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20210904 – Freedom an Unruly History




The main idea of this book is to reject the usual understanding of freedom as a combination of individual rights and the ability of individuals to live free from interference from coercive government and convince the reader that it is entirely different: the ability to participate in government decisions and election of individuals to the government. To achieve this author provides a nice historical review of the appearance and expressions of the idea of freedom in history from ancient Greeks to our time.   


Introduction: An Elusive Concept
The author begins by posing the question that she intends to answer in this book: “TODAY MOST PEOPLE TEND TO equate freedom with the possession of inalienable individual rights, rights that demarcate a private sphere no government may infringe on. But has this always been the case? Does this definition, whereby freedom depends on the limitation of state power, really offer the only—or even the most—natural way of thinking about what it means to be free in a society or as a society? And if not, how and why did our understanding of freedom change?”

The author answers that the current understanding of freedom is wrong and offers a different understanding:” For centuries, Western thinkers and political actors identified freedom not with being left alone by the state but with exercising control over the way one is governed. Theirs was a democratic conception of freedom: a free state was one in which the people ruled itself, even if it lacked a bill of rights, an independent judiciary, and other mechanisms to patrol the boundaries of legitimate state power.”

The author then proceeds to define the understanding of freedom as individual freedom as a counterrevolutionary concept. The author also goes into some “Nuts and Bolts” of the historical development of the notion of Freedom.  She apologies that this book is based on Western history, presents some references to existence of such notion in other cultures and seeks excuse for this transgression in her limitations of her own expertise.

Part l: The Long History of Freedom
1. Slaves to No Man: Freedom in Ancient Greece
Autor begins this chapter in 480 BC when Spartans refused to submit to Xerxes’ power, even if submission meant protection and economic benefits and rejection could mean annihilation. The reason for this rejection was high value of freedom in Hellenic culture.  Author then discusses notion of freedom as opposite of slavery, specifically personal freedom from bondage, rather than political freedom. However right away she switched it to something different when referring to Spartans’ rejection:” They had, in other words, a democratic conception of freedom: in their view, a free state was a state in which the people controlled the way it was governed; it was not a state in which government interference was limited as much as possible.” author then discusses “invention of political freedom by Greeks and their celebration of tyrant-killers Harmodius and Aristogeiton. After retelling a bit of Herodotus’s history, the author poses the question whether Greek freedom was mirage or reality.  She answers that Greek understanding of freedom was political and meant democratic form of government and rule of law: features that differentiated Greeks from anybody else. Author then compares conditions of Persians, which despite being formally completely submissive to the king, in reality had quite a bit of freedom of possessions and actions, while Greek formal freedoms were quite limited not only by being extended only to a small share of population – free male citizens, but also by variety of political actions available for individuals in power. Author then discusses ancient critics of freedom: Oligarchs, Sophists, Plato, and many others. The final part of chapter deals with the raise of Macedon that brought all Greeks under power of king Philip and then Alexander, but with a special feature when local powers in many places still were selected democratically and maintained the rule of low. The establishment of kings power in Hellenic world brought change to debates about freedom:” While many Greek intellectuals continued to extol the importance of democratic freedom, others came to argue for a very different understanding of the term. Freedom, they argued, did not necessarily depend on the political institutions under which one lived. Rather, whether one could live a free life or not had more to do with the one’s strength of character or self-control. A person could be free even when he was ruled by a tyrant, as long as he had the appropriate moral strength. Thus, Hellenistic thinkers came to propagate a wholly personal, inner kind of freedom, mirroring the growing disempowerment of ordinary citizens in Greek political life.”

2. The Rise and Fall of Roman Liberty
Author begins this chapter with the story of Lucretia that led to revolt and establishment of republic: res public or “public thing”. Obviously in reality it was rule of patricians, but plebeians managed to establish some participation in power via Tribunal Assembly. Author then discusses validity of various sources of Roman history and notes that Romans pretty much accepted Greek notions of freedom. Author then allocates quite a bit of space to discussion of struggle for power distribution between different parts of Roman society men vs. women, patrician vs plebeians, and rich vs. poor. All this struggle was for control of political power via control such institutions such as the senate, which lasted for a long time in multiple incarnations and had various levels of impact on individual freedom of Roman citizens. Eventually republic was substituted by Empire, in which power struggle become more concentrated at the top. Author describes an interesting approach when Emperor strictly avoided formal designation as the king in order to maintain perception of freedom, just a bit better managed than in old Republic. For example, coins and other image carrying artifacts normally included goddess of Liberty. Author then describes some intellectual works such as Livy and Plutarch nostalgic for Republic. Another writer that author reviewed in details is Tacitus. Overall these writers maintained kind of Cult of Freedom, which eventually was demised during later imperial period when Christianity shifted top level control to the god, consequently promoting externally submission to power that is, while remaining internally submissive to God only. At the end of chapter, the author describes Middle Ages when power of kings and queens was established everywhere in Europe and notion of freedom was mainly moved into personal domain as spiritual pursuit. Any remnants of political power of population slowly disappeared remaining only partially in some urban areas.        

