The True Dignity of Human Beings – Nyssa on Slavery

One of the most rewarding aspects of reading historical material is how it reveals the human mind even at a great remove from our own. There is a myth in our culture that history is the story of progress. It presumes that only in our modern times have we begun to free ourselves from the false ideas of the past. What you discover when you actually read historical materials is that many of the worst ideas ever espoused were specifically “modern” ideas (eugenics, racial superiority, abortion, euthanasia, etc.).

Occasionally, you come across a piece of ancient writing that simply shatters these false assumptions. A case-in-point is this excerpt from St. Gregory of Nyssa’s fourth homily on Ecclesiastes. He is writing in the 4th century, A.D., when the Church is squarely in the Byzantine period. The homily is a commentary on Ecclesiastes 2:7 in which the writer describes his growing wealth and his acquisition of slaves. Nyssa uses the occasion for the most scathing critique of slavery in the annals of Christian preaching. It shows a wonderful clarity of theological insight and understanding – something that would and should have been available and understood both by his contemporaries and by Christians of all times. He did not invent this understanding – he simply demonstrates that its ideas are timeless and not the product of some later historical progress.

There is truth. It abides. There is sin. It obscures.

From the 4th Homily on Ecclesiastes – St. Gregory of Nyssa

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.

The writer of Ecclesiastes sets out in careful order virtually everything in his own experience through which the futility of our activities in this life is known. But at this point he touches on what appears to be a more serious piece of evidence from his deeds through which he can be accused of the affliction of arrogant pride. What is there in what he has laid before us so far which leads to such a level of conceit? He has told us about a valuable house, an abundance of vines, elegant gardens and water features, nicely constructed swimming pools, extensive beautiful parkland. Yet, none of this can compare to his presumption that, as a human being he believes he can lord it over people who in essence are just like him. Because then he goes on to say: “I got me slaves and slave-girls, and homebred slaves were born for me”.

Do you detect the excessive arrogance? An utterance like this shows that he is exalting himself against God. We know from the words of the prophets that absolutely everything is subject to the supreme authority in the universe (Psalm 119/118.91). But this man counts as his own what truly belongs to God and gives to the likes of himself the kind of power which makes him think that he can be the master of men and women. When he sees himself as so different from those who are subject to him one can only conclude that pride has led him to go beyond what is appropriate for his nature.

“I got me slaves and slave-girls.” You are condemning to slavery human beings whose nature is free and characterized by free will. You are making laws that rival the law of God, overturning the law appropriate for humankind. Human beings were created specifically to have dominion over the earth; it was determined by their creator that they should exercise authority. Yet you place them under the yoke of slavery, as though you are opposing and fighting against the divine decree.

Have you forgotten the limits of your authority? Your rule is limited to control of irrational creatures. In scripture we read: “let them rule over birds and fish and four-footed creatures”. (Gen 1.26) How then do you go beyond what is subject to you and exalt yourself against a nature which is free, counting people like you among four-footed or footless creatures. “You subjected everything to humankind” declares the scripture through prophecy and it goes on to list what is under human control: domestic animals, cattle and sheep. (Psalm 8/7.8) Surely human beings have not been born to you from domestic animals? Surely cattle have not given birth to human offspring? Irrational creatures alone are subject to humankind. “He makes grass grow for animals and green plants for people’s slaves”. (Psalm 104/103.14) . But you have torn apart the nature of slavery and lordship and made the same thing at one and the same time enslaved to itself and lord of itself.

“I got me slaves and slave-girls.” Tell me what sort of price you paid. What did you find in creation with a value corresponding to the nature of your purchase? What price did you put on rationality? For how many obols did you value the image of God? For how many coins did you sell this nature formed by God? God said: “Let us make human beings in our own image and likeness” (Gen 1.26). When we are talking about one who is in the image of God, who has dominion over the whole earth and who has been granted by God authority over everything on the earth, tell me, who is the seller and who the buyer? Only God has this kind of power, or, one might almost say, not even God. For scripture says that the gifts of God are irrevocable (Romans 11.29). God would not make a slave of humankind. It was God who, through his own will, called us back to freedom when we were slaves of sin. If God does not enslave a free person, then who would consider their own authority higher than God’s?

