Seneca to Lucilius: 47, on slaves and human beings

Figs In Winter
Nov 13 · 4 min read
A Roman trireme carrying slaves, Are Pacis Museum, Rome, photo by the Author

“They are slaves.”

No, they are human beings.

“They are slaves.”

No, they are housemates.

“They are slaves.”

No, they are lowborn friends.

“They are slaves.”

Fellow slaves, rather, if you keep in mind that fortune has its way with you just as much as with them.

(Letters, XLVII.1)

This is the stunning beginning of Seneca’s 47th letter to his friend Lucilius. It’s an exceedingly uncommon talk for an ancient Roman patrician, especially because the Romans still reeled from the famous revolt by the gladiator-slave Spartacus, which took place just over a century before Seneca’s writing.

Then again, the Stoics were famous for challenging common conceptions, and the founder of the school, Zeno of Citium, had declared slavery an evil in his Republic. Seneca here is not mounting a concerted attack on the institution itself, but rather focusing on what the fact that someone is a slave tells us about them. And his answer is: not much. What you call slaves, he says, are human beings like you, housemates, lowborn friends.

Moreover, he adds at the end of his list, they are fellow slaves as soon as we understand that slavery is not just a physical condition imposed upon others, it is — more fundamentally — a mental state that we impose on ourselves. He then elaborates, first on actual physical slavery:

“Reflect, if you will: that man whom you call your slave was born of the same seeds as you — enjoys the same sky — breathes, lives, dies, just as you do. It is possible that you will see him a free man, and equally possible that he will see you enslaved. … The fortunes of those you despise may come upon you at any time.” (Letters XLVII.10)

Nowadays we tend to think of slavery in the way the Western colonial nations of the past few centuries did, informed by so-called “scientific racism,” a pernicious pseudoscience that alleged scientific proof that non-whites were somehow inferior sub-humans, and that therefore it was actually rational to treat them as such. The infamous early American so-called “three-fifth” compromise was one of the results of that inane take on slavery. At the 1787 US Constitutional Convention, delegate James Wilson (from Pennsylvania) proposed to count slaves as 3/5 of a person, which gave southern states more electoral votes than if slaves had not be counted at all (and, of course, less than if they had been counted as full human beings). That infamous compromise was repealed with the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, passed in 1868, shortly after the American Civil War.

But in the ancient world slavery was something that could happen to anyone, as Seneca remarks at the end of the previous quote. Romans captured in battle would likely become slaves of foreign people, and the same happened to the many Athenians who fell prisoners after the disastrous expedition to Syracuse during the Peloponnesian War.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that slavery in the ancient world was somehow benign. But the concept was different, which explains Seneca’s forceful reminder of the fact that slaves are human beings like any other, and that being or not being a slave is a matter of happenstance, not under one’s control, and therefore should not be a reason for scorn.

“I will evaluate them not by their jobs but by their character.” (Letters, LXVII.15)

Here Seneca is referring directly to slaves, but the point, of course, applies more broadly. It’s the general Stoic notion that what one does in terms of profession, or what one’s stature in life happens to be, are not a good indications of a person’s worth as a human being. A point that he makes explicitly shortly thereafter:

“Just as one would be foolish to consider buying a horse when one hasn’t inspected the animal itself but only its saddle and bridle, so it is extremely foolish to judge a human being by his clothing and his position in life. For position is only one more garment that surrounds us.” (Letters, LXVII.16)

Seneca then turns to the broader conception of slavery, as a mental condition affecting all of humanity:

“‘He is a slave.’ … Show me who isn’t! One person is a slave to lust, another to greed, a third to ambition — and all are slaves to hope; all are slaves to fear. … No servitude is more shameful than the kind we take on willingly.” (Letters, LXVII.17)

In a sense, then, people who scorn physical slavery are blind fools. They don’t see that they have contempt of a condition that was not under the control of the person in question, and therefore not their moral fault. At the same time, they don’t realize that they themselves are willingly slaves of such passions (meaning negative emotions) as greed, ambition, irrational hope, and fear. For the Stoics, it is the willing slave who is worse off by far.

Figs In Winter

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A site devoted to Stoicism and other practical philosophizing, by Massimo Pigliucci, the City College of New York.

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