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Freedom, vol. 1, Freedom in the Making of Western Culture.

Orlando Patterson's first volume on Freedom is easy enough to read, and the very devil to review. The reader is drawn on by Patterson's simple but orderly chronological plot, and by a style that is energetic and occasionally elegant, despite the odd sociological obfuscation. The difficulty comes in the task that every honest reviewer must put for him- or herself: to fairly estimate the validity of Patterson's central thesis, that the Western concept of individual freedom must be causally attached to the appearance and the essence of its ancient opposite, chattel slavery.

So baldly stated, it is easy to react almost viscerally--in one's "intellectual viscera," if such an organ can be imagined--to Patterson's thesis, and to reactively denounce the possibility of such a causal connection, of one of the noblest statements of individual right to the most ignoble state of personal rightlessness, impotence, social separation and dependence. It is to Patterson's considerable credit, and because of his considerable scholarly talents, that he can persuade a reader to be patient, to modify that original reaction, to give this author time and space enough to deploy and fully develop his arguments. Since Patterson intends this to be the first volume in a series devoted to proving his thesis, we will have a large body of evidence and opinion to work through, and in this volume we already have a dense and thorny thicket of this evidence and opinion. Here, after setting aside the non-Western social contexts as fundamentally outside and inimical to any true concept of individual freedom, the author devotes the bulk of this book (about two hundred and fifty pages) to the phenomenon of freedom in the Classical context and thoughtworld, that is, to Greek eleutheria and Roman libertas. This is where his argument is founded, and here is where he must either convince us or fall and fail. And like any scholar, he must not only prove that he is right in the main, in the large strategic plan, but that he is not that often wrong in detail. But Patterson gives us a very large target, and the tendency of the close-reading critic to reach for that potent Latin legal tag falsus in partibus, falsus in toto can, to speak frankly (and perhaps predicting one of my reactions to the book), make its appearance here.

Stripped down to its core, Patterson's argument is this: that the fact and presence of a large servile population in the Greek polis produces by reaction what he calls a "chordal triad" or "tripartite value," of "personal, sovereignal and civic freedoms," all developed out of a sense of oppositeness to the slave's state and condition. The first two elements of the triad are to a degree related dialectically, as personal freedom is conscious of possible limitations, while "sovereignal" freedom completely empowers the individual in relation to others and stands, in Patterson's theory, at the grim center of the slave-master relationship. Civic freedom is political (and social). To take his musical image onward from this triple chord, the author then plays with theme and variation: adding a Greek woman's voice (as she feels herself essentially in tune with the slave), investigating the bass notes of Greek philosophy, discovering the martial blare of Rome where libertas concentrates in the freedman's knowledge of where he once was, and passing on to the cantorial psalmody of Paul and the early Christian "community of urban freedmen." He ends with the plainsong of the early Middle Ages where, to make his point, he must posit that a great many singers (or more correctly, a muttering or grumbling ground-base) are still powerless slaves or near-slaves.

Patterson is a brave man. He is never afraid to reassess and reestimate, to barge into another controversy and churn his way energetically through the evidence, to (returning to that musical image) add his own experimental chords and riffs and the occasional shrill but attention-getting dissonance. But does he convince, and not just entertain, us? The answer has to be a resounding "maybe." Many of his conclusions depend on our acceptance of that putative "large servile class" dominating both agriculture and "trade" in the Greek polis, and Patterson dodges around the opinions of Moses Finley and Ellen Meiksins Wood on this essential point. Beyond this, I think that he neglects or misreads two important aspects of the problem. First, there is the matter of the subjective reaction of the free (the Greek, especially the Athenian) to the slave. Patterson sees and must see a permanent and perpetual obsessive attention and consequent tension; I think that the most apparent and consistent attitude of the free Greek to the slave was to ignore him him, not to be conscious of him. We might call this a moral blindness, but that is our view, in our aeon. Second, Patterson appears to ignore an objective political element capable of serving as a guide and component in the Greek concept and ideal of freedom, and that is the idea that the polis itself served as a powerful communal model for a developing sense of private or individual freedom: I refer to the ideal state of absolute 'political' independence, of identity, with the indelible marks of autarcheia and autarkeia, sovereignty and self-sufficiency, that were supposed to underpin and define the city-state.

These two points can be debated, and Patterson's positions are certainly worth our serious attention. To estimate his effectiveness and the validity of his argument we must make our own conclusions on the size of the slave component in Greek and Roman society, and to mark as well that point where an arguable quantitative mass was converted to, effected, a qualitative, intellectual-psychological shift. Here we remain in the ambivalent realm of "maybe." What also has to affect our opinion of this book is the niggling but continuous damage done to the author's case by errors, missteps, and excesses of enthusiasm, all combining to make one reader wonder if Patterson knows his subject as well as he might, or ought to. Of course, his subject is immense. And an excess of enthusiasm at least presupposes enthusiasm. Despite the provocative simplicity of his original formula, Patterson is not a reductionist but an expansionist, willing to follow his nose into any byway, however dangerous. And his willingness to chance his hand and venture his opinion can lead to some very strange and maladroit statements. I have already noted those passages and conclusions, a great number of them, that elicit a "well, maybe ..." from the reader, but in addition and en passant Patterson mauls Hesiod (and includes and misuses a bad translation of a passage from the Works and Days, p. 61); makes the poet Archilochos (!) a model for hoplite "courage"; forgets that Athens built the bulk of its empire on the tribute-treasure of the Delian League; conflates the slave and the metic; wonders why Perikles' Funeral Oration doesn't mention the gods; assigns a "superman doctrine" to Plato and for that matter is confident that he can separate Socrates' thinking from that of Plato. And further on: the "massive slave risings" "shook the |Roman~ system" (the point is that they did not, p. 216); the Roman mob's opinion of Cicero, the Outsider, is based on the fact that "his concept of freedom was so much at variance with their own"; Mithraism is called "a kind of early Calvinism". And so on; this is neither an unfair nor an unrepresentative selection.

Some of these missteps are more significant and potentially damaging to his argument than others. In the end, I have to say that Patterson's book itself is more important than, and can probably survive, these gaffes, and as irritating, as tin-eared (especially in his use of Classical literary materials), and as fond of the scatter-shot assault as he sometimes is, he deserves all praise for a complicated, ambitious, merciless book with many excellences--not the least his combative and unbuttoned style, the very style that leads him to the excesses I have listed in part. As for his thesis, I think that it falls toward the Scots verdict: nil probandum, or at least not yet. Perhaps before he advances on to other volumes in his project, he should pause to take in, meditate on, and respond to the criticism directed at this one.
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Author:Miller, D.A.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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