Freedom: Volume I: Freedom in the Making of Western Culture Summary

Orlando Patterson


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Orlando Patterson’s Freedom, Volume I: Freedom in the Making of Western Culture is the first installment of a profoundly ambitious history of freedom in the West. Patterson aims high. He dismisses the erudite, yet heavily circumscribed, intellectual histories of freedom that have dominated the field. These usually begin in the Enlightenment and treat freedom only as a disembodied idea. Arrogantly, they assume the immaculate conception of freedom at the dawn of the modern age. Patterson answers this literature with a rich analysis of the origins of Western freedom, the history of which, he declares, is at once more extensive and bound up with the hopes and fears of ordinary men and women. Patterson demonstrates that freedom has been integral to the growth of Western civilization. Yet Patterson’s book is not a triumphal tale of the progress of Western virtue. He argues, to startling and disturbing effect, that freedom was born of slavery. Patterson believes that the experience of enforced servitude led people to value and institutionalize freedom. This insight gives Patterson’s account a moral profundity lacking in previous histories of freedom. His study makes it clear that freedom has been a persistently longed-for and fought-for necessity, rather than a historically adventitious luxury.

Patterson’s treatment of the concept of freedom is both sophisticated and nuanced. He does not attempt to define the term closely. He treats freedom as a historical and sociological reality rather than as a dictionary entry. Patterson does advance the view that freedom is best understood through time as having three distinct yet related elements. Patterson likens these elements to notes in a musical chord, which, though emphasized at different moments, form a harmonious whole. This chordal structure gives Patterson great analytical flexibility in tracing the contours of freedom’s evolution in the West. The first and most obvious element of this chord is personal freedom. This refers to the individual’s ability to pursue dreams without restraint, either by the state or by other individuals. Patterson observes that traditionally implicit in the notion of personal freedom is the understanding that one’s actions are limited by the rights of others seeking comparable goals and desires. Thus, personal freedom is premised upon a degree of social equality. The second note of the chord is sovereignal freedom. This form of freedom allows some to behave as they please, regardless of the rights of others. Sovereignal freedom, a perquisite of elites, flourishes in a hierarchical social order in which the individual is assigned a particular role. Those dominant in such a society, because of the very subjection of the bulk of the population, are able to enjoy a high degree of liberty and equality among themselves. Though sovereignal freedom flies in the face of the contemporary understanding of freedom, Patterson notes that it was the preponderant conception of freedom for most of Western history. The final element of the chord is civic freedom. This refers to the capacity of people living in a state to participate in its governance. This sense of freedom comes from belonging to an established community and enjoying the privileges of membership. Civic freedom, unlike sovereignal freedom, assumes specific social obligations to a clearly defined political structure. Patterson hastens to point out that civic freedom does not necessarily require modern democracy. There have been many republics in the past, including that of the United States, that have limited political rights to a select group of citizens. All three elements of the chord, while more or less visible at particular periods in Western history, have been vital components of the Western intellectual tradition. The tensions between them explain the ongoing Western debate over freedom’s meaning.

Though freedom is now an almost universally acclaimed value, there is nothing natural about this modern doctrine. The birth of the concept of freedom in the West resulted from particular historical circumstances. To underscore this point, Patterson briefly explores the failure of the non-Western world to cultivate freedom as a value. Most civilizations did not even possess a word to express the idea of freedom before they experienced contact with the West. Virtually every human society has, however, shared the institution of slavery, which for Patterson is the essential prerequisite for freedom. By its very nature, slavery created a class of people desperately yearning for a change in their situation, while their plight reminded nonslaves of the precariousness of their own position and the sweetness of their liberties. At the same time, the presence of a group of people in a community who were at once socially dead and completely at the mercy of their masters created problems for the nonslave population. In the most primitive slave societies, slaves served merely as adornments to the honor of their masters, and performed no significant function beyond this. Once slaves took on economic importance, however, the question arose of how to motivate them. Physical coercion alone usually proved inefficient, so masters held out to slaves the promise of release from their condition. Emancipation in non-Western societies did not lead to freedom in the Western sense, because that value held little appeal to cultures that emphasized social position as the individual’s key to self-worth. In such societies, the individual was understood as a member of a class or clan, outside of which life had no meaning. Slaves emancipated in this social...

(The entire section is 2280 words.)