Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.07.28

Page du Bois, Slaves and Other Objects.   Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 2003.  Pp. xvii, 290.  ISBN 0-226-16787-9.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by J.J. Mulhern, University of Pennsylvania (
Word count: 1918 words

This book, some of which began life in other formats, has many themes. One theme which seems to run through most of it is the impossibility of having "an unmediated direct experience of classical Greece" (xii), especially in trying to understand ancient Greek douleia.

The book includes an introduction, two parts, and an epilogue, with the usual front and back matter. In the introduction (3-31), du Bois explores the relation of there being douloi and doulai in antiquity with there being for some time a slave system in the American South. She argues that the slave system influenced American classical scholarship to see ancient douleia through the lens of American slavery, and she focuses on B.L. Gildersleeve, who fought in the Confederate cavalry, as an agent of this influence. She asserts, for example, that "his emphasis on war affected his autobiography, his classical scholarship, and the subsequent development of the discipline of classics in the United States" (18). This assertion needs more evidence and explanation than she offers. Du Bois does not tell us, for instance, how Gildersleeve's cavalry service could have affected the syntactical work for which he arguably is best known. She describes Gildersleeve as "founder of its [American classical philology's] national society and its journal, which survive to the present" (13-14). It would be more accurate to say that Gildersleeve was "an early member of the American Philological Association," as George Kennedy said in Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve: An American Classicist (Baltimore 1986, 44). Gildersleeve did found the American Journal of Philology, but the Association's journal is the Transactions, not the AJP. Gildersleeve thus was prominent in American classical scholarship in the critical period; but he was not the only person of influence, and it is not clear that his Southern identity must be the cause of later American scholars' seeing "historical likeness" where, as du Bois noted earlier, the two institutions of Greek douleia and American slavery were "highly various and historically distinct" (xii).

In part one of the book, "Objects" (35-113, chapters 1-4), du Bois offers reflections on other objects and on douleia. To some autobiographical notes about her childhood fascination with Roman glass, Chapter 1, "Communicating with the Dead, Slaves and Everyday Life," adds observations on the Elgin and other marbles, ancient figurines of women working, modern drawings of Greek feminine hairstyles, pots painted with olive trees, and glass again -- all objects which "connect the present with the past" (58). Chapter 2, "Greeks in the Museum," takes modern museums to task for what du Bois regards as their failure to place douleia "in relation to what else we know about ancient Greece" (59). She finds that the Getty Museum, the British Museum, and the National Museum at Athens all suffer from inadequate presentation of douloi and doulai. Chapter 3, "Dildos," illustrates objects presented as being used in Greek female autosexual practices. Du Bois argues, however, that "representations of sexual practices in antiquity ... must be ... not simply and unproblematically identified with the objects of our own contemporary landscape" (100). Chapter 4, "The Slave Body," suggests that douleia was associated with inferior physical characteristics which made douloi and doulai stand out from the crowd. Here it would have been appropriate for her to address in detail ps.-Xenophon's countering observation that, at Athens, "the demos is no better in its clothing than the douloi and the metics, and their appearance is not better" (1.10; on this passage see the useful note in Frisch [Copenhagen 1942], which describes the ordinary dress of inhabitants of Athens and suggests its social utility).

In the second part, "Texts" (117-217), the author offers five chapters, all on douleia. Chapter 5 "Slavery as Metaphor, Slavery and Freedom" adduces texts suggesting that a citizen might be doulos to the dikasterion (120), that a tribute city might be doulos to the city which dominates its confederation (127), that any city might be doulos to a conqueror (127). Chapter 6, "The Woman Enslaved," addresses the issue of female douleia and suggests that women "probably made up the preponderance of the slave population in the ancient city" (132). Evidence or argument would be welcome here, given the considerable lacunae in population data for the ancient world, especially for non-citizens.

The argument of Chapter 7, "The Slave Plato," depends somewhat upon the biographical tradition for Plato, which is known to be unreliable, as du Bois is aware, since she cites Riginos. It may well be that Plato spent some time as a doulos, but we really don't know. The important question is, in Jamesian terms, what would be the cash value of a Platonic period of douleia? Would Plato's having been or not been a doulos changed what he wrote in the dialogue named for Meno the Thessalian, for example, in which a pais appears? Or in other dialogues? The connection isn't made.

Chapter 8, "Aesop the Fabulist," addresses the animal fable and the doulos, or, as the author says, "the political valence of the fable" (176). She observes that "the messages the fables convey are much more consistent with an antidemocratic, antityrannical, aristocratic strain in political culture, at least in the archaic and classical Greek worlds" (177). Consonant with her strategy for this volume, du Bois tests a comparison of the freed doulos Aesop to the freed slave Uncle Remus, both of whom tell animal tales. She finds in both of them a "discourse of resignation" (188). The sizable critical challenges that remain here include assessing authorial intent and reception in both cases.

