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  • Writer's pictureAaron Mead

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. Power is arguably value-neutral on the Christian view and can be used for either good or bad. (At the very least, power is not a central good for Christians.) The Christian notion of the good centers, instead, on loving relationships. Hence Jesus’s teaching that the greatest commandments, upon which hang “all the law and prophets,” are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength,” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:34-40).

Given this picture of the good, the qualities of submission, obedience, and humility become virtues for the Christian. This is perhaps illustrated most succinctly in the Hymn of Christ, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:5-8):

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8  he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

Here, in the ultimate act of humility and submission, Christ took on “the form of a slave” and obeyed God to the point of death, in the service of those God loves.

This picture of Christian virtue turns on its head the Roman virtue of honor deriving from power. At best, the Roman would view humility, submission, and obedience as slave virtues, inappropriate to the freeborn and slaveholder. Again, Nietzsche would likely agree, having famously derided Christian morality as “slave morality”.

In a sense, the Roman-Nietzschean critique of these Christian virtues is correct: they are appropriate to slaves, and the New Testament frequently suggests that Christians are slaves of a sort. For example, addressing Jesus as “Lord” picks up on the language of the Lord-slave relationship familiar in the first century, and it positions the Christian as Jesus’s slave. On more than one occasion Paul endorses this picture, referring to himself as a “slave of Christ” (e.g., Romans 1:1). (Note: Many translations soften Romans 1:1 and other passages to “servant of Christ,” but the underlying Greek word, ‘doulos,’ is best translated as “slave”.) Paul also frequently describes himself as a slave of other people, for their benefit (e.g., 2 Corinthians 4:5). Of course, there is a strong theme of “freedom” running through the New Testament too, but there is no getting around the image of the Christian as a kind of slave.

The real question, then, is whether the “slave morality” involving humility, submission, and obedience is a good thing, or an aberration. The answer to this question will, in turn, depend on the picture of the good you are inclined to accept.

To my mind, it makes sense to think of loving relationships as at the center of the human good. In that case, humility, submission, and obedience—in their proper contexts—look like virtues. For example, humility is crucial to loving relationships. Someone who thinks too highly of herself and who is unwilling to serve others will be very difficult to get along with. Similarly, submission to, and obedience of, God make sense: just as children often don’t see the whole picture and need to obey a loving parent, all human beings need the loving guidance of a God to whose will they are submitted and obedient.

I also think submission and obedience can be virtuous in adult-adult human relationships, though this is trickier than the human-divine case. For example, I think mutual submission is essential to any close relationship, though given how thorny this territory is it would take a further blog post (or several) to spell out what I mean and why I think this.

Regardless of how we explain the Christian virtues of humility, submission, and obedience, what seems obvious to me is the flaw in viewing power itself as an unqualified virtue. To affirm such a virtue seems tantamount to endorsing the character and behavior of the megalomaniacal tyrants who have littered the pages of history with their evil.

Of course, a Roman interlocutor might push back and suggest that, like submission and obedience on the Christian picture, power is only a virtue “in the right context,” which may be a fair point. To say this would be to reject Nietzsche’s radical picture in favor of a more moderate view of power as a virtue. It would also be interesting to reflect further on the role of power in the Christian picture of the good, given that God’s tremendous power often looks like a reason for honor and worship in scripture.

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