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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Slavery and the Body

Slavery and the Body
Paul Richard Blum, Loyola University Maryland

African American slavery has two presuppositions: mind/body dualism and idealism of the concept of humanity.

Mind and body
     In a mode of thinking of man as a unity of mind and body, enslavement of the body entails enslavement of the mind. When Aristotle says that a slave is a tool with a soul and that the slave–by definition–lacks the intellect to give directions but still is intelligent enough to follow instructions, then he implies that the intellect of the slave is co-enslaved with the servant. He has no problems with that, because he has no political or moral concerns about slavery. His is a formal description and as such it is correct. For Aristotle the individual soul does not transcend the body (in Christian language: is not immortal), it is an enhancement of the body that allows man to achieve intellectual feats (theoria) that surpass animals but do not essentially place man above beasts, which are defined as having the lower functions of the soul. That being said, what happens if we assume that humans are fundamentally superior to animals and yet enslave them?
     The superiority of humans over beasts stems from the endowment with an immortal and intellectual soul. Therefore, one strategy that allows enslaving people is to find them guilty of something—a strategy that takes the unity of mind and body into account. Another justification will be to sever mind from body, conceptually, and to maintain that the physical properties of the servant are Aristotelian tools for the use by the owner, while the mind, including free will!, remains intact. Unfortunately, that cannot work for a long time within the same individuals involved (the owner and the slave), because the owner exacts obedience, total obedience. We will have to reflect on the role of obedience in servitude and slavery, but it appears that the degree of commitment of the slave, required for slavery, goes so far that the slave does not obey at all, but rather instrumentally works at the owner's will. The slave will give up even the obedience to his own thinking and inclinations, as they inevitably would conflict with the expectations of the owner. Consequently, the owner has to look at the slave as though he had no will at all and also no intelligence that could inform the will. Blind obedience is enforced to the level of de-mentalization.
     On the other hand, slaves tend to show operations of their souls: emotions, sensations, even reason in the form of memory regarding commands and good ideas of how to improve (or avoid) work. They turn out to be tools that are not allowed to but occasionally do think. Their emotions even come handy: submission, faithfulness, and sexual life. The only way out of this paradox is to assume that slaves do have souls, that it is the body that is enslaved, that together with the body emotions and lower level rational functions are at the service of the owner, and that the mind of the slaves is not affected by enslavement so that it is not the immortal souls but only the organic functions of the body are property of the slave holder. This would explain how Christians had no qualms holding human beings as slaves.
     Another explanation would be physicalism, namely the implicit assumption that the mind is only a surface phenomenon of the organic functions of a human body and hence as much property of the owner as all the bodily organs and skills. This theory has one problem, namely that it would also apply to the slaveholder and his kin. Can the slaveholder consistently believe to be endowed with an eternal reward or punishment expecting soul while at the same time brutalizing (implicitly and conceptually) the slaves? Conceptual consistency is not the forte of farmers, entrepreneurs, politicians, and even religious ministers. And yet, the contradiction should have surfaced, namely that the slave owners are defined as humans with a rational and eternal soul, while the slaves are brutes. Of course, this argument has been made by various abolitionists but it did not dawn upon the active slave holders.
     The famous vignette "Am I not a man and a brother?" refers to this contradiction—notably to little effect. Therefore it might be correct to assume in the minds of the slaveholders a notion of human being that allows for including oneself, wife, children, and neighbors and excluding servants.

A mental experiment
     Supposed we frame a notion of man that includes myself, my wife, my parents, and my mistress, but excludes the houseboy who watches so that I don't get caught cheating on my beloved wife—what would that humanity look like? It would include everything I am proud of: entrepreneurship, scholarship, fidelity, religion, my stature and prowess, my commanding presence, authority and benevolence, and many other features. The common denominator of all these features (I could have added musicality and sensibility) is that they are ideal. Their ideality consists in their being concepts, conceits, ideas, theories of myself and others, regardless tangible reality. Although my son is lazy and my daughter needs to be married off before she exposes her lascivious character, although my wife is more cold than her refinement in dressing reveals, although my neighbor is a drunkard and beats his wife, and although my mistress is a mistress and I am an adulterer—we all appear in Church heads up and convinced that we are the crown of God's creation. We are intelligent and graceful, benevolent and amiable; we keep in shape and believe our physical appearance is pleasant to the senses and to moral feelings. In short, we live our lives according to a moral, intellectual, and esthetic script that defines us qua us. The pages of the script come from our higher education and its time tested sources: the catechism, the Bible, the constitution, the law of the land, the tradition of the forefathers. Every single thing that does not enter this scheme of being human is not human and therefore available for slavery.

     In using first-person syntax I want to draw attention to the paradoxical structure of this thinking. There is no need to expose hypocrisy or double standards here. My claim is that human beings naturally think this way. In history and sociology we call that ideal-type.[1] Humans orient their self-awareness and their conduct of life according to ideal types that they deem to be realized in themselves.
     When one accuses a person of a transgression, one often receives the denial in the form of "That's not me." The excuse can be translated into "The accusation lies outside the ideal type (of an employee, a student, an athlete, of a person) with which I identify myself." Max Weber used ideal-types as rational constructions to capture varied and irrational reality in history and society. The ideal-type's main feature is independence of truth and morality with regard to objective reality, which helps sorting social phenomena by way of excluding particulars that do not fit the schematics; in that sense it is also applicable to self-identification. Historians and sociologists have to eclipse contingencies for heuristic reasons; ordinary people relate themselves to ideal-types that help them find meaning in their individual lives without being hampered by trifles.
     Slaves are trifles to the righteous owner. We may also call that ideology,[2] if we define ideology as a system of ideals that not only helps understanding reality but that is taken to be reality. The bodily reality of a slave, including his or her response to pain, humiliation, abuse, or reward is not part of the reality of the slave owner, because that is formed and constituted by ideals that, by definition, eclipse the slave reality. Things become very nasty, once the bodily properties need to be included in the ideal and ideology that shapes the owner. Then the bodily properties of the slave, regardless of their tool function in the Aristotelian sense, have to be sorted out of the conceit of the owner.

[1] Weber, Max 1968: Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre, Tübingen, S. 190ff. Idem, Essays in Sociology, ed. by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, Abingdon: Routledge, 1991, p. 294: "All ruling powers, profane and religious, political and apolitical, may be considered as variations of, or approximations to, certain pure types. These types are constructed by searching for the basis of legitimacy, which the ruling power claims." Idem, The Methodology of the Social Siences, ed. by Edward A. Shils and Henry A. Finch, Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1949, p. 42 and 92 f.; p. 93 on the definition of 'ideal types': "When a genetic definition of the content of the concept is sought, there remains only the ideal-type … It is a conceptual construct … which is neither historical reality nor even the 'true' reality."
[2] Sypnowich, Christine, "Law and Ideology", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = : "Daniel Bell dubbed ideology ‘an action-oriented system of beliefs,’ and the fact that ideology is action-oriented indicates its role is not to render reality transparent, but to motivate people to do or not do certain things."