Invitation to My Dissertation Lecture, August 29th

To all in the D/FW area interested in the topic, I would like to extend an invitation to participate in my dissertation lecture. My dissertation is entitled, “Constructed Subjectivities and a ‘Thick’ Account of Agency: A Foucauldian Dialogue with Douglass, Fanon, and the Augustinian-Franciscan Tradition.” The lecture shall begin at 6:30pm at the University of Dallas, Gorman Faculty Lounge (#6 on the campus map) on Monday, August 29th. A brief question and answer period and a reception shall follow the lecture. If you are interested, promise that you won’t throw tomatoes or any other objects, and can make it, I would love to see you there! You may read the dissertation abstract here.


Part II: Scotus On the Harmony, Beauty, and Consonance of a Moral Act

In the previous post, I introduced a number of important themes connected with Scotus’s view of a moral act and commented on passages in which he employs musical imagery and terminology to explicate his view. In this post, I want to discuss one additional passage where Scotus once again draws upon musical metaphors and concepts to unpack various aspects of his moral theory. Having highlighted Scotus’s use of the term “consonance,” I then develop his image further, bringing his dynamic view of natural law, as well as his emphasis on the beauty of moral acts and the creativity and practical skill of the moral agent into conversation with my own thoughts on the interplay of contingency and stability and our role as co-composers in an ongoing improvisatory symphony which is this world.

In Ordinatio III.37.25-28, Scotus uses the term consonare (“to be consonant”) four times to explain the relationship between natural law in the extended sense and natural law in the strict sense. For example, the Subtle Doctor states, although the precepts of second table of the Law, that is, natural law in the extended sense, “do not follow necessarily” from the precepts of the first table of the Law, that is, natural law in the strict sense, nonetheless, the former are “highly consonant (multum consona)” with “those first practical principles that are known in virtue of their terms and necessarily known to any intellect [that understands their terms].”[1] Building on Scotus’s metaphor, perhaps we might think of natural law in the strict sense as an unchanging melody given by God in order to reveal himself—his love, beauty, goodness and so forth—to his creatures. This divine melody is a theme that reverberates throughout the created order and sounds most strongly in the human heart. Natural law in the extended sense is the harmonic background supporting the divine melody and drawing attention to its beauty. One could imagine a different harmonic background upon which the melody might be played—one could conceive, for example, an alternative consonant or even an extremely dissonant harmonic background.  However, just as with a masterpiece like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, whose main theme is so distinctive and pronounced yet is so intimately tied to the harmonies, rhythms, and unfolding compositional “story,” if Beethoven were to completely reharmonize the piece, changing the time signature and main tonal center, we would hear the piece as a different, new composition.

Similarly, God as divine master-composer could have, as Scotus might put it, according to his divine power (de potentia absoluta), presented us with a different set of natural laws in the extended sense and with different divine positive laws; yet, he has chosen in his wisdom and creativity, according to his ordained power (de potentia ordinata), to give us the second table of the Law as we have it.[2] That he also chooses to dispense with or reharmonize certain aspects or selected precepts of these laws at different times and with respect to different individuals is his prerogative qua master-composer. Such free activity in no way impugns his character since neither natural law in the extended sense nor divine positive law (for example, circumcision in the Old Testament or certain dietary laws) entails the necessity of natural law in the strict sense.

Developing our musical analogy further and bringing in the two power theme just mentioned, once you are given a specific musical framework, structured according to a particular set of theoretical principles—analogous to the world into which we have been thrown and the natural laws given in the Decalogue—a certain regularity or order is established. As a result, those who live and work within this context must learn to work creatively with rather than against the given structures and principles. Refusal to do so not only alienates the musician from the artistic tradition, but it also hinders his or her own development as a musician and, in effect, silences his or her work, rendering it either obscure or unintelligible. If musicians here represent humans who must live and move and have their being within God’s world and live according to his laws, then one can draw the comparisons relatively easily: human being is lived best when humans live harmoniously with God’s laws—laws which are crafted to enhance, rather than impede their freedom and creativity.

