, namely Athens, and flourished in another, Rome.

Slavery was thus part of the very fabric of Roman society, and the Stoic solution to the potential conflict with their principles was to emphasize the fact that a slave need not be a slave in terms of

his mind. With this simple concept the slave's actual welfare was not regarded as relevant. In contrast to the Christians, Stoic doctrine was aimed solely at the upper strata of Roman society, so as has been shown, it is not surprising that the qualities of the master were what were important.The criticisms of stoics were not towards slavery but towards the lack of virtue in the masters which should be displayed through good action towards slaves. According to Karsten Friis Johansen, 'in principle a Stoic advocates the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women etc. But he must live in the society in which he is placed, and there he must try to realize the ideal as circumstances permit.

'14 Although there are traces of these 'principles' in the work of Zeno, in reality Stoicism was not suppressing any underlying humanitarian wishes as is suggested by Johansen, but was in fact not concerned with the physical abuse of slaves.The Stoic was simply concerned with the betterment of the readers of his work and one of the tools for this was through the master's relationship with his slaves. One view of this method could see the Stoics using the slaves as a tool for their writings in a way comparable to how Aristotle condones the actual use of slaves as a literal tool, and so the Stoic not only failed to effect slavery but also took advantage of the position of a slave to make a philosophical point.In contrast, another view stated here by Vogt is that 'although these precepts failed to effect slavery, over the centuries, they were able to mitigate the harshness.

'15 It

has been shown that the first view of the effects of Stoic philosophy is backed up by more evidence. Vogt uses no substantial evidence to back up his view, and so historians (most notably Bradley) have shown the basis for his conclusions weak. This paper started with two definitions of the word effective.The first being, 'having a desired effect and the second being, 'having a definite effect'. Stoics it seems achieved their desired effects upon slavery because they did not desire any effects upon slavery. It is due to the lack of these desires that the Stoic writings and actions did not have a definite effect upon slavery.

There is no doubt that the Stoics attempted to and for the most part managed to treat their own slaves in a way that was more humane than other slave owners at the time. But this was not for the slaves benefit.It was just a bi-product of the master trying to attain greater virtue and the amount of slaves affected would have been very small when considered in relation to the size of the slave population. The view that the stoics were critics of slavery is wrong and the view that there were any critics at all at this time, an anachronism. By any standards, ancient and modern, they failed to offer any effective criticism to slavery for the society that they lived in.

Perhaps the only effect that they have had is upon later thinkers, most notably the Renaissance humanists, who misinterpreted Stoic work as criticisms of slavery.

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