Songs of Slavery

Songs of Slavery

Slavery, as a human institution, has existed since time immemorial. It is sanctioned in the Bible and was practiced by the Greeks and the Romans. It was prevalent in medieval eastern Europe, and it was even a part of early America.

What is slavery? Why does it arise? How can we prevent it from happening again?

And why does it inspire such beautiful songs?

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Slave Market in Medieval Eastern Europe

Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Slaves were not always lower class citizens, underprivileged or manual laborers. Some slaves were better educated than their masters, and they worked as tutors, poets or entertainers. A dramatization of the plight of such a slave can be seen in this clip from Spartacus. Slaves were not always foreign or members of conquered nations, although many were.

One of the problems for modern day readers in understanding what is meant by slavery in historical accounts is that the terms change at least as much as the relationships. For instance, did you know that employee is just the modern term for what we used to call a servant in EnglishAnd did you know that the master/slave relationship is sometimes confused with the relationship of a servant to his master? I didn’t realize this until I went to law school, and I noticed that older case law concerning servants was cited in current cases about employees. The same doctrines applied, only the words were different.

Respondeat Superior

The doctrine of Respondeat Superior, which is still applicable today, says that an employer is responsible for the torts committed by his employees during the course of their employment. Respondeat superior means “let the master answer.” It makes sense, if you think of the servant  as a mere instrument in the hands of his master, having no will of his own. It makes a lot less sense if you think of the employee as a free man or woman.

There are those who argue that the view of the employee as a mere instrument is just a legal fiction designed to get at the deep pocket of the employer. However, there is more to it than that. If you hire someone to work for you, but they are self-employed, then despite the wages they receive for doing your work, you are not held responsible for their wrongful acts while on the job. It is only if someone works for you full time, is directed by you as to how to do the work, not just which work is to be done, and is completely dependent on you for his livelihood that you end up paying for his misdeeds.

The key here is control. Is the employee entirely under your control? Does he take his orders from you? Do you basically own him during the work day? In that case, he’s not really an independent person, he’s your instrument, and you are responsible.

Who are we responsible for? Our children, our pets and our servants. Why? Because we control them. We get to tell them what to do, we support them and they answer to us.

What rights do slaves have that free men don’t?

When we read about slavery in history books, it is often taken for granted that no one would choose to be a slave, or that slaves are always exploited, while slave-holders are in an enviable position, although slightly evil. Actually, the institution of slavery can be quite unpleasant for all involved. Ayn Rand described the master/slave relation as a leash with a noose at both ends.

In any event, in societies where slavery is allowed, there are usually strict rules about the rights of slaves. Did you know that the Biblical injunction not to work on the Sabbath day was intended to protect slaves and beasts of burden from being overworked? (Exodus 23:12 )

שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲשֶׂה מַעֲשֶׂיךָ, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי תִּשְׁבֹּת–לְמַעַן יָנוּחַ, שׁוֹרְךָ וַחֲמֹרֶךָ, וְיִנָּפֵשׁ בֶּן-אֲמָתְךָ, וְהַגֵּר

“Six days you will do your deeds and on the seventh you will stop — in order that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave and the alien may take a breather.” (My translation.)

Notice that the beasts of burden come first, and the slaves and guest workers are mentioned almost as an afterthought. In any event, there is definitely a parallel structure to the verse.

Is it really any different from our modern five day work week and eight hour work day? The limitations on how long people are expected to work are intended to protect employees from exploitation by their employers, servants from over-reaching by their masters. We all know that when we work for ourselves, we work much longer days and usually don’t take the weekends off. It’s only the servants of others who have the luxury of a guaranteed respite from work.

The right to basic necessities

It makes perfect sense that if someone is not free to go where he wants or do as he chooses, then those who have the right to make those decisions for him must provide him with the basic necessities of life. Prisoners, children and domesticated animals are fed by their keepers. On the other hand, free men and wild animals are able to go where they will, and they hunt for food where they can find it. Responsibility and control have always gone hand in hand. You are not your brother’s keeper, unless, of course, your brother is your slave, your servant or a minor or incompetent person under your supervision. If you own it, you have to feed it.

