Freedom’s Core, Part II

THE WORD LIBERTY comes down to us from Ancient Rome, to which it owes also the better part of its substance: it comes down to us from the libertas which the Romans held so dear.
      The libertas of the Romans was, like our present day concept of freedom, a political designation; it indicated the state of being free from the arbitrary rule of tyrants, creditors, or any other lord. One could not be liber and at the same time be subjected to the will of another man. Hence the importance of the law in Roman society; for to enjoy libertas meant to subject oneself freely to no rule but that of the law.
      There is a certain kinship between this idea, and our contemporary ideal of “equality before the law.” But unlike our notion of freedom, the concept of libertas did not attach itself to all subjects of Rome; indeed, it did not attach itself even to all Romans. Libertas as a concept accompanied the idea of citizenship, civitas and was indivisible from it; only the full citizen enjoyed libertas; only full citizens could count themselves “equal before the law,” and only compared to one another. For citizenship was restrictive in all phases of Roman history. Quite beyond the fact that Rome in any epoch you please had a going institution of slavery, full citizenship attended only to a specific class of Romans: namely, free males of appropriate birth, or else those who were selected out by these to receive the dignity of an honorific citizenship. Nor was citizenship irrevocable; although the event of it was rare, any Roman could have his citizenship stripped from him, and with it his libertas; any Roman could become a slave.
      The question is why this should have been so: or why the Romans should have drawn such lines around the body of civitas, which then reflected also in the sphere of libertas.
      Libertas was given to some and not to others on the simple basis of merit. This is made clear from the fact that, although citizenship was conferred on any man born a Roman (which birth itself was held to bear in implicit merit), yet in all other cases citizenship was granted through due deliberation on the part of the Roman state, as when a certain foreigner performed exceptional acts which redounded to the glory of Rome. The Roman form of government could be considered a very broad aristocracy, with all full citizens as the collective rulers. This is not identical to democracy, for the simple reason that it depends on a conception of citizenship which considers high caliber to be its prerequisite.
      Now, the fact that libertas was implicated with merit helps us to explain the limits set on citizenship. The Roman ideal of merit was virtus, from which we of course derive our word and our very notion of virtue. But virtus in the Roman sense is yet foreign to us. Etymologically, it derives from the Roman word for man, man as masculine (vir) and therefore as distinct from human (humanus). Virtus was in particular that set of excellences which pertained to what the Romans considered to be the paramount expression of human nature, namely, masculine nature: virtus thus includes such characteristics as courage, integrity, manliness, fortitude, prudence, and justice. If one must furnish a single English word to render it, it is perhaps best translated, not indeed by our word “virtue,” but by our word “valor.”
      The laws, far from establishing what we would call the “freedom” of all Romans, were fashioned with an eye to promoting and elevating the qualities of virtus. The political dimension of liberty in Rome was determined by this sense of virtue, rather than being determining of it, as it is in our day: the law, far from being indifferent to inherent worth, existed to foster it. But this entails what is to us an altogether most curious aspect of the Roman idea of libertas: libertas was not at all the freedom to do as one lists; libertas was rather inherently tied up with comportment and attitudes which were rigidly determining of human behavior, and which resisted all licentiousness. Our modern idea of freedom, as we have said, implies the ability to do as one pleases, limited only by the law; the Roman idea of libertas was far from being so libertine as that. A man, for instance, who neglected work or military duty; who used his money thriftlessly; who outraged the public decorum, or usurped common standards of dignity; who contemned politics and withdrew from public life—such a man could not be thought to possess virtus, and therefore neither libertas. This leads us to the apparent paradox that the ancient ideal of liberty was in fact in its way coercive, restrictive, and precisely “illiberal.”
