Slavery and Freedom as Stoic Indifferents

Will Deming

Stoic ethics held that everything in existence was either good, bad, or indifferent (adiaphoron). Good things were virtues and things that “participated” in virtue. Bad things were vice and things that participated in vice. Every other thing, because it was not directly connected with virtue or vice, was a (moral) “indifferent.” This included health and sickness, wealth and poverty. Indifferents were further classified into those that, like health, had value (axia), and those that, like sickness, had disvalue (apaxia). Under normal circumstances the former were to be selected as “preferred indifferents,” the latter avoided as “rejected indifferents.”

From an early period the Stoics classified both slavery and freedom as indifferents. Yet, curiously, our earliest extended treatment of this theme comes from the late Jewish author, Philo of Alexandria. Furthermore, there is no record that Stoics ever categorized slavery as a rejected indifferent or freedom as a preferred indifferent, even though this should have been an obvious argument to make given the premises of their philosophy. Beginning with these observations, this paper argues:

  • that early Stoics did indeed discuss slavery and freedom as rejected and preferred indifferents, respectively;
  • that this discussion was one of the embarrassing, “Cynic,” aspects of early Stoicism that the middle Stoa discarded in its bid to become acceptable to an elite Roman temperament;
  • and that evidence for this conclusion can be found in Philo of Alexandria and Paul of Tarsus, both of whom offer glimpses of certain first-century fringe elements within Stoicism.

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