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Literalism, slavery and the new atheism.

The rise of literalism

During the first decade of the third millennium, a wave of militant, popular atheism swept over the Anglophone world. Such books as Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation and Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great became bestsellers, apparently striking a resonant chord in the popular mind. Dawkins was deemed so expressive of the Zeitgeist that he appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Although they catered to the popular market, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens drew on serious scholarly research by thinkers like Daniel Dennett and Patricia Churchland. Such theorists portray religion as a kind of ideological virus, a pernicious mass illusion. This "atheist fundamentalism," as its detractors called it, was arguably the first genuinely popular movement in the world of ideas for several decades.

How can we account for this striking public enthusiasm for militant atheism? To some degree, it has grown out of the widespread perception that the West is under physical and ideological attack by Islamic fundamentalism. Among the progressive liberals who composed the new atheism's most loyal cadres, this was allied to the belief that, in the West, secularism was under assault by Christian fundamentalism. To many people, a newly aggressive atheism seemed an appropriate response to such threatening forces. By answering the religious fundamentalists in their own terms, however, the new atheists have unwittingly adopted many of the faults they criticize, especially hermeneutic literalism. Leon Wieseltier's comment on Daniel Dennett extends to the "new atheism" as a whole: "Like many of the fundamentalists whom he despises, he is a literalist in matters of religion." (1)

Atheists have always mocked the religious literalists, and this continues to be a major part of their repertoire today. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris laments "the problem is that most Muslims believe that the Koran is the literal word of God ..." For Harris, the problem of literalism transcends differences between faiths, infecting Christians as well as Muslims: "[according to Gallup, 35 percent of Americans believe that the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of the Creator of the universe.... Some 46 percent of Americans take a literalist view of creation." (2) But the "new atheists" also insist that the Bible must be judged by its literal meaning and that figurative glosses are simply disingenuous. As Phil Ryan observes: "The New Atheists grant that many believers are not notably violent or intolerant. But that is simply because they are not true believers. Unlike the true believers they do not take their sacred scriptures seriously, which for the New Atheists means that they do not read scripture literally." (3) For Harris, metaphorical readings are simply a ruse to which Christians resort once the people can no longer be fooled into believing scripture's literal meanings. He claims that such interpretations arose as an embarrassed reaction to modern scientific discoveries:
   The doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the
   inside. The moderation we see among nonfundamentalists is not some
   sign that faith itself has evolved; it is, rather the product of
   the many hammer blows of modernity that have exposed certain tenets
   of faith to doubt.... Religious moderation springs from the fact
   that even the least educated person among us knows more about
   certain matters than anyone did two thousand years ago--and much of
   this knowledge is incompatible with scripture. (19)

St. Augustine anticipated this objection in The Literal Meaning of Genesis (401). He warned Christians against literalist interpretation, on the grounds that it gave ammunition to their opponents:
   Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the
   heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and
   orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions,
   about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of
   the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs,
   stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being
   certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and
   dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably
   giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these
   topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an
   embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a
   Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an
   ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the
   household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions,
   and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the
   writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned
   men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they
   themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions
   about our books, how are they going to believe those books in
   matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of
   eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their
   pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have
   learnt from experience and the light of reason? (4)

For Augustine, the obvious empirical untruth of Genesis was proof that the text was not to be read literally. His own hermeneutic practice is explicitly anti-literalist. Considering the Psalmist's injunction that "the little ones of Babylon" be slaughtered, Augustine comments: "What are the little ones of Babylon? Evil desires at their birth." (5) Today, such figurative readings are rejected by religious fundamentalists and militant atheists alike. Both sides in the dispute insist that literalism is the only acceptable way to read scripture. What can explain such a radical departure from the methods and assumptions of the past?

Andrew Smith has recently claimed that "[t]he divide between proponents and opponents of biblical literalism is ethical rather than epistemological." (6) This ethical commitment to literalist hermeneutics unites the new atheists with their ostensible opposites. Dawkins begins The God Delusion by reducing all theological issues to the single question of whether or not God exists in an empirical sense. Unless He can be shown to do so, claims Dawkins, there is simply nothing to discuss: "most of us happily disavow fairies, astrology and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, without first immersing ourselves in books of Pastafarian theology etc." (7) Dawkins defines an "atheist" as a materialist: "somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body ..." (35)

In such declarations, literalism's predominance forms part of a more general tendency to concentrate on appearances to the exclusion of essences. This method has its modern roots in the classical empiricism of the Enlightenment. Literalism is the hermeneutic of empirical science. Post-Baconian scientists study the world as it appears to be. Before the Baconian revolution of the seventeenth century, in contrast, scholars drew a sharp distinction between appearance and reality. They denied that what appears is real, because they believed that identity is determined by essence, not by appearance. In hermeneutics, this encouraged them to develop intricate and sophisticated methods of allegorical interpretation, designed to uncover the hidden meanings concealed beneath literal appearances.

