A fuller extract from Gregory of Nyssa on the evils of slavery

A few years ago I found online an extract from Gregory of Nyssa against slavery which I wrote about here.  Today I came across the full text of the translation, and the passage is rather longer than I had thought, and well worth giving in full.

The passage appears in the Homilies on Ecclesiastes, homily 4.  Gregory is working his way through the text of Ecclesiastes, and the various ways in which Solomon attempted to fill his life with stuff, rather than with God.  In Ecclesiastes 2:7 he starts listing his possessions, which include slaves.

Note that the biblical Greek text on which Gregory commented is sensibly translated at the head of the passage, as it is not always the same as our modern texts which are based on the Hebrew.

Ecclesiastes 2:7 –

I got me slaves and slave-girls,
and homebred slaves were born for me,
and much property in cattle and sheep became mine,
above all who had been
before me in Jerusalem.

334.5. We still find the occasion for confession controlling the argument. The one who gives an account of his doings relates one after another almost all the things through which the futility of the activities of this life is recognized. But now he reaches as it were a more serious indictment of things he has done, as a result of which one is accused of the feeling of Pride. For what is such a gross example of arrogance in the matters enumerated above – an opulent house. and an abundance of vines, and ripeness in vegetable-plots, and collecting waters in pools and channelling them in gardens – as for a human being to think himself the master of his own kind? I got me slaves and slave-girls, he says, and homebred slaves were born for me.

Do you notice the enormity of the boast? This kind of language is raised up as a challenge to God. For we hear from prophecy that all things are the slaves of the power that transcends all (Ps 119/118,91). So, when someone [p335] turns the property of God into his own property and arrogates dominion to his own kind, so as to think himself the owner of men and women, what is he doing but overstepping his own nature through pride, regarding himself as something different from his subordinates?

335,5. I got me slaves and slave-girls. What do you mean? You condemn man to slavery, when his nature is free and possesses free will, and you legislate in competition with God, overturning his law for the human species. The one made on the specific terms that he should be the owner of the earth, and appointed to government by the Creator – him you bring under the yoke of slavery, as though defying and fighting against the divine decree.

335,11. You have forgotten the limits of your authority, and that your rule is confined to control over things without reason. For it says Let them rule over winged creatures and fishes and four-footed things and creeping things (Gen, 1,26). Why do you go beyond what is subject to you and raise yourself up against the very species which is free, counting your own kind on a level with four-footed things and even footless things? You have subjected all things to man, declares the word through the prophecy, and in the text it lists the things subject, cattle and oxen and sheep (Ps 8,7- 8). Surely [p336] human beings have not been produced from your cattle? Surely cows have not conceived human stock? Irrational beasts are the only slaves of mankind. But to you these things are of small account. Raising fodder for the cattle, and green plants for the slaves of men, it says (Ps 1041 103,14). But by dividing the human species in two with ‘slavery’ and ‘ownership’ you have caused it to be enslaved to itself, and to be the owner of itself.

336,6.  I got me slaves and slave-girls. For what price, tell me? What did you find in existence worth as much as this human nature? What price did you put on rationality? How many obols did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God? How many staters did you get for selling the being shaped by God? God said, Let us make man in our own image and likeness (Gen 1,26). If he is in the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? who is his seller? To God alone belongs this power; or rather, not even to God himself. For his gracious gifts, it says, are irrevocable (Rom 11,29). God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?

336,20. How too shall the ruler of the whole earth and all earthly things be put up for sale? [p337] For the property of the person sold is bound to be sold with him, too. So how much do we think the whole earth is worth? And how much all the things on the earth (Gen 1,26)? If they are priceless, what price is the one above them worth, tell me? Though you were to say the whole world, even so you have not found the price he is worth (Mat 16,26; Mk 8,36). He who knew the nature of mankind rightly said that the whole world was not worth giving in exchange for a human soul. Whenever a human being is for sale, therefore, nothing less than the owner of the earth is led into the sale-room. Presumably, then, the property belonging to him is up for auction too.  That means the earth, the islands, the sea, and all that is in them. What will the buyer pay, and what will the vendor accept, considering how much property is entailed in the deal?

337,13. But has the scrap of paper, and the written contract, and the counting out of obols deceived you into thinking yourself the master of the image of God? What folly! If the contract were lost, if the writing were eaten away by worms, if a drop of water should somehow seep in and obliterate it, what guarantee have you of their slavery? what have you to sustain your title as owner? I see no superiority over the subordinate [p338] accruing to you from the title other than the mere title. What does this power contribute to you as a person? not longevity, nor beauty, nor good health, nor superiority in virtue. Your origin is from the same ancestors, your life is of the same kind, sufferings of soul and body prevail alike over you who own him and over the one who is subject to your ownership – pains and pleasures, merriment and distress, sorrows and delights, rages and terrors, sickness and death. Is there any difference in these things between the slave and his owner? Do they not draw in the same air as they breathe? Do they not see the sun in the same way? Do they not alike sustain their being by consuming food? Is not the arrangement of their guts the same? Are not the two one dust after death? Is there not one judgment for them? a common Kingdom, and a common Gehenna?

