Roundtable with Orlando Patterson: The Nature and Invention of Freedom
Published June 13, 2023
Recorded on May 2, 2023, this video features a roundtable conversation with Orlando Patterson, John Cowles Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, focused on The Paradox of Freedom, an interview with Patterson by David Scott, originally published in Small Axe in 2013. In their long interview, Scott and Patterson discussed the sociologist and novelist’s childhood, education, public service, and books. The conversation reflected on Patterson’s intellectual biography and his groundbreaking analysis of the political entanglement between slavery and freedom.
Joining Patterson in conversation for this Social Science Matrix Roundtable were Ricarda Hammer, incoming Assistant Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley, and Daniela Cammack, Assistant Professor of Political Science at UC Berkeley. The discussion was moderated by Caitlin Rosenthal, Associate Professor of History.
The Paradox of Freedom is an exploration of the life and work of Orlando Patterson, probing the relationship between the circumstances of his life from their beginnings in rural Jamaica to the present and the complex development of his intellectual work. A novelist and historical sociologist with an orientation toward public engagement, Patterson exemplifies one way of being a Jamaican and Black Atlantic intellectual.
At the generative center of Patterson’s work has been a fundamental inquiry into the internal dynamics of slavery as a mode of social and existential domination. What is most provocatively significant in his work on slavery is the way it yields a paradoxical insight into the problem of freedom – namely, that freedom was born existentially and historically from the degradation and parasitic inhumanity of slavery and was as much the creation of the enslaved as of their enslavers.
The Paradox of Freedom elucidates the pathways by which Patterson has both uncovered the relationship between domination and freedom and engaged intellectually and publicly with the struggles for equality and decolonization among descendants of the enslaved. It will be of great interest to students and scholars throughout the humanities and social sciences and to anyone interested in the work of one of the most important public intellectuals of our time.
“The Nature and Invention of Freedom”: Roundtable with Orlando Patterson
[MARION FOURCADE] Hello, everyone. Welcome, welcome, welcome. So for those of you who were here last night or who watched the lecture online, it was a phenomenal lecture and a wonderful exchange. Lots of energy came out of the room, I think. And we are eager to repeat this today.
So I’m just going to introduce our moderator, Caitlin. And she will introduce our speakers. So Caitlin Rosenthal is a historian of 18th and 19th century US history. Her research focuses on the development of management practices, especially those based on data analysis. She works at the intersection of qualitative and quantitative methods to understand business history, economic history, and labor history.
Her first book, titled, Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management, which came out with Harvard University Press in 2018, won the Simkins Award of the Southern Historical Association, as well as the first book prize of the Economic History Society. So thank you, Caitlin, for moderating this panel, and I am so excited about the discussion that is to come.
[CAITLIN ROSENTHAL] Thank you. Thank you for that lovely introduction, and especially for this introduction to be part of such a wonderful and interdisciplinary panel. When I was preparing my introductions, Marion said that I could have a little bit of liberty to personalize, which I thought I would take advantage of the fact that we had already had one introduction so far.
I will say, briefly, that Professor Orlando Patterson, who’s, I’m sure, already known to many of you, is the John Cowles Professor of Sociology at Harvard. He is the author of six major academic books, of three novels, and of countless articles, and a long, long list of prizes.
The two things where I wanted to personalize– the first, I guess, is not so much personal to me, as it’s coming out of the reading that we did to prepare for today’s session, in which Professor Patterson reflects on what it means to be a public intellectual. And reading that description of what his work aspires to do, I couldn’t find a better description of what it has done.
His work, as he writes, and I will paraphrase slightly to make clear that it has been done, is that “His work enlightens some of the big issues of our time, such as freedom, democracy, and equality. It helps readers come to terms with the great evils of human history, such as genocide, slavery, colonialism, racism, classism, and colorism. And it helps people to be honest about how the past works in accounting for present outcomes.”
And I thought, in particular, that use of that word accounting, which is what I study myself, is figuring out how to account for the past and how to change based on it. And the little bit of personal inspiration I’ll take is that I quote Professor Patterson very, very often. It’s a phrase from a 1979 article in the New Left Review, where he describes the period of slavery that I study, which, of course, is not all slavery in all places, as “Merely capitalism with its clothes off.”
And that’s a phrase that has not only been mobile in my own work, helping me to think in new ways, but has helped me turn around the way I ask questions about slavery and capitalism. Turning this around to think not just about what capitalism and slavery can tell us together, but what slavery and the history of slavery more broadly can reveal about capitalism, and its flexibility, and the power relations that it covers up in most broad terms. So thank you for that phrase and also for the inspiration.
We’re going to start not with Professor Patterson, but with two prepared comments. And then we’ll turn the floor over to him to respond and then to all of you for comments. First, Daniela Cammack is an assistant professor of political science here at UC Berkeley. Her work focuses on democracy and its history in ancient Greek. And her book manuscript, Demos: How the People Ruled Athens, argues that the meanings and practices of democracy are marked by relations of domination.
Professor Cammack will be followed by Ricarda Hammer, an incoming assistant professor, joining us this summer in the Department of Sociology. Her work is at the intersection of global historical and postcolonial sociology. She received her PhD from Brown University in 2021.
And her book manuscript is titled, Citizenship and Colonial Difference: The Racial Politics of Rights and Rule Across the Black Atlantic. The book aims to build a new genealogy of rights formation by examining it through colonial struggle from the perspective of the enslaved and colonized in the colonial Caribbean.
So I will begin by turning it over to Daniela for her prepared remarks.
[DANIELA CAMMACK] Thank you so much. Oh, wow, it’s very loud. Great, I think everyone must be able to hear me. Is that correct? Good. Thank you so much, Caitlin. It is a huge honor and pleasure to be here, to have been asked to take part in this roundtable discussion.
I think it’s about 20 years since I first read some of Professor Patterson’s books, when I started my graduate studies at Harvard. And going back to them in the last few days has been even more exciting, and actually enlightening and pleasurable than the first time around. They really– they’re so rich. And I’m so full of respect and admiration for the work that you’ve done. Thank you so much.
So there are so many things that I wanted to flag as points that I find so compelling in the writing that Professor Patterson has shared with us today. So, for example, freedom conceived as power– I find that very persuasive.
The lack of any kind of platonic form of freedom as a concept, that also the thought that it doesn’t exist universally in the hearts of men, but rather is something constructed. I was thinking about Elaine Scarry’s distinction between the made up and the made real, and thinking that freedom is something that has been made up, and has subsequently been made real in the forms of discourses and the institutions that it’s worked to congeal, kind of coalesced around it.
Yeah, and not found everywhere on the globe but is a distinctive value within the Western tradition. I take that very seriously. I fully agree. And I also was– I was so pleased to discover something that I hadn’t fully realized before, was that so many of your intellectual heroes, I’ve also– I really look up to and admire. So we were just talking about Moses Finley. I’m half British. In the British tradition– EP Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, these are people that I also really revere. And the early Marx of course, is a huge touchstone.
