Today I was discussing a piece in a TOEFL prep-book about the American Civil War with a student, and one the points that the article suggested was that it was the economic differences between the slave-owning South and anti-Slave North that led to the civil war occurring. The article itself mentioned that the Northerners tended to own machines to do their work, and the South of course used the slaves.
Towards the end of this discussion I brought up a point that I remembered struck me while listening to Dan Carlin’s podcast, Hardcore History, and it’s episode on slavery. Dan posited that because slaves were such universal tools and in easy supply that the ownership of slaves by ancient societies tended to retard their actual growth technologically. An idea I think may actually have some merit. If you have slaves to do everything, why do you need to develop machinery and advanced sciences to do it?
As a counterpoint, my first thought was that the Romans had slaves, and were quite developed in their own ways. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized they were developed in art and architecture, but considering how long they were around did they really advance that much? Similar things can be said of China’s many civilizations (China also has a long history of slavery), they advanced, but would they have advanced faster if the slaves weren’t there, and the peasantry weren’t kept in such a poor condition?
Of course, the Europeans had slaves too, for a very long time. However, in England slavery was ruled illegal in 1102, and in doing this they cut themselves off from the large workforces that some societies who did have slavery had access to. The rest of Europe would eventually follow. Perhaps it was this that forced many of the innovations that have allowed us to achieve our modern societies? Or, as my student today put it at the end of the conversation: “They didn’t have slaves, so they built their own.”
It was often said by those against slavery that slave-owning societies were evil and decadent, and that the owning of slaves corrupts the souls of the owners. You only have to listen to that podcast I linked to above to see there’s a lot of truth in that, and slaves throughout history have been treated horribly. Usually, however, the idea is that the slave-owning society was decadent and thus they owned slaves, but what if the truth is that the ownership of slaves is what made those societies decadent in the first place? If you have someone else to do everything for you, you don’t exercise your abilities, and you become soft and weak. Isn’t that what eventually happened to most of those societies that relied heavily on slaves?
Something to consider for us as well- aren’t we becoming too reliant on our slaves? (machines) And, if so, what will become of us in the future? Already we (the First World nations) are not having children because we have others to care for us when we’re old. So in the end, won’t slaves also lead to our eventual collapse as well?