While there has usually been a body of literalist opinion within theology, it tended to be a marginal and minority viewpoint until the twentieth century. In Theology as History and Hermeneutics, Laurence Wood calls literalism "the really distinguishing feature" of fundamentalism, noting that "its advocates were typically literalistic in their view of things, but this was not surprising considering that the Enlightenment had bequeathed to modern culture the perspective of scientific literalism." (8) Dawkins approvingly quotes Thomas Jefferson: "To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul." (63)

For the modern inheritors of this Enlightenment empiricism, appearance is the only reality. Dawkins refuses in principle to look beneath the surface of either the text or the world. This positivism informs Dawkins's defense against the charge that he attacks only the literal claims made by religion, thus failing to understand symbolic or allegorical modes of significance. Such criticism has no effect, for Dawkins believes that symbolic or allegorical modes of significance are ipso facto untrue. Just as the empiricist believes that appearance is reality, the literalist insists that words must be taken at their surface, apparent meaning. Of course Dawkins is aware that most theologians do not think of God as literally a "Lord" or a "Father." He imagines such a theologian declaring: "The God that Dawkins doesn't believe in is a God that I don't believe in either. I don't believe in an old man in the sky with a long white beard." But Dawkins responds dismissively: "[t]hat old man is an irrelevant distraction." (36) His objection is to any idea of God, or gods: to divinity as such. The Bible's claim that a divine power exists is sufficient to convict it of falsehood. Anything that is not literally true is absolutely false. Dawkins literalist hermeneutic method is the foundation on which his entire conception of religion as deception is built.

This relentless stress on literalism is a constant trait in modern atheist literature. In God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens assumes that religion must be judged by literalist standards: "Either the gospels are in some sense literal truth, or the whole thing is essentially a fraud and perhaps an immoral one at that." (9) In Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris declares: "Either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it isn't. Either Christ was divine or he was not. If the Bible is an ordinary book, and Christ an ordinary man, then the basic doctrine of Christianity is false." (10) Literal truth is the only criterion by which religion should be evaluated:
   Whatever their imagined, the doctrines of modern religions are no
   more tenable than those which, for lack of adherents, were cast
   upon the scrap heap of mythology millennia ago; for there is no
   more evidence to justify belief in the literal existence of Yahweh
   and Satan than there was to keep Zeus perched upon his mountain
   throne or Poseidon churning the seas. (16)

The new atheism, in short, amounts to a manifesto for literalist reading, and perhaps this helps to account for its huge popularity. Today's Western world evinces a widespread impetus toward literalism that reaches far beyond atheism. The influential religious fundamentalists excoriated by Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens agree with them on one matter: They believe that texts should be interpreted literally. It is arguable that this shared literalism is more significant than the divergent views of scripture's veracity. The two fundamentalisms advocate the same hermeneutic method, and in this sense they are two sides of the same dialectical coin.

Literalism, carnality, and servility

Modern literalism is a major departure from theological tradition. In Christian typology, things, people, and events that are presented literally as "types" in the old dispensation are "spiritualized," or made figurative "anti-types," in the new. The entry of the Israelites to Canaan prefigures the entrance of the soul to heaven, the self-sacrifice of Samson prefigures that of Jesus and so on. Jesus himself speaks mainly in extended metaphors, or parables, which often seem unjust or contradictory if taken literally. His purpose is to separate those who are capable of a figurative interpretation from those who are not: "he who has ears, let him hear." (Matthew 11:15) In Christian readings, the allegorical, "spiritual" hermeneutic of the new dispensation was contrasted with the literal, "carnal" hermeneutic of the Old Testament, which was often referred to as "the sense of the Jews." For nearly two millennia, Judaism was denigrated as a literalistic, legalist religion: The most famous example is Shylock's fetishistic insistence on the "letter" of his "bond" in The Merchant of Venice's courtroom scene. Shylock refuses to budge from his uncompromisingly literal interpretation of the contract. Shakespeare puns on the Greek nomos (law) when, having been asked to have a doctor stand ready to tend Antonio's wounds, Shylock quibbles: "Is it so nominated in the bond?" (4.1.260)