I wanted to ask– there are so many things, actually, that come up in my teaching. And I was thinking, wow, I could really take advantage of my few moments here to ask your opinion on some of the things that I tell my students and what do you make of this? I selected two. I have two general issues that come up in my writing and in my teaching that really touch on a lot of the arguments that you make.
So one has to do with power and the kind of power that the ancient Greek demos had and that maybe ordinary people would need to have in other contexts in order to be free, or when free. And another interest of mine is also going to be what to make of passages when the demos is itself represented as being a slave, how to think about those. So those will be the two main issues I want to think about.
So in terms of the different– the power that the demos has, or had, when being free, being eleftheros, Professor Patterson, very sensibly, distinguishes between the positive understanding of freedom, the power to– positive power to do things with respect to oneself, others, society. Also associated with the idea of being empowered or autonomous, as distinct from her negative power, power to resist compulsion, and a third kind, which he glosses as public power and associates with participation and equality.
I was very interested and pleased, very delighted to see your use of Emil Benveniste, his work on the concepts of kratos, the term kratos. I also followed him in my work. And I think his– I think his historical account of the kratos as a form of power, that obviously is really important for us, is the kind of power that is found in the term demokratia– demos and kratos. People often talk about that as people power or people ruling, rule by the people. There are different ways of glossing it.
And I just– I wanted to probe a little bit your take on kratos as a form of domination. You mention this in the extract from the forthcoming book, The Short History of Freedom. And I take that very seriously. I’ve also written about kratos as a form of domination. I read it as really a kind of prevailing power.
It’s the power to prevail over others is how I understand it. And I wondered if in your mind, when you think of the demos having kratos, are you thinking of the demos having power over others– others being doulos, being slaves in the first instance, possibly allies in an empire?
And what do you make of the claim that I would want to put to you, which is that possibly the most important form of kratos that you see in demokratia is the domination of the demos over the elite, over the political elite? But that may actually have been for the ancient Greeks the most important group over whom they would need to dominate, the demos, ordinary people, would need to dominate in order to be free. I think we can see that in the history of democracy. And I would really value your impressions of that.
I also wondered about them the relationship between kratos as prevailing power, the power to dominate, and a couple of other Greek terms for power. Because we tend to use that one term, power, in many, many different senses, of course. But the Greeks, I think– the ancient Greeks were much more differentiated in their understandings of different kinds of power. So kratos, the power to prevail, seems very different from being kurios, being authoritative or being an authority.
And that is another kind of power that the demos has within demokratia. It has the power to control– kind of sovereign power. We can think of it as sovereign authority. That’s a slightly different form, but I think also a very important ingredient in their conception of eleftheria, of freedom.
And another kind, again, is [GREEK], which is more like empire, or sway, or really office holding. Usually, in ancient Greek democratic texts you don’t find the demos talked about as having– as [GREEK]. There’s a couple of examples very early in the late 5th century.
But by the time you get to the 4th century, to have [GREEK] is really understood as being the kind of power that an office holder has as an individual, very distinct from the idea of power that the collective has. And the demos is always the collective.
So I just– I wondered if these different conceptualizations of power map on in any way to the ideas you have of power within freedom or if they feel, actually, very different from some of the arguments you’ve been making? So that’s one set of issues and thoughts.
So the second set of issues and thoughts I had was these passages where the demos– we find the demos represented as itself being a doulos– itself being a slave. Actually, often it’s with the use of the verb. So it’s often the demos is [GREEK]. It’s hard to know how to translate that. I’ve struggled with it ever since I first started learning ancient Greek. I wanted to say slaving away is one possible translation. Or you could also just say serving.
So the idea of the demos serving the elite comes up over and over again in the text, actually– again, from the late 5th century onwards, but, for example, in the old oligarch’s text, there’s several mentions of the demos serving the elite or risking having to serve the elite, to [GREEK] again if they didn’t keep the upper hand over the elite.
We also find it in Aristotle’s politics. He says there, flat out, that if the demos does not have the power to elect officeholders and hold them to account, then it is nothing but a doulos, or would be nothing but a doulos, a slave and a [GREEK], a hostile internal enemy.
So these passages always put me to some trouble when I’m teaching, actually. Because the students very naturally want to know what is being said about the demos here. Is the idea that the demos, without its political power– say, before Solon’s reforms, often comes up here, because before Solon’s reforms, the demos are described as a doulos to the [GREEK], so serving the– serving the nobility, serving the nobles.
And they want to know are we being told here that all the members of the demos literally were slaves, they were doulos to the elite? Or are we maybe being told that en masse they were conceived as dominated by the elite to such an extent maybe they’re constantly risking being turned into individual slaves with individual masses among the elite? Or is there some other way of understanding this?
I’ve always wondered, are we meant to understand– do you think we’re meant to take those passages literally or maybe more metaphorically, that the demos is being glossed as a slave or framed as a slave, when it doesn’t have full political power? Is that a metaphorical usage of the notion of doulos? Or might it be that it suggests that there was always a very political– what we would call a very political component to the notion of slavery from the very, very earliest texts?
That maybe the paradigm of the individual slave, perhaps in a household, in an oikos, serving one particular master, maybe that’s not the entire foundational paradigm. But maybe there’s a sense in which there’s a collective enslavement, maybe of the class. I’m thinking of Marx, the class of slave to the many– sorry, to the elite. Is that the way we should be thinking about that?
And then the final question I have on that theme would be something like, would you think that there is maybe a collective equivalent to your notion of social death? So as I understand it, that is operationalized at the level of the individual, that the slave within a household experiences this [GREEK] dishonor, before they’re in a household, but also. But is there an equivalent at the collective level? Or would that be slightly to misconceive or misrepresent the relations that you see obtaining between these different groups, that dominated and the dominators?
Thank you so much. I’ve so much enjoyed reading everything, your work, and the new work. It was a privilege to read some of the new work that’s coming out. And I can’t wait to see the full–
[ORLANDO PATTERSON] Thank you. Thank you very much.
[RICARDA HAMMER] OK, so thank you, Marion, Julia, and everybody else who was involved in putting together this really extraordinary conversation. I am overjoyed really to be in community with you all, finally. And it is such an honor to have this conversation with thee Orlando Patterson. It is so nice to meet you, if a little surreal. But thank you for sitting down with us and engaging us.
So I wrote my comments to keep myself on time. Now, it is fitting that the starting point for a discussion on Patterson’s writings on freedom is a biographical dialogue. His life experience in the Caribbean is the vantage point that shapes much of Patterson’s opus. For it the site that encompasses so many of the contradictions of the modern world.
Much like C.L.R. James, who positions the Haitian revolutionaries not as particular, but as world historical actors, Patterson shares with many intellectuals in the Caribbean tradition the ability to think from the Caribbean, but too, give us a perspective on the world.
In fact, in this interview with David Scott, Patterson explains that it was the celebration of Empire Day that brought inspiration for his monumental study on freedom. A young boy in colonial Jamaica, he was submerged in the unofficial anthem of the British Empire, “Rule, Britannia,” and its bizarre chorus, called, “Britons never, never, shall be slaves,” which struck him, as he explains diplomatically, strange.
Now this invocation to articulate freedom through its antonym will eventually lead Patterson to theorize the twin dimensions of slavery and freedom in Western culture. Indeed, from the position of the colonies, he is able to see clearly the components of the nature of freedom, one of which is the power to dominate others.
It is no accident, he says, that the American Revolution is fought by a set of slave owners. And indeed British settlers in the West Indies were particularly intent to claim their, quote, “Rights of Englishmen,” precisely because their insistence on their freedom to dominate others.
Now Patterson claims freedom as a sociological topic of study. Meaning that freedom is not an ideational product of the European intellectuals’ mind, but rather it is culturally and historically situated. And it comes out of a particular social constellation. And that is the institution of slavery. Freedom then is not a universal value, but it emerges, and gets institutionalized peculiarly, and in unlikely ways, in Western culture through its emergence out of slavery.
For historical sociologists, Patterson offers a methodology for how to situate concepts not as free-floating, abstract ideals, but as products of particular social institutions. For example, the second component of the triad of freedom emerges in the struggle of the enslaved, perhaps best epitomized in manumission, the release from slavery, which is the struggle for absence of domination.
I’m quoting Patterson– “Freedom began its career as a social value in the desperate yearning of the slave to negate what for him, or her, or for non-slaves was a peculiarly inhuman condition,” end quote. And he then traces the struggle from ancient Greece, Rome, and continuing through its Christian reformulation. Freedom follows from slavery, from death to rebirth, slavery to salvation. In short, I quote, “Out of evil, cometh hope.”
Now Patterson really stands alone in his mastery of these topics in sociology. And this work has opened up the space for us to engage these topics as sociologists. But I’d be really boring if I didn’t at least try to challenge you. So here it goes.
My questions have to do with the distinction between the ancient and the modern world, and whether in the modern world, after 1492, with the onset of the colonial project, freedom is mediated by who gets to be human in the first place. Take the temporalities of slavery and freedom, “Out of evil, cometh hope,” what happens when manumission is not the absence of domination, but the imposition of a new form of domination? In other words, what if abolition is not the antonym of slavery, but the beginning of something else?
Abolition in British Jamaica, for example, invoking the historian Thomas Holt, posed for the British Colonial Office the quote, “Problem of freedom.” For the Colonial Office, abolition required an investigation into the nature of the enslaved, specifically whether people would work without slavery. Indeed, this colonial report concluded that– I’m quoting– “Slaves, if emancipated, would maintain themselves, would be industrious, and disposed to acquire property by labor,” end quote.
So applying a Pattersonian methodology, one that sees freedom as culturally inflected with meanings and socially situated, it becomes clear that freedom after abolition is the freedom to work. Of course, freedom in liberal England is a scam, we’ve known since Marx’s “Satanic Mills.” But my point is that with abolition re-emerge an older question, which is this debate over the anthropological nature of the newly freed.
And this debate was not only centered on work, but also sought to answer more foundational questions over their disposition, their souls, the minds of the newly freed. Missionaries, as Catherine Hall, made clear in Civilising Subjects insisted that the formerly enslaved were reformable, only to then lose this battle with the rise of polygenists’ racist science of the 1850s. By then, the British Colonial Office concluded that the formerly enslaved were, indeed, fundamentally different.
So to understand slavery and freedom in the modern world and in the colonial context, don’t we need a mediating concept, which is that of personhood? What kind of person could be free or who could be a person at all. As you know, John Stuart Mill is outraged at the British colonial state’s violent response after the Morant Bay uprising, and yet, Mill finds absolutely no problem with the imposition of Crown rule in 1865. Because, quoting his One Liberty, “Despotism is a legitimate form of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end is their improvement,” end quote.
Now I think Jamaican intellectuals are leading the conversation of new genealogies of freedom. Alongside Patterson, Sylvia Wynter and Anthony Boggs have also undertaken this work. And for them, colonialism throws a wrench in the story.
Take Wynter, in 1492 she argues, “Ushered in the articulation of those who self-articulated as human, versus those colonial intellectuals designated as outside of the human community, a community under God, versus those without souls, and hence, heathens, a political community of rationality, versus those incapable of it, or we might say, in this case, a community of laboring, responsible subjects, versus those who are not reformable.”
With debates in modern Europe emerged the conception of personhood, designating the colonized as outside it. And thus, foreclosing any discussion of the simultaneous, coetaneous existence of slavery in the plantation colonies. How else do we explain the apparent cognitive dissonance in someone like Benjamin Constant, who was very much thinking about liberty and relationship to ancient slavery.
But in 1819, wrote, as Barnor Hesse pointed out, seemingly without any irony at all, that, quote, “Thanks to commerce, to religion, to the moral and intellectual progress of the human race, there are no longer slaves among European nations,” end quote.
Now finally, Patterson is an intellectual in the world, engaged in politics. So I must mention the third part of Patterson’s triad of freedom, which is freedom as participation and equality. If, as Du Bois remarked, “The slave stood for a moment in the sun in periods, such as Reconstruction, but at the same time Reconstruction saw the realigning of capital and the reshifting of racist ideologies to tighten the borders of the political community,” leading Du Bois to conclude that “This very failure of Reconstruction led to the failure of democracy in America.”
With the limits of abolition and Reconstruction, my question to you then would be if it is not only slavery that needs to be explained, but also the limited ways in which freedom was instituted.
All right, so thank you so much for republishing this book and for rekindling these debates. I look forward to our conversation. Thanks.
[ORLANDO PATTERSON] OK, well, thank you very much for those extremely stimulating comments. Well, in many ways, very provocative and raises issues which I’ve often thought about myself. I keep going back to my work and rethink what I originally thought, often based on not just criticism, but things I’ve read later on and from discussions of this nature. And you’ve certainly raised a lot of very interesting issues of the sort, which leads me to rethink.
For me, ideas are always open, and nothing is ever closed, including the possibility of completely rethinking what was thought before. I always hold that possibility out. So I think the issue you raise about power is very, very important.
I often find real resistance to the idea that power is central to the notion of freedom, for the same reason that liberalism tends to see it as the opposite of freedom, rather than being, in a sense, the defining principle. But that’s just a sort of form of way of hiding.
I tend to see liberalism as a kind of elaborate camouflage of the principle of power, because what is being said is that what’s important, what’s central, of course, is the escape from domination. And that’s why in David Brion Davis’s work– in a sense, I see the essence of his work, is that the centrality of the abolition movement to liberalism was, indeed– it made that point. Quintessentially, freedom is getting rid of slavery and doing that.
But what is it camouflaging? It is camouflaging the idea that there is a form of power which remains central to the idea of freedom right through to today. This has being camouflaged all along. And that is, of course, property.
Marx, in a famous passage, once made the argument that modernity involved the transition from the control of power of property through the control of people directly– that’s what serfdom was about– to a condition in which we control people through a control of property. And that’s what is being camouflaged.
And that terrible truth, one of Marx’s most powerful readings, is what’s being camouflaged with the obsessive emphasis only on the idea of freedom as negation of personal– of the power over another. Because it remains almost– it’s too embarrassing and revealing to see this other dimension.
But, of course, as I pointed out, American history, itself, makes clear the centrality of power, not only in the importance of property, which is being camouflaged, but directly, in the fact that half the nation went to war to defend the principle of freedom as power over [INAUDIBLE]. That’s what the Civil War was about.
So the idea– and the Southerners were quite explicit about this– they were fighting for their freedom. And it befuddled many people, but it shouldn’t, if they knew their history. In fact, the South has the history of Europe on its side.
So I found your comments extremely useful. The idea– the notion that the demos as a slave, I just wondered whether– that expression, and that image, and that thought, an that metaphor is a powerful one which persists right through. So in a sense, the Stoics took it up, the notion of the ultimate freedom was, in fact, surrender and complete– well, enslavement to God– to the power of the universe.
In Roman thought, of course, it is significant that– and this comes out in the famous biography of Augustus, that ultimately a surrender to the emperor– enslavement to the Emperor was the ultimate freedom. And the Romans– the freedmen of Rome– the elite freedmen, the ones who subscribed to the Lares cult, which was the cult of the emperors, saw their freedom as guaranteed and vested in being the slaves of the emperor.
And that idea, of course, was picked up in Christianity and became central to– this is why I think Paul has a solution to much of many of the problems of [INAUDIBLE] and their freedom. People, you should all read Paul. He was a very strange man, but maybe the most brilliant thinker. Certainly, the most influential thinker in the history of the West, whether you’re a Christian or not.
So the two great letters were– the letter to the Galatians was freedom in the simple negation. This is what Christ’s death simply bought you out of enslavement to the sin. The metaphor is– the interjection was direct. Jesus paid for you to be manumitted. Evidently, the people don’t seem to know that the word redemption comes from redemptive, which literally means to buy someone out of slavery. So Jesus bought you out of slavery in the negative sense.
But in Romans– and theologians spend so much time wondering about how you can reconcile Paul’s letter to the Romans with Paul’s letter to the Galatians. I never saw a problem. Because what he then did was to shift the notion of freedom as slavery to God. And of course, says it quite clearly. And he got that straight out of Stoicism, by the way, who got it straight out of the Greeks.
So that extraordinary idea, which became central in Christianity– one of the most difficult and profound passages in the entire New Testament was when Paul describes the experience of– and people have always thought, what is he saying? How could he have moved from Galatians? Which was– literally, goes on about the freedom of women, of Gentiles, and so on. This is what Jesus’ death presented too, an idea, which is very much a more Augustan idea of freedom as surrender to God. But it all goes back to the Greeks.
So that sense of freedom coming from surrender to a powerful force, which is– which can be conceived as the state, if you like, and is how I would see the origin of that idea. And, of course it tracks right through Western history, through Christianity.
And by the way, the reason why then Christianity is so important is that it’s Christianity that carries Western– ancient thought and ideas of freedom. People often see a break in the history of freedom with the collapse of Rome, but it’s nothing of the sort. The point is that these ideas were powerfully encapsulated, although interjected in Christian doctrine of freedom.
And it’s often– especially philosophers tend to see Christianity– oh, that’s religion, so that’s not– this is ridiculous. It was the most important thought there is in Christendom. And as [INAUDIBLE] and others have pointed out, in many ways modern thought was simply the extrusion, if you like, or the opposite of interjection– the extrajection– the turning out of the spiritual back into the secular, in the same way that the secular thought of the Greeks and the Stoics was interjected into Christianity, which then held it for 1,000 years.
And reflected, by the way– and no one reads the simple fact that– perhaps the most prominent student of modern source of freedom is Locke. Locke’s work– and I think the biographers of Locke have now come around this idea– it’s almost accepted– was applied theology. It’s hard to believe.
Now, I don’t know how many of you read Locke’s religious writings, but his commentary of the Gospels, which nobody reads, which– was very revealing. But it’s just part of the process of the extroversion, if you like, or whatever the proper word is– the interjection– of this powerful Christian, if you like, encapsulation of ancient Greek thought through [INAUDIBLE] back into the world.
And the same ideas– the same three ideas came. So the idea of the Galatian idea, the letters, of freedom as escape from sin, the power of slavery as a sin, the idea of freedom as well. But also, the idea of the Corpus Christi as the embodiment of the civic notion of freedom, freedom in identity with the Christian community.
All those ideas, in fact, can be easily secularized. And, in fact, there’s another book I’m writing on the earliest thought of– the early modern thought, which draws heavily on these metaphors. But that, in the broadest terms, is how I [INAUDIBLE].
But I like very much some of the issues you raise. By the way, I love it– I didn’t know this quote from Ellen. I see Ellen every month. And we belong to the same society. That “Made up and made real”–
[DANIELA CAMMACK] It’s a great article.
I love it. The next time I see her, I’ll say, well, how come you hid this from me all this time. Wow, that’s fantastic. But let’s get back to the point you raised earlier of the demos. Because do you know, the very earliest– going through language– the very earliest in the European word were– of freedom, which I can’t pronounce. Maybe you can. You’re a student of language.
But anyway, it means, literally, among the beloved– we who are. And Benveniste explore this at great length. It refers to we, as opposed to them– which is often a slave– who are not. It’s an us versus them idea. So the original idea– and it does include the slaves, but it’s them versus us. And the– and I wonder if Toni Morrison knew this. That the most ancient Indo-European meaning of the word freedom is beloved– we, the beloved.
So, yes, it’s who are they, and how they are to achieve this relationship with the elite, of course, is the essence of the struggle of Greece from the 7th century, when they were virtually reduced to– they were essentially in debt bondage, a massive debt bondage in that early period, until the Solonic reforms, under the threat of revolt.
But in a way, I see dynamically as a struggle, a constant struggle between– to define precisely what demos means, and the ways in which they elite define as opposed to the way in which the mass– it’s a very fluid thing. And the different, subtle ways in which you define it, seems to me, reflects where the struggle is at at any given time.
And I find your exploration of this really intriguing. I’d love to read what you have to read about it, because as I said, I’m always open to rethinking. And so the idea of a demos as a slave, though, is simply then more the idea of– it’s the slave of God, this idea of ultimate freedom, as it was found in this– well, the question is, what is the demos enslaved to? I was just wondering
[DANIELA CAMMACK] The elite.
The elite– was it always the elite?
[DANIELA CAMMACK] Outside demokratia?
Yes. The argument is always– or the representation is always the demos is enslaved to the elite.
Or risks falling back into enslavement by the elite if they don’t maintain their Democratic institutions.
[ORLANDO PATTERSON] I see. That, in a way, is almost an early precursor of the Augustan idea, isn’t it? Because he saw enslavement, to his genius, to his power as the sort of security of the Roman freedom. Of course, he may say there was no real freedom there. But it was that idea.
But I do find this very intriguing. [LAUGHS] I must explore it some more. But as you can see, the important thing to note is that this singular liberal notion of freedom is so sort of naive, when looked at historically.
But, OK, we can get back to–
[CAITLIN ROSENTHAL] I’m going to– can I just– so that we–
[ORLANDO PATTERSON] OK, sorry. I like very much the points you raised about– from the Caribbean point of view, as to what happens after slavery was, quote-unquote, “abolished.” And the notion of personhood– what kind of person could a free person be?
That was the struggle. That was the whole point of the post-colonial period, in a way. One solution is, of course, just to move away entirely from any engagement with the former colonial masters, who are now– and that was the peasantry. And the refusal to be engaged with the plantation, because the plantation meant, indeed, all the problems that you raised.
And so the Jamaicans did escape, in a way, into the present. And did recreate a kind of Afro-Jamaican culture, which was the source of much of the vitality of Jamaican culture. It’s the source– Bob Marley is a peasant before he became– grew up in the most rural part of the peasantry before he went to Trenchtown and so on. Almost everything that’s vital in Jamaican culture emerges from the group which completely removed itself from the plantation.
The plantation, on the other hand, as Edith Clarke and many anthropologists of Jamaica– remained a kind of neo slavery system. And has been traumatic for the experience. And remains so, indeed, right through to the modern times. It’s a source of turmoil, of endless violence, and so on.
And so, yes, you’re absolutely right– the question of– and the peasantry, of course, was the source of the rejection of the missionaries’ attempts to define freedom as becoming Christianized. And accepting marriages– those mass marriages which they arranged for the peasants, who refused to accept it, and threw away their rings, and developed their own form of culture.
So freedom then becomes the capacity to create one’s own culture, independently of– and it goes back to my discussion yesterday of ethnicide and genocide. They recognized slave as a form of genocide. They recognized that. And one form of expression of freedom was the fact that they suddenly started to reproduce right after slavery. But a second form was the fact that they started to recreate their own culture and a vital culture.
And those who are not in it remained, in a sense, entrapped in a kind of semi-slavery. That was the plantation. And so that’s so you’re absolutely right, the kind of person which was created afterwards, was it the ex-slaves who are going to create it or was it going to be the missionaries and the continued plantation owners? And I think there’s part success in the peasantry, in the culture.
But, of course, the other part of Jamaica was the one dominated by the continued ex-planters, and the elite, and the Brown-skinned elite, and so on. And the struggle continues in Jamaica. And you can hear it in the dance halls in the nights. It’s the ragamuffin versus the bourgeoisie. And they call them self– they celebrate their ragamuffin status as the expression of their freedom. So it’s recognized as the expression of their personhood, which drives the middle class crazy.
So the struggle still continues in Jamaica, in a way. Yeah, so you’re absolutely right. But we can talk some more about that. I think I should stop at this point, but thank you.
[CAITLIN ROSENTHAL] That’s a wonderful note to turn it open to the audience for questions.
[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Hi, I’m Dmitri. I’m a second-year history PhD student here. Thank you so much for being here and for sharing this text with us. Reading David Scott’s introduction and part of your interview, I got the sense that the freedom being discussed was primarily understood as an individual freedom, with distinctly Western origins.
And I guess, I’m curious about– I’m curious about whether– about what you– whether you see a distinction between the kind of freedom that you’re describing in your interview with David Scott and forms of collective freedom understood as freedom of a people or a community from various forms of domination? Or freedom of a people or a community to form a state or a political organization?
And I’m wondering if you think of that kind of collective freedom as different in some way? And if so, whether you also trace it to this Western lineage of individual freedom? Or can we trace other genealogies of freedom that don’t necessarily inhere in the individual?
[ORLANDO PATTERSON] Yes. It’s a good point. I’m glad you raised it. I do not mean free states in the sense of independent states. Because in that sense, any independent state, even totally barbaric, tyrannical ones, can be said to be free. So no, I do not mean to use the term in that sense at all.
Because I don’t see Russia as a free state or any of the number of– or China as a free state. It’s free in the sense that it’s an independent state, but it’s– or North Korea. North Korea is free in that sense, collectively, as they constantly celebrate. But it’s freedom– I do not mean freedom in that sense.
Although, of course, the struggle for freedom does become tied into this. I prefer to use it on the social aspect of freedom. Because when I speak of freedom in the third sense, as sort of engagement with freedom in the demos, as being an equal part of the demos, there’s a collective social element in that. And it’s a very important one, by the way. And it’s one– well, it’s a source of democracy.
It’s one we’re likely to neglect. But you know something, it explains– its power is explained in what’s happening right now in America and in the populist revolt all over the world. And let me backtrack a little about how I see these three elements.
I see them– I use the metaphor of a chord, a chordal triad. And just see them interacting with each other. And that three require each other. And true freedom– true freedom, real freedom comes only where the three are working together. But the long history of freedom has been a long struggle in which different groups have tried to extract one from the other.
Elites have always emphasized freedom as power. Throughout the Middle Ages– one of my favorite example of this is the English lords in the 9th century referred to the freedom of gallows, by which they mean the freedom to execute anyone within their domain, which is an extreme form of the idea of freedom as power. And, obviously, that suits them.
They were very resistant to the idea of freedom as liberation, independence– freedom from. And, of course, the idea of freedom as a equal– basically, equality in the laws, in the social– whatever the governing social order is, and pride in that.
Now when these become separated, they can become dangerous. And in many ways, what’s happening in America– let’s look at the crazy situation, the fraught situation we’re in in America today. In many ways, the populist rhetoric is very much an appeal to that most, if you like, primeval– Benvenistian idea of the freedom as the we, the collective we, who possess this space, this political and social space, which is America– we, the people.
OK, and the fear that we, the people, are being invaded by others, who are not among the beloved– the beloved being we, white, Christian. So that’s the definition of what freedom is. It’s a real part of the history of freedom. And it’s the fear that those who are not among the beloved– the Mexicans, the Blacks, the immigrants– are going to come into us, among the beloved and– the spoilers.
That’s not new. That’s a profound and deeply rooted. And then it goes back to the demos and the attitude, if you like, of the hostility towards the freedmen in Athens. It’s remarkable that even though so much of what is great in Greece– the buildings, much of the art, the policemen, who kept order. They were all slaves and ex-slaves, for Christ sake’s, but they were never really accepted.
Even Aristotle was not accepted. That precious entity– both your parents had to be Greeks and so on. And that idea of a special community of the beloved, as well as the core of the, if you like, the social notion of freedom as we– among the beloved, we, who constitute an equal group and so on.
And it becomes dangerous when it’s separated from the other notions of freedom, it seems to me. And it’s there. I see it. And what do they emphasize? Freedom– they’re not– to say that– to say that they don’t know what they’re talking about, they know what they’re talking about. It is one element of freedom, that idea of us belonging to a community, which we share, as we are equal members, the beloved. And it doesn’t belong to them, who are not among us. That has deep, deep roots in the history of freedom.
And that’s what they mean by freedom. They’re not interested in the other two elements. They’re not interested in the liberal notion of freedom and freedom as power, which they also recognize. This is why they’re hostile to the elites and so on.
So I see this, and I scratch my head that people think that– what’s happening, of course, is a fragmentation in America of this triad. If you want to use the musical metaphor. It’s fragmented deeply in America now and in other parts of the West.
In a way, the welfare state– I don’t want to celebrate it, but one definition of the welfare state, when it works, is indeed the integration of these three notes of the chord. And it still works, in part. I don’t want to name any society as my– but when it works, it works very well. And it came very close to working very well in parts of Western Europe.
But it’s been– I see it as fragmented now. And in America, it’s very fragmented. And this is what Trumpism is all about, the appeal to the beloved. OK, so–
Hopefully we’ll get–
Sorry, moved too far.
[CAITLIN ROSENTHAL] Let’s take one more question and maybe another one.
[ORLANDO PATTERSON] I’m going to be very brief from now on. So, please.
[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Hello, pardon me. Hello, my name is William. I’m a third-year PhD student in geography. As you were talking about freedom, what was coming to my mind is marronage, and particularly the gendered forms of marronage.
So I study West Africa, but also parts of the Caribbean. And what I found very interesting is when you look at gendered marronage, and you look at some of the slave narratives or dialogues, a lot of the female slaves were conceptualizing freedom, or marronage, in terms of being reconnected to family or escaping sexual violence.
Whereas, a lot of the male slaves were conceptualizing freedom of marriage in terms of the absence of chains. So it was more abstract. So you see there’s a gendered note behind marronage. And so I was interested in your thoughts on that, and gendered freedom, and gendered marronage. Particularly, you mentioned yesterday gendercide or femicide.
And the second question to this is, as you were talking, I was thinking about Trouillot’s Silencing the Past, and his comment on the Basals and the Congolese in the Haitian Revolution, and how they conceptualized freedom for them was living on the sides of mountains and having food sovereignty.
[ORLANDO PATTERSON] And having what?
[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Food sovereignty– farming themselves. And so I’m thinking about this gender conception of freedom, and then this almost ecological food sovereignty, as it were, and how you conceptualize or move between them in your work.
[ORLANDO PATTERSON] Yeah. Well, one of my early works is on marronage, the earliest history of the slave revolts in Jamaica and leading to the– often called the first Maroon wars. And Jamaica, as you know, has made a national hero of Nanny. It was one of the leaders of the Maroons. The problem is we don’t know very much about Nanny, except that she was a great leader.
And as I said earlier, I entirely agree– the peasants– with Jamaican peasants withdrawing to the hills. And developing their own peasant communities was core idea. For them, freedom meant that independence, even if it meant only a half acre of land. But they could produce– and it’s amazing to see what you can produce and how you can feed a family of six on a half acre of land. But that was freedom in every sense of the term to them– economic freedom, and political freedoms, and individual freedom.
I would need to know more. There is no doubt from the history of slavery that one of the central features of slavery everywhere was rape, the rape of women. And Frederick Douglass, in a famous passage, pointed out the worst fate which could befall a slave woman is to be even mildly attractive, because she’d almost certainly–
But rape as an essential part of slavery is now– is, I think, fairly accepted. And so for women, one can see that as critical in defining what their freedom is. And my novel, Die the Long Day, in fact draws– that was central to this theme of the novel. Because her rebellion is based on the fact that she didn’t want her daughter to be raped by the overseer.
But look, it gets more complicated in a way in which– to get back to what I mentioned yesterday– many people don’t like to talk about. Because there were tensions between those views of what freedom is. Because, unfortunately, the slaveholders’ view of freedom as domination carried over into the slave community.
Now, we don’t want to, in writing, a usable past– I don’t like that term, actually. I think it’s very Bourgeois. But you know what it means, right? OK, in writing, a usable past is great if you’re telling the truth about what exactly happened. One of the tragedies is that freedom as domination of others over whom you exercise control is carried over into the slave quarters.
The slave drivers were pretty vicious within the slave system. And men, in their attempts over women– they didn’t quite succeed– also carried over this idea of freedom as domination. I’m free to the degree that I can exercise power over anyone, whether it’s my children, whom I can beat the way I was beaten, or the women whom I can exercise my freedom over by being powerful.
And women, of course, obviously powerfully resisted this and continue to resist it. And would rather be not married, and in fact– than be married or have a relationship in that situation. And this, by the way– single parenting, started from very early, constitutes an expression of female freedom in important respects. Because they know that marriage, a continued relationship with a man, often means a carryover of the idea of freedom as power over, when for her, freedom means– freedom was in this negative sense. And in a sense of power in the sense of directing my life– empowerment.
That’s the other sort of– by the way, there’s a brutal and a benign aspect of the idea of freedom as power. The brutal aspect is just the slave masters’ view– freedom means power over. And it’s also the capitalist view– power over. My ability to buy with a stroke of a pen, dis-employ thousands of people, destroy a whole town, that’s power. And that’s freedom.
[INAUDIBLE] to have that freedom recognized, as opposed to the freedom which is empowerment. And Amartya Sen develops this idea very much. He thought he was being very original, in fact. Well, in a way, I guess he was. But in capability– he goes at great length of the notion of capability. And I keep scratching my head, and saying, OK, that’s very, very original.
But it’s the idea of freedom as power in the sense of capability, self-direction, empowerment, which women all have emphasized in describing it. Which is different from the power of power over. Power over versus power over others, as opposed to power over oneself, and so on, is the critical distinction between male and female views of freedom.
And it runs right through history. And we certainly find it in Jamaica if you talk to women, who have now given up completely on– most working-class women have given up completely on marriage for exactly this reason. And I want the power to direct myself, and I won’t get it in a relationship with a man.
So I don’t want to stray too much in this area because it gets very contentious. And people– it doesn’t gel with the idea of the usable past, which is the Bourgeois idea– if I want to have a past, which I can boast about, and which is part of the great empires, and what have you, and so on– whatever you want to call it. But the real past involves a real struggle. And it has to do with these different dimensions of freedom and what freedom really means.
But you’re right, there is a gendered view of freedom. And several people have written brilliantly on this. And I love the work of Judith Butler on this. Her work on Antigone, which, by the way, uses social death in a way in which, I must say, was more original than anything I could have thought of. I love her stuff. As she keeps saying– carry on, carry on.
This is my favorite example of Sartre’s, in his great book, What is Literature? It’s a great little book. Every person– student of literature should read What is Literature? But the central idea there is that when a writer writes something and puts it out into the world, it’s only half finished. It’s finished by the reader, who then can create with it what they want.
So Judith Butler does great things with social death, which I love. The Afro-pessimists do interesting things when they had their social [INAUDIBLE]. I’m not going to complain. Because I just retreat to the Sartrean view. Well, you’re completing it in that way. It may not be my way, but I have no claims anymore.
[CAITLIN ROSENTHAL] We’re almost to the final moment. So how many questions remain out there? If there’s only one, then we’ll take one last question. Or we could take two. Let’s take two together, and then you’ll get one final word. And then the rest will be finished by the reader.
[AUDIENCE MEMBER] The question I was hearing raised by Will and Dmitri in various ways was what to do with freedom in the non-modern West. And I wanted to return that to the– I thought it was a brilliant exchange between you and Professor Cammack. And especially your elaboration of the ancient, but I thought the way you took it to the reception through late antiquity was especially great.
So we know that by the time we come to the Eastern Mediterranean, later on, Islam, itself, is surrender, and it has a conception of freedom very radically. And equally, in Eastern Christianity, it’s a doulos [NON-ENGLISH], as you say, taking from Paul, but really taking that. There’s even these amazing descriptions depictions of Christ [NON-ENGLISH], the all powerful, the frescoes of God that are common in Eastern Christianity.
So the question is what to do with that? To describe it as freedom or as forms of unfreedom? And here I’m thinking, I feel like if we take your thesis seriously, and as I understood it in from the interview, and also in this exchange, these are all variations on a theme of freedom. Because in part, it is taken from ancient conceptions and elaborated in different ways throughout this history.
I would contrast that with– just because last week, we had the privilege of having Mahmood Mamdani visit. And he offered the opposite, view is– but in a way, it’s the same. That’s why I’m not sure where you stand on it.
He said that freedom and slavery are modern. They emerge together. They emerge with capitalism through modernity, in what we understand through secularization, et cetera, et cetera. And actually, in most of the world for most of the time, ie, the non-modern West, by and large, people were neither free, nor enslaved, but in various ways existing in states of unfreedom.
So for me, these are two contrasting ways of taking seriously the kinds of things we raise in discussions with Professor Cammack and with the other people. I don’t know whether to understand marronage, or Islam, or things like that as variations on freedom or as– or as varying kinds of unfreedom.
If we want to take seriously the idea that it’s in the West that freedom and slavery come together, which it seems at stake there is also your comment, Professor Rosenthal, the idea of capitalism with its clothes off, that its coexistent with modernity, and liberalism, and capitalism. It seems like that might be something we want to save.
But on the other hand, if we go that route, it seems to maintain the primacy of the West as that to which everything else has to be compared. And it seems to neglect the idea of thinking from those other perspectives. So I don’t know. I would like to hear what you have to say.
[FEMALE AUDIENCE MEMBER] I wanted to ask, in the interview that we read, there a lot of emphasis on thinking about the persistence of freedom and why the term has stuck over such a long period of time, and also thinking about it in a dialectical relationship with slavery or with the construction of the other.
So my question was in the contemporary moment, is it possible for us to shake freedom free of its dialectical connection to slavery, or the other, or the dominated through a contemporary struggle to re-articulate and re imagine the term? And if it’s not, as people who are thinking– political actors in the world today, should we turn to something else, another term, like liberation?
[ORLANDO PATTERSON] Yeah, those are two great questions. And I could spend a week on each one. I know I got to be brief. But they’re really– let me start with the second one– the second question. My answer, simply, is no, we can’t. It is what it is, as Naipaul would say.
Meaning– so I do not see ideas in any platonic sense out there, which can be discovered, or either in the hearts of men and women, or out there in the platonic ether to be found. And if we don’t like that, we go find– we go searching in the ether to find something else. That’s not how ideas– ideas emerge socially, historically.
And I use– and I pointed out something I learned from Aristotle, funnily enough, about how he talks about how ideas, in a way, almost emerge from the real world, from– he didn’t use the term struggle, but I’d say from struggle. And people, in making sense of it, come up with some idea of what it is they are struggling over.
And what happens is that the wise then pick up on these ideas. And among the things they do is to imagine that they are the first to imagine it. But, in fact, it’s not. And then you have a dialect– the history of an idea then, of a thought, is the a history of that dialectic between this real people struggling over the meaning of this thing. The wise is telling them what it is, having derived it from them. And so you have two path continuing and constantly feeding on each other and reinforcing each other.
But the arrogance of the philosophical and intellectual mind is often that we were the ones who discovered it. And we can sit in our armchair, like Isaiah Berlin, and discuss what freedom is. And negative freedom is the only freedom. And no, that’s– well, that’s how philosophers do it. And they can continue to get paid to do it, so they can continue doing it when they want.
But the point is, that’s not how it works. How it works is in this dialectical way between real struggle and thinking. So the most you can do is continue the dialogue as a thinker, or also as an actor, of both. I see myself as both. And try to make sense of it and try to direct it. Otherwise, you go find some other concept which you may want to promote.
So that would be my idea– no, you can’t. We’re stuck with that freedom, with that history. And that is what it is. And we can do all kinds of tricks. We can do what liberalism tried to do, and say, it’s only the negative part and so on. We can say it’s only among the beloved, and so on and so forth. But whatever, you’re going to continue with that. Otherwise, you find– as other people have done.
And so this takes me to your first– no, I don’t– so here’s the funny– I keep getting myself into situations where I’m being confounded with reactionaries because people don’t understand the radicalism of what I’m saying. So it’s a difficult situation.
So one of the criticisms I get for being conservative is that– hey, Patterson, you are just saying that this great idea of freedom existed in the West and it didn’t exist in other– and that’s a chauvinistic way of viewing the world. Freedom existed everywhere and so on. In a way, Amartya, whom I love, and he’s is a great man, partly accused me of this. But he claims that freedom existed in India. And his example of some Muslim person who set free some of his slaves or something.
But look, to the contrary– to the contrary, I think I’m offering a very radical interpretation, not a chauvinist. Yes, it originated in the West. And no, other people have great ideas of their own. OK, whether is Nirvana or whether– whatever. Different cultures emphasize things which are central to their societies.
The irony is that people are saying– other people have freedom too. In a sense, they’ve been so bemused by the West, that they are insisting that an idea which is very Western must have existed elsewhere. No, it was diffused elsewhere.
And the Chinese are right. And by the way, this is very interesting. By the way, they’re resisting translation– someone has translated Freedom into Chinese, and the Chinese are trying to figure out whether they’re going to have it published or not– but anyways. But they have insisted, rightly– there’s a famous conference in Bangkok in 1993, after the big celebration– the idea, after the fall of the Soviet Union– you remember, freedom is triumph. Remember that?
And that’s when this fellow wrote about the last man and whatnot. And everyone thought– and so there was this celebratory conference, which the UN arranged– you’re too young to remember– in Bangkok, in which the whole world was going to come, with the mantle of the world on the [INAUDIBLE] freedom– we’re all free and lordy, lordy.
And the Chinese turned up and said, we’ve got other ideas. And a strange collection of people– the Chinese, the Singaporeans, and I think the Indonesians, and a few others, said, no, this is our idea. Anyway, we have notions of it, like the development, that getting rid of poverty as being critical to that. It was a fascinating conference. Everybody are shocked.
Because the West was so full of itself, that its idea had triumphed over the world, that it just assumed that everybody would sign on to the fact that the world is free, which is not true. And I think I’m on the side of the Chinese here. They’re absolutely right. It’s a Western idea. And to accuse me of being conservative in saying that, this is so– it’s just fascinating.
But it did evolve. And, however, the way in which it evolved is one– so while people may, on the one hand, say– conservatives may say, oh, yeah, we like that idea, that it originated in the ancient West, they don’t like the idea when I explain how it originated. This dialectic– the first– the reason why it emerged was not just the existence of slavery, but something else, which emerged first in the ancient West.
And it’s a distinction with Moses Finley– the great Moses Finley– often made, the distinction between slave society and slave holding societies. Slave holding societies exist everywhere. In China, everywhere, there are some slaves, and so on– in Africa, everywhere.
Slave society, that extraordinary thing, in which a society becomes powerfully dependent, economically, and socially, and politically on slavery is central to its existence, emerged historically– it was a historically unique event. And it emerged among the ancient Greeks for the first time. And the evidence is quite powerful.
Slavery existed long before in the ancient Near East. It existed in China. It existed in Korea. It existed in Japan. But they never became slave societies. The phenomenon of slave society emerged in ancient Greece. And I tried to trace the history there in freedom and making of Western culture.
And then, of course, in Rome it metastasized into the greatest slave society of all time, which the world has never seen– not even modern slavery. Because slavery permeated the entire system, except the army. The economy was run by slaves. You read Cicero, if you don’t believe me.
The bureaucracies were– the teachers– if you want a teacher, you go buy a Greek teacher. And the imperial bureaucracy– and even the advisors to the emperor during the Claudian section. So that system– therefore, the world had never seen anything like that before. And it will never see anything like that again. Even the modern slave societies were nothing like that, in which the system was totally permeated by slavery. That is uniquely Western.
And the important thing to note is that at all the great points in Western history, we find this perverse institution. Over and over, we find it. In ancient Greece, and then it pops up again, 500 years– then in Rome. But you know something, we think of the end of the Rome as the end of slavery. That’s not true.
Michael McCormick’s great work, of course, has abolished the whole notion of the Dark Age. It no longer exists. It’s now lit up. And I belong to an organization of Harvard called “The Science of the Human Past,” in which the use of modern science, both in archaeology, the study of the history of the weather, the history of diseases, have led us to reinterpret the fall of Rome and all the rest.
But anyway, McCormick’s great book shows that, in fact, the whole notion of the fall of Rome, and then things were sunk into quiescence. But it’s all wrong. That slavery was alive and well. In Merovingian, France, that it rose again in the 10th century.
The reason why in all of European languages, the only word– no matter what the European family of language– each has the root slav– in all the languages– is because– you should know this, because I often hear it said that one of the characteristic features of modern slavery is that it became identified with one racial group– Black people.
Hey, that’s not true. it’s happened before, at least once, with a group of people called Slavs. And that’s why whether it’s Swedish, or French, or Spanish, or Hungarian, it has the same root. And they’re a very different family of languages. Slavery, the idea emerged from– well, the Slavs were the first group.
But more importantly, when Europe rose again, and moved away from China, which is the leading– the most advanced country up to about– well, there in now, the Great Transition. But the idea then there is somewhere around 1730 or ’40 is when the West move away from China.
How did they do it? They turned to slavery. And as you know, the slavery and capitalism are twins, are essential. So this civilization is strange from this point of view. It’s the only civilization which at all its high points has emphasized slavery as central to its development.
And if you follow the history and know that, Sam Beckett and others, who are going on about slavery and capitalism, but they kind of get it wrong, in that it happened much earlier. And I wish they’d celebrate Eric Williams a little more. But it started in the West Indies.
So what I’m saying is that this is a unique history– a unique history, like nowhere else. And in a sense, that dialectical relationship between slavery and freedom is how I got to it. I blundered into it. I didn’t– it’s not a hypothesis I had. I don’t work that way.
I didn’t have a hypothesis– hey, freedom emerged from slavery. It was very grounded. It popped up there, and I couldn’t believe it, that this, indeed was the case. And it was reinforced throughout by the continued existence of slavery, or slave-like institutions, such as serfdom.
So that’s– I’ve gone on [INAUDIBLE] because I’ve been so– it’s so irritating to hear people misinterpret what I think is a very radical, critical interpretation of Western culture, as one in which I’m supposed to be sort of defending, a very traditional, conservative view of the West as being the glorifying origins of great ideas. It’s the origin of freedom, but freedom itself is an idea worth probing very deeply.
And you may not think it’s so great if you– I happen to think it is. But I think it’s important to recognize that, yes– and I’m never going to back down from this– that it is Western. It originates in the West. And to the degree that it’s found elsewhere, it’s been defused. And there the history strikes me as being very, very powerful in favor. And I find no evidence of the idea of freedom as value.
Now look, guys, the idea of freedom–
I think this is–
Just one final word. The idea of freedom is a simple one, especially the negative one. Just people must have talked about from some time or the other, but that’s not the point. The idea is that freedom as value, an essential value– that’s the point I’m making here– is unique to the West.
Every other culture– as a matter of fact, there’s one exercise you can do, especially those of you in language, which I got my students from Korea, China, and elsewhere– it’s a nice thing. Especially, you can do this at Berkeley. Get them to look at the etymology.
All languages now have the word for freedom, OK? But did not have it before Western contact. So one interesting exercise you can do is to go and search for the etymology of the word in a particular language. You’re in for a shock.
And my favorite example, of course, is the Japanese notion of freedom, which the original meaning is something like– it’s something distasteful. It means irresponsibility or something like that. In all the languages, if you go back to the etymology, it’s often seen as, eww– something– and then, of course, later on people say, oh, I see.
So I see the typical situation of a missionary having lived for 40 years in the heart of China not converted a single person to Christianity. And decide, OK, before I go back home, I’m going to write a dictionary. So you go to this Chinese peasant, and OK, so tell me what dog means or what are dogs? And what about freedom?
And he says, what do you mean? Well, freedom, it’s written in your heart, you must know what it means, or something to that effect. Well, the person will say, well, I’m not quite sure. We don’t have a word, but tell me what you are getting at. And so the missionary tells the person this wonderful word. Says, what? Oh, that sounds like irresponsibility. [LAUGHS] And one gets this everywhere.
And so the word freedom is everywhere now. But, in fact, the original response to it is really quite startling if you go back to the etymology. So, yes, it’s Western. I’m never going to back down from that. But how? And that’s a different story. Anyway, sorry.
[CAITLIN ROSENTHAL] With that bit of radical etymology, let’s thanks Professor Patterson.
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