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Would The Actual Slaves Of Greco-roman Antiquity Be Likely To Endorse The Stoic Ideas On Slavery?

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In order to determine if the slaves of Greek and Roman societies would endorse the Stoics views on slavery, we must first examine what place in society Stoics regarded slaves and how they defined one’s freedom. The Stoics primarily taught that one should seek to be unshackled from his passions through the development of self-control to overcome their destructive nature. Only through these means did the Stoics believe that one could achieve true virtue. Furthermore, to curtail these passions, the Stoics advocated in favour of leading a humble life and believed that no one was a slave by nature. In their view a man is free if he is obedient to his rationality and thus bound to the moral law of the universe, logos, and divine will. As the Stoics believed that people received their ability for reason from the gods, and thus they judged that altogether, humans possess equal capacity to achieve great wisdom and not a single human alive was superior to another in terms of their very nature. This contrasts with the views of Aristotle, who believed in natural slavery: that if one belonged to another and not to themselves, they were by nature a slave. Hunt comments that meanwhile the Stoics believed that there is no difference in the status between a master and servants, due to every humans’ place as a citizen of the world, they as such spurned Aristotle’s argument. Diogenes Laertius reports that the Stoics deem freedom being the ability for someone to undertake independent action, whereas slavery is the lack of such choice, and that slavery in terms of masters and the possession of slaves is an evil aspect of life. Brunt notes that to a modern audience the Stoics had the capabilities and direction to have resisted slavery as a social institution, yet he nevertheless elaborates that since slaves were a valuable commodity to the wealth of Greco-Roman societies, such a statement was inherently fruitless, and the Stoics confined themselves to advocating towards slaves being provided with fair treatment.

To further determine how ancient slaves would have possibly reacted to the Stoic teachings, we can study how notable Stoics personally wrote their thoughts on the status of slaves in their world. According to Plutarch, Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school of thought, wrote in his Republic his dream for a world where one viewed everyone as fellow countrymen, conducting a single approach to life and one nature of order, and Seneca later alleges that Zeno, in an effort to practice what he preached, did not own a single slave. This story is somewhat cast in doubt by a passage written by Diogenes, who refers to a time where Zeno owned a slave, and when the slave was caught stealing and proceeded to ask Zeno if he was fated to steal, Zeno affirmed his question and replied that it was also fated for the slave to be punished. The most notable Stoics we can study to achieve this are Epictetus, Seneca, and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Epictetus, a stoic philosopher born a slave, primarily covers in both his Discourses and his Enchiridion, a handbook on Stoic advice, the themes of freedom of slavery, yet the slavery he refers to is to be a slave to one’s desires for unattainable things that are out of one’s hands. By this, Epictetus aims to teach both citizens and slaves alike to be free from vices and passions and find inner tranquillity no matter their position in life. Since Epictetus found peace in his own slavery, he expects others to be able to do the same. Epictetus states that true freedom is only found when one destroys their desires and does not aim to seek them out, and that freedom also occurs when one chooses to live the way they wish live, yet the philosopher does not appreciate the desire some slaves would have for their freedom, and the inability to let go of this desire for a different life, therefore living a life they wish to live.

Seneca the Younger provides his own stance on the issue of slavery in his correspondences with his friend Lucilius, the procurator of Sicily, where the philosopher guides him in the proper Stoic principles concerning masters and slaves. In an earlier epistle Seneca expresses the view that the possession of material wealth, which slaves constitute, will not help humans become the ideal sages that Stoics wish for all humanity. In the letter entitled Masters and Slaves, Seneca, in his opening paragraph, expresses his view in support of the benevolent management of slaves, also congratulating Lucilius on his own casualness amongst his slaves. Seneca’s last point in his opening statement purports that slaves are slaves not through nature, but by unforeseen and unavoidable events of fortune, which citizens and freedmen are just as susceptible.. Due to his insistence on the average Roman being regarded as a ‘fellow-slave’, Hunt comments that this calls forth a certain aspect of Stoic dogma, where the primary issue that should have a bearing to humanity is finding inner peace and exercising honourable behaviour. Everything otherwise can be regarded as an indifferent since it should not affect an individual’s happiness. Seneca notes that due to the inherent institutionalisation of slavery in Rome, masters are ‘excessively haughty, cruel, and insulting’, and the jurist Gaius offers in his Institutes his view on the baseline relationship a master has with their slaves, which echoes Seneca’s previous statement, saying that servants exist beholden to the power of their masters, who possesses the authority to order to death of a slave, or allow them to continue living. Furthermore, Gaius expresses that this bond stands approved by the laws of all nations. Nussbaum writes that Seneca’s letter indicates that he proposing major adjustments to the utilisation of slaves in Roman households, implying that they are to have more say in the organisation of the household, are allowed to sit and eat at their master’s table, and altogether, unwarranted brutality and physical harm is utterly frowned upon, and Seneca notes that slaves will only become hostile towards their masters if the masters provide ample incentive for dissent. Overall, Seneca, although he understands that Stoicism educates us to consider that all humans, including slaves, are our equals and fellow peers, his letter reveals that he lacks the desire to cause a great deal of trouble by questioning the place of institutionalised slavery in society. Seneca himself owned many slaves, and although this letter indicates he himself would treat them with respect, he nonetheless keeps them confined in their servitude.

