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  • Social Justice and the Legitimacy of Slavery: The Role of Philosophical Asceticism from Ancient Judaism to Late Antiquity by Ilaria L. E. Ramelli
  • David Konstan
Ilaria L. E. Ramelli. Social Justice and the Legitimacy of Slavery: The Role of Philosophical Asceticism from Ancient Judaism to Late Antiquity. Early Christian Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xvi, 293. $99.00. ISBN 978-0-19-877727-4.

It is distressing to reflect on how few people in classical antiquity contemplated the abolition of slavery, even when they recognized, as many decent and enlightened individuals did, that the human beings they owned as property were no different from themselves. In this learned and wide-ranging book, Ramelli documents with an impeccable mastery of the relevant texts composed in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Syriac the philosophical and theological arguments on slavery from the Bible down through late classical antiquity. Many rejected Aristotle’s claim that some human beings were by nature less than wholly rational and so were best off subject to the mastery of others, yet even so they did not challenge the existence of the institution of slavery itself, although they might entertain doubts about its legitimacy. Ramelli concludes that it was only among ascetics, [End Page 275] whether practicing their self-discipline privately or in communities such as the Therapeutae, that the idea of a life without servitude took on material form. Here, however, the absence of slavery was one aspect of a general renunciation of property and a commitment to humble labor that had no need of servants; Christian men and women even from the nobility might undertake to perform the most menial tasks in imitation of the poverty and self-sufficiency of the apostles, and they regarded their former slaves, when they too adopted the monastic way of life, as their equals in Christ, not in the future aeon predicted by Paul but in the here and now. This might indeed have been fertile ground for the development of a doctrine concerning the universal dignity of mankind and the essential injustice of slavery in any form. Yet the generality of the injunction against excessive wealth (and one could make do with very little), which might even assume the radical form of the condemnation of riches as theft, seems to have displaced attention from the specific issue of slavery as such, objections to which have a basis not only in arguments for economic justice but also in beliefs about the nature of humanity. A tendency to interpret slavery as moral subservience to vice, as found in Stoic and Christian texts, also tended to inhibit opposition to the social institution.

It emerges from Ramelli’s meticulous survey of the sources that only one figure in antiquity appears to have argued against slavery systematically and on these grounds to have recommended the immediate liberation of slaves. This was Gregory of Nyssa, indeed one of the most liberal and fascinating figures in early Christian thought. Gregory, who was the brother of Basil of Caesarea and came from a family of ascetics and saints, maintained that all human beings are free and sovereign by virtue of being an image of God, and that the equality of humans is “a reflection of the equality of the Persons of the Trinity” (218). To these two arguments he added also an eschatological thesis based on his belief in apocatastasis, that is, the return of the world at the end of time to its original, prelapsarian condition, when, as Christians in general held, there was no slavery; apocatastasis is a topic on which Ramelli has written extensively (on one occasion, in collaboration with the present reviewer). Ramelli argues that Gregory’s notion of the telos is not merely speculative or proleptic but “is normative already for the present life, precisely because it represents the fulfilment of God’s will” (218). This is why he could urge his congregation to manumit their slaves then and there. Tying Gregory’s extraordinary recommendation to his flock to his complex theology must remain to some degree uncertain, since he does not explicitly present his attitude to slavery as a function of these premises; but it is a plausible inference...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9234
Print ISSN
0009-8418
Pages
pp. 275-276
Launched on MUSE
2018-02-16
Open Access
No
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