Coexistence of Slavery and Humanism during the Renaissance

Slavery was common for hundreds of years and it still can be sometimes seen in modern times. The ideas of servitude are mentioned even in one of the most sacred Christian books – the Bible. But the existence of slavery during certain periods in the history sounds like a paradox. In this paper we will investigate why servitude was common during the Renaissance and attempt to explain how humanism and slavery could coexist.

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It may erroneously seem that during the period of Renaissance only good things were done: Dante Alighieri wrote his “Divine Comedy”, Leonardo da Vinci painted “Mona Lisa”, and Niccolo Machiavelli started creation of political science. It is no wonder that the dark side of this time in history was overlooked. While people all over the Europe were trying to remove cruelty and prejudice from their lives, they were simultaneously returning slavery into their day to day existence. And this was not unreasonable – many people became rich and this fact put some obligations on them. In particular, they started buying slaves, because to have ones was considered a mark of status. At the same time the new continent was discovered – America. Explorers not only found new land that had a great potential, but they also encountered native tribes there. As a result, the question about how to deal with them came to the surface. As it was the period of Renaissance, people turned to classical philosophers for the answer. According to one of them, Aristotle, slavery was one of the most natural things in the existing social order. Moreover, he considered it to be a suitable form of government for the individuals, who were incapable to govern themselves. In such a simple way people of the Renaissance period justified human bondage and servitude (“Slavery during the Italian Renaissance”).

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The coexistence of slavery and humanism is another paradox that may seem inexplicable. But, in fact, everything is rather simple. Humanists mostly were people of Christian faith, who considered those individuals, who do not believe in one God on the Earth, to be pagans. Africans were falling exactly under this category. By enslaving “the pagans” Europeans meant, in their own perverse way, to give them a favor. It should be acknowledged, that during those times the Church was a major ruling force, and it was pro-slavery. Another point is that humanists actually were not those exact people, who enslaved others. Here a parallel can be drawn between humanists and people, who are against cocaine use. The latter campaign against narcotics, because they are addicting and cause death. But people, who make narcotics, make a fortune on business of addiction. Coming back to the Renaissance, during that time it was profitable to sell slaves. They were also a kind of an addiction, because rich people relied on them to a great extent. No physical work could have been done without them.

Another idea of humanism, which indirectly influenced the fact that people returned to servitude, was that, according to humanism, people were gods. While in Christian theology equality is important, because people, in the same way as the God does, love each other and feel equal, humanism has a different idea of this situation. Therefore, for people of the Renaissance, uneducated people were not as good as educated, weak were not as good as the poor, and powerful were not as good as powerless. The normal situation of that time was when the ruling class used the subordinate class to do work for them. Humanism, with its belief in the human ideal, the possibility of development into the state of completeness and achievement of happiness, went contrary to the idea of humanness.  Let’s not forget also one of the basic facts about servitude as itself: if you have human beings that can be yours forever, and you are free to do whatever you want for them, would you support it? It is the most common thing about humans during every period of history – to succumb to temptation – and slavery has this seductive element in its nature.

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To conclude with, slavery existed during the Renaissance because of many reasons. One of the reasons was the very idea of humanism, which presupposed domination of one person over another. 

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