Q1: Is a master the same as an owner?
a. Classical usage. In the ancient world, Latin servus and Greek δούλος were labels that applied equally to slaves and to servants — or rather, that did not follow any particular distinction along these lines. Many centuries later, Thomas Hobbes maintained (in De Cive) that there was a distinction between servi and ergastuli. The latter were kept locked in a pen, where they would labor while bound by chains; the servus went about his master’s business without any physical constraints. The contrast shows that in the latter cases the master (dominus) sees no need for chains, because the slave has successfully conveyed his submission . Or so Hobbes claims. Hobbes’ argument makes good use of this conceptual distinction, but treat it lightly as history. (Even the word itself appears to be an uncommon way to describe the inhabitants of a slave pen.)
b. Variety among slaves. There was distinction between slaves of higher and lower status. Some slaves grew up in their masters’ households, and were cherished by them. One of Martial’s finest epigrams mourns the death of a young girl he owned. The word famulus for a slave living in the master’s household eventually gave us our word family. Only quite recently did the bourgeoisie start to confuse family with kin. (And yes, these bourgeois then had the effrontery to mock servants who still spoke of themselves as belonging to an aristocratic family, until finally the meaning “inhabitants of the same household” was extinguished.) Roman legions returned from Greece with enslaved scholars who were put to work as respected teachers and guardians. The “clever slave” was a stock figure of Roman comedy; while the master owned the slave, the slave managed the master, and found ways make things turn out rather well for himself. I have no idea when European legal codes began to introduce an absolute opposition between a slave and a servant. Servant was still an English word for a chattel slave into the eighteenth century. Certainly the conditions of domestic service and indentured labor in the eighteenth century would be judged slavery by the standards of 2017.
Q2: Is a lord the same as a master?
c. Political dominion. I suspect the conceptual roots of the distinction were planted in the Middle Ages. In the ancient world, free citizens were subject to the law of their city, and slaves were controlled by their masters. There was a single layer of possible dominus-servus relationships: any slaves could be sold by any master to any master, like any other commodity. Later on, as the vestigial machinery of the Roman Republic ground to a halt and absolute power was concentrated in the hands of the imperator, obedience to the law meant obedience to the absolute ruler who dictated the law. In the end, dominus even took the place of the earlier imperial title princeps. The Roman citizen was now a slave.
d. Feudal subordination. After the fall of the Roman Empire in Western Europe, various feudal systems replaced it with elements borrowed from Roman military organization, Roman law proper, and the new rulers’ own German traditions. The building block of the feudal order was the lord-vassal relationship. The vassal would pledge allegiance to the lord, who in turn granted the vassal conditional use/control of some part of his domain. This lord was likely a vassal as well: even dukes were vassals to kings, and kings to emperors. But whatever the exact status of a lord and his vassal in the many-tiered feudal hierarchy, their relationship relative to one another was master and servant, as reflected in juridical titles like dominus feudi in Germany and dominus ligius in France. Each member of the nobility was himself both master to his vassals and servant to his liege-lord.
e. Chivalry. Social classes see the world such that their own special virtues shine especially bright. The perspective of a ruling class not only presents ruling-class virtues (and even vices) in an attractive light, but positively glorifies them – and moreover saddles the ruled with this glorification of the rulers wherever the hegemony of the ruling class stretches. (For a fuller account of ruling-class perspectives, go here.) Plautus’s audience did not applaud a Clever Slave protagonist for embodying the most perfect and complete slavery, but for the cunning and brio with which he evaded the crushing weight of servitude. Once each member of the ruling class embodied both dominus and servus, the virtues of those who serve their masters most excellently got a second chance. The organizing principle of chivalry was service. At different periods this was a duty owed to one’s lord, to one’s lady-love, to God, or to the defenseless: but always arduous tasks, valiantly pursued, in the service of those to whom the chevalier owes his loyalty. — The medievals judged that the best education for a young warrior was a period serving another of his rank as a squire, caring for his personal needs, helping him prepare for battle: generally, learning to serve? Even the squire’s sister might get the same sort of training, as a lady-in-waiting for a noblewoman or as a temporary resident of a convent.
