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Freedom in the Making of Western Culture

Freedom, the first of two planned volumes, is Patterson’s attempt to explain why one culture valued liberty while so many others did not. His effort is of particular interest, given how long it took for freedom–with the concomitant protection of democratic electoral processes, economic opportunity, and human rights–to finally advance in Africa, Asia, and the one-time Soviet empire.

Alas, Patterson’s ample research is undermined by his failure to clearly define freedom. Instead, he mixes three contradictory variants of the term.

One definition is most clearly identified with the Anglo, and American, political tradition: “personal freedom” from coercion by the state. It is “at its most elementary,” writes Patterson, “the sense that one, on the one hand, is not being coerced or restrained by another person in doing something desired and, on the other hand, the conviction that one can do as one pleases within the limits of another person’s desire to do the same.”

Patterson’s second form of freedom is “sovereignal,” that is, “the power to act as one pleases, regardless of the wishes of others.” This form of liberty is really authoritarianism–the right of a slaveholder or political leader, for instance, to operate without restraint. Finally, Patterson discusses “civic freedom,” which he defines as “the capacity of adult members of a community to participate in its life and governance.” Although civic freedom implies some democratic guarantees, it may allow the suppression of economic and personal liberties.

Nevertheless, Patterson argues that these often contradictory concepts “are the three constitutive elements of the uniquely Western chord of freedom.” His basic thesis is that all three developed in response to the institution of slavery.

It is a controversial and provocative argument. In brief, Patterson contends that the fear of slavery first created a real love of personal freedom among women, who were most at risk of enslavement and who could yearn for emancipation because their honor would not have been destroyed by a period of enslavement. Civic freedom developed in Greece as part of what Patterson calls “the struggle between the free small farmers and the land-owning elite.” Slavery played a decisive role in this struggle, in Patterson’s view, because small producers envied the larger slaveholders and demanded civic equality.

Lastly, “sovereignal” freedom naturally reflected the rights of the slave owner. This philosophy later grew in its larger sense–“the Homeric notion of the free community”–in response to the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars. “Free” came to mean cultural imperialism, the superiority of Greeks as a collective unit.

Alas, Patterson’s conclusions exceed his evidence. While the existence of such a dramatic counterpoint to liberty as slavery undoubtedly helped foster an appreciation of what it means to be free, a multitude of other factors were also obviously at work–and presumably account for why other slave societies never developed a similar appreciation of freedom.

Patterson goes on to track the three variants of liberty through Roman times (in which he finds slavery having a different, but still important, impact), the early Christian era, and Medieval Europe. He unsatisfactorily tries to force the apostle Paul’s doctrines into his framework, but Patterson rightly notes how the Christian concept of spiritual equality undermined the institution of slavery, creating “a major crisis for the entire system” as early as 700 A.D.

But Patterson’s most important argument remains the relationship of slavery to liberty. This history of slavery as “the handmaiden” of freedom, writes Patterson, “has bruited in the open what we cannot stand to hear, that inhering in the good which we defend with our lives is often the very evil we most abhor.” Indeed, Patterson seems ambivalent about this most fundamental of Western values. In his view, personal freedom, for instance, can be “evil and socially corrosive.”

Freedom is a valuable work, packed with information and thoughtful analysis. Yet Patterson’s overemphasis on the role of slavery and his muddling of the definition of freedom make the volume a frustrating read.