Slavery and Social Death is not a history of slavery, and despite its attention to statistical data, it is more interpretive than empirical. Historians have had difficulty with some of Patterson’s uses of historical records and have noted that some of his historical evidence has been taken out of context.
Patterson is mostly interested in the process and meaning of slavery, not its substance. In this respect, his approach is essentially sociological. He borrows elements of Marxist theory and adopts models from symbolic anthropology. Ultimately, though, Patterson structures his argument along the lines of Émile Durkheim’s classic sociological study Le Suicide: étude de sociologie (Suicide: A Study in Sociology, 1951).
The author cogently puts slavery into worldwide perspective. He demonstrates effectively that slavery is not a “peculiar institution.” It has existed from the dawn of human history and seems to have thrived in those areas and periods of the world where it would least be expected. Patterson points out that slavery was the base of the economic structures in ancient Greece and Rome and explores the association between high civilization and slavery. His bold assertion that Rome’s reliance on slavery has been unsurpassed by any other society’s casts new light on previous perspectives on the rise of so-called Western civilization.
The author’s style is dense; his narrative flow is interrupted by myriad examples. This becomes all the more problematic for readers, since Patterson’s basic argument, as he admits, is a “dialectical” one. Again, it is helpful to compare Patterson’s book’s style and structure of argument with Durkheim’s work. A major difference is that Durkheim relied on quantitative data exclusively, and for that reason Durkheim’s use of data is more consistent. Nevertheless, there are many parallels between these two works.
Patterson’s tone is philosophical. He is not so much telling a story as making a case. He summarizes a prodigious amount of material (111 pages of footnotes alone incorporate findings from highly specialized and often inaccessible sources). Slavery and Social Death has been highly praised for its mastery of secondary sources.
Patterson’s studies have sparked controversy because he finds in slavery not an aberration from the Western ideal of freedom but a necessary condition of the notion of freedom itself. This is a theme taken up again in his National Book Award-winning Freedom, Volume 1: Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (1991). For many readers, Patterson’s argument is made all the more difficult because it is hard to acknowledge freedom as a peculiarly Western value. That is, freedom is not inherent, as many Westerners like to believe. Freedom, for Patterson, is a noble sentiment with a less-noble progenitor. The reader is forced to grapple with the interdependence of good and evil.
Concerns of the book reflect Patterson’s background as a native of Jamaica who received his early education in the West Indies. In addition, his comparative approach reflects his further training at the London School of Economics as well as his anthropological sophistication. His methods and presentation, however, reflect his training as a sociologist; in reading this book, one must keep in mind that Patterson is neither a philosopher nor a historian.
Slavery and Social Death offers a single coherent theory that challenges deeply rooted assumptions in Western culture. It provides new points of departure for future research, and it speaks to contemporary social issues in Europe, the Caribbean, and the United States. The book raises fundamental issues concerning human psychology and the potentials of social organization. The author is to be commended for his skillful use of the past to explicate the present. He has provided a new and creative synthesis that forces readers to see both past and present from a new and often radically different perspective.