f. The path to perfection. Christian religious orders had embraced service as a path to perfection long before feudalism, even before Diocletian first accepted the title of Dominus. In the third century St. Cyprian writes that “the whole foundation of religion and faith proceeds from obedience and fear” [pdf]; by the sixth, St. Benedict had prescribed absolute obedience, “without hesitation, delay, lukewarmness, grumbling, or objection,” to the monks following his Rule. The First Estate was every bit as committed to the glorification of service as the Second Estate, and the Bishop of Rome signed his decrees servus servorum Dei — servant of the servants of God.
g. Servus servorum Dei could be translated as “slave of the slaves of God”. That translation carries a different connotation in English, and there is a reason why it is not the standard translation of the papal epithet. “Servant” leaves room for one who serves with both humility and dignity. Medieval ideology opened up space for a semantic contrast between servus in the ideal sense, and servus in the pejorative sense. The West has been inventing words to illustrate the contrast ever since.
Q3: Are slaves an endangered species?
h. Fair Game. In small communities, struggles between any two men can usually be resolved or contained by the intervention of the crowd of mutual acquaintances who have direct ties to both parties. But because some semblance of order and equilibrium can be maintained without any hard-and-fast rules, in any disputes where there aren’t neighbors to intervene, or all the neighbors have much more respect for one party, there are no hard-and-fast rules governing the resolution the stronger party can force the weaker to accept. The stronger can force the weaker off valuable land, “borrow” from the weaker’s stored food, steal his chickens, his cows… or even members of his household. And of course, the stronger may arrogate the right to give orders to the defeated party and his kin, and generally humiliate them, without going to the trouble of actually abducting them and incorporating them into a different household. The thick social ties between disputants in small communities guarantee that the mutual acquaintances will be able to press for some resolution to a dispute: but the resolutions they push for might put the least-respected members of a community entirely at the mercy of the most-respected.
i. Hunting Season. As communities become larger and denser, the possibility for any two people to have a dispute rises, but the likelihood that social networks of the disputants mostly overlap falls. A community where automatic mediation by a crowd of mutual acquaintances is unworkable can only maintain the peace if any two disputants can appeal to a neutral third party to mediate between them and arbitrate the dispute. Further, if each party appeals to a different arbitrator (or some other dispute over the arbitration process arises) there must be some neutral third party to whom arbitrators can appeal, to arbitrate arbitration disputes. By induction, a large, dense population needs one central authority who has final say on the resolution of disputes, if disputes are to be resolved at all. (The classic case for this is made by Thomas Hobbes, whose works should be read backwards and forwards, but it is also the insight of reactionary formalism.) This ultimate arbitrator also becomes a legislator to the extent his judgments (or his advance statements about how he plans to judge) set precedents and build expectations about what kinds of behavior he will accept, and what makes him angry. For example, he might say “No stealing chickens during the full moon”; “No stealing chickens, ever”; or “No stealing, period”. If a rule against theft extends to abducting human beings, it amounts to a ban on enslavement. To the extent that a ruler does not personally know (or love) those he judges, fine-grained decisions permitting those with power and higher status to prey on lower-status neighbors will have to be abandoned in favor of general rules which apply to broader categories of his subjects.
j. Federation. Instituting an absolute ruler takes care of disputes between members of the community he rules, but disputes between members of different communities are still possible; foreigners’ goods and families are still fair game. But the logic of interaction-density that drives formalist conclusions applies at multiple levels of population structure. As several nearby settlements grow to form a town, or several nearby towns grow to form a city, they go through cycles of increasing integration and increasingly acrimonious disputes between subjects of different rulers, creating tensions that culminate in the reestablishment of central authority at a higher level. — As interactions grow, cycles of retaliatory raids between communities pose a challenge, so each ruler asserts the right to regulate (and even personally direct) when and how his group preys on others. Certain kinds of attacks which lead to swift and certain retaliation for no gain may be banned: not on account of injustice, but on account of fruitlessness. Certain kinds of disagreements may be bundled together and resolved as a class-action in bilateral negotiations between rulers. The ruler may forbid private raids, forcing all would-be raiders to wait until he thinks the time is right to lead his subjects in a coordinated attack; or he may rule out future attacks on a certain neighbor entirely, finding them more useful as an ally against a third community.
