One of the most important and complex
ideas in political thought; in Modern
philosophy possibly the most central concept along with its corollaries,
equality, and democracy. Freedom
is also expressed as liberty.
A helpful approach to defining freedom
was offered by Sir Isaiah Berlin in his piece "Two Concepts of Liberty"
(1957), which divides freedom into negative and positive freedom.
Negative freedom is the individual's freedom from some obstacle
(slavery, bondage, prison, legal, moral or cultural restraint) to free
movement. Freedom, then, is the absence of external control. The liberty
of movement, action, thought, impulse, passion, and so on, without
someone, institution, culture, or law saying "you can't do that." Such
unrestricted freedom characterizes Thomas Hobbes's
vision of the state of nature, which leads to
competition, conflict, and self-destruction. Positive freedom is the
individual's freedom to some accomplishment or substantive
achievement. So, the freedom to be well educated or to have a job or
wealth or medical care is positive freedom. An example of these
contrasting views of liberty might be between the economic systems of
capitalism (or free enterprise) and
socialism (or a planned economy). In the
capitalist United States, anyone is free to start a business, but there
is no guarantee he or she will succeed or become wealthy; no law
prohibits you from trying, but society doesn't provide substantive
support. In the socialist former Soviet Union,
by contrast, individuals were forbidden from starting private businesses
(that is, denied negative freedom) but were guaranteed employment,
housing, health care, and retirement by the state
(so they had positive freedom). The negative freedom system claims that
economic freedom, intellectual and religious, actually leads to
substantive abundance of property, knowledge,
or goodness. The positive freedom view claims that only results-oriented
liberty is true freedom.
Various major political thinkers have
approached the subject of political freedom in different ways. Plato's
Republic sees individual freedom best realized in the knowledge
of and training of one's innate capacities and their use in the service
of the whole society. Thus one's freedom must be strictly ordered and
directed to the good of the just state. Purely individual freedom leads
to frustration and delusion. Only the disciplined, well-educated person
is truly free. An undisciplined individual freedom (as in democracy)
produces unhappy, foolish people and unjust government. Freedom, as a
concept, is relatively unimportant for the
classical thinkers, who regard virtue,
justice, and harmony as more significant.
Aristotle discusses freedom in substantive terms of the Greek citizen
being free by rising above "mere" economic (animal) existence to
rational, ethical (human) activity. Real freedom is the realization of
one's human telos, or potential, in fully developed reason, speech, and
moral choice and action. This requires much education, modeling, and
participation in the public realm. For the
Christian thinkers, St. Paul, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas
(as well as, later, John Calvin, Martin
Luther, and John
Winthrop), a person's natural liberty is prone to evil (murder,
theft, adultery, etc.) because human nature is sinful. Obedience to
God's will produces true freedom or "the liberty where with Christ hath
made us free." So, Christian liberty involves escaping the bondage or
slavery of sin through faith in Jesus Christ and the transformation of
the individual through the Holy Spirit. This freedom is internal and can
exist even in oppressive political social circumstances. The government
should protect "moral liberty" (the right to do good) but not "natural
liberty" (to individual sinful preferences).
the archetypical modern British liberal,
declares that people are "free, equal, and independent." This human
freedom to follow one's economic, religious, and social interest is not,
for Locke, "license" to do whatever one wants but is constrained by the
law of nature, which reason tells you is to never use your freedom to
harm anyone else's rights to life, liberty, or property. For Locke,
reasonable people restrain their freedom so as not to hurt others in
their lives, health, liberty, or possessions; that is, individual
freedom is not to kill, steal, or enslave. The state is established to
punish those (criminals) who do not respect the
rights of others and therefore abuse their freedom.
French liberal, sees freedom in the positive social sense: Freedom is
"obeying laws one has had a part in making." This collectivist
general will conception of freedom goes into
Marxism and fascism—freedom
as obedience to the totality or state. Burke
criticizes this notion of liberty as alternately licentious and
barbaric; his liberty is within historic British traditions.
John Stuart Mill
applies British liberalism to the freedom of the mind. His arguments for
intellectual liberty (in On Liberty) against custom and
convention include these: (1) A new or controversial viewpoint may be
true, and suppressing it will rob humanity of useful truth; (2) even if
the obnoxious view is false, the defeating of it by truth will
strengthen the correct view. The best society, for Mill, will be full of
such critical thinkers and tolerant social liberty of conscience and
intellect. Much of Western "freedom of the press" and academic freedom
is premised in this Millian perspective.
communist thought, "bourgeois" capitalist
freedom is an illusion that enslaves the working class and trivializes
true human liberty. Only in communism will the individual be truly free
from alienation, meaningless labor, and
oppression. The temporary tyranny of the "dictatorship of the
proletariat" is worth this ultimate heaven of communist society.
asserts the necessity of individual freedom in a meaningless universe
and the personal responsibility to make meaning out of one's life.
In contemporary political thought,
libertarian theorists argue for absolute
freedom of the individual from government taxation and laws to protect
the citizen from himself (such as the "victimless crimes" of drug use,
prostitution, and suicide). For Libertarians, such as
Robert Nozick, the state should not tax some
(wealthy) people to aid other (poor) ones or protect individuals from
themselves. Earlier, social Darwinism made a
similar argument that the weak and foolish should be free to destroy
themselves, die out, and leave the strong and clever to survive and
Freedom will remain a prominent topic
for political discussion and debate because it touches the very essence
of human nature.
Berlin, I. "Two Concepts of Liberty." In Four Essays on Liberty.
London: Oxford University Press, 1969.
Gray, J., and Pelczynski, Z., eds. Conceptions of Liberty in
Political Philosophy. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984.
Rawls, J. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press
of Harvard University Press, 1972.
Ryan, A., ed. The Idea of Freedom. Oxford, Eng.: Oxford
University Press, 1979.
Text Citation: Sheldon, Garrett Ward.
"freedom." Encyclopedia of Political Thought. New York: Facts On
File, Inc., 2001. Facts On File, Inc. World History Online. <www.fofweb.com>.
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