Adapting the title of Macpherson's Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Oxford 1962), which addresses Hobbes and Locke and their contemporaries, du Bois in Chapter 9, "On Aristotle or, The Political Theory of Possessive Mastery," turns her attention to Aristotle in distinguishing American slavery from ancient douleia. She castigates, for example, "anachronistically overlaying the racialization of slavery onto the institution in antiquity" (204-205). Distinguishing the Greek institution from the American one may be her most important contribution to the ongoing discussion; she could go further to point out that racialization is not the only difference. Her contribution is likely to be lost on many readers, however, because she continues to use the same name for both institutions. In this review, I have used doulos, doule, and douleia consistently to underline the distinction. (Of course the Greeks used other expressions, such as andrapodon, as well as oiketes and oiketis; but my use of doulos and doule should be a sufficient reminder that there is an issue here.) Du Bois reminds us that some Americans depended on ancient discussions of douleia in addressing race-related slavery and that they deemphasized the differences of the one institution from the other. They perhaps led the national discussion off on the wrong track, and, if so, their use of the one word 'slavery' for the two institutions, which has been followed by writers up to the present, might be the main cause of misunderstanding for which du Bois is searching, rather than the sympathies of a scholar such as Gildersleeve.

Neither the descriptive nor the emotive meaning of 'slavery' matches up exactly with the corresponding meaning of douleia. In Aristotle, for example, doulos might well be translated descriptively in some contexts by 'dependent', in the sense of today's government programs to reduce dependency. So, in 1254b20-23, which du Bois quotes from the Loeb translation, Aristotle says:

For he is by nature a doulos who is ... a participant in logos as perceiving it [being able to perceive a connection when it is pointed out] but not as having it [being able to make a connection for himself]. (Rackham's Loeb translation modified extensively and with glosses.)

Aristotle pretty clearly is referring here to people who have trouble figuring things out for themselves, especially about what they should do, but who may be able to be guided more or less rationally nonetheless. I use 'dependency' here not in Finley's status sense (Finley in IESS, New York, 1968, 14, 308a) but in the modern American political behavioral sense. Dependency is a public fact. Many modern countries have invested large sums in trying to guide people away from dependency and toward behavior that might be considered beneficial for them as well as for their countries. Even the United States spends a sizable part of its national treasure on programs ranging from anti-poverty to anti-drug to anti-smoking to anti-obesity to anti-you-name-it for people who are assumed not to be able to figure behavior out for themselves but who may be able to be influenced. In ancient Greece, the city may have done something similar for members of the dependent population; but here Aristotle has households in mind. The hypothesis that the household might include some dependent individuals in our behavioral sense might help especially in the interpretation of some Aristotelian texts on the doulos and douleia. If du Bois does not advert to this descriptive sense of douleia as dependency, however, she certainly is not alone.

The last chapter, "Irate Greek Masters and Their Slaves, The Politics of Anger," focuses on Frederick Douglass; and here again du Bois counsels caution in comparing American slavery to Greek douleia, especially with respect to "representations of subjectivity in these two very different historical situations" (207). Much of this chapter is concerned with anger. She cites two passages of Aristotle's on anger. In 1149a25-28, Aristotle addresses akrasia with respect to anger, focusing on the point that, as a case of akrasia, anger seems to listen to reason somewhat but to mishear it. Aristotle's comparison here, however, is not to douloi but to diakonoi, which du Bois renders by "slave" (215) with no mention that there is no doulos here -- a difference prudently observed by both Ross and Ostwald in their translations ("hasty servants"). Again, she goes on to cite a longish passage from the Rhetoric as 1380a5-6 (actually1380a14-23 in Bekker lines), where Aristotle is engaged in his thematic treatment of anger as one of the emotions with which the rhetor must deal. For du Bois, Aristotle seems to be concerned with situations "in which masters are constructed through their anger at slaves, and through which relations of superiority and inferiority, rule and deference, are continually established" (216). Could Aristotle have thought that this was his concern? I think not. Actually, in this text, Aristotle is giving advice to young Athenians and others who want to learn the art of persuasion and to get ahead in public life.

In the three-page epilogue, du Bois restates the view found elsewhere in this book that the presence of douloi and doulai has "left its mark" on the West even though the douloi and doulai often have remained "disturbingly unseen, disavowed, and invisible" (221).

There have been some enlightening attempts in recent years to put ancient douleia into perspective, though many have been held back by the confusion that comes from using the one word 'slavery', with its unique descriptive and emotive meanings, for two different institutions. Du Bois has argued that a perspective tinged by modern racial slavery "affects readings of Aristotle's work on politics and slavery ... , interfering with the analysis and interpretation of Aristotle's work" (189). Her argument could be generalized to include other ancient sources. If this book contributes to reorienting scholarly attention so that it may focus more directly on the phenomena of ancient Greek douleia without having to draw comparisons with the American slave experience, however difficult such a task may be, it will have succeeded in at least part of its aim.

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