k. As more and more limits are imposed on interactions between neighboring groups, opportunities to enslave their members dwindle. When two groups are so interconnected that they are usually allied against common enemies rather than at war with each other, slave-raids targeting the other group will be judged by the same rule as slave-raids inside one’s own group. Obviously this is not to say that the process of growth from a town to a city, to something larger still, should theoretically end slavery within the coalescing polity; historically, it did not end slavery. Even if you extend equal treatment to an ally, they may still be vulnerable to enslavement… if you still permit enslavement within your own group. Central authority requires general rules to operate efficiently, but it does not need “No enslaving anyone, ever” (nor any other particular general rule); it only rules out deciding whether A can enslave B on a case-by-case basis, depending on how the ruler feels about A and B. And even where enslavement is prohibited, slavery can continue, if there are already slaves whose children inherit their condition.
l. Servile castes. Even if such situations (classes subject to enslavement, hereditary servile castes) are legally possible, they may not be stable. Masters are fond of pretty slaves, for one thing. This blurs any distinct traits the servile caste originally had, prevents it from acquiring any new ones, and in many historical cases left the free men entirely unable to tell who was a slave and who wasn’t. (The characters in the Republic say something to this effect about the once-distinctive red hair of Thracian slaves, I believe.) Masters also know their slaves well, which breeds familiarity, even love (particularly when the slave bears some resemblance to his master). If masters care more about their familia than about neighbors or distant kinsman, if the slaves they’ve raised have adopted their habits, if they (the masters) have themselves been raised by slaves and among slaves and adopted servile habits: all this leads to a culture where it is quite difficult to tell the difference between the castes. To the extent people cannot tell the difference between masters and slaves, they cannot easily follow and will tend to ignore rules which instruct them to treat members of the two castes differently. This process of miscegenation (cultural and biological) is exacerbated by the simple fact that the servile caste usually only expands where it is treated well (the conditions for miscegenation). Where it is treated severely, it may die out.
Q4: What’s so bad about slavery, anyway?
m. Being a slave isn’t as good as being a master. A slave obeys his master for the latter’s benefit, so unless the master is a masochist he will try to ensure that he is better-off than his slave. There have been hugely successful and fabulously wealthy slaves; but every one of them served a master with even more wealth and power. A free man in the lower rungs of society may volunteer to become an emperor’s enslaved emissary, but in general a randomly chosen master wouldn’t want to swap places with a randomly chosen slave. This would still be true even if all the slaves were better off than they would have been without a system of slavery, and even if no individual slave wants his master to free him.
n. As a rhetorical figure slavery packs a potent punch. Free men are glad they aren’t slaves. A warning that a certain choice (a risky gamble, for example) might lead to enslavement is a powerful condemnation of that choice. That goes double for political choices: for example, a terrible military policy would lead to a humiliating defeat, after which the victorious army would be free to enslave the defeated. More broadly, if the stakes of war include the enslavement of the vanquished, the threat of slavery is an instant reminder of the urgent importance of maximizing one’s own power. As a metonym, the enslavement of one polity by another can serve as a shorthand for how the lives of individual citizens will change under foreign domination – even if it is only the polity as a whole whose freedom is at stake, and even if no one would predict any individual citizen will be enslaved. As a metaphor, calling a man a slave or telling him he will soon become one encourages him to see the analogy between his situation and the unenviable estate of a slave. Low status? Haughty, insulting treatment? Not allowed to look after his own interests, or make his own decisions? Overworked? Forbidden to work in a certain profession? Cold, hungry, thirsty? Under pressure to be obsequious at every turn? The many historical systems of slavery, and endless variation in the treatment of individual slaves within each system, give a skilled rhetorician ample material to work with. And lurking behind all the different misfortunes slaves can suffer is a more fundamental analogy: whatever conflict you face, it would be easier to solve if you had more power over your rivals, and your rivals less power over you.
