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Tuesday, September 1, 1992

Freedom: Freedom in the Making of Western Culture

Freedom “is the one value that many people seem prepared to die for,” writes sociologist Orlando Patterson, author of Freedom: Freedom in the Making of Western Culture. “It is the catchword of every politician, the secular gospel of our economic, ‘free enterprise’ system, and the foundation of all our cultural activities.”

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, we are seeing most of the former Communist nations moving toward both economic and political liberty. Many of the same trends are evident in a number of newly industrializing countries, such as South Korea and Taiwan, as well as in impoverished Third World nations. Even though an authoritarian gerontocracy has been able to hang on to power in Beijing, the Chinese people’s yearning for freedom is evident. “There is now hardly a country whose leaders, however dubiously, do not claim that they are pursuing the ideal,” observes Patterson. Yet, oddly, the U.S. seems to be moving in the opposite direction, with an ever-expanding state.

What makes these divergent trends so ironic is that the most important contribution of Western culture has probably been its emphasis on liberty. Observes Patterson, “No one would deny that today freedom stands as the supreme value of the Western world.” However, this is not, at least until recently, the case in Africa and the East. In these nations, writes Patterson, “other values were, or are, of far greater importance to them—values such as the pursuit of glory, honor, and power for oneself or one’s family . . . the list is endless. But almost never, outside the context of Western culture and its influence, has it included freedom.”

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 today, as freedom—with the concomitant protection of democratic electoral processes, economic opportunity, and human rights—is finally advancing in Africa, Asia, and the one-time Soviet empire. Why has it taken so much longer in these areas?

Patterson seeks to answer this question, but his argument and ample research are undermined by his curious three-part definition of freedom. One variant 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 other persons’ desire to do the same.”

Quite different is Patterson’s second form of freedom: “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 treats separately “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 be matched with economic and personal tyranny.

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. “Freedom began its career as a social value in the desperate yearning of the slave to negate what, for him or her, and for nonslaves, was a peculiarly inhuman condition,” he contends. Although others have made this argument before, Patterson says that they underestimated the long-term importance of freedom’s genesis in slavery, since more than a simple change in technical legal status was at stake: “the idea of freedom has never been divorced from this, its primordial, servile source.”

His argument is obviously controversial and provocative. 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. Gradually the demand for male slaves increased, leading to “a slow masculation” of slavery, but men’s desire for glory and honor long left no room for “any masculation of the expression of freedom.”

Men were, however, more interested in the other strands of freedom. Civic freedom, for instance, developed in Greece as part of what Patterson calls “the struggle between the free small farmers and the landowning elite.” Slavery played a decisive role in this battle, in Patterson’s view, bemuse small producers envied the larger slaveholders and demanded civic equality, which, in Patterson’s lexicon, equals liberty. He writes: “men, for the first fane, began to take freedom seriously. In doing so, however, they transferred it from the individual-personal domain of language to the public realm.” 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”—particularly in response to the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars. Free came to mean cultural imperialism, the superiority of Greeks as a collective unit, for instance.

Alas, Patterson’s conclusions exceed his evidence. The most serious problem is his decision to lump together personal freedom, political equality (“civic freedom”), and state imperialism (“sovereignal freedom”) in discussing the evolution of “freedom.” In fact, what we see is not the grand march of triune liberty, as Patterson treats it, but rather, a bitter and confusing struggle between individual and state that continues to this day.

Moreover, 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. Indeed, Patterson himself acknowledges that slavery was a universal institution. But the apparent discrepancy, he says, can be explained: “while the idea of freedom was certainly engendered wherever slavery existed, it never came to term. People everywhere, except in the ancient West, resisted its gestation and institutionalization.” He goes on to argue that some of the cultural aspects surrounding slavery developed differently in non-Western parts of the world; for instance, owners in Africa would promise some participation in the community, rather than release from bondage, as a reward for good service. Yet this raises more questions than it answers. For instance, if slavery was such a determining factor, why did both masters and slaves in different lands react so differently to the same institution?

Patterson goes on to track his 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. One of his more important points is how the Christian concept of spiritual equality undermined the institution of slavery, creating “a major crisis for the entire system” as early as A.D. 700.

However, he unsatisfactorily tries to force Christian doctrine, as expounded by the Apostle Paul, into his framework, arguing that there is “a shift in emphasis from personal freedom in Galatians to sovereignal freedom in Romans.” Here again, Patterson seems to be subsuming very different philosophical and theological concepts under the single heading of “freedom,” a particularly dangerous undertaking since much of Christian doctrine is concerned with spiritual liberty, a concept with no secular equivalent.

But Patterson’s most important argument remains the relationship of slavery to liberty. The 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.” Interestingly, Patterson seems profoundly ambivalent about this most fundamental of Western values, on which he has written a 487-page book. “At its best, the valorization of personal liberty is the noblest achievement of Western civilization,” he says. But personal freedom, in his view, can be “evil and socially corrosive, inducing selfishness, alienation, the celebration of greed, and the dehumanizing disregard for the ‘losers.’”

Freedom is a valuable work, packed with information and thoughtful analysis. Some of Patterson’s insights about the historical development of liberty are truly profound. Yet his overemphasis on the role of slavery and his muddling of the definition of freedom make the volume frustrating to read. One wishes that he had better understood what liberty really meant before he wrote the book.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington.

  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.