The play's original audience would also have caught the play's running allusion to Paul's aphorism: "the letter killeth." In the ancient and medieval worlds, the literal was but one among several levels on which a text might be interpreted. It was the least exalted level, and it was consistently associated with carnality and slavery. The Hellenic tradition offered a rational basis for this association. In the Phaedo, Socrates assumes that literalism is an instinctive response to the world, automatically adopted by children, but to be abandoned by the rational philosopher. Awaiting death, he reproves his grieving friends: "like children, you are haunted with a fear that when the soul leaves the body, the wind may really blow her away and scatter her; especially if a man should happen to die in stormy weather and not when the sky is calm." (11) Children mistake empirical sense data for reality, which naturally limits them to the belief that human beings are identical with their bodies. Only through the application of reason, which Plato's dialogues are designed to facilitate, can we learn to distinguish between appearance and essence.

In Greek philosophy, the body is conceived as the slave of the soul, for its purpose is to serve the soul's ends. If human beings direct their activity to serving the ends of the body, as, for example, in the irrational pursuit of pleasure, they are reversing this natural relation, and effectively enslaving themselves. In analogous fashion, the slave's life activity, his subjective essence, is directed toward serving the alien purposes of his master. He therefore undergoes a corresponding internal alienation, reverses the proper relations of means to ends, and begins to live for the purposes of the body. The association of carnality with servility lies at the root of Western philosophy. In the Phaedo, the relation of soul to body is defined by analogy with the relation between master and slave: "nature orders the soul to rule and govern, and the body to obey and serve." (57) Following Plato, Aristotle's Politics also identifies servility with the body. The "most slavish" forms of labor are "those in which the body is most used." (12) Slaves are purely sensual beings, and "the slave is wholly lacking the deliberative element" (1260a12, 22). The body should rule the soul for the good of both: "that which can foresee with the mind is the naturally ruling and naturally mastering element, while that which can do these things with the body is the naturally ruled and slave" (1252bl, 36).

Christianity takes up this figuration of the flesh as servile in its typological analysis of the Egyptian and Babylonian captivities. The connection is succinctly expressed in the Pauline epistles: "I am carnal, sold under sin." (Romans 7:14) In the ancient world, carnality was both the consequence and the justification of slavery; the carnal man was a natural slave, and slavery was therefore his proper position. The Hellenic connections between literalism and the flesh inform Paul's declaration that "the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." (2 Corinthians 3:6) But it is in Galatians that Paul expounds at greatest length on the association of literalism with slavery:

For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman.

But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise.

Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants. (4:22-24)

The old dispensation corresponds to the condition of slavery, from which we are liberated by the new dispensation. This redemption abolishes the literal sense of the law, according to which we are sentenced to death. The enslavements of the Israelites in Egypt and Babylon and their liberations from these servitudes provide Paul with the metaphors to convey the relationship of the old to the new covenant. The key text here is John 8:

.... Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever commiteth sin is the servant of sin.

And the servant abideth not in the house forever: but the Son abideth ever.

If the Son therefore shall make ye free, ye shall be free indeed. (34-36)

Paul follows Aristotle's sharp distinction between the authority of a master over a servant and that of a father over a son. The former, he claims, is analogous to the condition of mankind subjected to sin, and therefore in need of the coercive law of Moses, while the latter is appropriate for redeemed mankind, whose liberation from the flesh frees them from external compulsion. Paul depicts the tyranny of the flesh over the spirit as simultaneously subjective (the internal dominance of sensual desire) and objective (the external "oppression" of the seed of Sarah by the seed of Hagar), and he develops a detailed diagnosis of the "flesh" (sarx). This term does not designate the body, but rather those habits of mind that are oriented toward the body, the psychological condition produced by a reversal of the ethical hierarchy between body and mind. A "fleshly" or "carnal" mind is "objectified" (or perhaps "reified") in the philosophical sense that it elevates the demands of the body over its spiritual needs and interests.

