Reason, Freedom, and Animality: Day 1, Freedom

Everything we can think of wants to be free. Boundaries yearn to blur; rigor aches to relax;  structures shudder, hoping to be undermined. Flows will overwhelm stasis, if only we can help open the floodgates. My Spring 2021 seminar, “Reason, Freedom, and Animality” has its origins in my urge to stand soaked amid the flood of dissolution and wonder what good there is, necessarily, in always wanting to help things let go.

Because everyone nowadays believes they’re on the side of freedom. It’s not just those of us who feel ourselves straining against the cords that tie us to tradition, not just those of us who feel bound to forms of enculturation — a connotation so much more ominous than “culture” — that keep us from living our truths, not just those of us who want to jump away from our pedestrian lives so we can fly and be free. Everyone wants to soar. Sarah Palin was a “maverick,” and so was John McCain. And if you’re part of the herd, you’re sheeple, the kind of person who just accepts — perish the thought — the efficacy of vaccines, the anthropogenic (or at least anthrobrogenic) catalysts for global warming, and the roundness of the earth. Everyone wants the story about the brave hero, alone against the world; the cop who won’t follow the book; the nun who’s a little problem; the outsider; one colorful fun-loving dancer in a black-and-white humdrum world. Who’s willing to say they’re a conformist?

It’s the same urge to differ that draws cultural critics like us to works that we want to believe are doing something off the usual. It’s best if the narrative breaks free of tired binaries all on its own, and better too if it slips away from the expected and surprises us; if not, at least, if not at first, we can help it that work along by showing how it can’t help but reveal the inevitable failures of the normative systems that it, perhaps a little pathetically, believes itself to be upholding. It’s that same urge to liberate these works, to give them a freedom that we believe ourselves to want, that finds us, so often, indulging in the same liquid, fuzzy metaphors.

Those metaphors are metaphors of freedom: free choice, a freedom from constraint, freedom from the law, freedom from mere necessity. Insofar as these metaphors are metaphors of freedom, they continue the work of a set of philosophers and theologians, all of whom likewise believed they were on the side of true freedom, and all of whom were likewise the enemies of all mindless necessity and attachment to the normative, asinine pleasures that enthralled the thoughtless masses. Some of them were Jewish, some Christian, some adherents of forms of thought that didn’t explicitly recognize themselves as communal or theistic. All of them lived in the Roman Empire, and all were aligned in their dedication to liberation.

Philo of Alexandria, the Apostle Paul — the two whom we read for today’s seminar — but also Ambrose of Milan, Horace, Cicero, and figures I heard of for the first time for this reading: Dio Chrysostom and Epitectus. Quintus Horatius Flaccus (d. 8 BCE), our earliest writer, also provides the most vivid image of this perfect, free philosophical life. One of his Satires (II.7, from 30 BCE) imagines that Davus, one of his slaves, being commanded to speak truthfully — a paradox in itself! — mocks the appetites of the idle Roman rich, and then offers this:

So who is free? The wise man: in command of himself,

Unafraid of poverty, chains, or death, bravely

Defying his passions, despising honours, complete

In himself, smoothed and rounded, so that nothing

External can cling to his polished surface, whom

Fortune by attacking ever wounds herself. (trans. A. S. Kline)

“in se ipso totus, teres atque rotundus”: what an image! The perfectly round thing, complete in itself, a figure Horace may have plucked from the image of the perfect self-sufficient spherical world in Plato’s Timaeus.[1]“Wherefore he made the world in the form of a globe, round as from a lathe, having its extremes in every direction equidistant from the centre, the most perfect and the most like itself of all … Continue reading

That Horace has a slave state the truth is no surprise, although typically it’s the slaver himself who declares something like the following: “All wicked men therefore are slaves” (Cicero, Stoic Paradoxes 5); “Will you not, as Plato says, study not to die only, but also to endure torture, and exile, and scourging, and, in a word, to give up all which is not your own? If you will not, you will be a slave among slaves” (Epictetus, Discourses 4.1); “One who cannot be forced or held in check is by no means a slave; the wise man cannot be forced or forbidden; a slave, therefore, is not wise” (Ambrose of Milan, Letter to Simplician, c. 386). The paradox that “only the wise man is free” must have offered itself almost automatically as a paradox because slavery was endemic in the Roman Empire, and because most freeborn Roman citizens — as Orlando Patterson observes in Freedom (236) — were descended from slaves. The metaphor and the concept of freedom both rest on a literal condition of actual, omnipresent slavery.

Peter Garnsey rightly notes two functions of this Stoic paradox, that it helps slavers control their slaves by telling them that “virtue was of greater value than legal status” (67) and that it comforts slavers by letting them imagine their slaves are seeking virtue rather than liberation, or revenge.  I’d add a third to these two: that everyone feels themselves constrained (“subjected thus, / How can you say to me, I am a king?”), and, straining against these bonds, of hunger, of sadness, of loneliness, of feelings of inadequacy, of the ridiculous postures of social striving, the afflicted one, whatever their actual, political power, still suffers the experience of their mortal singularity. Looking about for some way to understand their ineluctable condition of subjugation, they find it, conveniently enough, at home, and in their fields, among their human property.

They seek out the metaphor of slavery precisely because of their feelings of isolation, and, because of that, they misunderstand how slavery works. Orlando Patterson (Slavery and Social Death) identifies three fundamental characteristics of slavery, quite distinct from what people, like Stoics, assume them to be: powerlessness and exposure to violence without any legal recourse (the one aspect the Stoics recognized); natal alienation; and the inability to be dishonored. The last two aspects are social: family ties and honor independent from the family and honor of the slaver. These qualities are qualities the Stoic says we ought not to want anymore: but the slave, of course, no longer has either. The slaver aspires to the condition of willed needlessness that the slave has in fact, unwillingly.

So, if the fantasy of individual freedom is necessarily bound up with metaphorized slavery, must we need to junk it all? Certainly we should be wary of metaphors of blurred boundaries, of textual liberation and free play, or at least be wary of them as ideals. For now, my proposal is that we disattach ourselves from “freedom” and instead attach ourselves to justice.


1 “Wherefore he made the world in the form of a globe, round as from a lathe, having its extremes in every direction equidistant from the centre, the most perfect and the most like itself of all figures; for he considered that the like is infinitely fairer than the unlike. This he finished off, making the surface smooth all around for many reasons; in the first place, because the living being had no need of eyes when there was nothing remaining outside him to be seen; nor of ears when there was nothing to be heard; and there was no surrounding atmosphere to be breathed; nor would there have been any use of organs by the help of which he might receive his food or get rid of what he had already digested, since there was nothing which went from him or came into him: for there was nothing beside him. Of design he was created thus, his own waste providing his own food, and all that he did or suffered taking place in and by himself. For the Creator conceived that a being which was self-sufficient would be far more excellent than one which lacked anything; and, as he had no need to take anything or defend himself against any one, the Creator did not think it necessary to bestow upon him hands: nor had he any need of feet, nor of the whole apparatus of walking; but the movement suited to his spherical form was assigned to him, being of all the seven that which is most appropriate to mind and intelligence; and he was made to move in the same manner and on the same spot, within his own limits revolving in a circle. All the other six motions were taken away from him, and he was made not to partake of their deviations. And as this circular movement required no feet, the universe was created without legs and without feet.”

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