In addition, once a musical framework has been given and established, those working in it are socialized by it. That is, although the musical scales, theoretical rules, harmonic progressions, and so forth could have been otherwise, that they not, creates a “feel” of permanence and attaches a sense of stability to present framework. In other words, this particular framework becomes the framework. Consequently, since the musicians occupy the same framework, shared understandings of consonance and dissonance will develop naturally.  Such shared perceptions also materialize due to commonalities in the very being of the musicians themselves (for example, refined auditory skills), making them well-suited for creative work within this context. Analogously, humans created by God are well-suited for the world in which he has placed them—a world in which they are summoned as co-composers to beautify and better themselves, others, and the world itself. Given our historical and temporal existence, the shared understandings of consonance and dissonance form a continuum of greater and lesser degrees, allowing for many variations on the given themes and much “movement” within the structures. In other words, there is a dynamism built into the framework itself permitting and even beckoning artists to improvise the “original” themes so that they might be heard anew through the passage of time.

Here I want to return to our Beethoven example and engage in a thought experiment. What if Beethoven crafted his masterpiece in such a way that in order for the main theme to sound most beautifully, select themes introduced in the opening movements were meant to be developed, placed within new extended harmonies and set over syncopated poly-rhythms unconceivable to those hearing only the earlier movements? Instead of a static one-time composition, what if Beethoven’s symphony was intended as a multi-authored work, inviting multiple co-composers to co-create a dynamic, ongoing piece? The structure of the piece—its “narrative” or form—as well as its central melodic themes are givens; they remain constant and are the framework within which the performers as co-composers must choose to operate. Nonetheless, within the various movements or epochal periods, the themes may be reharmonized, ornamented, and improvised upon in myriad ways. The main themes and “storyline” must remain identifiable, but the structure itself both fosters and invites (by design) co-composers of various intellectual levels, practical skills, and moral character to contribute to the beauty of the whole. If we can imagine such a state of affairs, then perhaps we can apply the analogy to God’s free creation of the world and his invitation to humans to participate in his, as it were, on-going redemptive historical improvisational symphony, whose last movement continues to be written.

Although I have highlighted the dynamism built into the structures and framework of an artistic composition, I want to emphasize again that choosing to work with the givens is not to forfeit one’s freedom or one’s creativity. The expert musician is well aware of this fact, as she is one who has chosen to devote herself to the study of the masters, the principles of music theory, and the customary practices of the art, both submitting to and innovatively expanding the tradition.

Lastly—and hopefully the Scotistic echoes of this section will be heard—as a freely created structure, the framework itself could have been otherwise; however, the fact that it is not means that a certain level of stability and regularity characterize the present framework (analogous, of course, to the present world). If we acknowledge these givens and work creatively with them as co-composers in an ongoing improvisatory symphony, we do well. Yet, as free beings, we can choose to reject this framework along with its principles and the authority of the person or persons “behind” the givens. To do so is certainly possible, but it is not without consequences for oneself, for others, and for the piece itself.


[1] Scotus, Ord. III, d. 27, n.25 (ed. Vat. X 283); Williams, “The Decalogue and the Natural Law,” 603. In Ord. IV, d. 17 Scotus likewise employs the image of consonance to describe the relation between natural law and positive law. See, Wolter, Will and Morality, 197–98.

[2] For Scotus’s discussion of God’s absolute and ordained power, see Ord. I, d. 44 (ed. Vat. VI 633–69); Wolter, Will and Morality, 191–94. God’s ordained power speaks of his self-imposed limitations to act in accord with laws he himself has freely willed to be the case.  God’s absolute power speaks of his ability to non-contradictorily and justly alter, revoke, reconfigure, or transcend such ordained laws. As Scotus explains, to the extent that God “is able to act in accord with those right laws he set up previously, is said to act according to his ordained power; but insofar as he is able to do many things that are not in accord with, but go beyond, these preestablished laws, God is said to act according to his absolute power. For God can do anything that is not self-contradictory or act in any way that does not include a contradiction (and there are many such ways he could act); and then he is said to be acting according to his absolute power” (Wolter, Will and Morality, 192). See also, Courtenay, “The Dialectic of Omnipotence.” Courtenay observes that the two power distinction was based on the “fundamental perception […] that what God created or established did not exhaust divine capacity or the potentialities open to God” (ibid., 243).


