Here's the embarrassing truth in civilization's closet: it demands cheap labor. The philosopher can't meditate, the artist can't paint or sculpt, the astronomer can't contemplate the heavens, if he has to spend the bulk of his time tending his own fields, caring for his own livestock, or cleaning his own house. The higher the civilization, the more slaves it requires. It was like that from the beginning of the world until the Industrial Revolution. (There was a brief break in parts of Europe following the Black Death, but that was a demographic anomaly, it seems to me.)By way of which, let me recommend to you one of the most interesting and entertaining works of history you will ever encounter: Dr. Kenneth S. Greenberg's Honor & Slavery. I'm sure I've mentioned it before (for example here). It is subtitled, "Lies, duels, noses, masks, dressing as a woman, gifts, strangers, humanitarianism, death, slave rebellions, the proslavery argument, baseball, hunting, and gambling in the Old South."
The Industrial Revolution (a blessing from God, in my opinion) made it increasingly possible to carry on the work of civilization using machines rather than slaves for the scut work. And as soon as that happened, the scales fell from the eyes of the Christians, and they said, "Hey! I never noticed it before, but this slavery business is really cruel."...
Understanding these facts doesn't justify slavery. All it does is make it understandable. It opens a door of human sympathy to people who were different from us.
In addition to being hugely entertaining and informative, for many of you there is a personal reason to read the book. If you're a regular reader of this blog, you probably feel as I do that honor is and ought to be a major motivating value in your life. Dr. Greenberg's book is a helpful way to deepen your understanding of how honor was practiced in an earlier generation, and also to demonstrate some of the perils of honor as a value system.
I remain entirely committed to living by the old code -- which I take to be far older than the period of American slavery -- but I think reading the book helped me understand better how to do it without falling prey to the traps that captured our ancestors. Rarely can anyone deeply understand an organic system to which they do not belong -- an outside observer of a religion or a culture has a huge task simply to understand the system. Dr. Greenberg not only came to understand, at least in part, his perspective usefully improved my understanding of a system I was born into. That's a high accomplishment for a scholar.