Reason, Freedom, and Animality: Day 1 Follow-Up, More on Freedom

My first post for my “Reason, Freedom, and Animality” seminar explored the Stoic paradox that “all fools are slaves, and all wise men are free” to question our habitual praise of freedom. Freedom strikes us generally as a value worth cherishing, but the Stoic paradox — especially when read through Orlando Patterson’s monumental Freedom: Freedom in the Making of Western Culture — should remind us of the unpleasant material realities of valuing freedom. There is no notion of freedom without a corollary notion of unfreedom, and that notion of unfreedom has as its roots not a description of, for example, unimpeded motion, but the unfreedom of human beings.

Etymologically, freedom shares an origin with words that indicate cherished members of one’s community. Notably, in Old English, freo, free, and freo, woman, are related, with freo specifically connoting an admirable woman (the word “Friday,” through the Norse goddess Freya, also belongs to this matrix).[1]I would expect that the German “frau” is related as well, although that seems to have a different ancestor. “Liberty” may likewise indicate familial insiders: its etymological cousins may include, for instance, the German “leute,” people or populace. Freedom therefore can mark the insider’s difference from intimate outsiders, from, chiefly, the slaves who belong to the household, but only in the way that cups or tables or cattle belong to it.

It is from these very unfree people that the desire for freedom emerges. As Patterson argues, freedom was not originally a universal value. Free men once valued not freedom but honor and their membership in a lineage and community. Freedom was first cherished, rather, by slaves and then by free women, by those people, in other words, who wanted to end their condition of servitude, or by those who could not easily choose death before dishonor. Eventually, through local historical inevitabilities Patterson traces, free men of certain communities, in ancient Greece for example, took this servile value on as their own, seeking, in varying degrees, to preserve and foster it in its three forms: personal freedom (the absence of personal constraint), sovereignal freedom (doing as one pleases), and civic freedom (meaningful contribution to public life).[2]For more recent work from Patterson on this subject, see “Freedom, Slavery, and the Modern Conception of Rights,” in The Cultural Values of Europe, ed. Hans Joas and Klaus Wiegandt … Continue reading

But freedom never lost its origins in servility; it is a value whose origins lay in hatred of one’s own condition of unfreedom; and when the freeborn take up the value, it becomes one based in contempt for those compelled to remain in a state of unfreedom. In the advanced form of the social value of freedom, it could still be tied to hatred of one’s own condition and hope for a better one — after all, slaves still yearned for freedom — but it could just as well be tied to disdain for the unfree, as such. It is in this hierarchical form, the value of freedom embraced by the freeborn rather than by enslaved people, in a culture, like that of ancient Greece, increasingly resting on the labor of enslaved people, that the value passes into philosophy. With that, the praise of freedom could become a sneering at servility, at irrationality, at women and femininity, at mindless and obligatory obedience, or at a wild loss of self-control.

For in one, main line of the rationalist tradition, the freedom-seeking philosopher did not seek a life of perfect license. Since they sought to escape all compulsion, they sought to liberate themselves from the intimate forces they felt harried them most. Any freedom worth investigating, says Philo of Alexandria, is that which “sets the mind at liberty from the domination of the passions” (19). Unsurprisingly, one common example of the passions in these philosophers, at least from Horace on, is that of the despot at the mercy of an enslaved concubine, decked out in finery, perched beside his throne, and treating him with the utmost of contempt, and his happily taking it. Philo again:

I have often myself seen pretty little slave girls with a natural gift for wheedling words, who with these two sources of strength, beauty of face and charm of speech, stormed the hearts of their owners (33)

Who here is really the slave? The philosopher has his answer, and the “pretty little slave girls,” presumably, another. For Philo and other philosophers,[3]For example, Cicero, Stoic Paradoxes 5, 287; Epitectus, Diatribes 4.1, “”But tell me this: did you never love any person, a young girl, or slave, or free? What then is this with respect … Continue reading sexual domination by a concubine, or effeminacy in a man, is the sign that even the most seemingly free, in the legal sense of not being enslaved, are themselves subject to libidinal forces they cannot control, except, of course, through the self-control of philosophy.

The ideal of freedom is one, therefore, rooted in putting people in their place and keeping one’s inferiors cowed, and the first person to be put in place is, of course, one’s own self, split between rational mastery and concupiscible, natural servitude. Plato may be chiefly to blame. Patterson observes that “Plato’s distinctive contribution to the Greek doctrine of the soul was to make it the source of reason” (178); to characterize the perfect philosophical life as one of rational governance over the passions; and to characterize “slavery as a deficiency of reason” (175). At the heart of the mainline of the philosophical tradition of freedom, then, there is not license and perfect liberty to do what one likes, but rather “self-control.” Self-control requires a split between the controlled and the controlling self, a split necessitated by the very imperfection of being an embodied human. But that imperfection also grants us the opportunity to exercise our mastery: without the necessity of dominating the flesh, of, in short, making the irrational flesh the slave to our rational soul, how could we exercise our virtue?[4]Hegel’s passage on “Herrschaft und Knechtschaft” — Lordship and Slavery –from his Phenomenology of Spirit will necessarily come to mind. I hope to deal with that … Continue reading

From that interior mastery, itself modeled on the exterior mastery of enslaved people, the imperative to self-dominion leads, inevitably, to the assumption that dominated people are themselves embodiments of the traits most despised in oneself. Loss of control therefore becomes not just a loss of power, but a moral failing, and one that can be undone only by once more embarking on the path of moral rectitude, which means, in this case, reasserting dominion.