Part II: Freedom’s Revival
3. The Renaissance of Freedom
This chapter begins with reference to Dante who placed tyrannicides Brutus and Cassius into the Hell – direct opposite of Greek’s attitude, indicating that the only legitimate form of government is monarchy. The author describes how Renaissance undermined this approach in Italy, how this process was reflected in arts, and how after reviving ancient cult of freedom in XIV-XVI centuries it faded away. However. it did not disappear, but rather moved across Alps, where Gutenberg’s invention prompted expansion of freedom in Northern Europe, especially in such places and Switzerland, Netherlands, and others. Author describes in some detail events related to search of freedom and personalities that were driving these events in France and England. After that author looks at Reformation and notes that while fighting papal authoritarianism this movement was also authoritarian. However, this struggle between two quite intolerant religious movements opened gate for breakthrough to tolerance and freedom that was demanded by both these movement in places where they were not strong enough to suppress others. Eventually it produced a curious result: appearance of ideas of natural rights. Here is how author describes this result: “By the late seventeenth century, the notion that one could be free only if one did not depend on the will of another—meaning that individual freedom could exist only amid collective freedom—was so well established that dictionaries confirmed it.”. All this led to English Glorious Revolution and penetration of ideas of freedom into culture of European aristocracy, creating ideological foundation for revolutions.

4. Freedom in the Atlantic Revolutions
In this chapter the author describes revolutions that came at the end of XVIII century on both sides of Atlantic: American and French. Author mostly concerned with ideological and artistic representation of ideas of freedom, which was understood in variety of ways. Author defines and discusses in details one specific understanding presented by Richard Price as widely shared among American and other revolutionaries:” In Price’s view, being free in a society or as a society had nothing to do with the extent to which government interfered with one’s life. Rather, one was free as long as one had a say in the direction of one’s country. This was not because the act of governing in and of itself set one free. Price carefully avoided such claims. Rather, in Price’s view, self-government was necessary for the robust enjoyment of Liberty. Under a despotic government, private men “might be allowed the exercise of liberty; … but it would be an indulgence or connivance derived from the spirit of the times, or from an accidental mildness in the administration.” Author also discusses inconsistencies of American revolution when American freedom was perceived at least somewhat consistent with slavery. By the end of XVIII century Cult of freedom triumphed at least as ideal if not as reality of everyday lives of great many people. Author allocates lots of space to ideas of natural rights and various declarations of individual rights, but somehow at the end of chapter she managed to conclude that these individual rights are not intrinsic part of freedom and democracy, but contradict these ideas:” Yet, the late eighteenth century was not just a crucial time for the dissemination of the democratic theory of freedom; the outbreak of the Atlantic Revolutions also sparked a powerful backlash against democracy. This backlash led to the conceptualization of a wholly new way of thinking about freedom, in which Liberty had nothing to do with establishing popular control over government. Rather, a person was free if they could peacefully enjoy their lives and goods—and that condition was, if anything, threatened rather than secured by the introduction of democracy. Thus, as we shall see, the concept of freedom was gradually transformed from being a weapon to fight for democracy into an instrument that could be used to battle against it.”

Part III: Rethinking Freedom
5. Inventing Modern Liberty
Author begins this chapter with reference to work of Johann Eberhard who presented the new understanding that:” when talking about “the liberty of the citizen,” one should distinguish between two very different kinds of Liberty: civil Liberty and political Liberty. A people had political Liberty when it participated in government. Hence political Liberty existed only in republics, and it was most extensive in democratic republics. In contrast, individuals who had the right to act as they wished, insofar as such acts were not restricted by law, enjoyed civil Liberty. This type of Liberty did not depend on the form of government; it could exist as easily in a monarchy as in a republic.” Author then describes polemics about these ideas and designate the ideas of individual freedom as counterrevolutionary and directed against democracy. This way she puts Burke who supported American revolution and opposed French revolution on the same side as loyalists who were against both. Actually, author does not hide unpleasant features of French revolution such as terror, she even provides some illustrations of the period contrasting these two revolutions:

However, she clearly expresses her position:” In short, in the decades after the outbreak of the Atlantic Revolutions, counterrevolutionary thinkers rejected the democratic theory of freedom again and again, arguing that freedom, or at least civil Liberty, should be understood as the ability to peacefully enjoy one’s life and possessions. It might be tempting to dismiss these arguments as self-serving and empty of meaning; and indeed, some counterrevolutionary publicists seemed to claim that any kind of government—as long as it was not democratic—was capable of guaranteeing Liberty. But other counterrevolutionary thinkers developed more sophisticated arguments, reviving a number of claims already put forward by ancient critics of freedom while also developing new views. Some ideas developed by counterrevolutionary thinkers proved so powerful that they would continue to be echoed in the debate about freedom for decades to come.”

