1902 Encyclopedia > Slavery > Slavery - Introduction

(Part 1)


Slavery - Introduction

It appears to be true that, in the words of Dunoyer, the economic régime of every society which has recently become sedentary is founded on the slavery of the industrial professions. In the hunter period the savage warrior does not enslave his vanquished enemy, but slays him; the women of a conquered tribe he may, however, carry off and appropriate as wives or as servants, for in this period domestic labour falls almost altogether on their sex. In the pastoral stage slaves will be captured only to be sold, with the exception of a few who may be required for the care of flocks or the small amount of cultivation which is then undertaken. It is in proportion as a sedentary life prevails, and agricultural exploitation is practised on a larger scale, whilst warlike habits continue to exist, that the labour of slaves is increasingly introduced to provide food for the master, and at the same time save him from irksome toil. Of this stage in the social movement slavery seems to have been, as we have said, a universal and inevitable accompaniment.

But wherever theocratic organizations established themselves slavery in the ordinary sense did not become a vital element in the social system. The members of the lowest class were not in a state of individual subjection : the entire caste to which they belonged was collectively subject. It is in the communities in which the military order obtained an ascendency over the sacerdotal, and which were directly organized for war, that slavery (as the word is commonly understood) had its really natural and appropriate place. And, as war performed an indispensable function in human history, our just horror for some aspects of slavery must not prevent us from recognizing that institution as a necessary step in social progress. It is not merely that in its first establishment slavery was an immense advance by substituting for the immolation of captives, often accompanied by cannibalism, their permanent occupation in labour for the benefit of the victor. This advantage, recalled by an old though erroneous [Footnote 129-1] etymology, is generally acknowledged. But it is not so well understood that slavery discharged important offices in the later social evolution—first, by enabling military action to prevail with the degree of intensity and continuity requisite for the system of incorporation by conquest which was its final destination; and, secondly, by forcing the captives, who with their descendants came to form the majority of the population in the conquering community, to an industrial life, in spite of the antipathy to regular and sustained labour which is deeply rooted in human nature, especially in the earlier stages of the social movement, when insouciance is so common a trait, and irresponsibility is hailed as a welcome relief. With respect to the latter consideration, it is enough to say that nowhere has productive industry developed itself in the form of voluntary effort ; in every country of which we have any knowledge it was imposed by the strong upon the weak, and was wrought into the habits of the people only by the stern discipline of constraint. From the former point of view the freeman, then essentially a warrior, and the slave were mutual auxiliaries, simultaneously exercising different and complementary functions—each necessary to the maintenance and furthering the activity of the other, and thus co-operating, without competition or conflict, towards a common public end. In modern slavery, on the other hand, where the occupations of both parties were industrial, the existence of a servile class, instead of rendering the citizens disposable for social service in a different field, only guaranteed for some of them the possibility of self-indulgent ease, whilst it imposed on others the necessity of indigent idleness.

It was in the Roman state that military action—in Greece often purposeless and, except in the resistance to Persia, on the whole fruitless—worked out the social mission which formed its true justification. Hence at Rome slavery also most properly found its place, so long as that mission was in progress of accomplishment. As soon as the march of conquest had reached its natural limit, slavery began to be modified; and when the empire was divided into the several states which had grown up under it, and the system of defence characteristic of the Middle Ages was substituted for the aggressive system of antiquity, slavery gradually disappeared, and was replaced by serfdom, which again, with the rise of modern industrial life, gave way to personal freedom.

We have so far dealt with the political results of ancient slavery, and have found it to have been in certain respects not only useful but indispensable. When we consider its moral effects, whilst endeavouring to the utmost to avoid exaggeration, we must yet pronounce its influence to have been profoundly detrimental. In its action on the slave it marred in a great measure the happy effects of habitual industry by preventing the development of the sense of human dignity which lies at the foundation of morals, whilst the culture of his ideas and sentiments was in most cases entirely neglected, and the spontaneous education arising from the normal family relations was too often altogether denied him. On the morality of the masters—whether personal, domestic, or social—the effects of the institution were disastrous. The habit of absolute rule, always dangerous to our nature, was peculiarly corrupting when it penetrated every department of daily life, and when no external interference checked individual caprice in its action on the feelings and fortunes of inferiors. It tended to destroythe power of self-command, and exposed the master to the baneful influences of flattery. As regards domestic morality, the system offered constant facilities for libertinism, and tended to subvert domestic peace by compromising the just dignity and ruining the happiness of the wife. The sons of the family were familiarized with vice, and the general tone of feeling of the younger generation was lowered by their intimate association with a despised and degraded class. On social morality, properly so called, the habits of cruelty, or at least of harshness, engendered by the relation, had a powerful reaction. Hume observes on "the little humanity commonly observed in persons accustomed from their infancy to exercise so great authority over their fellow-creatures and to trample upon human nature. . . . Nor," he adds, "can a more probable reason be assigned for the severe, I might say, barbarous manners of ancient times than the practice of domestic slavery, by which every man of rank was rendered a petty tyrant, and educated amidst the flattery, submission, and low debasement of his slaves." These deplorable results were, of course, not universally produced; there were admirable exceptions both amongst masters and amongst slaves—instances of benevolent protection on the one side and of unselfish devotion on the other, which did honour to human nature; but the evil effects without doubt greatly preponderated.


129-1 Servus is not cognate with servare, as has often been supposed; it is really related to the Homeric eireros [Gk.] and the verb eiro [Gk.], with which the Latin sero is to be connected. It may be here mentioned that slave was originally a national name; it meant a man of Slavonic race captured and made a bondman to the Germans. "From the Euxine to the Adriatic, in the state of captives or subjects, . . . they [the Slavonians] overspread the land, and the national appellation of the Slaves has been degraded by chance or malice from the signification of glory to that of servitude" (Gibbon, Decline and Fall, ch. lv.). The historian alludes to the derivation of the national name from slava, glory. See Skeat’s Etym. Dict., s.v.; see also SLAVS.

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