The Problem of Slavery: In the Age of Emancipation
September 19, 2014
Here is a lengthy excerpt from the book, The Problem of Slavery, by David Brion Davis, the third volume in his trilogy on slavery.
“….Keith Thomas, in his invaluable account Man and the Natural World, shows that from 1500 to 1800, the biblical sense of human uniqueness and privilege gained considerable strength in Western Europe. As Europeans entered a wholly new stage of exploration, conquest, and colonization, including the transportation of millions of African slaves to all parts of the New World, there was a skyrocketing confidence in man’s right and ability to exploit the surrounding world of nature.
“Renaissance men could draw on Plato, Aristotle, and other ancient Greek writers to reinforce the biblical view that everything in the natural world existed solely to serve man’s interests – that everything had a human purpose. Since beasts supposedly had no souls and no conception of the future, domesticated animals were said to be better off than their wild brethren, who had to fend for themselves and were vulnerable to predators and the sufferings of old age. Besides, wild or tame, most animals were designed to provide food for humans, and Western Europeans were especially carnivorous…..
“Keith Thomas points out that Western Europeans were shocked and expressed ‘baffled contempt’ when they learned of the Buddhists’ and Hindus’ respect for animals, even insects. By the 1630s, any such respect was further weakened philosophically by the emerging work of the so-called Father of Modern Philosophy, Rene Descartes. As a great mathematician, it was perhaps natural for Descartes to conclude that ‘thinking’ was his essence, the only thing about himself that could not be doubted (‘I think, therefore I am’). Hence, his body was like a machine, a matter of extension and motion that followed the laws of physics and was controlled by his wholly separate mind and soul. Since he became certain that animals lacked both a cognitive mind and soul, they were really automata, like clocks, capable of complex behavior but totally incapable of speech, reasoning, or perhaps sensation…
“The widening gulf between man and beast had important implications for what we might term social control and the spread of Christian civilization. Christians had regularly portrayed the devil as a mixture of man and animal, and the Antichrist as a beast. There had always been a tendency to animalize serfs and peasants, especially those who worked with animals and were darkened by manure and soil as well as the sun. Thomas points out that bestiality, the ultimate sexual crime, became a capital offense from 1534 to 1861…Edmund Burke expressed a typical dehumanizing view of social class when contemplating the French Revolution: ‘Learning will be cast into the mire, trodden down under the hoofs of the swinish multitude.’” [Pp. 25-26]