Author then provides historical review of ideological struggle between the two notions of freedom in West European countries and America, consistently stressing that individual freedom is counterrevolutionary concept that complicates achievement of “true freedom” of democratic self-government. 

6. The Triumph of Modern Liberty
In this chapter the author continues her historical review of the period after failed revolutions of 1848. She describes how ideas of individual freedom became strongly linked to America where there were no army, police, and little bureaucracy. The America was considered a crazy place, which somehow provided the best living conditions in the world without anybody actually directing society from the top. Author then describes the Modern Liberty in America (1848-1914):” Around the turn of the century, in short, the counterrevolutionary conception of Liberty had become more widely accepted in the United States than ever before. While, for most of the nineteenth century, this way of thinking had been defended in public debate by relatively few, most of whom were disgruntled members of the elite, this changed in the wake of a backlash against democracy provoked by the Civil War and mass migration. Doubts about the political abilities of blacks and new migrants led Gilded Age liberals to claim that Liberty needed protection from democracy. That protection was secured by limiting state power, instituting countermajoritarian institutions, and restricting the suffrage.” After that author describes powerful movements against Modern Liberty in Europe (1880-1945) that led to Soviet communism that author describes with some sympathy and fascism that author just briefly mentions.  The last part of this chapter is description of reincarnation of individual freedom ideas as “negative freedom”, strongly supported in America after WWII despite massive expansion of “positive freedom” of the New Deal and strong support of government expansion from intellectuals.

Epilogue: Freedom in the Twenty-First Century

Here author repeats her central thesis that traditional historical understanding of freedom is popular self-governance, but the new understanding of freedom as freedom of individual in society is result of reactionary reaction to Atlantic revolutions: American and French. Once again, she summarizes the ideological struggle of the last two centuries as “democratic freedom” vs. “modern freedom” and laments that the former often considered thread to latter and the modern – individual freedom remain dominant ideal:” In virtually every American political camp, the idea that freedom should be identified with personal security and individual rights predominates. But perhaps we would do well to remember that there is another side to the story of freedom. After all, for centuries freedom was seen as a compelling ideal because it called for the establishment of greater popular control over  government, including the use of state power to enhance the collective well-being. In particular, we might do well to remember that, for the founders of our modern democracies, freedom, democracy, and equality were not in tension but were inherently intertwined.”


This book is an excellent example of sophisticated leftist-academical thinking that would make Orwell proud of his foresight. The idea of juxtaposing democracy/self-governance and individual freedom, one as the traditional and noble understanding of the notion of freedom and another one as reactionary, counterrevolutionary, and therefore somewhat illegitimate, strikes me as an excellent articulation of the contemporary divide of dominant American ideologies. However, the most interesting here is the author’s continuing lament that everybody, even leftist commentators on big government propaganda media such as CNN and MSNBC, continues to pretend that they kind of support individual Liberty. She would rather have them announce, clearly and unequivocally, that the “real freedom” going back to ancient Greeks is the unrestricted ability of elected or unelected politicians and bureaucrats to suppress “counterrevolutionary” individual freedom. It seems that for the author, an individual’s ability to own and control one’s own body and property is subject to limitations in the name of “enhance collective well-being.”

The author’s obvious frustration with Americans provides hope that America is still healthy enough society to reject the thesis of “slavery is freedom” that the author promotes as soon as this thesis is expressed clearly enough. As to the core of author’s argument of “freedom is democracy/self-government”, it is hardly deserving serious consideration due to the simple fact that there is no Demos or collective Self as thinking, feeling, and acting entity. Democracy and self-government are nothing more than the method of selection of individuals to wield coercive power of the state in hope, usually futile, that they would do it in some vaguely defined “common interest” instead of clearly defined, albeit always hidden, their own interests. It is clearly better than selection of individual into such position by birthright as in Aristocratic societies or by who kill whom first, as in autocratic societies, but really not by that much. Even such clear advantage of Democracy as ability of people remove unpopular leaders is usually overestimated if one look at reality of senators not capable to speak and in diapers due to fragility of old age as Strom Thurmond or FDR who become president for life for all practical purposes. The prosperity of America and high quality of live that is still the norm in areas not under leftist control, comes from individual freedom to do what people want and private property to do it with. If this individual freedom is lost, the prosperity and high quality of live will be lost too.

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