By Leonidas Pittos
It is useful to begin a discussion of liberty with a brief survey of the vocabulary of liberty and freedom in the founding languages of the Western Tradition: Greek and Latin. In Greek, to trace the terminology of freedom one must begin with the word eleuthería, or liberty, and the verb eleutheróō, or to release from debt, blame, or negative circumstances. An early use of the word eleútheron is in Homer. The word is found in the Iliad in Hektor’s speech to Andromakhe where Hektor describes Andromakhe’s imminent slavery at the hands of Akhaian masters (Il. 6.467-481): the Akhaians would take away her eleútheron and force her to do menial labor, much against her will. The political concept of eleuthería most likely arose to denote freedom from external rule or influence. It is in this sense that Pindar (Pythian I 61) describes liberty as “god-built” (theódmētos eleuthería). Herodotos, writing after the Persian Wars, used it in describing the supporters of the Athenian tyrants, the Peisistratids, contrasting eleuthería with tyrannía, or tyranny, thus documenting a constitutional use of the word (Hist. 1.62). Herodotos coordinates the implicit contrast between free man and slave with the political use: in tyranny citizens are slaves; in democracy citizens are free.
Based on both noun and verb are the adjectives eleuthérios and eleútheros, each referring to the qualities of a free person: the first to what is fitting for the free man and the second to the state of freedom. In Latin, the term for freedom is libertas and it is derived from the verb libero, to grant freedom, to manumit, or to free from debt or to confer liberty of action. Thus, libertas conveyed the quality of a freedman and was explicitly contrasted to slavery. During the Late Republic, libertas populi was used in connection with the equality of the people before the law. Libertinitas denoted the condition or status of a freedman; the adjective libertinus attributed qualities that were diametrically opposite those of a slave. Libertas could refer to the civil status of a free man but it could also refer to the sovereignty of a people. Thus, in 196 BC L. Quinctius Flaminus could declare the “freedom of the Greeks”, after having conquered Macedonia, following the custom of the Hellenistic Empires. Both eleutheria and libertas, thus, had imperial uses: Spartans, Athenians, Hellenistic Emperors, and Romans all used the concepts of liberty and freedom to justify imperial projects and hegemony.
Opposites of Freedom
Innate to the vocabulary of freedom is a series of contrasts, the first of which were represented in the contrast between heteronomia, rule from the outside/by the other, and autonomia, self-rule. In Greek thought, the Persians were the archetypal outsiders, where the presence of foreign satraps limited the deliberative actions of a city, threatening dissent with violent reprisal and posing a menacing threat to the liberty of each citizen. Heteronomia presupposed an annulment of free deliberation. Autonomia presupposed that a community could deliberate on the conduct of its own affairs, free from any interference from the outside but also free from restrictions imposed arbitrarily from the inside. This freedom of deliberation and freedom of action constituted a city’s liberty. A city over-lorded by an external power was not free; a city over-lorded by one of its citizens was likewise not free. In both cases, the demos was enslaved.
Herdotus’ contrast between eleutheria and tyrannia already hints at this. True liberty was understood as freedom of deliberation in which all where equal before the law (isonomía), everyone’s opinion was worth listening to (isēgoría), and all had the freedom to speak (parrhēsía). In this context, true freedom could exist only when the dēmos is free; and the dēmos is free only when citizens are free to speak. Thus, tyranny, where one man has the ability to limit a free citizen’s speech, and oligarchy, where only the few have the right to speak, are opposites of liberty, breaking down the links that connect equality before the law, equality of speech, and freedom of speech to the political life of a city. If the citizen could not deliberate freely, the city could not deliberate freely. Early on, a distinction arose where the truly free to participate in the civic life of a city were those who possessed the eleuthérios paideía, or the cultivation fitting for a free man. Although sometime connected with elitist view designed to uphold oligarchical rule, this distinction underlines the fact that there was something beyond a legal category or a legal distinction that determined true liberty for the Greeks. Liberty was inseparably connected to intellectual veracity and the integrity of one’s deliberative and cognitive processes.
As the meaning of freedom progressed from the political and civic level to the level of personal activity and cognition, the antithesis between liberty and slavery remained. At the heart of this antithesis was the basic contrast between free and unhindered cognition and irrational desire. The Stoic philosopher Epiktētos, writing in the first century AD, defined the free man as one “for whom all go according to his will (katá proairesin) and unhindered” (Diss. ab Arriano 1.12.9). That is, one’s behavior should always be deliberate, measured, and according to one’s will and unhindered by any outside force or any irrational force. For Epiktētos, the antithesis was between liberty and mania: To desire anything that one thinks, however he thinks it, is to be mad (mainómenos)—the embodiment of disorder and confusion—and to be out of one’s mind (paráphrōn). Liberty, in short, was also the opposite of folly and insanity (apónoia). In Epiktētos’ judgment, liberty was a skill, and as with any skill, it was innately connected to a “science” (epistēme). Just as in music, where one is not able to say that all sounds one makes a harmonious and where one must learn to proper musical proportions and the methods to play and instrument or to sing, so too in the use of freedom one needed to learn how to want or use his will.
