Jane Austen Was Right

I was listening yesterday to the left wing Claire Fox in conversation with the right wing James Delingpole, when something she said caught my attention.

As I listened, I had the vague idea that I had once been invited to attend some conference of the Institute of Ideas that she directs. I didn’t attend, of course. I never go to any of these sorts of conferences. I’m not part of their debate. I’m a far outsider. If I had showed up, I would have spent most of my time sat outside, smoking. So I wouldn’t have heard anything that was said, and so would have had nothing to say in response.

And I was thinking this morning that one result of my exile to the outdoors – one of the benefits of exile – was that I no longer needed to think the way they did. Exiles like me can think whatever we like. We no longer need to observe the conventions. We no longer need to observe the customary niceties. We no longer need to agree (or disagree). The exile has been freed from conventional thought.

What caught my attention was when Claire Fox described how she’d got into an argument with some of her English Literature students, who’d been telling her that Jane Austen had been a supporter of slavery, and so was someone who didn’t merit any respect or attention, and I found myself thinking: maybe Jane Austen was right? Or, if one wishes to be a truly perverse outsider, one really ought to jump at the opportunity of defending Jane Austen. We outsiders can do that sort of thing. And we can do so because we stand outside the discussion. We can come at the matter from a new angle.

And slavery is a new interest of mine. I’ve touched on it several times. It’s an institution which is regarded with peculiar horror in the present day. It’s used by progressive leftists as a stick with which to beat American conservatives. It’s regarded as an episode in their history with which Americans should be thoroughly ashamed (like Germans should be ashamed of concentration camps, and Russians of the gulags). And now us British are supposed to be ashamed of Jane Austen.

And yet in antiquity there doesn’t seem to have been any shame at all about the institution of slavery. It seems to have been regarded as perfectly ordinary and unremarkable. The Greeks practised slavery. And so did the Romans. More or less everybody did. And none of the moral luminaries of antiquity condemned it. Why was that? Were they morally defective in ways that progressive lefties no longer are? Or have progressive lefties lost sight of something that the ancients could see?

Let’s start by imagining an egalitarian society, one in which there is no slavery. But let us also imagine that it is a very busy society, in which everyone has to work hard to stay alive. Let’s imagine that they spend 90% of their time working, and only have 10% of their time in idle relaxation (and so paint them 10% white, and 90% black).

And now let’s take the exact same society, and re-organise it into one in which 9 out of 10 people are slaves who support the rest in perfect idleness:

If the first society was strictly egalitarian, this new society is highly inegalitarian. It is a ferociously inequitable society. It is, some people might say, iniquitous. And yet it’s how the Greeks and Romans organised their societies.

But let’s add something else to the picture. Let us suppose that all these people are highly innovative and inventive and imaginative, and they’re always trying to come up with new ways to reduce their work. But it’s only when they’re not working that they can think and experiment. It’s only in their idle time that they can explore new ideas, new ways of doing things.

Now, which of these two societies is more likely to be innovative and inventive? In the egalitarian society, an inventor can only spend 10% of his time inventing. He will be a weekend hobbyist, gradually putting together some new invention or idea. But the free man in the inegalitarian society will be able to spend all his time innovating and inventing. Or, putting it another way, he will be 10 times more educated than anybody in an egalitarian society.

And that’s why, in the inegalitarian slave societies of Greece and Romes, there emerged people like Socrates and Plato and Aristotle and Aristarchus and Pythagoras and Archimedes and Thucydides and Solon and Praxiteles. All these illustrious innovators and authors were only able to do what they did thanks to an army of supporting slaves. But for the institution of slavery there would have be no Greek art, architecture, philosophy, or mathematics. Or it would have all developed far more slowly. And there wouldn’t have been any Roman roads, bridges, aqueducts, and libraries.

So the institution of slavery had benefits as well as costs. In slave societies, innovation proceeded at a much higher speed than in egalitarian societies. And the result of building roads and bridges and aqueducts in the Roman world was that trade became easier, and so did collecting water. Before the aqueducts started bring water to Rome, Romans would have had to collect all their water from the river Tiber. And that was a lot of work, from which the aqueducts freed them.