Part I: Scotus On the Harmony, Beauty, and Consonance of a Moral Act

Scotus recognized that an existential application of natural law, and particularly natural law in the extended sense, requires the proper exercise of practical reason. On the one hand, “Scotus insists upon the primacy of God’s will for an objective moral order”; on the other hand, Scotus emphasizes “the centrality of the human will in self-determination.”[1] In our lived experience, moral goodness becomes manifest in the creative interplay between these two wills. This is not to say that humans via their volitional choices and actions “define goodness,” as that is the prerogative of the divine will, which the Subtle Doctor emphatically claims is the objective standard for moral goodness.[2] Elsewhere Scotus describes in detail two affections intrinsic to the human will, the affection for justice and the affection for advantage.  The former moderates the latter and makes possible freedom from or freedom beyond natural appetite. However, as Ingham brings to our attention, a Scotistic view of ethics involves much more than an explanation of the inner workings of the two affections. Scotus’s analysis of moral goodness stresses “the relationship of goodness to beauty. It presents the moral act as a work of art and the moral agent as an artisan.”[3]

The use of an artistic model and artistic analogies to explicate moral theories is not foreign to the Western philosophical tradition. Aristotle, for example, employs musical analogies (as well as medical analogies) in his Nicomachean Ethics.[4] Thomas Aquinas references both types of Aristotlean analogy; however, his preference is to cite and develop the Philosopher’s medical images.[5] Scotus, in contrast, turns frequently to artistic and musical analogies and terminology in his reflections on ethics and the moral goodness of an act. In light of the Subtle Doctor’s preference for freedom over natural necessity,”[6] his choice of artistic, creative freedom as his preferred explanatory model is, as he might put it, fitting.

Given my current research, I want to engage in a slight digression that brings Foucault into the conversation. In what I have called elsewhere, Foucault’s “ethico-aesthetic turn,” he too describes ethical acts and ascetical practices as akin to works of art in which the agent, through self-disciplinary technologies acquires practical skills and a certain degree of self-mastery, enabling him or her to live a beautiful life—a life which itself is an ethopoietic work of art.[7] Like Scotus, Foucault values freedom and stresses repeatedly the contingent character of our world. Foucault’s discussion of creative self-elaboration, subject-formation, and his notion of power relations presuppose free subjects with rational capacities. However, unlike Scotus Foucault offers no explanation as to why humans are able to engage in such self-directed, uncompelled activities so that they might define themselves and pursue an authentic, beautiful life. Moreover, Foucault’s reticence to address directly the metaphysics of human being or what makes a human person a person worthy of dignity and respect is a weakness in his account not unrelated to his reticence to affirm at least some transhistorical, transcultural ethical norms. If there is nothing at all stable or unchanging about the ontology of human beings, then there is nothing upon which one might base a doctrine of universal human rights.[8] That is, rights will remain—and this seems to be the case for Foucault—epistemai-specific or tied to a particular cultural and historical period, not only socially constructed “all the way down” but in no way grounded in a universal, shared human nature or universal, essential capacities or features constituting the human person as such.

Returning to Scotus’s use of artistic and musical images to explicate ethical themes, Ingham observes how the Subtle Doctor’s strategy of bracketing reference to complete human fulfillment in God in the hereafter—that is, eschatological perfection—allows him, while not denying that our ultimate union with God is our telic destiny and happiness, to concentrate his attention on the concrete act in all its particularity as morally beautiful. The morally good act appears not as a means to a pre-determined end, but as an artistic whole within which harmony and proportion among several elements exist.”[9] By foregrounding the concrete act and the circumstantial aspects and context in which it must be considered for a proper assessment of the act’s moral value, Scotus opens the door for dialogue about ethics across religious and non-religious boundaries.  None of this is meant to downplay Scotus’s theology and its role as a source and influence for his philosophy. It goes without saying that Scotus’s theological commitments make him, like Augustine, skeptical about philosophy’s ability to deliver one to a life of complete human flourishing.[10] For the Subtle Doctor and the North African Saint, the human heart finds its ultimate repose and contentment in loving union with the Triune God. Nonetheless, because Scotus “rejects any natural or necessary connection between knowledge of an objective moral goal such as [Aristotle’s] eudaimonia [or beautific vision] and the human ability to attain it in this life (pro statu isto), he can without compromising his own theological beliefs, bracket talk of those aspects requiring a commitment to divine revelation, and discuss a theory of moral acts which, presumably, someone like Foucault or Fanon would find worthy of a hearing and perhaps even find appealing.