Liberty, the Self, and Desire
In the same context, Marcus Aurelius, writing in his Meditations, makes a declaration of liberty in a very explicit way: “I remain free and no one hinders me to do what I want; but I want what is according to the nature of a rational and social being” (Med. 5.29.1). For the Roman Emperor, liberty and freedom require one to want and desire things that are compatible, indeed, that are consistent with the rational nature of a human being. Irrational desires were blameworthy in that they contradicted human nature and the nature of the universe, which existed in a harmonious and rational structure. Freedom was to look at things as a “man, as free, as a citizen, and as a mortal being” (4.4.1). Thus, liberty’s opposite was a free man’s inability to choose what is natural or what is consistent with his nature. “You”, he writes to himself, “choose simply and freely what is better and keep this close; for ‘the better is profitable (sumphéron)’ (3.6.3). What was profitable, then, was that which did not force one to abandon principles, to hate, to be a hypocrite, to desire wildly, in short that did not force one to fluctuate uncontrollably between the extremes of desiring and fleeing; to uncontrollably swing between the extremes of seeking pleasure and fleeing pain. Submission to irrational desires represented a state of being that was opposite that of freedom and liberty.
In Stoic philosophy, true freedom was represented by the state of ataraxía, freedom from discord and tumult. One who lived in this state could think clearly and liberated of the wild and often violent oscillations that went allowing with fulfilling the irrational passions. What was profitable for the free man was to remain in balance, detached from the material world. It is only in ataraxía that true happiness existed, where one was able to reap the fruits of philosophy. To be sure, the Stoics’ rivals, the Epicureans, held a similar view to freedom and ataraxía: to avoid pain, worry, strife, and the extreme pleasures, in that all these negate true pleasure, Hēdonē. Achieving this true pleasure required one to first be free of all circumstances that caused one pain. These included the extreme pleasures in that they were pleasing only for while but ultimately caused one pain either a consequence of their pleasure or after being deprived of them. The Epicureans saw humanity enslaved to the ebb and flow of pain and pleasure, where humanity was not able to achieve the right balance because humans were always preoccupied with seeking out the extremes. For both Stoics and Epicureans, then, true liberty and true freedom existed in liberation from the irrational forces that cause tumult and disturbance to the human soul.
Together with the topic of liberty, the philosophical schools of the Greco-Roman period as well as the earliest writings of the Christian tradition often wrote about what was profitable and what was not. What was not was frequently equated with the negation of freedom. Thus, in 1 Corinthians 6, Paul outlines the contours of Christian freedom: “Everything is permissible for me—but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible for me—but I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Corinthians 6: 12). Everything is permitted to the Christian baptized into the Church, but not everything is profitable or beneficial. And it is precisely that which “masters”—that which dominates the mind and negates it freedom. Thus, important to Paul’s ethical system was the avoidance of things that would cause the human soul to dominated by external or irrational forces. Building off the Pauline and Hellenistic ethics, the early Christian ascetics developed a sophisticated anthropology of freedom. For them, freedom was a matter of apatheía, or freedom from the irrational passions and desires. The passions (páthē) represented a tyrannical complex of irrational desires and obsessions that enslaved humanity and prevented human being from achieve their full human potential in divine contemplation and theōsis, or deification. True freedom for early Christianity, much like for the Hellenistic philosophical schools, involved askēsis, or spiritual exercise. A human being, dominated by the irrational passions, needed to conquer them by subjecting the body to the mind, and the will of the flesh to the will of the intellect. But this could not be done immediately. One needed to learn this; one needed to train his body and mind to function according to their nature. The sobriety of the intellect and self-control (enkráteia) reflected the highest form of this freedom. For Maximos the Confessor (7th c. AD), the truly free man was one who freed the cognitive activity from the domination of senses, cutting off the activities of pleasure, and living and operating according to principles of nature. For the Christian theologian, true freedom also existed in the transcendence of nature. The Christian God, the Logos, “being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God” and take “the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7). It was indeed a contradiction in terms for God to contradict His own transcendence and cross all the boundaries between humanity and divinity, “being found in appearance as a man, [emptying] Himself and [becoming] obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” This free emptying, or kenōsis, is what ultimately came to mark true and absolute freedom in the Christian tradition: the freedom of selfless sacrifice.
Liberty, the Western Idea, and its Imperatives
A central metaphor in the early Christian tradition of freedom was the resurrection. The foremost message of the Christian gospels, the Resurrection of Christ prefigured and made possible the resurrection of human nature from slavery of the passions and death. A late antique Christian hymn praises Christ as “the One Who freed us from our passions”. The early Christian understanding of freedom was that of redemption: liberation from the grips of irrational desire and unmeasured emotion.
The sources of the Western tradition all point to freedom as something that is not just a political right but a state of being that can only be brought to full fruition in an intense áskēsis, or spiritual exercise, in the struggle to make liberty and freedom a true way of life. Too often in the modern discourse on liberty and freedom, we tend to equate freedom with the rights granted by a constitution, a form of government, or an economic system. While all these may in fact safeguard liberty and freedom for a society, true liberty and true freedom must be cultivated from within. As the ancient Greeks believed, democracy was dependent on the people’s ability to freely deliberate, both in their society and internally in their own minds. The central imperative today in the West is for the West to come to understand its own tradition of liberty—its entire tradition of liberty along with the sources of its tradition—to understand the expanded definition of freedom and liberty as they emerged from the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions, to resurrect from the bondage of consumerism and the irrational passions, and to make liberty and freedom a true way of life again. The Western Idea, thus, is that freedom and liberty must be states of being.