Social Justice and the Legitimacy of Slavery

The Role of Philosophical Asceticism from Ancient Judaism to Late Antiquity

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Ilaria L. E. Ramelli
Oxford Early Christian Studies
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     344 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ilaria L. E. Ramelli is a prolific author who writes across disciplines, and Social Justice and the Legitimacy of Slavery demonstrates her scholarly breadth. Linking classical and late antique philosophy, literature, and theology, she attempts to join three concepts: rejecting slavery, fighting social injustice, and ascetic practice. The first two connect well; adding the third leaves something to be desired. Despite some shortcomings, the volume re-envisions slavery at the end of the fourth century as well as corrects earlier incomplete scholarship on slavery.

Gregory of Nyssa is her primary lens for linking slavery, what she terms “social justice,” and asceticism. While she tries to assert that these three connect throughout classical and late antique philosophical and religious systems (9), she links them convincingly only in Gregory, and even then, the final connection with asceticism remains tenuous. From Gregory’s arguments against slavery and for justice in all realms, he would likely argue against slavery regardless of his ascetic position. While Ramelli correctly points to Gregory’s link between justice in all realms and asceticism (194-204), Gregory’s arguments for justice regarding slaves transcend practice. Gregory’s bold claims about the absoluteness of justice and the evil of slavery set him apart from Basil—and other theologians in chapter 4—and Gregory Nazianzen—and other theologians in chapter 7. These theological arguments stand without the tenuous connection to asceticism, although it makes a pretty package to tie earlier ascetic renunciation of slaves with Gregory of Nyssa’s theological rejection of slaves.

Chapter 1, a review of pre- and non-Christian philosophical and religious approaches to both moral and juridical slavery, occupies nearly a third of the seven-chapter book—with an introduction and conclusion. While it provides a deep treatment of the original sources, not enough distinguishes it from earlier monographs to warrant its length. Ramelli notes initially that this book addresses exceptions to the traditional narrative on slavery (1); the seventy-five pages revisiting that traditional narrative distract from that goal. Perhaps this length stems from a genuine concern for texts, traditions, and terms. Her introduction contains refreshing examinations of the specific terms—such as “asceticism”—in their late antique intellectual milieu, though I am not convinced by her use of “social justice” at any point in the text, despite her claim of its relevance (5-9, 249). Better would have been “economic justice,” as her definition rejects all other forms of social justice. Furthermore, while this volume addresses academic specialists in classics, ancient philosophy, theology, late antiquity, and late Roman and early Byzantine history, the contemporary cultural climate colors the term “social justice” beyond reasonable application to the late ancient world.

Chapters 2 and 3 briefly explore first- through sixth-century Christian approaches to the three topics, and chapter 4 provides case studies from the two main Christian camps on juridical slavery: slavery is natural in the post-lapsarian world, or tolerated but not ideal. The real contribution of Ramelli’s volume comes in chapters 5 and 6. Here, she teases out Gregory of Nyssa’s three theological arguments against slavery: every human made in the image of God is free (177-85, 187-88); if God’s nature is unity, so also is humanity’s nature undifferentiated between slave and master (185-87); and, there is no slavery in the eschaton, which, channeling Origen, can be a present reality (203-11). It is in this third argument that Ramelli provides the best support for linking asceticism to a rejection of slavery and the promotion of economic justice—the arguments for which parallel his arguments against slavery, 194-203—as living the “angelic life” of asceticism means attempting to live the idealized eschatological state. However, Gregory’s first two arguments against slavery are sufficiently convincing on their own and are the bulk of his intellectual and theological argumentation against slavery and economic injustice.

This volume is a substantial expansion of Ramelli’s 2012 article in the Journal of Late Antiquity (“Gregory of Nyssa’s Position in Late Antique Debates on Slavery and Poverty, and the Role of Asceticism,” JLA 5.1 [2012]: 87-118), and at points, the book strains the reader’s attention as she stretches her points to monograph length. The block and in-line quotations are excessive, and there is a failure to signpost clearly. Indeed the primary signposting—variations on “as I have shown already” and “as I will demonstrate later”—clutters her prose; the writing also suffers when a dozen words appear where two would suffice.