In Ordinatio I.17, Scotus describes the moral goodness of an act as a kind of comeliness, elegance, or ornamentation (quasi quidam decor) analogous to an indefinable yet perceptible embellishment beautifying a work of art. Describing the décor of a morally good act, Scotus writes:

it can be said that just as beauty is not some absolute quality in a beautiful body, but is the sum of all that is in harmony [convenientium] with such a body (for example, size, magnitude, figure and color), and also the sum of all its aspects [omnium respectuum] (which are those of the body and those of one another), so the goodness of a moral act is a kind of décor of that act, including the sum of due proportion to all to which it has proportion (for example to the power, to the object, to the end, to the time, to the place and to the manner), and this especially as those things which right reason says must harmonize [debere convenire] with the act: so that regarding all these things we can say that harmony [convenientia] of the act with right reason is that by which the act has been considered [posita] good, and that by which it has been considered [posita]—in whatever manner it might harmonize [conveniat] with other aspects—not good, since whatever act, if it is not in accord with right reason when performed [in operante] (for example, if it does not exhibit [habeat] right reason when performing it [in operando]), then the act is not good.[11]

In this passage, Scotus employs the term convenire or some version of its noun variant convenientia four times. I have chosen to translate convenire as “to harmonize” and convenientia as “harmony,” in keeping with Scotus’s preference for musical analogies. Here the idea seems to be that the morally good act, similar to a beautiful work of art, will exhibit just the right balance among its various aspects. Thus, the morally good act will be performed in the right manner, at the right time, in the right location and circumstances, among the appropriate people, with the proper end in view, and so forth.  For example, telling the truth, while typically a good act, can be told in an inappropriate manner, to an inappropriate conversation partner, and with an end in view which actually intends to harm an individual.

Scotus’s emphasis on the circumstances and context of the act, of course, sounds with Aristotelian echoes, as the Philosopher makes comparable statements in the Nicomachean Ethics.[12] In both Aristotle and Scotus’s account of morally good or virtuous acts, practical reason plays a prominent role. As the passage from Ordinatio I.17 demonstrates, Scotus lays stress upon right reason’s ability to perceive a fitting or harmonious combination of the various elements surrounding the act in question. If the act and its, as it were, harmonic background do not form a consonant whole—a consonance determined by the agent’s prudential reason, itself an intellectual virtue developed within a tradition as a musical skill is developed within a tradition—, then the act is not considered morally good.

In addition to his emphasis on the circumstantial context of an act, Scotus also underscores the objective dimension of the action. As Ingham explains, by the term “objective,” Scotus has in view the “object of the action. For example, in the directive ‘tell the truth,’ truth is the object of the action. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ is an objectively good act because persons (both you and your neighbor) are worthy of love.”[13] Although Scotus claims that every moral act has an objective dimension discernable by right reason, the moral beauty of an act is not reducible to this dimension. The agent’s freedom in choosing a particular act also factors into Scotus’s account.  For example, one might tell the truth about a particular person’s illegal financial activities—not because it is the right thing to do given the deleterious consequences such activity has brought on others, but because one’s boss has demanded that the truth be told. There is a sense in which the act is objectively good because truth was the object of the action; however, the person uttering the truth is not brought into a better moral condition as a result of the action; his or her character is not made better. In contrast, when a person chooses freely to live a life of truth-telling and has not only one’s own good but the good of others’ in view, his or her actions “take on a free and rational quality which enhances their natural objective goodness.”[14] When this is the case, one’s truth telling is not only a morally good act (objectively speaking), but it is also an act that makes one a better person.[15]

Moral objects, or the objective dimension of an act, as we have seen are not, for Scotus, the final word, ending all moral discussion. Given what humans are—free, rational beings, Scotus argues that goodness and truth are fundamental moral objects well-suited to our nature and thus proper human goods, aimed at our fulfillment and perfection.[16] Because we are beings with rational powers, we seek reasonable, coherent explanations for our own actions, the actions of others, and for events occurring in our world. Likewise, because we are beings with volitional powers, we desire what is good, even if we are often mistaken as to what is in fact good for us. In short, whether real or apparent, truth and goodness “are significant moral objects; they are human goods. Indeed, truth and goodness are the two most fundamental moral objects; they respond to our human aspirations which express themselves in activities of knowing and loving.”[17]

Of course, Scotus differentiates between morally good acts and morally neutral or indifferent acts. For example, curling my hair in the morning, or tying my right shoe before my left shoe are morally neutral acts. Although both acts are chosen and performed freely, neither are morally significant, as the objects of the action—curly hair or tied shoes from right to left—are morally insignificant and do not augment or diminish my moral character.

