51. He is not a slave, it is said; not a master, but free. Oh the terrible insensibility, the pitiable audacity, of them that maintain this! Shall I rather lament in them their ignorance or their blasphemy? They try to insult the doctrines that concern the divine nature 1150 by comparing them with the human, and endeavour to apply to the ineffable nature of God that common custom of human life whereby the difference of degrees is variable, not perceiving that among men no one is a slave by nature. For men are either brought under a yoke of slavery by conquest, as when prisoners are taken in war; or they are enslaved on account of poverty, as the Egyptians were oppressed by Pharaoh; or, by a wise and mysterious dispensation, the worst children are by their fathers order condemned to serve the wiser and the better; 1151 and this any righteous enquirer into the circumstances would declare to be not a sentence of condemnation but a benefit. For it is more profitable that the man who, through lack of intelligence, has no natural principle of rule within himself, should become the chattel of another, to the end that, being guided by the reason of his master, he may be like a chariot with a charioteer, or a boat with a steersman seated at the tiller. For this reason Jacob by his fathers blessing became lord of Esau, 1152 in order that the foolish son, who had not intelligence, his proper guardian, might, even though he wished it not, be benefited by his prudent brother. So Canaan shall be “a servant unto his brethren” 1153 because, since his father Ham was unwise, he was uninstructed in virtue. In this world, then, it is thus that men are made slaves, but they who have escaped poverty or war, or do not require the tutelage of others, are free. It follows that even though one man be called master and another servant, nevertheless, both in view of our mutual equality of rank and as chattels of our Creator, we are all fellow slaves. But in that other world what can you bring out of bondage? For no sooner were they created than bondage was commenced. The heavenly bodies exercise no rule over one another, for they are unmoved by ambition, but all bow down to God, and render to Him alike the awe which is due to Him as Master and the glory which falls to Him as Creator. For “a son honoureth his father and a servant his master,” 1154 and from all God asks one of these two things; for “if I then be a Father where is my honour? and if I be a Master where is my fear?” 1155 Otherwise the life of all men, if it were not under the oversight of a master, would be most pitiable; as is the condition of the apostate powers who, because they stiffen their neck against God Almighty, fling off the reins of their bondage,—not that their natural constitution is different; but the cause is in their disobedient disposition to their Creator. Whom then do you call free? Him who has no King? Him who has neither power to rule another nor willingness to be ruled? Among all existent beings no such nature is to be found. To entertain such a conception of the Spirit is obvious blasphemy. If He is a creature of course He serves with all the rest, for “all things,” it is said “are thy servants,” 1156 but if He is above Creation, then He shares in royalty. 1157
cf. Gen. ix. 25.32:1152 32:1153 32:1154 32:1155 32:1156 32:1157
St. Basils view of slavery is that (a) as regards our relation to God, all created beings are naturally in a condition of subservience to the Creator; (b) as regards our relationship to one another, slavery is not of nature, but of convention and circumstance. How far he is here at variance with the well known account of slavery given by Aristotle in the first book of the Politics will depend upon the interpretation we put upon the word “nature.” “Is there,” asks Aristotle, “any one intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature? There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and fact. For that some should rule, and others be ruled, is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.…Where, then, there is such a difference as that between soul and body, or between men and animals (as in the case of those whose business it is to use their body, and who can do nothing better), the lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them, as for all inferiors, that they should be under the rule of a master.…It is clear, then, that some men are by nature free and others slaves, and that for these latter slavery is both expedient and right.” Politics, Bk. 1, Sec. 5. Here by Nature seems to be meant something like Basils “lack of intelligence,” and of the τὸ κατὰ φύσιν ἄρχον, which makes it “profitable” for one man to be the chattel of another (κτῆμα is livestock, especially mancipium. cf. Shakespeares K. and Pet., “She is my goods, my chattels.” “Chattel” is a doublet of “cattle”). St. Basil and Aristotle are at one as to the advantage to the weak slave of his having a powerful protector; and this, no doubt, is the point of view from which slavery can be best apologized for.
Christianity did indeed do much to better the condition of the slave by asserting his spiritual freedom, but at first it did little more than emphasize the latter philosophy of heathendom, εἰ σῶμα δοῦλον, ἀλλ᾽ ὁ νοῦς ἐλεύθερος (Soph., frag. incert. xxii.), and gave the highest meaning to such thoughts as those expressed in the late Epigram of Damascius (c. 530) on a dead slave:
It is thought less of a slaves servitude to fellow man than of the slavery of bond and free alike to evil. cf. Aug., De Civit. Dei. iv. cap. iii. “Bonus etiamsi serviat liber est: malus autem si regnat servus est: nec est unius hominis, sed quod gravius est tot dominorum quot vitiorum.” Chrysostom even explains St. Pauls non-condemnation of slavery on the ground that its existence, with that of Christian liberty, was a greater moral triumph than its abolition. (In Genes. Serm. v. 1.) Even so late as the sixth century the legislation of Justinian, though protective, supposed no natural liberty. “Expedit enim respublicæ ne quis re suâ utatur male.” Instit. i. viii. quoted by Milman, Lat. Christ. ii. 14. We must not therefore be surprised at not finding in a Father of the fourth century an anticipation of a later development of Christian sentiment. At the same time it was in the age of St. Basil that “the language of the Fathers assumes a bolder tone” (cf. Dict. Christ. Ant. ii. 1905),and “in the correspondence of Gregory Nazianzen we find him referring to a case where a slave had been made bishop over a small community in the desert. The Christian lady to whom he belonged endeavoured to assert her right of ownership, for which she was severely rebuked by St. Basil (cf. Letter CXV.) After St. Basils death she again claimed the slave, whereupon Gregory addressed her a letter of grave remonstrance at her unchristian desire to recall his brother bishop from his sphere of duty. Ep. 79,” id.
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