Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.02.51 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.02.51

Mary Nyquist, Arbitrary Rule: Slavery, Tyranny, and the Power of Life and Death.   Chicago; London:  University of Chicago Press, 2013.  Pp. xiii, 421.  ISBN 9780226015538.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by Thomas E. Strunk, Xavier University (


The subject of Nyquist’s book is a great contradiction haunting the history of modern Western Europe: the struggle for political freedom and democracy in Western Europe and the concurrent toleration and promotion of servitude in extra-European lands, which were often advocated by the same individuals. The origin of these incongruous forces is not to be found in early modern Europe itself, but rather, as Nyquist shows, in antiquity and its understanding of freedom, tyranny, and slavery. Although her study is predominately concerned with early modern Europe, Nyquist grounds it accordingly in Greco-Roman law and political thought on servitude and political freedom. She then examines with great detail and nuance the influences of this tradition on French and English writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as they refined, refuted, and reformed their arguments on liberty, absolutism, and enslavement.

Following an introduction that maps out the scope of the question and outlines her approach to it, Nyquist devotes the first full chapter to slavery and antityrannicism in ancient Greece and Rome. Her exposition of Greco-Roman slavery and tyranny strikes me as largely correct, though incomplete. She wisely relies on Raaflaub’s The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece as a guide to understanding Greek freedom and slavery. Nyquist focuses on Aristotle’s Politics and its significant discussion of the natural slave and the tyrant. Aristotle is an obvious author to emphasize in a study on slavery, and his influence on the later writers Nyquist investigates is undeniable. However, since her work covers antityrannicism and freedom as well, she gives insufficient attention, I believe, to important authors and works such as Plato, the Republic in particular, Livy, and Cicero, all of whom are mentioned in the first chapter but are generally under-utilized throughout the book (Thucydides and Tacitus, who were immensely influential on the political thought of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, are omitted altogether.). Plato’s portrait of the tyrant in book nine of the Republic, for example, has been foundational for its portrayal of “the tyrant” in antiquity and immensely influential for Aristotle, Cicero, and Livy, whose depiction of Tarquinius Superbus is omitted (though L. Brutus’ execution of his sons is discussed). I do not want to put too fine a point on this as Nyquist’s primary concern is with writers of the early modern period, but as Nyquist seems aware, entitling her first chapter “Ancient Greek and Roman Slaveries,” ancient views on freedom, slavery, and tyranny were not monolithic.

These criticisms notwithstanding, Nyquist accomplishes a great deal in framing her discussion of ancient slavery and antityrannicism. First, she clearly delineates the different kinds of slavery with which the ancients were chiefly concerned: chattel, political, and ethico-spiritual (although the latter does not play an important role in the study). She then clearly articulates the connections between the Greek idea of political slavery and Aristotle’s concept of the natural slave in Book one of the Politics; this connection is key both for Western political thought and for Nyquist’s study. The Greeks of course often described tyranny as political slavery by analogy to the despotism of the individual master over a slave. Moreover, tyrants were often described as conquerors over their own people (e.g., Livy’s portrayal of Tarquinius Superbus and Tacitus’ depiction of Tiberius); the tyrant thus subjected his fellow citizens to slavery by war, the primary means of acquiring slaves in antiquity. This trope would become commonplace for antityrannical rhetoric well into the nineteenth century and beyond. Further, the Greeks understood themselves to be worthy of political freedom since they engaged in the political system as equals, and thus any attempt to enslave them would be unjust, whereas barbarians were naturally inclined to tolerate absolute monarchy. Here is where Aristotle’s concept of the natural slave plays a pivotal role: those peoples the Greeks defeated in battle, often enough governed by an autocrat, became easily associated with the natural slave and thus undeserving of the political freedom of the Greeks and later Romans. The perdurance of this line of thought, Nyquist argues, directly influences modern Europe’s frequent insistence on political liberty for Europeans and at the same time the acceptance and active promotion of servitude for non-Europeans.

In succeeding chapters, Nyquist very effectively explores how these ideas were used by early modern writers and political thinkers from Bodin and Milton to Hobbes and Locke. Through these writers she traces the recurring questions that framed political debate for centuries. Can an individual relinquish personal freedom? At what point has a contractual state been established? Do citizens have the right to resistance or did they surrender that right at some prior time?

