Obedience, Submission, and “Slave Morality”

According to Orlando Patterson, the Roman mime-writer Publilius Syrus wrote, “The height of misery is to live at another’s will” (Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, 77). In this statement, Publilius, a former slave from Syria, had in mind the lot of a Roman slave.

To the Roman mind, living “at another’s will,” in submission and obedience to another, was miserable not because the one obeyed was necessarily harsh or unkind, but because living in this way was itself dishonorable. In effect, the slave had no life of her own; her life was a mere expression of the master’s life. Her actions expressed the master’s desires, and her very existence was dependent on the master. As Patterson puts it, “The dishonor the slave was compelled to experience sprang…from that raw, human sense of debasement inherent in having no being except as an expression of another’s being” (78). In contrast, to be a Roman slaveholder, with others subjected to your will, contributed to one’s honor.

As Patterson notices (78), this Roman view of honor and dishonor is wrapped up in a picture of the good on which power is central. He quotes Friedrich Nietzsche: “What is good? Everything that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome” (Nietzsche, The Antichrist). Anachronism aside, I suspect many Romans—slave and free alike—would have endorsed Nietzsche’s idea.

Of course, the Christian picture of the good could not be more different. Continue reading

Aquinas on Christian Joy

I have often felt a tension in my theology when it comes to the concept of joy. On the one hand, in Galatians (5:22) Paul counts joy among the “fruit of the Spirit.” I take it that this means joy is to grow in the life of a Christian under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and that joy is to be something like a steady, stable, even permanent experience of the Christian as she matures. I have often heard pastors describe such Christian joy as something that persists despite negative or difficult circumstances.

On the other hand it seems the Christian is not to be inured to life’s pains and disappointments as a Stoic might be. Indeed, Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:28-37), and he fretted at his impending death in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46). If Jesus is the Christian’s example (and he is), then it seems appropriate for the Christian to feel the pain and disappointment of life.

Are these two teachings at odds? They have often seemed so to me. Continue reading