February 12, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
Freedom’s Core, Part I
LANGUAGE DOES NOT LIMIT itself to expressing our explicit meanings; it has never been so tame and civil, so polite to our will and our best intentions. Nay, but we haul our very souls up out of our mouths each time we speak, and stand there naked before our interlocutor quite despite ourselves.
This was Socrates’ great insight, the very fundamental premise of his entire method, and the principle reason he went about like a hound, sniffing after the logos; not by meditation on the empyrean, nor by rooting about in the earth did he hope to acquire wisdom, but rather through the pursuance of these rabbitlike, foxlike human presuppositions that bind us as slaves, as these were indicated by the words his peers perched upon their very lips. That basically linguistic adventure is the bedrock of a great part of our Western traditions, a deep and firm stone upon which we to this day stand.
I do not think we give sufficient attention to our language. We are far too wont to pass off alterations in usage as being merely changes of custom—as if this “merely” were at all warranted!—and so we give but superficial regard to questions of style, word choice, and syntax, though these govern us in ways we do not begin to fathom. The reasons for this carelessness on our part would be the stuff of another essay. I mention here, however, a specific and to my mind very grave consequence of these oversights: namely, the taking for granted of subtle changes in vocabulary, or what I might term lexical shifts, or the gradual disuse of certain terms, the gradual widening of a term to include cases it never originally would have included or its gradual restriction to exclude cases it has never excluded, and the gradual substitution of a given term for its near synonym. I might list a few such cases for the reader’s independent reflections: the disappearance of the word nobility and its cognates; the expansion of the word hero to include just about every Sam and Sue; the use of the phrase “to have sex” where an elder generation would speak of “making love”; or the common, not to say vulgar, way that the word “create” is employed to indicate everything from God’s bringing of the cosmos out of nothingness, to the paper-and-glue tinkerings of our kindergartners.
Now, it is our general habit to accept these lexical shifts with pleasant complacency, as resulting from more or less empty semantic preferences. Yet I believe anyone who gives more than cursory attention to the examples I have mentioned will find that they reflect a considerably deeper and more decisive transformation in our very sense of the world, and particularly our sense of the human world—a transformation beneath whose laws we labor, and by whose rules we dance. I lay it forth, as a premise to be challenged and investigated, that precisely those changes which appear the least essential in our common daily use or disuse of abstract concepts, are often those which reflect the profoundest alterations of our worldview and, if I may call it thus, our worldspirit.
A case in support of my claim is that which makes the subject of his essay: namely, the historical movement in our speeches, writings, conversations, toward the word “freedom,” and away from the word “liberty.”
I begin with a number of objections I might anticipate to my very point of departure. It might be urged against me, for instance, that these lexical shifts of which I speak are only the result of the natural evolution of languages. In particular, it might be argued this is a matter of the unaccountable taste of different generations, or that we owe our words to the success of certain “memes.” But I say that such objections are nothing but parrot replies: they pretend to answer a question by echoing it in a different form. For if it is the case, for instance, that a given lexical shift is a matter of taste, then of course the question is begged—taste in what? Taste in sound, in connotation, in etymology? And what is the reason for this “taste,” or what is its cause, and why has it changed at all? Or if we owe this transformation to the success of a “meme,” then what accounts for that success? Why is it that we are susceptible to just this meme, and not to some other? What does that susceptibility indicate about us? Such questions, and the dozens other that might follow them, show us up: these words ,“taste” and “meme,” while seeming to provide an answer to our question, in truth but drive the question back a layer.
Now, it might be held that there is nothing, or at least, nothing rational behind any given lexical shift: these changes “just happen.” The vacuity of such a conclusion is its own disproof: nothing in all the world “just happens,” and if one is really to argue that the causes of these changes are utterly trivial to human thought and human values, or perfectly alien to deeper questions of the spirit of a time, then that argument will want a fuller and much more developed exposition than the simple proclamation in its favor. I claim that the lexical shift from the widespread use of “liberty” to the widespread use of “freedom” is indicative of a deeper philosophical change in our society, and herein I will provide an exposition of that claim. If one wishes to dispute it, then a counter-exposition is obligatory. But as an initial counter against my challengers, I mention only this: particularly as we are speaking of one of the key concepts of all modern political theory, it is difficult to imagine that an alteration in our basic terminology could be anything but deeply significant. So far as I am concerned, the burden of proof is even on the other side.
Now, a much more practical question will certainly arise at this point: namely, has there really been a shift such as I suggest? Allow me to furnish some evidence in support of my claim.