338,14. If you are equal in all these ways, therefore, in what respect have you something extra, tell me, that you who are human think yourself the master of a human being, and say, I got me slaves and slave-girls, like herds of goats or pigs. For when he said, I got me slaves and slave-girls, he added that abundance in flocks of sheep and cattle came to him. For he says, and much property in cattle and sheep became mine, as though both cattle and slaves were subject to his authority to an equal degree.

The Greek text translated is that in the modern Gregorii Nysseni Opera (GNO) series, (volume 5), and page and line numbers are indicated.

The translation itself is by the excellent Stuart G. Hall, and Rachel Moriarty.[1]  The latter contributes a preface indicating that unfortunately the translation has been tampered with in order to make it “gender neutral”.  The translation of the homilies is followed by a series of useful studies, and I could wish that others adopted such a format.

It’s obvious, in context, that Gregory is not preaching an abolitionist sermon, but an expository one.  He’s not calling for the institution of slavery to be abolished.  Indeed his hearers might not have been prepared for anything that radical.  But Gregory is worrying away at the idea.  The germ of the idea that led to abolition is present.

Useful to have this, and it is perhaps not as well-known as it might be.

  1. [1]S. G. Hall, Gregory of Nyssa: Homilies on Ecclesiastes. An English Version with Supporting Studies. Proceedings of the Seventh International Colloquium on Gregory of Nyssa. (St Andrews, 8 -10 September 1990).  De Gruyter, 1993, pp.72-4.

11 thoughts on “A fuller extract from Gregory of Nyssa on the evils of slavery

  1. Roger Pearse said ‘Useful to have this, and it is perhaps not as well-known as it might be.’

    Maybe this is not well-known because this translation costs $160.00 on Amazon. It is very expensive to study many of the earlier Fathers of the church.

  2. A comment with which I have enormous sympathy. The worst bit of that is that it is all unnecessary. The authors weren’t paid. The cost to print is around $20. So nearly all of that is profit.

  3. “unfortunately the translation has been tampered with”
    I think bowdlerized, mutilated or butchered are more appropriate terms.
    The PC translators, the latest generation of censors of ancient texts, did not convey what Gregory intended when he put quill to page.

  4. Excellent article and an improvement on the previous one. St. Gregory of Nyssa was a great man – not abolitionist in the political sense but more profound and goes deeper to destroy the idea of slavery in the heart of people.

  5. I don’t see how you could say it is not an abolitionist sermon. I don’t think he could be more clear. People are not to own other people under any circumstances. His indignation at the very idea is palpable. This is different from other texts where people might argue to treat slaves well etc. This is clearly arguing the entire institution is immoral.

    If you mean he is not arguing against a particular human law – I agree he does not mention any particular human law. He says any view justifying slavery would be “overturning [God’s] law.”

  6. In regards to Phil Brook’s comment: “The PC translators, the latest generation of censors of ancient texts, did not convey what Gregory intended when he put quill to page”. I think this comment to some degree overlooks one of the most vital and difficult tasks of the translator – that is, to convey what the author intended, sometimes does require changing gender terms. When referring generally to both men and woman patristic authors such as Gregory use the default masculine. Therefore, in order to convey Gregory’s meaning in modern English it might be entirely appropriate to use a gender-neutral term. It is also vitally important to consider this considering that within Gregory’s understanding of the creation of humankind in the image of God (which is set out in his ‘the making of man’) at this point humans are without gender and the creation of male and female is in the second instance. So, I would not entirely view all such changes through the lens of modern politics.

  7. Thanks for posting my comment (and for this site). No, I certainly can’t think of a circumstance in which substituting “he” for “he and she” is legitimate either! My example was rather different to that. Here is an example where using an English gender-neutral term (which btw precludes ‘he and she’): Gregory in the original koine says ‘man’ when referring to all of humankind. He does this because when talking about both genders collectively, Late Roman laws and homilies and such default to masculine. A word-for-word translation into English would therefore accurately be ‘man’, however, the meaning is more accurately conveyed by the English term humankind. This may seem nit-picky but if you take John Behr’s excellent just published translation of ‘The Human Image of God’, Gregory talks about the two moments of creation, first the creation of the human soul, genderless in the image of God, and second (although simultaneous in time) the creation of male and then female. A word-accurate translation could completely butcher Gregory’s meaning by rendering it God makes man, and then man and then woman. But I absolutely agree that gender should never be made neutral if that was not the meaning in the original text. Although, a further point is discerning the changes made to the surviving (usually medieval) texts. For instance, in the time and location in which the Cappadocian Fathers were writing, the Holy Spirit was still being referred to in the feminine (certainly Basil did) and later copyists had no bones with correcting such obvious ‘errors’.

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