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).
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.