How can people be sold who have dominion over the earth and everything on the earth? It is essential that the assets of people being sold are sold with them. How can we value the contents of the whole earth (Genesis 1.26)? If these are beyond any valuation then tell me, what is the value of the one who is over them? If you said “the world in its entirety”, even then you would not have found anything approximating to the value (Matthew 16.26; Mark 8.36). Someone knowing the true value of human nature said that not even the whole world is worth enough to be given in exchange for the human soul. So when a human being is for sale, it is nothing other than the lord of the earth being brought to the auction room. This means that creation as we know it is at the same time being put up for public sale. That is earth, sea and islands and all that is in them. How then is the purchaser going to settle the payment? What will the vendor accept considering the greatness of the property involved in the transaction?

Did the little notebook, the written agreement and the calculation in obols trick you into thinking that you could be master of the image of God? What utter folly! If the contract was lost, if the writing was eaten by moths, if a drop of water fell on it and washed it away, where is there any proof that you have a slave? Where is there anything that supports you in being a master? You have somebody who is named as your subordinate, but beyond the mere name I see nothing. What did such power add to your real nature? It did not give you extra years or any genuine superiority. Your lineage is still human, your life is similar, the sufferings of the soul and the body prevail upon you both in the same way, with you as master and another in subjugation you are still both affected by agony and delight, gladness and distress, sorrow and joy, anger and fear, disease and death. Surely there is no distinction in such things between slave and master? Do they not draw in the same air when they breathe? Do they not see the sun in a similar way? Do they not both sustain their life by taking in nourishment? Is not the make-up of their bodily organs the same? Do they not both return to the same dust after death? Do they not both face one and the same judgment? Is not the prospect of heaven and hell the same for them both?

So when you are equivalent in every way, tell me in what particular way you have more so that you think you can become master of another human being even though you are a human being yourself. “I got me”, you say, “slaves and slave-girls,” as though they were a herd of goats or swine. After saying “I got me slaves and slave-girls,” he added the good cheer that comes through flocks and herds. For he says “And much property in cattle and sheep became mine”, as though animals and slaves were subject to his authority to an equal degree.

This text is copied from the website Early Church Texts – edited by Revd Andrew Maguire

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



, , ,



13 responses to “The True Dignity of Human Beings – Nyssa on Slavery”

  1. EPG Avatar

    Wow . . .

    I am fascinated with the Saint’s willingness to, as it were, “take on” scripture, especially in light of the argument advanced in antebellum America to the effect that scripture sanctioned the institution of slavery (perhaps an example of why the doctrine of sola scriptura (in the Protestant sense) is fatally flawed).

    Our host wrote

    “There is truth. It abides. There is sin. It obscures.”

    Mulling over this: perhaps, at its root, all sin arises from the failure to confront the truth.

  2. Michelle Avatar

    Father bless,

    What are we to make of Leviticus 25:44-46?

    It seems God gave a law to Moses on owning people as property. How do we understand this?

    Thank you for your time, Father

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    First, prior to those verses, it is specifically forbidden to make a slave of “your brothers” (other Israelites). It is, I suppose, part of the limit of the Law that it does not fully reveal the whole of the truth – that truth made known in Christ that “all men are brothers.” It is of note that St. Gregory, who certainly knew the Leviticus passage, allows no excuse for the writer of Ecclesiastes (nor would he countenance any transference of that Levitical passage into a Christian setting).

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ve always thought it interesting that Christ cites the law on divorce (which is taught in Lev. and Deuteronomy, et al), but describes it like this: “Moses gave you this commandment…but in the beginning it was not so…” Jesus doesn’t hesitate to critique the Law, when there is something higher. I think that many of our habits of how we treat the Old Testament are flawed. The slavery stuff is a good example…

  5. Matthew Brown Avatar
    Matthew Brown

    I love this—and yet, I am also uneasy about it because one can just never be “woke” enough. The woke would say that we have no right to dominion over the earth or anything in it, and probably go on to say that this is a fatal flaw in Christianity, which ought to be canceled because we in our modernness know so much better than God or the Church. I think that no matter what good things we say or do, we are in for a season of persecution now that the woke door has been opened. I guess that’s why it’s good that Jesus said we are blessed when persecuted for Him. I t will turn out right if we remain faithful to Love.