The identification of the literal sense with the flesh, and of figural meaning with the spirit, was axiomatic in the ancient world. Philo of Alexandria claimed to seek "the hidden and inward meaning which appeals to the few who study soul characteristics rather than bodily forms." (13) Daniel Boyarin describes how the resultant hermeneutic "is founded on a binary opposition in which the meaning as a disembodied substance exists prior to its incarnation in language, that is, in a dualistic system in which spirit precedes and is primary over body." (476) This systematic degradation of the literal runs throughout Patristic hermeneutics. In De Principlis, Origen differentiates between the surface meaning of a text and its hidden significance. The Scriptures, he asserts, "have a meaning, not such only as is apparent at first sight, but also another, which escapes the notice of most. For those (words) which are written are the forms of certain mysteries, and the images of divine things." (14) Origen proceeds to distinguish three kinds of meaning: according to the flesh, to the soul, and to the spirit. He gives the highest ethical status to the spiritual meaning.

In Augustine, this is refracted into a dualism between flesh and spirit. The City of God shows how Paul's preference for figurai rather than literal interpretation parallels his advocacy of the spirit over the flesh. The signifier is described as being "in bondage" to the signified:
   This interpretation of the passage, handed down to us with
   apostolic authority, shows how we ought to understand the
   Scriptures of the two covenants--the old and the new. One portion
   of the earthly city became an image of the heavenly city, not
   having a significance of its own, but signifying another city, and
   therefore serving, or "being in bondage." For it was founded not
   for its own sake, but to prefigure another city; and this shadow of
   a city was also itself foreshadowed by another preceding figure.
   For Sarah's handmaid Agar, and her son, were an image of this
   image. And as the shadows were to pass away when the full light
   came, Sarah, the free woman, who prefigured the free city (which
   again was also prefigured in another way by that shadow of a city
   Jerusalem), therefore said, "Cast out the bond woman and her son;
   for the son of the bond woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac,"
   or, as the apostle says, "with the son of the free woman. (15)

According to Augustine, signs "serve" or are "in bondage to" their referents, just as Agar was in bondage to Sarah. The telos or purpose of the signifier is to serve the signified, just as the purpose of the slave is to serve the master. Images, symbols, and figures are constrained by what they stand for, and in this sense they are not free. Their telos is external; they exist in order to allow something else to exist. They are secondary, and thus servile, by nature. Those who allow the sign to obscure or displace the referent epitomize the characteristics of Aristotle's natural slave. As Augustine puts it in Of Christian Doctrine: "There is a miserable servitude of the spirit in this habit of taking signs for things." (16) In The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Augustine declares that figurative interpretation is compulsory: "No Christian will dare say that the narrative must not be taken in a figurative sense." (1.39) He points out that the numerous inconsistencies of the text forbid a solely literal reading, as does the ancient association of literalism with slavery. Only slaves were subject to physical torture in the ancient world, for slavery was defined as a condition of objectification. As Jennifer Glancy reminds us, the "equation between slaves and bodies actually begins with the lexicon of slavery. The Greek word for body, to soma, serves as a euphemism for the person of a slave." This conceptual connection between carnality and servility continued to inform Western thought for almost two millennia. Caliban is the clearest instance of a natural slave in Shakespeare. He is referred to as "earth," and as one receptive only to physical stimuli: "[w]hom stripes may move, not kindness!" (1.2.496-7)

In the polemic of John Milton, literalism and servility blend into a composite account of false consciousness. Milton's campaign for the legalization of divorce was opposed by those who took Christ literally when He forbade it (Matthew 19:9). In response, Milton strained every exegetical nerve to show that this verse could not mean what it seems literally to mean, railing at his opponents' "alphabeticall [i.e. literalist] servility" (17) and "that letter-bound servility of the Canon Doctors." (2.342) In Colasterion ("The Whipping-post"), Milton asserts that only a natural slave could fail to see how spiritual intercourse, or "fit companionship," was more important in a marriage than physical sex. Such a conclusion, in his view, could be drawn only from a blindly literal, and therefore carnal, reading of Christ's prohibition. Naturally anyone so carnal would also be servile, and in this case his servility took a fortuitously literal form. Milton was delighted to discover that his opponent was "no other, if any can hold laughter, and I am sure none will guess him lower, then an actual Serving-man." (2.727) This nameless wretch had admitted that he did not grasp what Milton meant by "the gentlest ends of marriage." In response Milton scoffs:
   I beleev him heartily: for how should hee, a Servingman both by
   nature and by function ... ever come to know, or feel within
   himself what the meaning is of gentle.... Yet altogether without
   art sure hee is not; for who could have devis'd to give us more
   breifly a better description of his own Servility? (2.741)

Just as a natural slave, who in this case happens to be a literal servant, will be incapable of conceiving any other form of conversation than sensual intercourse, so his understanding will also be limited to the literal level. He will be incapable of perceiving spiritual meaning, in a manner exactly analogous to his incapacity for grasping that spiritual communion is morally superior to carnal congress.