It is hard from this volume to speak about a general view of slavery and social justice that stem from a similar theology, and are related to asceticism—the generalities suggested not just by the title, but by the author in places such as pages 9-10 and 251. She would have done better to focus solely on Gregory of Nyssa’s contributions. That approach would have created avenues for discussing his unique theological acumen, making claims about the value of Origen in the fourth century, or nuancing earlier scholarship. The author promises sweeping connections present throughout centuries of thought, but delivers fully only on Gregory. With promises of more, the reader leaves feeling unsatisfied.

Apart from these qualms and shortcomings, Ramelli created a useful book. Contrasting Gregory’s views on slavery and economic justice with other approaches presents his ideas as truly revolutionary. Her reading of Gregory pays attention not only to the breadth of his corpus—something missing from earlier scholarship—but to his ideas in their intellectual milieu. Ramelli draws on a variety of fields for her scholarship, which is reasonably deep, though I question the wisdom of a seventy-five-entry section of the bibliography devoted entirely to her own work, some of which is unrelated to the monograph.

Overall, when read for what it is—a book about Gregory of Nyssa’s unique views on slavery and economic injustice contrasted with the majority opinions—this is as interesting book. It increases understanding of slavery in the late Roman Empire and early Byzantine Empire, how Gregory of Nyssa constructed his theological claims, the connections between classical thought and Christian theology, and the influence of Origen. That is a solid contribution by any standard.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Zachary B. Smith is assistant professor of theology at Creighton University.

Date of Review: 
July 5, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ilaria L. E. Ramelli is professor of theology and K. Britt endowed Chair at the Graduate School of Theology, SHMS, Thomas Aquinas University (Angelicum), the Director of International Research Projects, Senior Visiting Professor of Church History at Columbia University, Senior Research Fellow in Religion at Erfurt University, and Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. Her publications include, Evagrius's Kephalaia Gnostika: A New Translation of the Unreformed Text from the Syriac (SBL, 2015), Hierocles the Stoic: Elements of Ethics, Fragments, and Excerpts (SBL, 2009), and Bardaisan of Edessa: A Reassessment of the Evidence and a New Interpretation (Gorgias Press, 2009).


Ilaria L.E. Ramelli

I thank very much Zachary Smith for his reading and praise of this book, which rests upon almost a decade of labour.

I agree that the label of “economic justice” applies to patristic discourses regarding the concept of God’s equal distribution of the goods of the earth to all humans, and the condemnation of the possession of anything unneeded as tantamount to theft to the detriment of the poor, since it breaks the principle of the common destination of the goods. Indeed, I myself use the term “economic justice” (1, 5, 6, 26, 44, 126, 130, 195, 198, 207, 231, 245, 249 etc.), often in the form “socio-economic justice,” but also “economic justice” alone (6 etc.). My use of “social justice” derives from its inclusivity, since it also encompasses the rejection of slavery and the division of humans between slaves and slave owners—which is clearly the other major focus of the book along with economic justice, their interrelations, and their respective relations to philosophical asceticism. 

Both Susan Holman and I have argued extensively for the applicability of a notion of “socio-economic justice” to the many, remarkable patristic texts that expressly appeal to “justice” (δίκη, δικαιοσύνη; iustitia vs. iniustitia, iniquitas; zdqt’) in relation to economic justice (but also to social justice writ large, “justice” being used by Jewish and Christian and some “pagan” ascetic thinkers as a principle against slavery too), although of course there are big historical differences between the present society and the Roman Empire that was home to most of the patristic authors considered. I use “social justice” largely on the basis of the use of the principle of “justice” in ancient sources themselves. This principle is central, for example, to Origen’s definition of “much wealth” (multae divitiae) as iniquitas, to John Chrysostom’s statement that it is impossible to be rich “without committing injustice” (ἀδικοῦντα), and to Evagrius’ claim that wealth is tantamount to theft. Epiphanes posited communality and justice/equality (κοινωνία, ἰσότης) as principles of the common distribution of the goods of the earth (besides my treatment, see now Izabela Jurasz, “Carpocrate et Epiphane: chrétiens et platoniciens radicaux,” Vigiliae Christianae 71 [2017] 134-167). Justice is one of the main epithets (epinoiai) of Christ for Origen, who allows for a wide applicability of the consequences of this identification—not last his equation between injustice and wealth. Patristic thinkers intertwined these tenets with Biblical elements, such as Isaiah’s motif that the practice of justice towards fellow humans has God remove one’s sins, Jesus’ exhortations to poverty as perfection and the difficulty of the rich in entering heaven, and the definition of greed for money as the root of al evils (1 Timothy 6:10).

