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

It took me a little while to write Part II, so I thought I’d include both in what follows.

In Part I (also included below), I discussed Benjamin Constant’s important essay.

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.


The Ancients And The Moderns

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.

His argument needs to be unpacked. 

It can be inferred that Constant’s 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 a 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 crucial 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.

[Part II starts here.]

Ponos And Tîmê

We come now to labor, and here we should not forget Sisyphus, whose punishment by Zeus was to roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down, and then to repeat ad infinitum, or Tantalus, who was sentenced to go ever-thirsty and ever-hungry because water and food would approach, but never touch, his mouth. Labor, so depicted, was arduous, futile, and fruitless. What might it tell us about labor as it was construed by Classical Athenians?

In Greek mythology, Ponos is the child of Eris, the goddess of strife, and Erebos, the god of darkness. And who is Ponos? Ponos is “the personified spirit (daimon) of hard labour and toil. He presided over extreme physical labour rather than just hard work–e.g. the toil required of subsistence farmers just to survive.” Labor mixes discord (eris) with death (erebos).

Tellingly, in The New Testament, the meaning of ponos as hard physical labor persists. According to Vine’s Greek New Testament Dictionary, ponos refers both to “labors” and “toil” as well as to “the consequences of toil”–namely, “distress, suffering, pain. In fact, pain itself, presumably without explicit reference to any toil preceding it, can be translated as ponos as in Revelations 16:10: “And the fifth angel poured out his vial upon the seat of the beast; and his kingdom was full of darkness; and they gnawed their tongues for pain [ponos].”

Already, we should be given pause. When Bertrand Russell, in his essay “In Praise of Idleness,” defined one kind of work as that which “alter[s] the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter,” he was being cheeky but he wasn’t kidding. Prior to technological advancements brought on by, most notably, the Industrial Revolution, manual labor was grunt work. The intimacy between labor and pain–is it not still here with us, albeit felt more faintly, more intellectually?

In “Praxis and Labor in Hegel,”Oliva Blanchette spells out the implications of ponos in Classical Athens:

For the Greeks praxis meant the political activity of free men, who were free precisely because they did not have to labor [ponos, as we’ve just seen]…. This was something reserved mainly for slaves whose very lack of freedom was a function of their being caught up with having to provide for the necessities of life, and whose labor made it possible for others to be free for taking part in praxis. This accounts for why Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle had so little to say about ‘labor’, since they were concerned much more with political activity where men were more truly men, and less animal. 

Labor, undertaken mainly by chattel slaves, freedmen, metics, and women, is precisely what made possible the “Golden Age” of Classical Athens, an age defined by the positive liberty of citizens engaged in direct democracy (see, again, Constant), tumultuous wars, flourishing culture (the tragedies and comedies, for example), and more. 

Key to Blanchette’s argument is that there was a firm distinction between the political (praxis) and the economic (ponos) in Classical Athens, which boiled down to a class distinction between the unfree and less free (chattel slaves and metics, respectively) and full male citizens. Slavery generated wealth for the household and “the economic problem,” as Keynes once put it, having been met for citizens thus enabled politics, art, and contemplation to come into the foreground and to flourish. 

Work was, above all, a class matter, which signaled significant status differences. What must be held firmly in mind is that, in Classical Athens, labor was, barring exceptions, in addition to being hard and painful, ignoble (without tîmê). Little to no honor accrued to the laborer whereas the tragedian, the statesman, or the rhapsode might enjoy the praise of other citizens. And yet, as “infrastructure,” labor enabled some to lead full lives (eudaimonia). To bring this point home, I can’t help but cite at great length the inimitable and erudite Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor:

‘Ordinary life’ [he writes] is a term of art I introduce to designate those aspects of human life concerned with production and reproduction, that is, labour, the making of the things needed for life, and our life as sexual beings, including marriage and the family. When Aristotle spoke of the ends of political association being “life and the good life” (zen kai euzen), this was the range of things he wanted to encompass in the first of these terms; basically they englobe what we need to do to continue and renew life.

For Aristotle the maintenance of these activities was to be distinguished from the pursuit of the good life. They are, of course, necessary to the good life, but they play an infrastructural role in relation to it. You can’t pursue the good life without pursuing life. But an existence dedicated to this latter goal alone is not a fully human one…. The proper life for humans builds on this infrastructure a series of activities which are concerned with the good life: men deliberate about moral excellence, they contemplate the order of things; of supreme importance for politics, they deliberate together about the common good, and decide how to shape and apply the laws. (Sources of the Self, pp. 211-12)

Note this well: “an existence dedicated to this latter goal alone [namely, to procuring the means of survival] is not a fully human one”: could not Tayor be addressing us moderns for whom the “spell cast” has sought to transmogrify “life” into “the good life”? Not so, in the tragically beautiful and unjust ways I’ve sought to describe, for Athenians. Most often and excluding cases where men accrued exceptional wealth that made it possible for them to engage in largesse on behalf of the wellbeing of Athens, honor (tîmê), glory, esteem, virtue, and wisdom belonged to those farthest away from labor. 