And that meant that the innovative and inventive free Romans were able to increase the idleness of Roman society. Maybe they raised it from 10% idle to 20% idle.

And as this happened, the Romans began to be able to liberate their slaves. In fact, the emperor Augustus had to issue an edict restricting the manumission of slaves, because too many slaves were being freed.

In a 10% idle society, 9 slaves are needed to support a single free man. And in a 20% idle society, only 4 slaves are needed to support a single free man. And in a 50% idle society only one slave, a manservant, was needed. And in higher idleness societies, only part-time slaves (aka employees) were needed.

One might also add that in these inegalitarian societies, slaves were assigned to particular tasks within a household. They were cooks or cleaners or gardeners or carpenters or tailors. And as they became specialised, they also became skilled. And as part of a household, they enjoyed the security of having a roof over their heads, and clothes on their backs, and food on their tables (all provided by other slaves). And if you lived as a slave in the house of Archimedes, you would have shared in his discoveries, because you had been building his geometrical models and filling his pen.

The benefits of slavery far outweighed its costs. And in antiquity everybody (including the slaves) could see that, in ways that progressive leftists no longer can

The institution of slavery was an historically temporary measure. Initially all the slaves had to work very hard, but as a consequence of the innovations of the free men whom they supported, they gradually became freed from toil. It took a long time. It took hundreds of years, even thousands of years. It’s still continuing to this day.

So instead of Americans being ashamed of slavery, they ought to be proud of it. And they should be proud of all the American slave owners: like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and Jefferson Davis and Ulysses S Grant. And all the other ones too.

And Jane Austen was right.

About Frank Davis

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28 Responses to Jane Austen Was Right

  1. Rose says:

    Exiles like me can think whatever we like. We no longer need to observe the conventions. We no longer need to observe the customary niceties

    In that case, see what 15 years of spreading spite and malice can do to a person. I was quite shocked when I saw this.

    I thought I’d suffered a certain amount of deterioration from the sheer stress of enduring 11 years of government funded “denormalisation”, but wow!

  2. Mark Jarratt, Canberra, Australia says:

    Fine refresher training on idle theory, and dead blokes I hadn’t thought of much, for millennia, especially master sculptor Praxiteles. Slavery, like flies, will always be with us, however described in the modern capitalist gilded cage, but today’s cock of the walk is often tomorrow’s feather duster.
    Couldn’t inflict more antismoking propaganda on myself. Watching moving images of ASH prohibitionists would make me queasy. 🤮

  3. Emily says:

    I’ve been shocked to hear about students dismissing the worth of various brilliant works of literature because of whatever the writer’s beliefs might have been at the time they were writing. Such a stupid and narrow view of history.

    Students should learn about all different perspectives; a course in Idle Theory would not come amiss.

  4. waltc says:

    Noooo, Frank. Except perhaps as an abstract, fleshless intellectual exercise, there is no justification for slavery (and even then I doubt that there is). Once you start dehumanizing people, you’re in dangerous moral territory, in which, not btw, the owner becomes, to a degree, as dehumanized as the slave. Even in your own construct, it fails. Suppose that Edison, Marconi, or the Wright Brothers had been –by some accident of birth or conquest–enslaved and forced to spend 16 hour days picking cotton, too exhausted at night to think, for the pleasure and ease of some fatuous idiot. Expand the concept of slavery and you get the Russian intellectuals exiled to Siberia to pound rocks, or the Chinese inventors dispersed to grow rice. Now put yourself in the slave’s position. Existing entirely at someone else’s whim. How’d you like it?

    • Rose says:

      I wasn’t even going to dignify Frank’s ridiculous hypothesis with a reply. People are always going to work more diligently if they are valued and paid, then they too have a personal investment in whatever is to be done.

    • Frank Davis says:

      I’m not saying that there is a justification for slavery, but that there once was.

      How else do you explain the very different attitude to slavery in antiquity? Do you think that the Greeks and Romans were bad people? And only us moderns have (somehow) made moral progress?

      If you’re not going to defend Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and Jefferson Davis and Ulysses S Grant (and it sounds like you’re not) then you must expect the USA and everything it stands for to be destroyed by its numerous internal enemies. After all, these were the people who wrote the US constitution. If you’re going to be ashamed of them, you’ll be ashamed of it.

