Saturday, October 15, 2011

Epictetus on the Treatment of Slaves

In my reading of Epictetus' Discourses, I came across this interesting passage regarding treatment of slaves.

[1] WHEN some one asked, how may a man eat acceptably to the gods, he answered: If he can eat justly and contentedly, and with equanimity, and temperately and orderly, will it not be also acceptably to the gods? [2]But when you have asked for warm water and the slave has not heard, or if he did hear has brought only tepid water, or he is not even found to be in the house, then not to be vexed or to burst with passion, is not this acceptable to the gods?—[3]How then shall a man endure such persons as this slave? Slave (Ἀνδράποδον) yourself, will you not bear with your own brother (τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ τοῦ σαυτοῦ), who has Zeus for his progenitor, and is like a son (ὥσπερ υἱὸς) from the same seeds and of the same descent from above? [4]But if you have been put in any such higher place, will you immediately make yourself a tyrant? Will you not remember who you are, and whom you rule? That they are kinsmen, that they are brethren by nature, that they are the offspring of Zeus?(ὅτι συγγενῶν, ὅτι ἀδελφῶν φύσει, ὅτι τοῦ Διὸς ἀπογόνων;) [5]But I have purchased them, and they have not purchased me. Do you see in what direction you are looking, that it is towards the earth, towards the pit, that it is towards these wretched laws of dead men? But towards the laws of the gods you are not looking. (1.13.1-5)

A few things struck me when reading this passage. First, the one who is presumably the slave owner in this dialogue is admonished and called 'slave' himself (1.13.3). Second, the slave owner, who is presumably upset with his slave's sub-par service, is cautioned to be patient with his "own brother" (1.13.3). Third, this slave's importance is based on the fact that he has point of origin with Zeus, his creator, precisely the same as the slave-owner (1.13.3). Fourth, the slave-owner is cautioned concerning his treatment of his slave by reiterating their common origin as "offspring of Zeus" (1.13.4). The slave-owner objects, attempting to reassert his dominance by remarking that he purchased the slave and not the other way around. Epictetus remarks that this is an earthly way to view things, and is not the way of the gods.

One should not be entirely surprised that Epictetus (55-135 CE), a former slave himself, would have these views concerning the treatment of slaves.  However, it seems to me, and this maybe out of ignorance of scholarship done in this area, that Epictetus' views on slavery are almost as revolutionary as his near-contemporary, the Apostle Paul's. For instance, in the household codes of Ephesians 6:9, slave-owners are admonished to "Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality" (NRSV). This seems to have a corollary in the above passage where Epictetus asks the slave-owner rhetorically, "Will you immediately make yourself a tyrant? Will you not remember who you are, and whom you rule?" (1.13.4). This is followed by the reminder that the slave-owner and the slave are both the "offspring of Zeus" (1.13.4). Similarly, Paul reminds the slave-owner that they have "the same Master in heaven" (Eph 6:9; cf. Col 4:1).

Another example that sprung to mind here is Paul's commands concerning changes in social status in 1 Cor 7:21-24. In particular, 7:23 states: "You were bought at a price (τιμῆς ἠγοράσθητε); do not become slaves of human beings." (NIV) In Epictetus, this verse brings to mind the slave-owners objection that "I have purchased them (ὠνὴν αὐτῶν) and they have not purchased me,"(1.13.5) serves to reassert in his mind, the difference between their respective social stations. This objection is put to rest by reminding the slave-owner that he is not looking at things from the perspective of the gods.

I realize much more could be said here, and other passages could be entertained (e.g. Gal 3:28), but if I had to sum up some of the observations above, the obvious and main difference between what Paul and Epictetus are stating above, is that for Paul, his view of slavery (and everything else for that matter!) is reconfigured in light of the cross, i.e. Jesus' salvific work has redefined relationships and social institutions. For Epictetus, the location of Zeus as progenitor and creator of all human beings needs to be kept in the forefront of this relationship between slave-owner and slave.

Let me know what you think! Has this been a topic that has been thoroughly researched already? What more would you like to add, clarify, etc.?


Erlend said...

You will probably want to get hold of Runar Thorsteinsson's 'Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism A Comparative Study of Ancient Morality' or Niko Huttunen's 'Paul and Epictetus on Law: A Comparison.'

Matthew D. Montonini said...


Thanks for the info. Those look like two outstanding resources!

James Jordan said...

There's also a book called Paul and Epictetus on Law but man is it expensive.

James Jordan said...

Oh I see now it was already mentioned in the previous comment. oops.