In sum, for Scotus, a morally good act is multi-faceted, involving conscious intent, proper motive, a harmonious circumstantial context such as the proper manner, end, time, place, and so forth, and it is an act that perfects or improves the agent’s character. A morally good act, as Ingham states, “resembles not simply a whole, but a beautiful whole thanks to the developed ability of the moral expert in identifying significant data in light of principles, objects and circumstances.”[18] The moral expert not only acts “out of the appropriate moral motivation,” but she also “has a developed eye for beauty and seeks to create beauty in each act and moral judgment.”[19]


[1] Ibid., 55.

[2] Ibid. Lest one get the impression that I am suggesting a crass voluntarism here, one should balance the above claim with Scotus’s insistence that God always wills most rationally (rationabilissime). See, for example, Ord. 3, d. 32, q. un, n. 21 (ed. Vat. X 136).

[3] Ibid. See also, Kovach, “Divine and Human Beauty in Duns Scotus’ Philosophy and Theology.” Kovach makes a case for Scotus’s bringing back the so-called lost transcendental, beauty. According to Kovach, Scotus argues for the real identity of beauty and goodness, claiming only a formal distinction obtains between the two. Thus, beauty and goodness are coextensive with being and the other simple transcendentals.

[4] See, for example, Nic. Ethics 1.7.1098a10-18.

[5] In footnote 18 Ingham states that “the Index Thomisticus reveals a ratio of health to art images at about three to one.” Since “Aristotle himself favors the medical imagery,” Thomas’s own appropriation of the Stagirite’s medical analogies is not surprising (The Harmony of Goodness, 56).

[6] Ibid., 57.

[7] See Foucault’s discussion of writing as an aspect of ancient “self-training” involving an “an ethopoietic function: it is an agent of the transformation of truth into ēthos” (Foucault, “Self-Writing,” in Ethics, Subjectivity, and Truth, 209).

[8] I shall pick up the discussion of universal human rights shortly, explicating Scotus’s contribution to the topic and reconnecting our previous dialogue partners’ views on rights talk; here I simply mention the theme in passing.

[9] Ingham, The Harmony of Goodness, 57.

[10] On Scotus’s view of the insufficiency of philosophy to direct human beings to true happiness, which is union with God, see Boulnois, Duns Scot la rigueur de la charité.

[11] Scotus, Ord. I, d. 17, n. 62 (ed. Vat. V 163–64). My translation. The full Latin text reads as follows: dici potest quod sicut pulchritude non est aliqua qualitas absoluta in corpore pulchro, sed est aggregation omnium convenientium tali corpori (puta magnitudinis, figurae et coloris), et aggregation etiam omnium respectuum (qui sunt istorum ad corpus et ad se invicem), ita bonitas moralis actus est quasi quidam decor illius actus, includens aggregationem debitae proportionis ad omnia ad quae habet proportionari (puta ad potentiam, ad obiectum, ad finem, ad tempus, ad locum et ad modum), et hoc specialiter ut ista dicantur a ratione recta debere convenire actui: ita quod pro omnibus possumus dicere quod convenientia actus ad rationem rectam est qua posita actus est bonus, et qua non posita—quibuscumque aliis conveniat—not est bonus, quia quantumcumque actus sit circa obiectum qualecumque, si non sit secundum rationem recam in operante (puta si ille non habeat rationem rectam in operando), actus non est bonus.

[12] See, for example, Nic. Ethics 2.6.1106b20–3.

[13] Ingham, The Harmony of Goodness, 59.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] See, for example, Scotus’s discussion in Quodlibetal Question 18.8-14; Wolter, God and Creatures, 400–403. In Quod. Quest. 18.13-14, Scotus draws an analogy between food as an appropriate object to nourish humans and knowledge (and by implication truth) as an appropriate object for the intellect (Wolter, God and Creatures, 402–403). Earlier in Quod. Quest. 18.9, Scotus had distinguished between primary and secondary types of goodness and suitability. That which perfects the being or entity itself is good and suitable in the primary sense. For example, truth is a primary human good, given what we are: rational animals. Having proportional facial features is a good in the secondary sense (Ibid., 400–401).

[17] Ingham, The Harmony of Goodness, 60.

[18] Ibid., 61.

[19] Ibid.


Part IV: Paul and Slavery: Submit, Subvert or Something in Between?

