Did the Stoics regard slavery as natural?

by Dr. Jan Garrett

last modified: July 16, 2006

(To avoid disputes arising from interpretation of the fragments of the earliest Stoics, let's limit this discussion to the Stoics after Chrysippus, especially the Roman-era Stoics.)

Did the Stoics regard slavery as something natural? Well, of course not, some will say. After all, the Stoics were not Aristotelians, and it is Aristotle who is famous for his doctrine that some human beings are slaves by nature. (This is in book 1 of Aristotle's Politics if you want to look it up.) The Stoics, they will say, were aware that all human beings shared the same human nature, which is tied to their rationality, which they have received from the Divine Reason, or Zeus, himself.

But this may not be the whole story. The idea that slavery is natural may have come into Stoicism from another direction. Let's see how this may have happened. (In what follows, I am relying on a very interesting article by Brent D. Shaw, "The Divine Economy: Stoicism as Ideology," which appeared in Latomus, 1985, v. 44, pp.16-54. I had to order this article through Interlibrary Loan at my university library; the journal may not be in your local library.)

An important fact about Stoicism is its rejection of the sort of political identification that would have been familiar to Plato or Aristotle. "Never," writes Epictetus, "say, 'I am Athenian' or 'I am Corinthian,' but rather 'I am of the whole world' (kosmios, more literally "cosmic"). For why do you call yourself an Athenian instead of saying merely that it was that corner into which your paltry body was cast at birth? Anyone who has contemplated the divine economy (dioikesis tou kosmou) and who has learnt that the greatest, most authoritative, and most comprehensive of all things is the system of man and god . . . . why should not such a man call himself 'cosmic'?"

As Shaw explains, Epictetus' point is that men are by nature social beings; society is the natural element in which man lives. "Social" here is koinonios, related to koinonia, community or society, not politikos, which is related to polis or city-state. It was Aristotle, not the Stoics, who said that man is by nature a political animal.

Epictetus claims that every person has a 'cosmic' vocation, namely that of being a human, but this vocation is composed of a set of more specific vocations: citizen of the world, an active part of the world, one who can comprehend the divine economy (diokesis theia), citizenship in a state, one who shares given genetic roles (e.g., son, brother) and given social roles (e.g., town councilor, soldier).

Shaw writes, "The acceptance of the whole of the universe as a comprehensible object whose regular function was knowable led, almost inevitably, to the conclusion that one must or should attempt to gain knowledge of the rules and act accordingly. That meant finding out exactly where one was located in the nature of things and behaving according to that place in Nature. Hence one of the appeals of Stoic ideology was that it had a very strong element of social definition and role-playing built into it. Each person had a definite place in the cosmic order and had a role to play, whether as slave, father, husband, or councillor, and also had specific duties attached to that role....

"With the Stoics the ultimate frame of referene for individual men was not the polis or any of its moral or politics ideas but rather the universe--Nature itself . . . It is the man who plays his role well in order that the whole human drama might function well who is adjudged the morally good man. . . . The traditional idea of values and good behavior, once restricted to a narrow elite of the city, now became generalized as a good [perhaps he should have said appropriate selection--JG] for everyone. One is surprised to see in the list of roles which E. festoons with appropriate duties not only rulers, magistrates, citizens, generals, and soldiers, but also very general social roles like father, son, mother, brother, old, young, friend, and finally even those of teacher, slave, cripple, and beggar."

The surprise, here, is that of a modern person. As Shaw explains (p. 35), "many aspects of life we might consider to be in flux or change, the Stoics thought of as fixed. If one is poor, Epictetus says, then one simply cannot endow the local town with fine buildings or hold public office. This is not just an empirical observation . . . it is also a prescriptive statement. Epictetus accepts that poverty is a set role in society. How then do you know what your role is? Merely reflect on the name of what you are, he says: town councillor, youth, old man, father, king, general, brother, son, teacher in a list where the genetically given is mixed with the social datum."

I think it fair to say that what we have in the last two sentences just quoted is Epictetus' short answer to the question: How do I follow nature? Ask yourself how your social role is labeled and then ask what appropriate actions are associated with that role. There is no place here for a critical evaluation of the institutions that allocate social roles. Those institutions are part of the divine "economy"; for practical purposes there is little if any distinction between the order of nature and the order of society.

Because some of us think there is a place for critical evaluation of the institutions that allocate social roles, we cannot be Stoics in the same way the ancients like Epictetus were Stoics--if we can be Stoics at all.