In The Federalist Papers, written at the dawn of the American nation, the word “liberty” is used better than one-hundred-seventy times; “freedom,” but eight. The American Constitution uses the word “liberty” three times, and “freedom” twice. The Declaration of Independence never references freedom; it uses liberty a single time, in the most classic and memorable phrase ever attached to that word in the English tongue. Taking five inaugural addresses of our first five presidents, we find that the word “liberty” appears nine times, “freedom” five, or about half as often. (It is interesting to note that four of these uses appear in the 1801 speech of Thomas Jefferson; withdrawing his rather disproportionate contribution, the word “freedom” appears only a single time.) But taking five inaugural addresses from our five latest presidents, from Reagan to Obama, we find that while “liberty” is used (outside of quotations from older sources) eight times, “freedom” is used thirty, or about four times as often. In John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, of 1689, one of the founding texts of classic liberalism, “liberty” is used about twice as often as “freedom” (about seventy-five times, compared with about forty times). Similarly with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (eighty-five to forty-five), published around the time of the American Revolution. Hobbes’ Leviathan, written several decades before Locke’s Treatise, provides an even more striking example: while “liberty” is used around one-hundred-fifty times, “freedom” is employed but four. But turning to modern works in the liberal tradition, we find a strikingly different pattern. Already in the time of John Stuart Mill, a century and a half ago, the shift was well underway: his Considerations on Representative Government brings the term “freedom” around thirty-five times, but “liberty” ten times fewer than that. In John Dewey’s Freedom and Culture, written some eight years ago, “liberty” appears some thirty times, while “freedom” occurs a full six times as often. (And must attention be drawn to the title itself?) Finally, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, “freedom” appears twenty-one times, and “liberty” but a single time, in a phrase clearly inspired from the old Jeffersonian adage “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”
I believe this draws a clear portrait for us, and I do not believe that anyone will dispute a marked changed in our usage has occurred, at least in the most evident part of our political or theoretical life. As for our private interactions, I will beg my readers to recall the last time they happened to hear the word “liberty” uttered in common discourse.
Now, it may be argued that this change is due, less to an alteration in our worldview, than to some second-order cause. It may be, for instance, but part of a general tending toward the use of Anglo-Saxon, rather than Grecian or Latinate, vocabulary, as these last have begun to seem pretentious or pompous; or perhaps we owe it to a mere question of sound. (What if poor Mel Gibson had been forced to scream all three syllables of the word “liberty” after being disemboweled and drawn at the rack? Might his breath have failed him after all?) The first explanation will have to account for the fact that similar transformations have not come with other, equally essential words of our speech: no one substitutes “sameness” for “equality,” for instance; no one often substitutes the word “rule” for the word “govern.” Indeed, so far as the last is concerned, even the opposite has been the case, suggesting that something else governs our use of these words than their linguistic stock. As for the argument regarding sound—it may well be that this has played some role, but it is difficult to believe that this same preference would not have informed the ears of the past as much as the ears of the present.
Another and subtler argument can be made, thus: the American Constitution uses “freedom” in one of the most cited parts of the entire document, which is to say, the the First Amendment of the bill of Rights. It may be that this has simply habituated our people to the use of “freedom” in the place of liberty; for, out of simple deference to a very august exemplar, no one speaks of liberty of speech. Given that this Amendments is so commonly disputed and referenced amongst Americans, might it not be that they simply acquired the habit, over long generations, of thinking more exclusively in terms of freedom than of liberty?
This surely has had its influence. But it only drives the question back a fold. For it supposes that human beings are, if not careless, then at least purely conventional speakers. Though that theory in itself certainly is not indefensible for the run of human beings, yet the writers of the Constitution were anything but careless and conventional. They were statesmen of the first order, and statesmen of the first order are never perfect strangers to the theory underpinning their language. The founders used the term “freedom” most advisedly, wherever they used it. Why did they use freedom in these places, and not liberty?
Let us phrase the point thus: if one were to speak of the freedom of speech, or the liberty of speech, is there a difference we might discern between these expressions?
One difference comes immediately to the fore: freedom of speech appears to guarantee the absence of external impediments to speech, whereas liberty of speech appears to imply as well a certain power of speech. The blathering drug-addled mendicant who goes on rambling in broken English about conspiracy theories in the government, the evils of politician X and the injuries of policy Y, certainly has freedom of speech; does he have liberty of speech? I would say not. I would say that Christopher Hitchens, Steven Pinker, and Jonathan Bowden have liberty of speech—that is, they possess an “inner freedom” which permits them, not only to say whatever comes to mind, but to say it well; they possess the faculty of speaking with eloquence, facility, and persuasiveness, on any subject they would fain.