When President George W. Bush, on September 20, 2001, praised freedom in his address to Congress, he attacked those who “hate our freedoms–our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other,” a phrase soon distilled into “they hate our freedoms.” The they in this case, the freedom-haters, were presumably without it, and if they lacked it, or failed to recognize it, they needed to be pushed into freedom, or at least pushed around. Bush’s speech relied on old notions of “Oriental despotism,” accusations of religious mania, and colonial “white men saving brown women from brown men.” What could freedom mean in this context except the freedom of putting others in their place, the outraged sense of lèse-majesté of free people done wrong by their inferiors? And how could the outrage of September 11th be repaired except by this Free Country getting its way again?

It is this suspicion over the value of freedom that drove my first post. My target was a set of clichés in academic literary criticism: a praise of “freedom,” of “category confusion,” of “blurred boundaries.” In finding the values of a slavocracy lurking in thoughtless and anodyne prose habits, my method exemplifies the paranoid style Eve Sedgwick exhaustively treated — exhaustively here not meaning “comprehensively” but rather “wearily” — in her now classic introduction to Novel Gazing. My method is paranoid because it’s suspicious; because it expects the worst; and because it knows better than others.

So long as the tradition I’m targeting is one where its philosophical men believe themselves to be on the side of freedom, and where freedom means not only freedom from domination, but also the freedom that comes from being able to do what one wants with the materials one finds at hand, my paranoid reading works.

But in closing, for now, I could take this further by noting that the philosophical tradition of freedom finds its limits in the infinitude of God, at least for the three great Biblical monotheisms. For if human freedom requires acting in accord with the dictates of reason, that is all fine, so far as reason goes. Being rational creatures, we can make ourselves identical with reason itself, with sufficient philosophical effort. But for medieval Christianity, or for Philo of Alexandria, with his respect for the law of Moses and his keen sense of human inadequacy before God, or for Hayy ibn Yaqzan, ibn Tufayl’s spontaneously generated island philosopher, whose logical chains get him a ways towards Truth but not all the way there — none these three allow reason to do more than get humans closer to God. What is needed to get still closer to God is theology, or mystical ecstasy, but — perhaps barring mystical practices of self-annihilation like that in some kinds of Sufism, or in Margaret Porete’s treatise — none of these human activities will get any mere human to God himself. In these traditions, rational freedom and self-control need still more.

And another limit, of course, is that when a scholar writes, yet again, about “blurred boundaries,” praising those aspects of the text that seem to break free of “rigid” “strictures” of “western” or “Cartesian” “ontologies,” and so on, they may be praising freedom, but it’s possible, probable even, that they are innocent of freedom’s long debt to mastery. That innocence is one that might last only so long as these clichés shy away from examining freedom’s origins.


1 I would expect that the German “frau” is related as well, although that seems to have a different ancestor.
2 For more recent work from Patterson on this subject, see “Freedom, Slavery, and the Modern Conception of Rights,” in The Cultural Values of Europe, ed. Hans Joas and Klaus Wiegandt (Liverpoll UP, 2008), 115-51, which helpfully offers a précis of Freedom.
3 For example, Cicero, Stoic Paradoxes 5, 287; Epitectus, Diatribes 4.1, “”But tell me this: did you never love any person, a young girl, or slave, or free? What then is this with respect to being a slave or free? Were you never commanded by the person beloved to do something which you did not wish to do? Have you never flattered your little slave? Have you never kissed her feet?”; Ambrose of Milan, “”you will find many who have purchased young girls of unusual beauty and being enamored of them, have reduced themselves to shameful slavery” (289).
4 Hegel’s passage on “Herrschaft und Knechtschaft” — Lordship and Slavery –from his Phenomenology of Spirit will necessarily come to mind. I hope to deal with that later. Susan Buck-Morss’s “Hegel and Haiti,” Critical Inquiry 26.4 (2000): 821-865, both rightly links Hegel’s famous dialectic to his almost certain interest in the Haitian Revolution, and offers a clear, sharp summary: “The slave is characterized by the lack of recognition he receives. He is viewed as “a thing”; “thinghood” is the essence of slave consciousness-as it was the essence of his legal status under the Code Noir. But as the dialectic develops, the apparent dominance of the master reverses itself with his awareness that he is in fact totally dependent on the slave. One has only to collectivize the figure of the master in order to see the descriptive pertinence of Hegel’s analysis: the slave-holding class is indeed totally dependent on the institution of slavery for the “overabundance” that constitutes its wealth.” Buck-Morss, however, also astonishingly cites Patterson only once, and not his National-Book-Award winning Freedom, but rather only his Slavery and Social Death, in a footnote that charges “several black scholars” with misreading Hegel (!).