In similar fashion, nineteenth-century controversies over American slavery often focused on the question of literalism. Defenders of the peculiar institution could cite numerous proof-texts which, if read literally, suggested that the Bible sanctioned slavery (a favorite was Colossians 3:22: "Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything...."). Abolitionists were therefore forced, whether they liked it or not, into positions that allowed for figurative interpretation. In his response to the pro-slavery arguments of Henry Van Dyke, who read scripture literally to make his case, Tayler Lewis deployed the familiar metaphors of interiority and spirit to show that such proof-texts should be read figuratively: "there is ... something in the more interior spirit of those [biblical] texts that [Van Dyke] does not see...." (18) In his dispute with the pro-slavery Richard Fuller, Francis Weyland made a case for a figural reading on historicist grounds: "a practice may have been sanctioned to the Hebrews, which was not sanctioned to all men at all times." (19) Such thinkers developed allegorical and historicist modes of interpretation in direct reaction to the literalism of slavery's advocates.

Slavery and wage labor

At every stage of history, then, figurative or "spiritual" interpretation is conceptually identified with liberty, while literal or "carnal" reading is described as slavish. The Western tradition assumes that literalist interpretation is characteristic of a servile mentality. But how does that explain the prevalence of literalism today, when slavery no longer exists in the Western world? In Aristotle, the salient characteristic of the servile mentality is alterity, the direction of a man's activity toward ends other than those proper to himself. This is manifested both in the slave's service to the master, in which an alien being usurps the slave's proper telos, and also in carnality, where the properly spiritual purpose of human life is diverted to material ends. Although chattel slavery is illegal today, the mental habits traditionally designated as servile are more prevalent than ever before. This suggests that "wage slavery" has a psychological as well as an economic dimension. People are no longer bought and sold outright, but anyone who works for a wage sells their time, which is their life, in a piecemeal fashion. As Marx's son-in-law Paul Laforgue declared in The Right to be Lazy: "A citizen who gives his labor for money degrades himself to the rank of slaves." (20) Proletarians are commodified as surely as slaves, and they suffer all the psychological effects of commodification as a result.

The kinship between chattel slavery and wage labor was frequently remarked in the ancient world, and they were often said to have identical psychological effects. William L. Westerman claims that: "It has not been sufficiently emphasized that both of these thinkers [i.e. Plato and Aristotle] have thrown free workmen into close proximity with slave labor by their attitude upon the 'banausic' trades." (21) In his Economics, Xenophon writes, "[t]he people who give themselves up to manual labor are never promoted to public offices, and with good reason. The greater part of them ... cannot fail to be changed in body, and it is almost inevitable that the mind be affected." Aristotle agreed that "the best state will not make a banausic workman a citizen," (22) and that "all paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind." (23) In the Rhetoric he remarked that "]t]he condition of the free man is that he not live from under the constraint of another." (24) As Moses Finley comments, "it is clear from the context that his notion of living under restraint was not restricted to slaves but was extended to wage labor and to others who were economically dependent." (25)

The Romans wholeheartedly endorsed the Greek disdain for the proletarian existence. In Cicero's De Officiis, proletarians are degraded to the level of slaves on the grounds that they sell their time, rather than the products of their labor: "Illiberal too, and mean, are the employments of all who work for wages, whom we pay for their labor and not for their art; for in their case their very wages are the warrant of their slavery." (26) Cicero recognized that life could be sold by the hours as well as by the lifetime, announcing that "we must regard as something base and vile the trade of those who sell their toil and industry, for whoever gives his labor for money sells himself and puts himself in the tank of slaves." In the nineteenth century, both defenders and opponents of slavery made the point that the difference between chattel slavery and wage labor was meaningless in practice. William Channing admitted that: "In this country is it probably true that a slave works less than a free laborer...." (27) (94). Even Karl Marx sometimes elides the distinction between slave and proletarian, as when he refers to Spartacus as the "real representative of the ancient proletariat." (28)