o. The audience for any piece of persuasive argument affects its tone and its tactics. Remember, free men are glad they aren’t slaves, and telling them something is (like) being enslaved or leads to one’s enslavement encourages them to avoid it. But just because a man avoids slavery for himself doesn’t mean he is opposed to either slavery in general or to owning slaves himself. Owning slaves has obvious advantages for the master, and it is quite rare that enjoying these advantages carries a stigma. Warning a man that a certain path would lead him into slavery is a way to condemn it; but equally, predicting he will acquire the obedient services of strangers is an argument pro whichever choice leads to that outcome. Perhaps the joys of abducting new slaves not as rich a trope as the misery of being a slave, and so does not lend itself to as many rhetorical extensions. Even so, imagine trying to tell Diocletian that such-and-such a policy was bad, because if he pursued it he would be treating the citizens of Rome as though they were his servi. Diocletian, remember, is the emperor who dropped the title princeps in favor of dominus! If you were trying to convince his subjects that Diocletian’s policy would hurt them, slavery metaphors have a certain potential; but no matter what you convince them it wouldn’t reverse the policy, because Diocletian does not have to win re-election, and only cares about public opinion enough to have you tortured for sedition.
p. Elections put political influence in a wider set of hands, giving political rhetoric a different audience. Suddenly elaborate metaphors in which some platform or party reduces a large part of the population to slavery are effective (because appropriate to the audience). Delivery matters too – an unpopular argument can work in a tête-à-tête behind locked doors, but if you are adressing the Athenian Ecclesia or having a pamphlet printed for distribution on street corners, you will want to make address the broadest possible audience. “If you were enslaved, that would be bad” is always interesting to the addressee, but where there are frequent elections “If all of our people were enslaved…” and “If any of our people were enslaved…” are equally compelling yet vastly more powerful (because they address the entire electorate at once). They are so powerful and so popular, in fact, that they become cliché; their roots grow so deep into the soil of political discussion that these figures of speech can even serve as the basis for another layer of metaphor on top of the first. Instead of saying “You have heard what policy my opponent proposes; this policy would reduce us all to slavery; so we must reject it,” one can substitute “You have heard what policy my opponent proposes; his aim is to make himself our master; so we must reject it.” If a certain path leads to symbolic servitude, then those who propose, argue for, or benefit from taking that path can be recruited as the symbolic slaveowners.
q. At first, whatever could put a man in a position similar to a slave’s was bad; being a slave is bad. Then, any way the electorate could be end up vulnerable to slavery was bad; large numbers of people being slaves, the systematic presence of slaves, is bad. Finally, any means by which someone seeks to make himself the master of the electorate is bad; being a master is evil. — Note that in this metastasis of the political rhetoric of slavery and freedom, the rationale for the rhetoric is always pointing back to an earlier figure of speech. Only in the initial stage does the implicit rationale for avoiding metaphorical slavery (that being a “slave” is bad) correspond to anything that is true about slavery-the-social-institution.
r. Politicians are accused of being slimy, but they are only working with the tools they have. A politician can only speak to his voters in the language they speak, and the language they speak is always filled with lies (in the extra-moral sense). If he says “Our king is evil because he is a slavemaster,” he can at most be held responsible if the masses grasp his insinuation, rebel against their ordained sovereign, and emancipate themselves (sic) from the slavery (sic) of monarchy. If the mob were to take him at his word, accept that masters are evil, and attack the institution of slavery, is this the politician’s fault? Would we blame him for failing to foresee the rabble he was attempting to incite would listen attentively to his words, ponder his meaning, explicate his logic, and faithfully follow out his premises to their ultimate conclusion?
Yet I confess that if it just so happened that this regicide politician were himself an investor in plantations and an owner of slaves, and his own mob lynched him for it, I might feel a certain sort of innocent delight. And if this politician were a master of tenant farmers or of industrial laborers, and his students did their teacher one better and hanged him from a lamppost or dumped his headless body in a gutter for his crimes, would it be callous to conclude that God’s taste in jokes runs towards the sublime? Hobbes will provide the punchline to this particular joke: God punishes “pride, with ruin; cowardice, with oppression; negligent government of princes, with rebellion; and rebellion, with slaughter.”