      • waltc says:

        No, there never was. The only “justification” was economic (free labor) and the self-justification of people who felt they were superior to, and somehow more human than, other people. For some, it was a direct outlet for sadism or an exercise in the worst kind of power. For many others, the whole thing was “just the way it is”–a societal Given they didn’t give a thought to. Sort of the way No smoking in public is, for many people, “just the way it is” without a thought for whether it’s right, or a thought about what it’s like to be an ousted smoker.

        As for antiquity, yes, I think western civilization on the whole has made at least some moral progress. We no longer throw Christians to lions, either.

        But No, I’m not at all ashamed of Jefferson. I admire him greatly, in fact. As I do Jane Austen. They were people of tneir time and it was “just the way it was” though Jefferson (no Simon Legree to begin with) did question the status quo. I know America did not invent slavery, as you point out, and neither do I accept personal guilt for it.

        • Frank Davis says:

          yes, I think western civilization on the whole has made at least some moral progress.

          I don’t think we have made any moral progress. I think that, but for our technology, there’d still be slavery. And if the necessary conditions were to re-appear, slavery would re-appear overnight.

          Neither do I think that slavery was a direct outlet for sadism. It makes no sense to kill or injure a slave who is performing valuable work. Although undoubtedly it happened.

          Neither do I think that slaveowners regarded themselves as superior to their slaves, though no doubt many did. For if they did they would never have freed slaves who they saw as unfit to become free men living alongside them as equals. As far as I can make out, the attitude of slaveowners to their slaves was not very different from modern CEOs to their employees, or generals to their soldiers. It was much more of a matter of “there but for the grace of God go I”.

        • waltc says:

          Frank: There was no technology in 1864 when the American slaves were freed. (There IS technology in the several countries –none in the West– where slavery is still happening today.)

          Nor did freeing the slaves stop white people from believing that blacks were inferior, on the one hand, or dangerous on the other. Reconstruction was followed by the Klan, Jim Crow, and various strains of elitist eugenics. And nothing much changed until Eisenhower sent the troops to the schools, Brown v Board, Rosa Parks, MLK.

          Power, in many people’s hands, corrupts, and most especially their power over others. To bring it back home, isn’t the power of tobacco controllers sadistic towards smokers? The pleasure (for sadists) of being sadistic –of the power to be so– outweighs any other rational consideration. And if slaves are a commodity, a tool, like a hammer, why not saw its handle off to teach it a lesson or to vent your frustration if it doesn’t hit the nail? you can easily buy another.

          Moral evolution: I suppose “civilization” is a thin layer– one that may thicken incrementally over time–that’s loosely plastered on the top of the ape brain, which itself sits loosely on top of the nastier reptile brain. It doesn’t take a lot (war, for example, or a facebook battle 😊) to peel away the layer and get back to ape business. So my answer to your question is both yes and no.

        • I think that, but for our technology, there’d still be slavery.

          Agreeing 100%. Modern technology + large-scale unemployment all over the Western world = (neo-)feudalism in action.

        • Joe L. says:

          @ Walt:

          There was no technology in 1864 when the American slaves were freed.

          There were actually quite a few major advancements in technology around that time, most relevantly the cotton gin, which was invented a few decades earlier, in 1793.

        • Frank Davis says:

          I agree with Joe. America was in the early stages of industrialisation in the middle of the 19th century. Most of that industrialisation was in the north. The south continued to be relatively unindustrialised and rural (cotton, sugar, tobacco). The American Civil War is often described as the first industrialised war (trains, machine guns (Gatling gun 1861), armoured monitors) of a kind prefiguring WW1 and WW2,

          Growing cotton and sugar and tobacco was very labour-intensive. And that was why slavery was still widely practised in the south. The cotton gin was a mechanical device to separate cotton fibres from seeds., but picking the cotton continued to be labour-intensive. If southern agriculture had been comprehensively industrialised, the need for cheap labour would have vanished, and slavery with it.

        • Frank Davis says:


          The Gatling gun was designed by the American inventor Dr. Richard J. Gatling in 1861 and patented on November 4, 1862.Gatling wrote that he created it to reduce the size of armies and so reduce the number of deaths by combat and disease, and to show how futile war is.