  6. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar

    I think St Gregory’s arguments here are interesting in that they can apply similarly to human spiritual relationships, where it is clear that there should be no misuse of spiritual power, no demands of absolute obedience, and no expectation of some indissoluble spiritual subjection which cannot be safely escaped. But I’m wary of reading too much into these arguments theologically (or plain logically), rather than rhetorically, because his arguments in the larger Homilies are clearly hyperbolic and cannot stand up according to either civil or ecclesial scrutiny. For example, in his very next homily on usury, he makes the following flourish:

    Why did he disturb the gold mingled in the earth and poured out in those places in which it was put from the beginning by its Maker? What more did the Creator make the earth owe you, besides its crops? Did he not allot you only the fruits and the seeds for food? Why do you overstep the bounds of your authority? Or else, show me that these things too have been granted to you by your Creator, that you may mine what lies underground, and dig it up and refine it with fire, and gather what you have not sown.

    —St Gregory Of Nyssa (Homilies On Ecclesiastes: 4.2.8)

    As mining and refining was required in order to construct the Cross (the nails), is required to make our chalices, and is used for everything from windows to lampada glass to mosaic icons, it is not possible to take St Gregory verbatim here—there would be *no* Christianity if we take what he says at “face value”. I don’t think that means that slavery—especially racial slavery—is therefore somehow automatically justifiable, only that St Gregory’s argument against it cannot stand. Interesting thought experiments, at least, and a good self-check to see if we can catch these contradictions.

  7. Eric Avatar

    Thank you for this Father Steven
    The Saint connects this to the words of Jesus, ‘what can a man give in exchange for his life?’ That in itself stopped me in my tracks.

    What can we say of a world in which people utter those commonplace words, ‘human resource management’ without the slightest shiver?

  8. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I’m more inclined to see ‘Christian’s’ as ‘persecutors’ as much as the ‘woke’.

    The issue as I see it is is that I need to endure and undergo a self examination to see in truth what traits in my own heart and soul (sins) that enslave me. (Usually pride.). It is likely the same traits that involve me in the persecution of others, in all its facets whether socially acceptable in today’s culture or no.

    Here is the ‘promise’ of a company that sells a “health” drink. That you will obtain (by purchasing and drinking it) your “superhuman power” self. If one wants to self reflect on their own group one might be critical of ourselves who as Orthodox Christians show up just before communion. It seems that we might have a similar idea about the Eucharist is— is it a “superhuman power” drink? Or is it the body and blood of Christ. It might be a little to easy to forget the cross and suffering, if we come into Liturgy at the moment communion is offered.

    We are all influenced by this culture, whether ‘woke’, non-woke or whatever stripe we want to on cast on ourselves or on others.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    On the “woke” phenomenon. This is a good example of Chesterton’s description of modernity’s “virtues run wild.” Virtue (whether it is human freedom from oppression, or justice, etc.) have to be set in a greater context that asks about the actual nature of human beings and of human culture. I see nothing in our political culture, Left or Right, that actually provides a description for the grounding of virtue. We have largely made politics to be about power (and money) and all discussions of virtue that are employed are only window-dressing.

    The long and short of virtue in a culture is that no culture is virtuous unless its citizens are virtuous. This, I think, has been made shipwreck. Unfortunately, we have become the kind of people who deserve exactly the culture we are getting. Hence, the right Christian reponse is repentance.

  10. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    That was “Dee of St Hermans” not “Dee of St Het”. I was writing on my phone–always a mistake. And now on my computer see all the typos involved in that comment. Please forgive me. I should have known better.

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I fixed the “St. Het” But you should know that only a teen-ager can type quickly on a phone…and then, they don’t spell things out.

  12. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Father thank you for giving me a good laugh!! I needed it!! : )

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “The right Christian response is repentance”
    I am beginning to understand that any other response just creates more confusion and fear and anguish.
    It is quite difficult–so much easier blame everyone else. Anyone else.
    But the fact is that I am tied to every absurd and evil idea and action in the culture. Certainly all of the pain in those I love and seek to justify myself that I am “right” for I am an arrogant man.
    The Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim, the Syrian keeps coming to mind. especially “Help me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother.”

    The couple of times I approached the vaguest actuality of doing so are a treasure to my soul.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!

Latest Comments

  1. Dear Fr Stephen, So glad to hear that Orthodoxy is expanding so gloriously in Tennessee – praise God! We, too,…

  2. My parish, St. George Antiochian Cathedral began in the early part of the 20th century out of homes and store…

Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast