Thursday | August 9, 2001

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Orlando Patterson's 'Freedom'

By Martin Henry

ON THE fly leaf of Orlando Patterson's book, Freedom, appears the words of Galatians 5:1, "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of bondage". Our slave-side ancestors at Emancipation would have deeply identified with these words of Paul's. The book, described as a "magisterial work" in the publishers blurb, traces the emergence and evolution of freedom to stand today "unchallenged as the supreme value of the Western world".

Most human languages did not even have a word for the concept of freedom before Western contact. Freedom is also, Patterson proposes, "the central value of Christianity: being redeemed, being freed by, and in, Christ, is the ultimate goal of all Christians"; Christianity being "the first and only world religion that placed freedom ­ spiritual freedom, redemption ­at the very center of its theology". Wherever this odd religion has become established, he says, it has made converts to both salvation in Christ and to the ideal of freedom.

By 'freedom' Patterson means three things: personal freedom, sovereignal freedom, and civic freedom. Personal freedom means the absence of coercion or restraint by another person in doing something desired and the capacity to do as one pleases within the limits of other persons' desire to do the same. Sovereignal freedom refers to the power to act as the individual pleases without regard to the wishes of others, distinct from personal freedom "which is the capacity to do as one pleases, insofar as one can".

The third element of the "tripartite value" is civic freedom, "the capacity of adult members of a community to participate in its life and governance. This civic freedom requires a political community with rights and obligations for every citizen.

The Jamaican Orlando Patterson has done a lot of work, both sociological, fiction and scholarly research, on slavery, which peaked in Slavery and Social Death (1982). In the study of slavery he found freedom. "Originally", he tells us, "the problem I had set out to explore was the sociohistorical significance of that taken-for-granted tradition of slavery in the West. Armed with the weapons of the historical sociologist, I had gone in search of a man-killing wolf called slavery; to my dismay I kept finding the tracks of a lamb called freedom. So I changed my quarry. Finding the sociohistorical roots of freedom, understanding its nature in time and context, became my goal".

Patterson's search led him to the conclusion, which is the basic argument of the book that "freedom was generated from the experience of slavery". One is never certain if Patterson has imposed this conclusion upon his data from his long attachment to the study of slavery from the days of his Ph.D. thesis, which became The Sociology of Slavery, or that this is a conclusion leaping, unaided out of the data. He found only three scholars before himself who had tackled the proposition and he disagrees with all of them to varying degrees.

Patterson believes his Freedom is "the first attempt to examine the failure, or 'stillbirth', of freedom in the non-Greek world, with a view to demonstrating the sufficiency of the argument that freedom, as a core value, was first socially constructed in ancient Athens". Some slippery words are here: "core value", "socially constructed", and that dangerous little word, "first". The scholarship of Western ideas and civilisation is determined to locate the origins of virtually everything of significance in ancient Greece. The Greeks in ancient times, like the British in modern times (mis)appropriated from others very heavily in the construction of a monumental civilisation with world-changing impact.

Patterson devotes a good chunk of his book to "Christianity and the Institutionalisation of Freedom" without, I think, adequate recognition of the rootedness of Christianity in Judaism and its continuity from Judaism. Surely the Exodus and the Old Testament's stringent legal regulation of bondage and protection of 'freedom' contain the very elements of freedom, which Patterson describes, long before Greek civilisation emerged.

Alongside Greek and Roman thought, Patterson assigns a central role to Christianity, and particularly the theology of Paul, in the emergence of the supreme Western value of freedom. His final paragraph on Paul is a gem, revealing a profound understanding of what Paul said and what Christians believe: "Till the final deliverance, then, upon the second coming, mankind must settle for the lesser freedom of the Galatians, using it both as a rallying flag in the continuing struggle against re-enslavement and as a spur to the obedience of a superior faith which is hope for the higher freedom that has been granted and that will bring, when it comes, not surrender but perfect union with God."

In an age of excess, when the supreme Western value of freedom has become a global value, too often taken to extremes, Orlando Patterson in his "Coda", or final passage, warns of the problems and perils of freedom. "Freedom is undeniably the source of Western intellectual mastery, the engine of its extraordinary creativity, and the open secret of the triumph of Western culture, in one form or another, over the cultures of mankind". But, "at its worst, no value has been more evil and socially corrosive in its consequences, inducing selfishness, alienation, the celebration of greed, and the dehumanising disregard for the 'losers', the little people who fail to make it. We have been unable to transcend the evils that come with the blessings of personal freedom".

Freedom closes with a high, passionate note: the "fearsome vision" of the "nailed, dying God" as the "ultimate veneration of choice", which, "whether we choose to believe it or not, [is the] strange, terrifying vision, at once mortal and divine, that has fashioned the culture and genius of the West". "All who have come up from the abyss of slavery and serfdom ­ the children of slaves as well the children of slavemongers ­ must be humbled by this truth each time we celebrate our freedom", as we do at this time of year in Patterson's country of birth.

Martin Henry is a communications consultant. His column is taking a break until Sept. 6.

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