To Define Freedom
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Sent: Wednesday, June 07, 2006 1:44 PM
To: Simpson, Craig
Subject: World History: freedom



From: Encyclopedia of Political Thought.

One of the most important and complex ideas in political thought; in Modern philosophy possibly the most central concept along with its corollaries, individualism, 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).

John Locke, 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.

Rousseau, the 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.

For Marxist 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.

Existentialism 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 succeed.

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. <>.


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