In this final section, I shall address from a theologico-philosophical point of view claims (1)-(3) and (5) of the opening division of my essay [Part I].  In article 1 of Ord 4, d 36, q 1, John Duns Scotus, in stark contrast to most of his ancient (e.g., Aristotle) and early medieval predecessors, argues that slavery (as described by Aristotle in bk. I of the Politics)[1] is incompatible with natural law, “not good but bad for the slave,” and is introduced “only by positive law.”[2] Scotus further states that there are only two instances in which this kind of slavery can be just:  (a) voluntary servitude (e.g. to pay a debt), and (b) in the case of hardened criminals who might otherwise harm themselves or others.  Yet, he is quick to qualify his claim regarding (a) voluntary servitude, as it still may go against the law of nature. Scotus’s argument is rooted in his view of the will as a self-determining active power.  A sufficient explanation of his view of the will is beyond the scope of this essay; however, for our purposes, I shall present his position in broad strokes.  According to Scotus, both natures and wills are active powers, yet the two are distinguished in terms of the mutually exclusive modalities in which they operate (i.e. natures operate necessarily and wills operate contingently, that is, freely).  If one claims that the will acts necessarily,[3] then it ceases to be a will and is transformed into a nature.  For Scotus, the will cannot be determined from anything outside of itself, lest it cease to be a will and hence, forfeit all claims to acting as a moral agent.  A person who acts necessarily and hence cannot act otherwise cannot justly be held to be morally responsible for his or her actions. Consequently, to willingly reduce oneself to the status of property-a position that could justly be occupied only by an animal or an inanimate object given Scotus’s distinctions-is according to Scotus “foolish.” It is to attempt, as a being created with a free will, to act as if one were an un-free, determined nature.  Freedom, for Scotus, is an essential component of our humanity and is part of what it means to be created in God’s image.  Thus, any endeavor to nullify that freedom, whether voluntary or involuntary is a violation not only of God’s design for human beings but also of the very ontology of human beings as well.  Lastly, to Scotus’s philosophical-theological arguments against slavery, we may add a further theological point:  the introduction of slavery is a consequence of the Fall.[4] Using Gordon Wenham’s phrase, slavery is not “creational-ly ideal.” In Gen 1:26-30, God gave Adam and Eve dominion over the animals, plants and the created order as a whole, excepting one another of course.[5] Adam was not commanded to dominate (or enslave) Eve, nor was Eve to dominate (or enslave) Adam.

In sum, Scotus’s condemnation of slavery as inherently unjust, coupled with the Augustinian theological claim based on Genesis that slavery is a result of the Fall and does not reflect God’s telos for human relationships, provides us with substantive building blocks for a case against (1) the charge that owning human beings and treating them as property is morally acceptable to God, (2) that slavery is a “natural” state of at least some human beings (Aristotle), and (3) that slavery is compatible with natural law.

As we have seen with the 1 Cor 7 passage [Part II, III], careful exegesis demands attentiveness to the occasional, as well as, the historico-cultural context and apocalyptic vision of the early church.  Failure to do so has resulted in shameful, inhumane, sub-Christian treatment of African Americans under the banner of Christ and by way of specific appeal to St. Paul’s writings.[6] Each new generation of Christian thinkers and activists must confront the particular moral and ethical issues of their day, which requires wisdom, seeking truth wherever it can be found (whether in divine revelation or elsewhere), and instruction from the Holy Spirit working through his people in the context of the church, “not by appeal to a previous blueprint by Jesus [or the New Testament writers] for the church.”[7] Such an approach requires wisdom, which is, of course, never easy but always worth the struggle.   To the question, should Christians today actively seek to eradicate slavery-the practice of reifying human beings and reducing them to the status of property-I answer with a resounding “yes.” For the Christian today, I see no moral imperatives in Scripture compelling support for the institution of slavery.   Just as Paul called the Christian communities of his day to live out its kingdom values, we too must live and act in such a way that challenges the injustices of society.  Our historical and cultural situation is of course different from that of Paul and the early church.  Nonetheless, the Church would do well to reflect on Paul’s subversive strategies, to recall Scotus’s condemnation of slavery, and to work towards developing a position in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Pope John Paul II, in which the enslavement of human beings is once and for all condemned as an “intrinsically evil” (intrinsece malum) act.[8] The faith and eschatological-ly grounded hope of our African American brothers and sisters serve as an exemplar for all Christians of striving for justice and standing for the dignity of all human beings.  Will we follow with an appropriate response of (active) love?

Bibliography/Works Cited/Consulted

Aland, Barbara, Aland, Kurt, and Black, Matthew et al. The Greek New Testament, 4th ed., Federal Republic of Germany: United Bible Societies, 1993, c1979.

Augustine.  De civitate Dei, ed. and trans. R.W. Dyson.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Bailey, Kenneth E.  “Women in the New Testament:  A Middle Eastern Cultural View,” Theology Matters Vol. 6, no. 1 (Jan/Feb 2000):  1-11.  [An online version of this article is available at: ].

Bartchy, S. Scott. “Slavery,” in Vol. 4, Q-Z of The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, eds. Geoffrey W. Bromiley et al. (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1988):  539-46.

Brown, Raymond E.  An Introduction to the New Testament. New York:  Doubleday, 1997.

Felder, Cain Hope.  “The Letter to Philemon,” in Vol. XI of The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000): 883-887.

Finley, M. I.  Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology. New York:  Viking Press, 1980.

Garnsey, Peter.  Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Glancy, Jennifer A.  Slavery in Early Christianity. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2002.

Harrill, J.A.  “Slavery,” in The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, eds. Ralph P. Martin and Daniel G. Reid (Downer’s Grove:  Intervarsity Press, 1993):  1124-27.

Hays, Richard B.   First Corinthians. Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.

Lewis, Lloyd A.  “An African American Appraisal of the Philemon-Paul-Onesimus Triangle,” in Stony the Road We Trod:  African American Biblical Interpretation. (Minneapolis:  Augsburg Fortress Press, 1991):  232-246.

Martin, Clarice J.  “The Haustafeln (Household Codes) in African American Biblical Interpretation: ‘Free Slaves’ and ‘Subordinate Women,'” in Stony the Road We Trod:  African American Biblical Interpretation. (Minneapolis:  Augsburg Fortress Press, 1991):  206-231.

Rupprecht, A.A.  “Slave, Slavery,” in The Dictionary of New Testament Background, eds. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Downer’s Grove:  Intervarsity Press, 2000):  881-83.

Sampley, J. Paul.  “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” in Vol. X of The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002):  773-1003.

Witherington III, Ben.  Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1995.

Wolter, Allan B. (trans.) and Frank, William A. (ed.),   On the Will and Morality. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1997.


[1] Scotus describes Aristotle’s view of slavery as found in book I of the Politics as that “according to which the master can sell the slave like an animal, for cannot exercise acts of manly excellence, since he has to perform servile actions at the command of his master.  {Addition:  And this servitude or enslavement is such that an individual loses all his legal rights to another person, which is something not to the good of the slave, but to his detriment, and this slavery is what Aristotle talks about when he says a slave is like an inanimate instrument, neither can he be good or virtuous.  This kind of slavery, as we said, is not good but bad for the slave, and therefore the Apostle says:  ‘Know that you are free and do not make yourself subject to any man’}” (Wolter, Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality, p. 325).

[2] Wolter, Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality, p. 325.

[3] The language used here tends to reify will.  When Scotus uses the term “will,” he means a person who possesses a genuine will that is free.

[4] Augustine likewise appeals to the Fall of Adam as the causal origin of slavery; however, he seems to employ this claim as a way to justify the continuance of the institution. “The first cause of servitude, therefore, is sin, by which man was placed under man in a condition of bondage:  a condition which can come about only by the judgment of God, in Whom there is no injustice.” Augustine, De civitate Dei, 19.15, p. 943. Cf. also Garnsey’s detailed analysis of Augustine’s position on slavery in Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine, pp. 206-19.

[5] Cf. also, Augustine, De civitate Dei, 19.15, p. 942.

[6] Cf. Cone’s discussion of slave catechisms produced by Christians in the Antebellum South, The Spirituals and the Blues, pp. 22-23.

[7] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 331.

[8] In Veritatis Splendor, paragraph 80, Pope John Paul II states, “[r]eason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature ‘incapable of being ordered’ to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed ‘intrinsically evil’ (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that ‘there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object’ [Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (December 2, 1984), 17: AAS 77 (1985), 221; cf. Paul VI, Address to Members of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, (September 1967): AAS 59 (1967), 962].  The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: ‘Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator’ [Gaudium et Spes, 27].” (accessed February 25, 2009).