          The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

      • Rose says:

        Do you think that the Greeks and Romans were bad people?
        They were brilliant people, slavery was normal for the time.

        But how you feel about these things at any point in time depends on whether you can imagine yourself at the bottom of the pile and what that would feel like.
        This does not detract in my mind from other great achievements, it’s just how it was at the time and refighting old battles long since won is a waste of time.

        • Frank Davis says:

          slavery was normal for the time.

          So why isn’t it normal now? What has changed? Or do you, like Walt, think we’ve made some sort of moral progress? If so, however did we manage it?

        • Rose says:

          Or do you, like Walt, think we’ve made some sort of moral progress? If so, however did we manage it?

          I do. I should imagine people with empathy eventually made enough noise to convince enough other people that slavery was a really bad idea, probably at a time when it was proving more and more expensive to acquire and maintain them, but the latter is just a guess.

    • margo says:

      I agree, Walt. Slavery’s great as long as you’re not the slave.

  5. garyk30 says:

    Slavery, as in being controlled by others, is still very much with us.
    Now it is the govt, to one extent or another, that ‘owns’ us.

    We must have the govts permission, in the form of licenses, to operate a car or truck, to work in many occupations, to get married, to get healthcare, to start a business and other things.

    The govts forcibly take part of our wages in the form of taxes and fees.

    Then there are the bans and restrictions on our life styles and personal habits.

    All of this in a ‘free’ society, am very happy to not be living in ‘socialist workers paradise’.

  6. Clicky says:

  7. Dmitry Kosyrev says:

    Originally, slavery was a contract. Slaves were the prisoners of war whom the victor was to feed and to give shelter to. The alternative was to kill. Then wars became a means to get slaves, and selling them became a business. Then the migrants began to flock to our cities voluntarily… you know the rest.

    • Frank Davis says:

      Julius Caesar once sold 50,000 people into slavery in Gaul in one single day. I don’t think there was any contractual agreement with them. I don’t think they had any rights at all.

      However, people quite often sold themselves into slavery in order to pay off their debts. And I think this was a contractual agreement that lapsed after some period of time.

      Our modern migrants are another thing. They pay to come. So I suppose that they have contractual arrangements with the people who transport them across the Mediterranean, although I don’t know how legally enforceable these contracts are..

  8. Smoking Lamp says:

    There is significant evidence that Jane Austen had abolitionist sentiments and found both the slave trade and slavery itself distasteful. This distaste is displayed in her writings, particularly the “Chawton Novels” including “Mansfield Park”,”Emma”, and “Persuasion”. The literary criticism is contradictory, but the abolitionist cause is prominent in her writing, which of course is nuanced. I suspect a lot of ‘critical studies’ theorists miss the nuance and the call for dialogue on the issue interlaced throughout the text translating Austen’s supposed “silence” with assent. I recall “Fanny” in “Mansfield Park” as being critical of ‘meritocracy’ and through her eyes the moral bankruptcy of the slave owning class. Indeed “Mansfield Park” was built from the proceeds of the slave trade and named after Lord Mansfield who was the Lord Chief Justice that made the landmark Somerset ruling that abolished slavery on English soil. That is the problem with ideological criticism without historical context. The contemporary critics apply their agenda to interpret the text through modern eyes rater than allowing to to speak in the tone of the times.

  9. jaxthefirst says:

    I think that slavery – or at least the slave-owner mentality – is far from dead. It’s just changed its face and stopped using slave-labour vocabulary. We may not have (legal) slavery in the classic, historical sense any more (acknowledged “ownership” of another person, forced work for no pay, total denial of basic rights such as access to the legal system, voting rights etc), but there are many, many countries where “employees” manufacturing cheap goods for the western market are treated almost as badly. They may be paid, but it’s a pittance, even by their own country’s standards, and they are treated abysmally by their superiors. And yet it is these economies which, at the moment, are booming and growing and doing very well, thank you, by flogging all their cheaply-made items at a huge profit in the West. Remember the Nike scandal about how badly their overseas workers were treated? Does anyone actually believe that that isn’t still going on?