The review seems to downplay the plentiful evidence, produced and examined in the monograph, of the relations between philosophical asceticism and justice, from Plato (to whom the link appears to go back) to the Sentences of Sextus, from the reports on Essenes and Therapeutae to Origen, Evagrius, John Chrysostom, and other Origenians, Syriac Christians, and other patristic authors besides Gregory of Nyssa, as well as specific examples of religious practice analysed. The case for the relevance of this documentation is made in the introduction and the conclusions—although there I also made clear that not all kinds of asceticism valued the reduction or abolition of social injustice and slavery. It is not a biunivocal relation. But there is a strong drift of philosophical asceticism that constantly engaged with the issue of justice and its application to social relations. Based on Plato’s association between asceticism and justice and his equation between the “lover of money” (φιλοχρήματος) and the “lover of the body” (φιλοσώματος), a Platonic-Pythagorean tradition expressed e.g. in the Sentences of Sextus—which informed Christian ascetics such as Origen—posited the tenet that it is impossible to worship God if one commits injustice against humans. The same line was developed by Gregory of Nyssa: ascetic practices are useless without justice towards fellow humans, which he termed spiritual asceticism (“spiritual fasting, immaterial self-restraint”).

The grounds for philosophical asceticism, especially in the Platonic and Pythagorean tradition, “pagan” and Christian, necessitated a substantial chapter on ancient philosophy—with many new arguments, well beyond the “traditional narrative” (see, e.g., viii-ix)—to corroborate the ways in which patristic philosophy received many aspects of it and often joined them with scriptural support. The first two chapters are indispensable per se and to study the background of patristic positions: ancient philosophy, Scripture (Hebrew Bible, NT) and ancient Judaism, among which the significant reports on Essenes’ and Therapeutae’s thought and practice. Of course, the contributions of mine cited (within a bibliography that counts 33 pages for about 760 references—so these amount to less than 1/10) are closely related to each point in my arguments, as all the relevant footnote references make clear. Signposts, unless they refer to passages within the same subchapter, are regularly given through chapter- and subchapter divisions. 

For Gregory of Nyssa, ideally no one, ascetic or not, should keep slaves, and certainly no Christian should (whereas others thought that only ascetics should own no slaves), although he was aware that mainly ascetics renounced keeping slaves, and ascetics personify social justice by renouncing keeping unnecessary wealth out of a principle, not only of self-restraint, but of justice. I concur, and contend in the book, that Gregory’s views against slavery transcend practice, being grounded in absolute theological principles (the “theology of the image,” equality within the Trinity and social analogy, and the normative nature of the telos); this is why I argued that they go far beyond Stoic positions. They are among the strongest in antiquity against slavery. Radical positions were also supported by Epiphanes and Eustathius, which I discussed as well. Interestingly, the church at Gangra intervened against Eustathius and his followers, but never disavowed Gregory’s arguments against slavery or socio-economic injustice, just as it never condemned Gregory’s version of apokatastasis, notwithstanding later polemics against Origen’s and Evagrius’ views. Gregory’s descriptions of Macrina, Emmelia, and Naucratius make clear the connection between their asceticism and their renunciation of owning slaves (on the grounds of ὁμοτιμία, used by Gregory as a principle of justice), in addition to the connection between their asceticism and their renunciation of possessions. In many other cases in late antiquity, some of which I examined, embracing ascetic life meant renouncing slaves and wealth—although there were Christian monasteries such as that of Paula, or ascetic lifestyles such as that of the “pagan” Platonist Proclus, that, as I clarified, did not entail such renunciations.

I am very grateful for the reading, the review, and the valuing of my monograph. 


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