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Marcus Aurelius’ personal writings to himself, more commonly known as the Meditations, handled the Emperor’s private thoughts on Stoic philosophy and life in face of his great duty to his state, yet his understanding of slavery’s continued existence in Roman society remained clear and with sole political motivation. The Emperor wrote that it is the ‘proper work of a man to be benevolent to his own kind’, and Marcus’ ambition for Rome was for her to become a kingdom fashioned a balanced constitution, with an administration established upon equity and freedom of expression, in addition to an emperor who regards the liberty of his citizens as his utmost priority. Whilst he expresses Stoic ideals by favouring equality and the personal freedoms of every citizen, Marcus differs from earlier Stoics like Zeno and Epictetus by his adherence to a hierarchal society, for he writes that each man is assigned a certain level in society in which he shall remain. Brunt writes that Marcus did not wish to encourage wholescale emancipation, and whilst Marcus Aurelius certainly believed in the fair treatment of slaves, he was ultimately powerless even as the Emperor of Rome to abolish institutionalised slavery successfully and decisively. Hunt elaborates that Rome was ultimately a civilisation manufactured on slavery, and that since Rome’s wealthiest citizens depended economically, politically, and socially on the sale and purchases of human labour, this restrained the changes that any philosopher would be able to encourage. Furthermore, amongst the Stoic school of thought during Roman times, there was a particularly clear direction of conservative thinking. Hunt wrote that the Stoics understood that Mediterranean civilisations and their hierarchies to be infused with logos that they are as such somewhat innocent and natural from a certain viewpoint. As such, Roman Stoics in particular did not seek to change society, however urging each individual to perform their given role virtuously.

If a slave observed their master being influenced by the stoic teachings of Seneca to become kinder and more familiar towards their slaves, and thus the slave was spared unjust punishments, then perhaps slaves would look more fondly towards the Stoics. However, it can be said that if Greco-Roman slaves were looking towards Stoicism and its philosophers to emerge as the leading advocates for their liberation and the abolition of slavery as an institution, they would unfortunately be sorely disappointed. Aristotle wrote in Nicomachean Ethics that exterior possessions remained necessary as a source of virtue, yet the Stoics preached that their view of morality can be experienced by a slave, for it remains a question of following through on what one could deem the appropriate decisions in the situation in which one realises themself, even if your ability to accomplish anything in more quantifiable terms is heavily controlled that leads to true virtue. The Stoics did not aim to initiate a movement against the practice of slavery, instead preferring to teach that the social class of either a slave or a citizen was unrelated to the true state of being and freedom they could achieve in spite of their genuine positions in life. A. A. Long writes that during the peak of ancient Stoicism much of the civilised world’s population unfortunately had to settle for lives in poverty with few opportunities to change this. It should come as no surprise that John Sellars writes that the famed philosopher of German Idealism, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, regards Stoicism as a philosophy which allows its practitioners to enter into a sphere of hypothetical concepts; where the Stoics may envision their view of the perfect world, all the while failing to study and perhaps oppose the distinct realities of slaves in their current societies.

In conclusion, it would seem unlikely that Greco-Roman slaves would likely endorse the school of Stoicism for its views on slavery. As we have seen, the Stoics were familiar with slavery, and yet despite being taught that all men were made equal in the eyes of the gods and the cosmos, few Stoics were determined enough to bring an end to institutionalised slavery. Marcus Aurelius also recognised the status of slaves in his empire, yet if he were to embark on a great campaign of manumission, it could potentially be career suicide and the end of his reign, for so greatly embedded was the aspect of slavery in Rome’s society and economy. Thus, even his hands were tied. Both Epictetus and Seneca aimed to show that for a slave their bondage was merely a façade, and that if one were to find inner peace, they would be far wiser a human than their masters. The Stoics therefore were far more concerned with the susceptibility of humans to the slavery of the passions than the emancipation of the ancient world’s immeasurable slave population. Any slave who interacted with Stoicism would surely express disbelief in their teachings, for how could they, after being forced into a life of servitude, be expected to give up on their hope for a chance of liberation and a better life?


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  11. Modern Scholarship
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  14. Long, A. A., 2006, From Epicurus to Epictetus: Studies in Hellenistic and Roman Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press
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  16. Sellars, J., 2006, Stoicism, Taylor & Francis Group
  17. Sharples, R. W., 1996, Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics: An Introduction to Hellenistic Philosophy, Taylor & Francis Group

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