Political Freedom, Slavery, & Manual Labor In Classical Athens: Part I

Benjamin Constant (1767-1830) was an early proponent of French classical liberalism. Having lived through the French Revolution and therefore having experienced, in his words, the “revolutionary torrent,” he sought out a form of governance that would be harmonious with modern times. 

In 1819, he gave an important speech, “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with That of the Moderns,” in which he argued that 

(i) individual independence is the first need of the moderns; therefore (ii) they should never be asked to make sacrifices in order to establish political liberty. It follows (iii) that none of the numerous and over-praised institutions which hindered individual liberty in the ancient republics is admissible in modern times.

This argument needs to be unpacked. 

It can be inferred that his diagnosis of the French Revolution is that revolutionaries sought–honorably, tragically, yet unwisely–to create a republic that would resemble Classical Athens when such was impossible. This establishment, he suggests, was doomed to fail because the character of the ancients is not like that of the moderns. Where the ancients valued “political liberty” or “positive liberty” because it enabled Greek citizens to engage in “social power” on behalf of the city-state, we moderns stand by negative liberty, the autonomy of the individual, and the rights of individuals. While theirs was a time of bellicosity and political fervor, ours is an age of commerce and the pleasures of private life. Accordingly, we hand off the responsibilities of governance to “stewards” whom we nonetheless are tasked with keeping a close eye on lest they abuse their power or fail to listen to us, the governed.

What is needed now is a form of governance that is fit for the people today, and that, he concludes, must be a classical liberal polity. Since individuals are, as it were, sovereign, a modern minimal state must abstain from interfering or intervening in the lives of individuals except in those cases where one individual, or entity, causes or deigns to cause harm to another individual.

I start my discussion of Classical Athens (480–323 BC) here because Constant certainly gets a few things right about the ancients. One is that Athenian citizens were–dare I say?–crazy about political freedom (or positive liberty): perchance the highest aim of the citizen was to (quoting Constant) 

discuss and make decisions about war; form alliances with foreign governments; vote on new laws; pronounce judgments; examine the accounts, acts, and stewardship of the magistrates; call the magistrates to appear in front of the assembled people; accuse the magistrates and then condemn or acquit them.

This was direct–not liberal–democracy at its finest, and to ensure that it was at its finest citizens needed to continue to play an active, participatory, hands-deep role in the flourishing of the polis. Another is that the leisure (schole) of citizens, a form of leisure necessary for such ongoing, active participation in the lifeblood of the polis, was in key part dependent upon chattel slavery. Constant again: “And, as an equally necessary result of this mode of existence [namely, the propensity to wage war], all these states [in Greece] had slaves. The manual labor and even (in some nations) the business activities were entrusted to people in chains.” This is true.

And third, as is hinted at by Constant, Classical Athenians were freedom-loving people in a way that is perhaps hard for us to understand, let alone inwardly to feel. In The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece, Kurt Raaflaub shows that the Persian Wars (499-449 BCE) were interpreted by Greeks as “wars of freedom.” What mattered above all to Athenian citizens was political freedom, and what they bristled at was the very real possibility of being subjugated to race of barbarians. They would not yield their necks to the “yoke of servitude,” and thus their battle cry at the Battle of Salamas, a key and surprising victory for the Greeks against a massive Persian war machine, was: “Forward, you sons of Hellas! Set your country free! Set free your sons, your wives, tombs of your ancestors, and temples of your gods. All is at stake: now fight!” 

It would be almost impossible to overstate the axiological, political, and metaphysical distinction between free and slave. To be Xerxes’ slave–this would have been a fate truly worse than death! Thus, social life in Athens adhered, to a considerable degree, to the civic ideology of three exclusive status groups (though as we shall see shortly this tripartite structure was not an exhaustive or entirely accurate picture of the Athenian polis) were citizen, metic, and chattel slave. A citizen was fully–that is to say, politically–free; a metic, a foreigner living in Athens and upon whom was conferred some, but not all, privileges; and an often foreign-born chattel slave who was indeed involved in manual labor ranging from the worst such as mining and agriculture to more respective professions like banking and trade.


In Part II, I turn to the question of manual labor in Classical Athens and, in particular, to the way in which labor, often regarded as a lowly endeavor, was tied to social status. The least privileged chattel slaves were those tasked with laboring. Why?

This is a short except from my book The Total Work Manifesto. To subscribe and thus to read along as the book is written, go here.