      Certain attempts on the part of modern theorists to melt this knot are touchingly clumsy, as when Benjamin Constant, in his comparison of the ancient idea of liberty with the modern, claims that “among the ancients the individual, almost always sovereign in public affairs, was a slave in all his private relations.” This ignores two essential facets of ancient liberty: it was accorded to some individuals, and not to others, who were slaves simply, both in public affairs and in private relations; and it totally denies the fact that libertas is inseparable from the very “slavery in private relations” to which Constant alludes.
      What such analyses fail to comprehend is the necessary and stringent link between liberty, understood as the political privileges attending the moral culmination of human nature, and restraint. To decipher this connection, consider the ballerina. She displays the most remarkable liberty of movement, the most beautiful and exhilarating freedom from gravity and all human clumsiness; but she did not gain this liberty, nor does she exercise it, through an embrace of anarchy nor through a complacent satisfaction with the mere lack of physical weights or chains. We all of us possess that freedom, and it reveals itself as a terribly cheap and tawdry sort of freedom when compared to that which the ballerina enjoys. She gained her liberty by imposing on herself a rigid and extraordinarily restrictive regime, which mandates in great detail the elements of her diet and sleep, and imposes on her the necessity of study and practice, and regulates all her life, within and without, in a startling manifold of particulars. She gained this liberty, that is to say, by yoking herself beneath a harsh and most tyrannical law. Watch her as she flies almost birdlike across the stage, and leaps and capers as the gazelle: even now, in this moment, she is beholden to that law; even now, in this moment of most perfect liberty, she is most “subjected.”
      Now, freedom in our modern sense might be a kind of bland precondition for such preparation and such self-mastery as she has attained; certainly, she could never have even so much as begun were she bound in some dungeon cell. But in and of itself freedom is perfectly indifferent to such graces, and too keen an adoration of it can even be detrimental to the victory of a greater liberty, which can only be attained by an almost habitual servitude before one’s own inner law. In private life, freedom in the contemporary sense is perhaps not hostile to liberty in the older; but there can be no doubt that it is prejudicial to it.
      Given this classic idea of human liberty, a concept steeped in ideas of merit and virtue, one must of course wonder to what we owe our modern conception. Surely, it did not spring of the void. Did it arise, perchance, from some peculiarly Anglo-Saxon turn of mind? That would explain our lexical shift; but it will not as easily explain a certain aspect of that shift: namely, that our modern idea of freedom began as a modern idea of liberty. That is to say—the founders of modern liberalism, as even the name of their philosophy implies, did not speak of freedom but almost exclusively of liberty.
      This makes then for a twin mystery: in the first place, why did the founders of modern liberalism prefer the word “liberty”? And second, why did later developments in modernity substitute for it the word “freedom”?
      The idea of law that entered into the practice of modern politics through the American Revolution and the Constitution which was its issue, was taken from the classic model—or rather say, the classic model as it was interpreted through the modern lens. The father of the English liberal tradition was none other than Thomas Hobbes, who defined liberty thusly:

