Saturday, 11 April 2015

Cassandra Casias: The Vulnerable Slaveholder in the Sermons of Augustine of Hippo

I use Augustine of Hippo’s sermons to illustrate his opinions on the interactions between masters and slaves in his fifth-century diocese.  Peter Garnsey has argued that Augustine’s discussions of slavery as a social institution lack originality, and that he mostly parrots the ideologies of his spiritual and intellectual predecessors.  Augustine’s ingenuity, according to Garnsey, instead rests in his transformation of slavery into a metaphor for the divine order of the universe.   I fully concede that Augustine was no social revolutionary.  His advice to masters and slaves is conventional, and most of his interest in slavery derives from theological concerns.  Nevertheless, Augustine’s frequent depictions of God or Christ as the greatest possible master reveals an elaborate framework of criticism against the human masters in his congregation.
Augustine often invokes the Roman slaveholder as the antithesis of the benevolent divine master.  In praising God as the ultimate master, the bishop highlights all the vulnerabilities to which a male slaveholder exposes himself by exerting so much power over another human, and of relying so much upon a person who obeys him primarily out of fear.  I focus on three vices that Augustine shows to be particular temptations for a mortal slaveholder: pride, greed, and lust.  Augustine’s criticisms of these vices, I argue, illuminate the way that Augustine invoked the master-slave relationship to exploit potential instabilities in his congregation’s domestic lives, with the aim of exacting obedience from men who were used to giving orders rather than receiving them.

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