Augustine and Scotus on Slavery

One would be hard pressed to deny that slavery as an institution was widely accepted in the ancient world.  Both the Old and New Testaments, participating in the cultural consciousness of their day, also appear to accept slavery as an institution (cf. Exodus 21:1-32; Lev 25:39-55; 1 Cor 7:21ff; Philemon; 1 Pet 2:18).  (By the way, I am very open to any readings of these texts that would argue otherwise.  If you happen to have commentary suggestions or know of exegetically-based arguments that have been published in scholarly essays, please send them my way).  However, I find it not insignificant that at least two premodern Christian theologians/philosophers, concluded (1) that slavery as such is immoral (Scotus) and (2) that slavery is never a “natural” condition but one that has arisen as the result of sin (Augustine).  For example, in De civitate Dei, St. Augustine says,

The first cause of servitude, therefore, is sin, by which man was placed under man in a condition of bondage:  a condition which can come about only by the judgment of God, in Whom there is no injustice.[1]

Augustine goes on to state,

By nature, then, in the condition in which God first created man, no man is the slave either of another man or of sin.  But it is also true that servitude itself is ordained as a punishment by that law which enjoins the preservation of the order of nature, and forbids its disruption.  For if nothing had been done in violation of that law, there would have been no need for the discipline of servitude as a punishment.  The apostle therefore admonishes servants to be obedient to their masters, and to serve them loyally and with a good will, so that, if they cannot be freed by their masters, they can at least make their own slavery to some extent free [cf. Eph 6:5].  They can do this not by serving with cunning fear, but in faithful love, until all unrighteousness shall cease, and all authority and power be put down, that God may be all in all [1 Cor 15:24, 28].[2]

In addition to Augustine, Duns Scotus in article 1 of Ord 4, d 36, q 1, argues in stark contrast with his ancient (e.g., Aristotle) and early medieval predecessors (excepting Augustine) that slavery (as described by Aristotle in bk. I of the Politics) is incompatible with natural law, is “not good but bad for the slave,” and is introduced “only by positive law.” Scotus goes on to say that there are only two instances in which this kind of slavery can be just:  (1) voluntary servitude (e.g. to pay a debt) and (2) in the case of hardened criminals who might otherwise harm themselves or others.  Yet, he says that (1) is “foolish” and still may go against the law of nature (Wolter/Frank, Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality, pp. 325-6).

I often hear the claim made that convictions such as (1) human beings should not be considered the “property” of another human being and (2) slavery per se is morally reprehensible are simply  modern/postmodern sensibilities created and propagated by political liberalism (which is not a jab at political liberalism).  I have to admit that I am deeply suspicious of this claim and find it rather unconvincing.  After all, there were at least two premoderns (Augustine and Scotus and imagine many others of which I am unaware) who claimed that slavery was un-natural (contra Aristotle) and that it violated natural law. (Augustine does, however, seem to offer more of a justification for the institution that might not be in the end very helpful for seeking to abolish slavery.  Scotus’s position, in contrast, might provide a stronger argument for the injustice and moral wrongness of all forms of slavery wherein one human “owns” another as property).

Among other questions that one might raise, what role do the following play:  (1)  cultural blindness (and I’m not denying cultural blindness and biases in our own day) and (2) an oppressive system that prohibits or seeks to suppress voices which speak against the acceptance of slavery as an institution? Relating these questions to the texts of Scripture, should we understand what appears to be an acceptance of slavery as a given state of affairs as an example of cultural blindness on the part of the human authors of Scripture?  (I’m not willing to say that the Bible explicitly promotes slavery).  Lastly, if it turns out that slavery in the ancient world (OT times and the Greco-Roman period) is in many ways significantly different from the various manifestations of slavery in the modern world,[3] might these dis-analogous aspects provide a basis for a strong condemnation by (modern/postmodern) Christians of any form of slavery (or related oppressive practices) driven by racial hatred or an elitism in which one group considers itself ontologically superior to another and thus denies equal educational, employment, housing and so on to the putative inferior group?


[1] Augustine De civitate Dei, 19.15; ed. and trans. R.W. Dyson (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1998), 943.

[2] De civ. Dei., 943-44.

[3] For example, many New Testament scholars (S. Scott Bartchy) stress that some slaves of the Roman period were wealthy, well-educated, owned other slaves, and were more economically secure than many free peasants.  In addition, Bartchy claims that slaves in the NT period did not constitute a social class but rather a “juridical class.”  Bartchy adds, “In outward appearance it was usually impossible to distinguish among slaves, freedmen and free persons.  Neither the slave’s clothing nor his or her race revealed a legal or social status.  Patterns of religious life, friends, or work did not separate slaves from freed persons or freeborn workers” (“Slavery” in Vol. 4, Q-Z of The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1988): 544).  A number of other scholars, however, argue vehemently against such overly positive presentations of ancient slavery (cf. Peter Garnsey, Ideas of Slavery From Aristotle to Augustine).