Chattel Slavery And Male Citizenship

By and large, chattel slaves were the spoils of war as most were “barbarians”–that is, not Greek. Labor, we’ve seen, was hard, painful, and low status. The worse-off slaves would be relegated to the mines or the mills or, slightly better, to the fields. The fortunate ones found themselves in finance, a clerical position, or the domestic sphere. By this means, they might, over time, amass enough wealth to receive the “gift” of citizenship.

Compare the lot of the chattel slaves with that of the full male citizen. First consider the basest chattel slaves as summarized by Deborah Kamen:

[T]he status of the basest chattel slave… was characterized by a (nearly) complete lack of rights: he had no claims to property; no power over his own or others’ labor and movement; no power to punish others, while being very susceptible to corporal punishment himself; no privileges in the judicial realm; virtually no privileges in the realm of family; limited opportunities for social mobility; little autonomy in the religious sphere; no involvement in politics; and a limited role in the military.

What must it have felt like to have been so utterly unfree? We do not know but we can imagine. Imagine–to exaggerate only slightly–being alone, powerless, friendless, defenseless, worthless, susceptible to lashings, and circumscribed in one’s movements. Classical Athens, Kamen tells us, was quite a litigious society–only think of what that meant for slaves who would have been threatened by physical force as well as by force of law?  

And now the full male citizen:

Ideally, a male citizen did not perform labor on behalf of others, since doing so was considered banausic and servile. In fact, Aristotle, who reflects (in his own way) many ideological assumptions of his time and place, thought that in an ideal society, working people would be disqualified from citizenship. However, in practice, many poor citizens worked as artisans and laborers. Such citizens were not only looked down upon (though they were that) but also at risk of having their own or their children’s citizenship questioned. Any citizen had legal control over the labor of those employed by him, whether they were slaves, freedmen, or even lower-ranking citizens. Likewise, a citizen had control over his own and his slaves’ movement, with some de facto restrictions. 

We might dwell for a moment on that curious adjective “banausic” used in passing. The noun form is banausos, which was, especially for philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, a pejorative aimed at craftsmen and manual laborers. According to Andrea Wilson Nightingale, “In the most general terms, ‘banausoi’ is the label for people who earn a living by plying a trade or craft that involves the use of the hands…. It is important to emphasize that the term ‘banausos’ generally carries a pejorative sense, since it marks a person as mercantile and servile.” 

But why is artisanship servile? Perhaps the answer is already clear to you, yet more nonetheless may need to be said. The closer one is to bare survival, the more intimate one is with the bare body. And the bare, precarious body is far away from–nay, seemingly worlds apart from–the flights of intellectual contemplation of the Good and the Unmoved Mover taken by Plato and Aristotle, respectively. For the essence of the human is the rational intellect, argued Aristotle, and in other respects humans resemble animals. It’s thus that Aristotle, in The Politics, thought of slaves as “living tools” akin to beasts of burden.

Competing Intuitions

We cannot come away from reading the Greeks without some blood on our hands and some sweetness in our hearts. The experience remains tragic, bittersweet, melancholic, and more. On the one hand, we denounce slavery, as we should, as an unjust institution, one that could be no more barbaric and inhumane. On the other hand, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we can’t help but feel that the Greeks, in some sense, got something right. While we might not call labor “base” or “ignoble,” we must, still today, carry without our breasts the intuition that human beings were meant for so much more. 

How beautiful is the idea that labor is but “infrastructure”; how noble the view that the vita activa of full political engagement and the vita contemplativa, that is, the pouring of our beings in the direction of the infinite, are of the highest importance; how beautiful the creation of tragic dramas that revealed the character of the people, with all their ethical dilemmas; and yet, yes, how sorrowful it is to realize that Culture (with a capital C) was built atop the deculturation of others.

The wrong turn we made in modernity was to make work seem honorable in the very moment it became ubiquitous. No longer relegated to baser classes, work was to redeem itself in our eyes only if its value could soar also. This is our tragedy–but now I’m getting quite ahead of myself. The remainder of the story shall, in due course, reveal just this.