David Graber has recently studied the history of wage labor in meticulous detail. According to him, "an ancient Greek would certainly have seen the distinction between a slave and an indebted wage laborer as, at best, a legalistic nicety." (29) Graeber points out that "In the Odyssey (2.48891)... Achilles, when trying to invoke the lowest and most miserable person he can possibly imagine, invokes not a slave but a thete, a mere laborer unattached to any household." (418n70) In sum, Graeber claims, "capitalism, or at least industrial capitalism, has far more in common with, and is historically more closely linked with, chattel slavery than most of us had ever imagined." (30) Elsewhere he argues that wage labor originates as a subspecies of slavery:
   ... wage labor contracts appear to have developed from within the
   institution of slavery in many times and places, from ancient
   Greece to the Malay and Swahili mercantile city states of the
   Indian Ocean. Historically, I think one can say wage labor, at
   least considered as a contractual arrangement, emerged from
   slavery.... (31)

Graeber quotes Leon Battista Alberti from the fifteenth century: "to be subject to another's commands is nothing but slavery." (53) He argues that this historical connection between slavery and wage labor reflects a fundamental conceptual affinity. A proletarian, like a slave, is under the control of another's will:
   ... what one buys when one buys a slave is the sheer capacity to
   work, which is also what an employer acquires when he hires a
   laborer. It's of course this relation of command that causes free
   people in most societies to see wage labor as analogous to slavery,
   and hence to try as much as possible to avoid it. (79)

Noam Chomsky has also noted the similarities between modern wage slavery and chattel slavery. As he remarks in The Science of Language:
   In a market society, you rent people; in a slave society, you buy
   them. So therefore slave societies are more moral than market
   societies. Well, I've never heard an answer to that, and I don't
   think that there is an answer. But it's rejected as morally
   repugnant correctly--without following out the implications, that
   renting people is an atrocity. If you follow out that thought,
   slave owners are right: renting people is indeed a moral atrocity.

According to the standards of the past, a world in which almost everyone works for wages represents universal slavery. It seems reasonable to suppose that the psychological effects that Plato, Aristotle, Paul, and Augustine associated with slavery have spread along with its economic form. They can be summarized in a single word: carnality or, in philosophical terms, the objectification of the subject. In a system of virtually universal wage labor, everybody becomes something that they own and must sell by the hour. As Marx put it in Capital: "The capitalist epoch is therefore characterized by the fact that labor-power, in the eyes of the worker himself, takes on the form of a commodity which is his property." (33) Two centuries earlier John Locke made a similar point: "every man has a "property" in his own 'person'.... The 'labour' of his own body and the 'work' of his own hands, we may say, are properly his." (34) Even earlier, Thomas Hobbes observed that "[a] man's Labour also, is a commodity exchangeable for benefit, as well as any other thing." (35) The proletarian consciousness is thus even further degraded than that of a slave. A slave is conceived as a res, a thing, in Roman law, and slaves have always been regarded as objects by their masters, yet wage-workers must conceive of themselves as things--which is to say as bodies, outsides, surfaces.

In the twenty-first century, the vast majority of people work for wages, translating their lives into the objective form of financial representation on a daily basis. We might therefore expect reified consciousness to be extremely widespread. As we saw in the previous section, one of the most prominent aspects of the reified mentality is the tendency to hermeneutic literalism, and this process of psychological objectification was familiar in the ancient world. The difference is that in ancient times those possessed of a servile consciousness were, almost by definition, excluded from social, political, cultural, or economic power. Today, when the aristocracy and peasantry have largely been eliminated in the West, and when even capitalists generally work for a wage, the reified mind seems close to universal. This explains the widespread prevalence of literalist hermeneutics, which unites thinkers who are violently opposed on other matters. It therefore seems that, if we are ever to regain easy access to what was once called the "spiritual," or figurative sense of texts and phenomena, and if we are to escape the constricting and frequently ridiculous literalism that infests our culture, it may be necessary first to move beyond the economic arrangements that have produced it.


(1.) Wieseltier, Leon, review of Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell in the New York Times 2006.

(2.) Harris, Sam, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (Norton, 2004), p. 17.

(3.) Ryan, Phil, After the New Atheist Debate (U of Toronto P, 2014), p. 16.

(4.) St. Augustine of Hippo, The Literal Meaning of Genesis: An Unfinished Book, trans. J. H. Taylor, S. J., (New York: Newman P., 1982), 1.19.39.