Liberty, or FREEDOME, signifieth (properly) the absence of Opposition; (by Opposition, I mean externall Impediments of motion;) and may be applyed no lesse to Irrational, and Inanimate creatures, than to Rationall. For whatsoever is so tyed, or environed, as it cannot move, but within a certain space, which space is determined by the opposition of some externall body, we say it hath not Liberty to go further. And so of all living creatures, whilest they are imprisoned, or restrained, with walls, or chayns; and of the water whilest it is kept in by banks, or vessels, that otherwise would spread it selfe into a larger space, we use to say, they are not at Liberty, to move in such manner, as without those externall impediments they would. But when the impediment of motion, is in the constitution of the thing it selfe, we use not to say, it wants the Liberty; but the Power to move; as when a stone lyeth still, or a man is fastned to his bed by sicknesse.

It is most interesting to see that Hobbes defines here, certainly, the term liberty, but all the while drawing our attention nonetheless to the term freedom. It would be tempting to suggest that this might have had something to do with the lexical shift we are studying; but though it is possible, we must at once qualify any claims to that effect with the simple reminder that the term freedom is used in Leviathan but four times, as compared to the very liberal usage of liberty, which occurs some hundred and fifty times. If Hobbes had any will to effect a lexical shift from liberty to freedom, he went about it in a most oblique way.
      Now, the definition that Hobbes provides us, which has subsequently formed the governing definition for the entire of the English liberal tradition to the modern day, can be understood as Roman liberty sans virtue. The moral element has been expelled from Hobbes’ philosophy; Hobbes has unyoked libertas from virtus. Put otherwise, the notion of freedom which we have inherited from the Hobbesian tradition, the notion that we take so far for granted that we no longer intuitively perceive any other possibility, is in truth a delimitation of the concept reigning at that time.
      The Hobbesian idea of freedom comes to us, not directly from Hobbes himself, but rather from Locke, who said the following of liberty:

The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of nature for his rule. 

This would appear at first to be closer to the Roman tradition, insofar as it recognizes a “law of nature.” Yet any attempt to define this “law of nature” by Locke’s own proclamations on it are bound to end in confusion and a sharp restriction of the notions of duty which governed the old Roman idea of virtus. That would be a long and perhaps not entirely fruitful digression on the present theme.
      Much more to our point is this: both Hobbes and Locke, who together surely form the greater kernel of the English liberal tradition, spoke of liberty and not freedom simply because the political tradition of which they were the heirs did not speak of freedom; that tradition, even in good old England, was Roman in extraction, and historically expressed itself in the lingua franca of the day, Latin. (Hobbes himself wrote extensively in Latin.) Moreover, they were responding to other philosophers, as Machiavelli and Descartes, who, being Romance thinkers, used words cognate with our English “liberty,” as the Italian libertà and the French liberté. It would have been more resonant with them, as it were, to think in Latinate terms, and it would have been quite natural for them to use that form most consonant with the wider European culture of their day. These reasons can quite adequately explain, I think, the motive power behind the overwhelming presence of the word “liberty” in the older political thought and documents of our tradition.
      Now, the men responsible for the practical implementation of the ideas of classical liberalism were not Hobbes and Locke, though they were surely informed by them; they were thinkers in their own right, who had a special relation to these ideas. In particular, the Founders of the American Constitution had great respect for the Roman Republic, which in certain key ways they took as their model, disputing it primarily in its militarism and its inveterate aggressions against its neighbors. What they owed to Rome influenced, without doubt, their peculiar use of the term “liberty.”
      It is interesting in this connection to note the use that Publius in The Federalist Papers makes of another much fraught word—virtue. In several places, the virtue of the people is recognized as a medic against the abuses of power. The office of the Presidency is recognized as a magnet attracting “characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.” It would be a gross exaggeration to claim that the Founders had for virtue the same esteem that the Romans had for virtus; but it is surely not excessive to suggest that they had due respect for virtue in the lives of human beings; and if they did not believe that virtue should be the ruling principle behind the social order, yet they still believed it would be one of the motive forces of the Republic.
      If we take this as being a point of no great importance, no more eloquent proof can be found, I think, of the degree to which the Founders were mistaken in their linking virtue and republicanism. Today, the word “virtue” is antiquated at best, and has almost vanished from our speech. We find here, in the detachment between virtue and the social order, one of the core elements of our contemporary society—and indeed, our contemporary plight—and it is worth lavishing all due care upon the understanding of it.
      I submit that the fortunes of this word “liberty” declined simultaneously with those of its sister concept “virtue”; that the historical rise of the word “freedom” came through the sacrifice of the Roman concept of libertas; that our modern condition represents the decline of the Roman ideal in our Western politics, and its gradual supplantation by another ideal, one artificed in the furnaces of the Enlightenment, but as of yet undisclosed, undeclared, uncomprehended.
      I submit finally—matter which I will pursue in the next installment of this essay—that the new ideal can only be given soul through an adequate analysis of the modern conception of “freedom,” and a credible explanation for why that term has come so far to dominate our public discourses.


Return to Freedom’s Core, Part I

Continue to Freedom’s Core, Part III

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published / Required fields are marked *