Nyquist’s great success is in demonstrating how these thinkers argued either for absolutism or liberalism in a way that was compatible with concurrent acceptance or rejection of chattel slavery. She points out that antityrannicism flourished in countries that did not allow chattel slavery, yet these very countries (England, France, and the Netherlands) were feverishly engaged in colonizing and enslaving millions of non-Europeans. The reader quickly discovers that a writer’s opinion on political freedom rarely corresponded to what may strike us as the analogous opinion on chattel slavery. Milton and Locke were antityrannical liberals who accepted chattel slavery. Nyquist rightly contextualizes Locke’s views on slavery by reference to his involvement in New World governance and economics, such as his revisions of the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, which explicitly allowed for chattel slavery, and his position as secretary and treasurer of the English Council for Trade and Foreign Plantations (327–328). Nyquist quotes (365) Dr. Johnson (Taxation No Tyranny 1775): “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” Bodin, on the other hand, was an absolutist, but cogently advocated against chattel slavery. Then there were those who may appear consistent to readers in the 21st century: Hobbes the absolutist also supported chattel slavery, while Henry Parker was a radical liberal and an opponent of chattel slavery. Nyquist’s most important contribution is her use of the ancient theories of tyranny, natural slavery, and freedom, to explain how seemingly contradictory opinions about domestic liberty and colonial slavery could be maintained together, while refusing to attribute them to mere “hypocrisy (365).” Nyquist seeks her explanation in the ancients and their understanding of tyranny, natural slavery, and freedom.

Nyquist also highlights the important role Hebrew scripture played in shaping the political thought of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Throughout the book, Nyquist addresses the significant passages from Genesis, Deuteronomy, Judges, and I Samuel which influenced the debates over absolutist monarchy, slavery, and freedom. Not surprisingly the political thinkers Nyquist explores were capable of turning passages to their own political ends, such as the monarchy of Nimrod (Gen. 10:8-10), Jephtha’s sacrifice of his daughter (Judges 11), and the Israelites’ demand for a king (I Sam. 8), all of which were used to justify freedom, slavery, republicanism and absolutism. Their inclusion is an important reminder, particularly for classicists, that early modern political thinkers did not resort solely to the Greeks and Romans for their inspiration.

Some of the most enjoyable and informative parts of the book are Nyquist’s discussions of iconography, such as the pileus, the freedman’s cap, and the frontispieces of Hobbes’ De Cive. These are insightful because they demonstrate how authors and artists appropriated ancient symbols and sought to convey ideas beyond the written word. Although I imagine there is much more that could be done in this area, Nyquist shows great dexterity in analyzing both written and visual texts.

Nyquist’s epilogue sums up her study with two highly effective quotations. The first is from a letter of George Washington on the tyranny of taxation without representation, in which he unfortunately writes: “The crisis is arrived when we must assert our rights or submit to every imposition that can be heaped on us till custom and use shall make us as tame and abject slaves as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway (366).” Washington, as is clear by the end of Nyquist’s study, is the heir of Locke and Milton, as is the United States itself in many ways. Yet Nyquist also shows how Washington’s discordant collocations could be reconciled. To do so, she quotes from Phillis Wheatley, a contemporary of Washington, whose poem dedicated to William, Earl of Dartmouth, Nyquist believes, represents the first time the discourse of antityrannicism was employed to demonstrate the injustice of chattel slavery.

Aside from the omissions in chapter one, there is one further significant flaw in Nyquist’s book. The greatest challenge in reading Arbitrary Rule is its lack of historical context. It is a long book, over 400 pages, and it would be difficult to argue for a longer book. However, the political environment in which these political thinkers wrote and acted largely has to be inferred (the aforementioned context on Locke is the exception). Nyquist’s book, while covering roughly from 500 B.C.E to 1800 C.E., aspires to contribute to our broad understanding of freedom and servitude, yet provides few historical details. A brief example. Nyquist frequently alludes to the trial and execution of Charles I, but never gives any details on this dramatic moment in European history. This is an oversight in writing as much as it is an omission of information – 400 pages on political thought could use some dramatic interludes. Where is the vivid narrative of the king in the dock? Where is the gripping image of the monarch being led to the scaffold? How did we get to this point in English history? Of course, Milton, Hobbes, and Locke are writing with these events in mind, but their circumstances are never narrated or discussed by Nyquist. While it would be impossible for Nyquist to provide the historical context for the entire time period she discusses – after all this is not a work of history, but rather of political thought – a sketch of the dramatic historical events of seventeenth century England would have been helpful and most likely engaging reading.

Another fault, albeit minor, is the absence of a comprehensive bibliography. Authors are included in the index, and citations are provided in the copious notes, but their very abundance encumbers the reader trying to recall the full citation for a particular work, whose importance may not be felt upon its first mention. The lack of a bibliography is an unnecessary impediment to fellow researchers, who may wish to further Nyquist’s line of inquiry.

These criticisms aside, Nyquist’s book is impressively researched, persuasively argued, and clearly written. Anyone who is concerned with freedom, tyranny, and servitude in the modern or ancient world would do well to read Arbitrary Rule. For classicists, Nyquist records the influence and development of antiquity’s fundamental beliefs on these matters. For those interested in contemporary politics, Nyquist has clarified the origins of many of the political ideas that have shaped our modern world. Most significantly, Nyquist clarifies with great care and subtlety the intricacies of sixteenth and seventeenth century political thought with regard to freedom, servitude, and antityrannicism.

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