This gives us a fine point of departure for our investigation. Freedom seems connected with external things; to possess freedom is to be unrestricted by external obstacles. We speak of a “sense of freedom” in particular when we find ourselves suddenly liberated of limitations that previously had governed us—in dreams, for instance, in which the laws of physics are suspended; or when we are given flight through some aerial mechanism like a parachute or a hang-glider; or again, when we stand at a great height as upon a mountain, or travel to a foreign land where the usual legatures of physicality and custom seem severed. Freedom is, by our contemporary understanding, freedom from restrictions, be these physical or legal.
Liberty, meanwhile, is somehow connected with inner or outer powers, potencies, capacities, especially as these meet with freedom. One dictionary definition gives for liberty “the ability to act within the scope of one’s power.” This seems to me an admirable definition, as it grants to the word “liberty” a meaning diverse from that ascribed to “freedom”—and since, as we have seen, liberty is but rarely used in the place of “freedom” any longer, precisely such differences as these are the quarry we seek. We do not have these words of our language for the sake of redundancy; our dictionaries are not merely aids to our stuttering, nor supplements to our popular word games.
Now we note an interesting consequence of these definitions, which are now beginning to take form before our eyes: “freedom” understood as we have indicated can be embodied in the principle “equality before the law,” the founding principle of all contemporary Western politics. Indeed, “freedom” is not only compatible with this principle, it is requisite to it. Equality before the law means precisely that all human beings be given the same degree of freedom of exclusion from the unjust interference of the state: freedom and equality are sister-concepts, and can be united within this principle. Freedom in republican government has clear political manifestations.
There can be no such manifested clarity in our day for the principle of liberty as distinguished from freedom, for liberty so understood implies inequalities. Liberty can only be attained given powers and capacities which do not pertain to everyone, and which differ amongst themselves in degree and perhaps in kind. Supposing first the desirability of liberty, and second the possibility of augmenting the overall level of liberty in a given society by means of the laws, the social ideal of liberty would appear to require precisely the opposite of equality under the law: namely, it would require an elitist discrimination between different citizens based on their interior powers, idea which is anathema to republicanism, to say nothing of democracy. At best, liberty could be preserved in such a society through the notion of “meritocracy,” which permits those with the greatest powers, the greatest natural liberty, to float commonly to the surface. But this cannot be considered the direct embodiment of liberty in law, so much as the elimination of all influences obstructive of it.
All of what has just been said would seem to contradict an element of our earlier reasonings: for if it really is the case that a transformation has been effected in our philosophies and in our language, the nature of that transformation is reflected surely in all its parts. We have said that the republican thinkers of the past predominately thought in terms of the concept of liberty, and not freedom, but we have identified in the concept of liberty an anti-republican, or at least a-republican, principle. But surely they, the great advocates of republicanism, did not embrace a concept antithetical to their aims? If what we have said is true, why was the concept of liberty associated so strictly with the political transformation of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—so much so indeed, that the proponents of those transformations were known universally as liberals?
We will get nowhere in our reflections if we do not engage a bit with our histories, and in a way that, alas, is growing rarer and rarer amongst us. The true founders, the revolutionary philosophers of the Enlightenment, did not take their political concepts as they found them, but rather put to practice principles that they themselves formed and altered. All true revolutions in this world owe their existence, not to the guerrillas, the soldiers, the generals, the legislators that as midwifes bring them to birth, but rather to those much more dangerous and much more audacious thinkers who, tampering with the “natural order” of our concepts, seed into the ever-fertile womb of time the very possibility of the political orders they in their unbridled arrogance would create.
Now, the statesmen founders of all our modern Western states inherited the concept of liberty from the Enlightenment, who owed it in in turn to that vast archaeological endeavor made possible by the Renaissance. The idea of liberty we owe originally, by this pedigree, to the same origin as the word itself: to the Romans, and deeper yet to classical antiquity. That is a long and hardly unbroken genealogy; even despite the the fact that between antiquity and the dawn of the Renaissance lies the intercession of almost a thousand years of darkness, there are several epochs involved in this history during which the concept was rediscovered and molded to fit the needs of diverse times. Yet there was more or less a degree of continuity stretching at least from the Romans through the Renaissance, a continuity which was decidedly broken in the blooming of modern thought, most especially through the intercession of the English liberal tradition.
To arrive at an adequate understanding of our present situation, it is necessary then to go back, to acquire at least a superficial acquaintance with the older ideal of liberty.
Continue to Freedom’s Core, Part II