This is not an arbitrary rule that can change with social custom or alter from one historical period to the next. It is a natural rule that tends to crop up by itself in every society, and even in the wild. Mammalian mothers provide for their children only so long as the child is physically dependent on them, and they control the child’s movement and behavior only so long as the child needs their protection. Chimpanzees riding on their mothers’ back defer to the mother in all things, but as soon as they are able to provide for themselves, the mother loses control. Responsibility and control go hand in hand.

If you offer to take responsibility for another, then you are also assuming control. When you stop providing for another is when you lose control. The downside of being a slaveholder is that you are responsible for taking care of your slaves. The downside of having all your basic necessities provided for you by someone else is that you lose control over your life.

From this it follows that there are two ways to become a slave: (1) being overpowered by another and forced to serve and (2) accepting a dependent relationship to another, and having all one’s needs met by that other person. The first route to slavery may be more violent, but the second is equally effective in robbing a person of his freedom.

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A New Pharoah that Didn’t Know Joseph

Exodus: The Song Sung After Pharoah drowned

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Welfare, the dole and the story of Exodus

An illustration of these basic principles can be found in the Old Testament story about slavery in Egypt. We don’t have to necessarily believe that these events happened, or that the account is historically accurate, in order to appreciate the basic truths that emerge from the story.

The tale starts with sibling rivalry and favoritism and a cruel act of revenge. Joseph was the favorite son because his mother was the favored wife. This was not a monogamous household, and the father was too lavish in his gifts to the one he loved most. The brothers who were sons of a less favored wife ganged up on the favorite, threw him in a pit and sold him into slavery.

One thing led to another, and Joseph became an adviser to the ruler of the land. And what did he advise? The government should tax the people and store up grain against a famine. This way, when the famine came, the government could dole out bread to all the people, and nobody need starve. Joseph went from being a slave to being a “public servant”, and the doctrines he preached were those of the welfare state.

In time, there was indeed a famine, and Joseph’s family, who had been independent herdsmen and farmers, came in to Egypt to get some of that free welfare. There was a tearful reunion, all was forgiven, and the family stayed in Egypt for many generations. During that time, the clan lost its independence, and since they were entirely living on food they did not grow, they naturally became slaves. By now, nobody remembered that they were related to a high official who started the system, so they did not get any special treatment. They were slaves like everybody else. Like all their neighbors.

When the burdens became too hard, these people rebelled and were eventually granted freedom to return to their own land. But generations of living as slaves left them unprepared to fend for themselves. They expected to receive food from others, like manna from heaven. They cried out that being free was too hard! They wanted to go back. Moses had to wait in the desert for the generation that had been born slaves to die out, and for those who were born free to take their place.

Moral of the story: it is easy to fall into slavery, but hard to re-learn how to live free.

The Desert Generation

In Israel, this aspect of the story was reinforced, when the original settlers were called “the desert generation”. Those born free were expected to take their place and forget about being provided for by others. The untimely appearance of Holocaust survivors at a crucial point in history threw things off balance, leaving too many former slaves in evidence and diluting the voting power of those who were born free.

But the story of exodus applies to everyone, not just Israelis and Israelites. It shows how having one’s basic needs met by the state of necessity leads to slavery, how easy it is to fall into slavery, and how hard it is for those accustomed to the dole to learn to live free.

Staying Vigilant

The possibility of slavery is always there. It doesn’t matter that the words change. Nobody is called a “servant” anymore, except for “public servants”, but the laws that applied to slaves and servants still apply to employees. It isn’t the label that matters, it’s the function.

If someone offers to carry all your burdens for you, to provide for old age or ill health or famine or plague, tell them “No, thank you.” Tell them you know that that is the road to slavery. Tell them that you know that slavery is easy to fall into, but hard to outgrow.

Copyright 2010 Aya Katz

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Note: This article was first published on Hubpages in 2010 and has been unpublished as overly promotional.

About Aya Katz

Aya Katz is the administrator of Pubwages. When she is not busy administering, she sometimes also writes posts like a regular user.
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