These days statues of formerly illustrious figures are being toppled because they were slave owners or slave traders. Slavery is seen as something terrible, and anyone involved with it is regarded as morally corrupt.
And yet slavery has existed throughout human history. Why was that? Is it that only recently there has been a moral awakening, in ways there seems never to have happened in ancient Greece and Rome?
One explanation is simply that in the past life was much more difficult than it is now. Most people had to work all their lives, and only a few people lived lives of leisure. And these busy societies were slave societies, whether or not they used that term. But now, thanks entirely to technological innovation, most people don’t have to work. A lot of people can be kept unemployed all their lives. It’s the result of an economic transformation, not a moral transformation. Moral change has been driven by technological change. We no longer need slaves the way they did in Greece and Rome.
Political change also followed technological change. The larger the idle class, the more widely that decision-making is shared
It’s been a sudden transformation that’s taken place in Europe and America. Two or three centuries ago America was a colonial backwater of the British crown. The northern states were the first to industrialise, while the south remained a slave-owning agricultural region. The American civil war of 1861-65 was between northern and southern states, and centred around slavery. The industrial north defeated the slave-owning south.
WW1 was arguably a European civil war. The Franco-Prussian war of 1870 was a war between newly-industrialised Germany and a largely agricultural France. Prussia won, just like the American north won. And if armies on both sides numbered in millions of men, it was because millions of men no longer needed to work, and could be sent off to fight in trenches – inconceivable in wars a century or two earlier..
Such wars are inconceivable now because there now exists an economic parity, If Europe conquered the world, and established colonies all over it, it was because technologically-advanced European armies, with their cannons and muskets, were invincible. Such disparities no longer exist, Or they don’t exist in the same extremes that they once did.
Why was it that northern countries were the first to industrialise? The answer perhaps was that life was harder in the north than in the south. The easier life was in the south, the less the incentive to innovate. If life was already pretty good, why strive to improve it? Before Britain and Germany industrialised, it was countries like Spain and Portugal which were idler and wealthier, and could extend colonies all over the world.
In busy, hard-working societies there was little leisure time, little time in which people could do as they pleased. In idle, leisured societies, people could do what they liked, and think what they liked. And so people became culpable for what they did, precisely because it was freely chosen. And that’s why there’s so much moral condemnation flying around, with statues of people being torn down. Bristol’s slave-owning Edward Colston (1636 – 1721) is now seen as a monster who freely chose to enslave people, when he could easily have done otherwise. But Colston lived in a slave era not much different from ancient Greece or Rome: if he had not been a slave trader he would have been a slave. He is being judged by the standards of a time quite different from those in which he lived. The same is happening with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison,
What’s called “woke” these days is perhaps nothing more than the new moral sensibility that comes with economic development and the freedom it brings. But if the newly “woke” were to somehow be transported back to ancient Rome, they would be laughed to scorn, and themselves promptly enslaved. We should be profoundly glad that we no longer live in such a world. But our modern “woke” can’t see this. They see no difference between then and now.
Our modern “woke” see life as a playground in which we can play any game we like. And for many of them that’s exactly what it is. But until very recently it was not like that at all. Until very recently life was one long round of toil for everyone except a lucky few. And if all had shared equally, there would have been no philosophers, no writers, no inventors: all would have shared the same misery. For all these things are the product of inequality, not equality.