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    How Do You Not See This?

    Daily Stoic Emails

    In his Notes on the State of Virginia, the always-curious Thomas Jefferson mused over the differences between Roman and American slavery, an institution he both criticized and actively participated in. We should not forget, he said, just how horrendously cruel Roman slavery was. There are stories of Roman aristocrats feeding slaves to their pet eels. There were laws that dictated that if a master was killed, all the slaves were put to death—so as to discourage and deter potential murder plots that were, at their hearts, land and “property” grabs. It was believed that female and male slaves were kept separate so they could not procreate and “burden” their masters with the care of a child. Old and injured slaves were similarly sold off as soon as they stopped being useful, just as one might sell off a horse that could no longer be ridden; a practice of which Cato the Elder—the grandfather of the great Stoic—was guilty and Jefferson was fully aware.

    But what’s most instructive about Jefferson’s thinking, for our purposes, is his interest in the talent of Roman slaves. “Yet notwithstanding these and other discouraging circumstances among the Romans,” he writes, “their slaves were often their rarest artists. They excelled too in science, insomuch as to be usually employed as tutors to their master’s children. Epictetus, Terence, and Phaedrus, were slaves.” 

    Jefferson’s interest in this enslaved talent pool from antiquity sits at the heart of how he managed to rationalize the horrors of chattel slavery here in America. In hundreds of years of slavery in the colonies—which, despite his self-interested protestations, was probably worse than Roman slavery—there had been no black Epictetus. This was proof, to Jefferson’s mind, that there was something fundamentally lesser about blacks as a population, as a race of people, which therefore made the American form of slavery less bad than the Roman kind.

    You don’t have to be a genius to see how stupid this logic was. First off, there was a freed slave named Phillis Wheatley who produced beautiful poetry, as good as any white poet of the era. Secondly, there’s a pretty good reason why there wasn’t a bunch of philosopher/writers emerging from slavery, in Jefferson’s time and beyond: It was illegal to teach slaves to read and write

    It was slaves who taught the Stoics their philosophy in Rome and Athens two thousand years ago, but in America slaves were forbidden not only from teaching but from being educated. Thomas Jefferson’s own beliefs, his own policies, created precisely the situation he then used to rationalize the abhorrent status quo. 

    This should be a cautionary tale for us… today. You consider yourself a programmatic thinker, a political realist, a student of history, a righter of wrongs, a teller of truths. The world is going to hell and you know how to fix it. But maybe you’ve become blind to the way your decisions, your actions, your beliefs are contributing—not to any sort of solution, but rather to the very thing you’re bemoaning. Maybe you’re the problem. 

    You look at people who are not as successful as you, people who are struggling, people who have messed up and you wonder why they can’t get it together. What you’re deliberately not seeing is the boot you have put on their necks. What you are ignoring is all the advantages you’ve been given. You’re not special. They’re not inferior. You just started this race we call life at different points on the track. 

    If you can’t see that? Then you’re the problem. 

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    P.S. This was originally sent on December 2, 2020. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.