    Even in the West there is now an attitude of “getting as much out of staff” as they can for their money. The days of overtime pay are long gone – employees these days who have to put in extra hours to get the work done simply have to do it in their free time and get paid nothing for the extra effort; there’s an unspoken dislike of people taking time off, even for holidays to which they are, on paper, entitled, or when they are genuinely ill; and most managers’ idea of “managing staff” involves ever-so-slightly constantly denigrating them to the point where they believe they are lucky to have a job at all and live in fear of a “bad appraisal” or of making even the most minor of mistakes. In recent years there’s even been a worryingly unwelcome move by some employers to try and control what their employees do in their free time (e.g. smoking bans during breaks or even when at home, expectation of being “on call” or checking e-mails at all times, checking employees’ activities on Facebook etc and disciplining them for “unacceptable” activities or views etc) just as slave owners controlled every aspect of their slaves’ lives. The top dogs in organisations are treated like royalty, cream off the profits of their employees’ labour and do precisely as they please (exactly as slave owners did) but those beneath a certain level are just expected to keep their noses to the grindstone and get on with all the real work, and are rarely appreciated (just as, I expect, slaves were rarely appreciated for their hard graft).

    I’m far from being a zealous lefty who espouses that “all employment is slavery,” and I appreciate that there are some good employers about (usually in smaller companies, I’ll wager) but I certainly think that large companies’ attitudes towards employees these days probably has more in common with slave-owners’ attitudes towards the slave-workforces of yore than they’d like to admit. And in that sense, I think that whilst we as a society may have made some progress, it isn’t actually as much as we like to think and, in the case of some companies and, as Gary points out above, in the case, too, of “the authorities,” we’re actually slipping backwards.

    • waltc says:

      I agree that many of the circumstances you describe exist, but as for near-slave labor, sure, in the far east and parts of Latin America but not in the contemporary western democracies. And as for control-freak western employers (which apparently include Amazon and the tech co’s) there’s still a vast (vast!) difference between being employed (a voluntary contract) and being, actually, body-and-soul owned. Among other things, a worker can quit or go on strike. And as more jobs are created, workers increasingly have the power to set the conditions. The 24-hour boss appears to have been a phenomenon of the economic slowdown. But as for the future, better have a talent that a robot can’t do.

  10. Sending the overpaid professional antismokers (Glantz and Arnott come to mind, but I’m confident a lot more of their innumerable lot are staying out of the reach of the public eye, but should also be brought to account ASAP), to forced labour (as opposed to the death penalty) would be a mild, but immensely beneficial measure to be taken for the advantage of society as a whole. TobCon must be enslaved!

  11. Timbotoo says:

    Excellent post. Very constructive debate in the comments also.
    I haven’t worn a tie (mark of slavery) since the day I retired.

  12. Frank Davis says:

    Here’s Noam Chomsky putting forward the “moral progress” account of the end of slavery:

    • Last words from N. C. in this video: it’s going in a particular direction, and I think that you can even understand the direction, the direction is towards more tolerance of variation and more opposition to coercion and control, I think that’s a very definite tendency and I think it suggests something pretty strong about what our fundamental values are.

      Apparently, in Noam’s worldview, more tolerance should not apply to tobacco use, ‘cos he seems to have, to quote a commenter on Simon Clark’s Taking Liberties, lapped up the antismoking corruption hook, line, sinker, fishing rod, aluminium boat, and part of the jetty.; as you were quoting him back in 2010: The toll of tobacco use is truly fearsome, including “passive smokers” who are seriously affected though they do not use tobacco themselves. The death toll overwhelms the lethal effects of other dangerous substances. (Imperial Mentality and Drug Wars)

      You also added: … And [he] even regards just about every other drug as less dangerous than tobacco: So, for example, smoking is far more destructive than drugs by orders of magnitude

      To pile on: “Well, in fact, by far the worst problem is tobacco: Tobacco kills way more people than hard drugs, 20 times as many or some huge number.”
      (Noam Sayin’? The High Times Interview with Noam Chomsky)https://chomsky.info/20110729/

      Hoping the repulsion those hopelessly (hey, he’s 89!) misguided so-called global progressives generate won’t lead too many of us to embrace patriotic swagger as an antidote, and hand us over to the right-wing nationalists’ equally warped worldview!

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