(5.) St. Augustine of Hippo, "Expositions on the Psalms," in Ni cene and Post-Nicene Fathers vol. VIII, ed. Phillip Schaff and Arthur Cleveland Coxe, 632. See Ryan, Phil, After the New Atheist Debate (U of Toronto P, 2014), pp. 78-9.

(6.) Smith, Andrew F., 2012, "Secularity and Biblical Literalism: Confronting the Case for Epistemological Diversity," International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion 71, pp. 205-219, quotation from 205.

(7.) Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), p. 15.

(8.) Wood, Laurence W., Theology as History and Hermeneutics: A Post-critical Conversation with Contemporary Theology (Lexington, KY: Emeth P), pp. 28-9.

(9.) Hitchens, Christopher, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (London: Atlantic Books, 2007), p. 120.

(10.) Harris, Sam, Letter To A Christian Nation (London: Bantam P., 2004), p. 5.

(11.) Plato, Phaedo in Six Great Dialogues trans. Benjamin Jowett (Minneola, NY: Dover Publications, 2012), p. 93.

(12.) Aristotle, Politics trans. Carnes Lord (U of Chicago P, 1984), 1258b38-39, 19.

(13.) Cit. Boyarin, Daniel, 1992. "This We Know To Be Carnal Israel," Critical Inquiry, p. 475.

(14.) Origen, De Principas, in The Anti-Nicene Fathers vol. IV, eds. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and Arthur Cleveland Coxe (New York: Cosmo Classics, 2007, orig. 1885), p. 241

(15.) St. Augustine of Hippo, The City of God trans. Marcus Dodds (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Pubs., 2008), p. 433.

(16.) St. Augustine of Hippo, Of Christian Doctrine, 3.5.9., cit. Jane Chance, Medieval Mythology (Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1994), p. 420.

(17.) Milton, John, "The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce," in Complete Prose Works vol. II, ed. Ernest Sirluck (Yale UP, 1959), p. 280.

(18.) Cit. Noll, Mark A., The Civil War as Theological Crisis (U. of North Carolina P., 2006), p. 4.

(19.) Weyland, Francis, Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution, p. 57.

(20.) Lafargue, Paul, The Right to be Lazy trans. Charles Kerr (The Floating Press, 2012, orig. 1883), p. 39.

(21.) Westerman, William L., The Slave Systems of Greek and Roman Antiquity (Philadelphia: LLC, 1955), p. 26.

(22.) Cit. Westerman, 27.

(23.) Cit. Paulson, Roland, Empty Labor: Idleness and Workplace Resistance (Cambridge UP, 2014), p. 173.

(24.) Aristotle, Rhetoric 1367a27.

(25.) Finley, Moses, The Ancient Economy (Berkeley: U of California P., 1973), p. 41.

(26.) Cit. Sullivan, Jeremiah J., The Future of Corporate Globalization: From the Extended Order to the Global Village (Santa Barbara CA: Praeger, 2002), p. 145. David Graeber points out that in ancient China, slavery and wage labor were 'two phenomena that, as so often in the ancient world, largely overlapped: the common phrase for workers used in texts from the period was (dasa--karmakara), 'slave--hireling' with the assumption that slaves and laborers worked together and were barely distinguishable.' Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value (New York, 2001), 428n38.

(27.) Channing, William E., Works vol. II: Slavery (Boston: James Monroe and Co., 1843), p. 94.

(28.) Marx, Karl, "Letter from Marx to Engels In Manchester". Retrieved 2013-02-24.

(29.) Graeber, David, Debt: The First 5,000 years (New York: Melville House, 2011), p. 211.

(30.) Graeber, David, 2006. "Transformation of Slavery Turning Modes of Production Inside Out: Or, Why Capitalism is a Transformation of Slavery," Critique of Anthropology 26(1), March, pp. 61-85, quotation from 61.

(31.) Graeber, David, Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion and Desire (Oakland, CA: AK Press), 2007.

(32.) Chomsky, Noam, The Science of Language: Interviews with James McGilvray (Cambridge UP, 2012), p. 119.

(33.) Marx, Karl, Capital vol. I trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1976), p. 274n4.

(34.) Locke, John, Of Civil Government (Toronto: JM Dent, 1924), p. 130

(35.) Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan ed. C.B. MacPherson (London: Penguin, 1985), p. 295.
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Author:Hawkes, David
Publication:Cross Currents
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Date:Sep 1, 2016
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