Freedom to, freedom from

Pericles' Funeral Oration

Two years ago, near the beginning of my amateurish exploration of the concept of freedom here on The Hannibal Blog, I dabbled a bit in the nuance between

  • negative and
  • positive


As it happens, there is a much, much better treatment of that distinction in this lecture by Hunter Rawlings, a classicist at Cornell (as well as that university’s former president).

We today subscribe largely to the negative concept of freedom. We want to be free from things (intrusion, government, …)

Most of the ancients — such as Pericles, the Athenian statesman who probably summed up classical democracy best in his famous Funeral Oration, pictured above — took nearly the opposite point of view. They wanted to be free to do things (speak in the assembly, sit on juries, fight in the army, co-determine the fate of their polis…)

(One exception in antiquity might be Diogenes, which is perhaps what makes him so interesting to us, or at least to me.)

As Rawlings puts it, neither society, Greek or American, would regard the other as “free”.

The Greco-Romans had a communitarian (and largely tribal) definition of freedom and were concerned about virtue (but hardly at all about property).

Enlightenment thinkers, starting with John Locke, defined freedom in much more individualistic terms and were more concerned about property than virtue.

The mixture of the two strands was at first (in the minds of geniuses such as Madison or Hamilton) tonic. But something has arguably gone wrong in the centuries since then, leading us gradually to stunningly childish and unsophisticated notions about freedom today.

A short excerpt of the lecture is below, but I hope you take time for the full hour, because it is fascinating and touches on all the topics dear to The Hannibal Blog: Greece and Rome, the Founding Fathers, democracy, et cetera.

Incidentally, I discovered the speech through this Greek blog post, which discusses some of my own posts and which Google has only translated for me very imperfectly. Thank you very much!

I’ll leave you with one snippet from Rawlings’ lecture, which is that the ancient Greeks, being so busy with their freedom to participate in the public business, had … no word for boredom! 🙂

Now the excerpt:

31 thoughts on “Freedom to, freedom from

  1. “The Greco-Romans had a communitarian (and largely tribal) definition of freedom and were concerned about virtue (but hardly at all about property).”

    Can you elaborate on the above passage? You must be speaking about early Greek and Romans? During the Golden Age, it seems the Greeks were very much concerned with private property. Property was confiscated by Attic society when men were banished and certainly during the seesawing politics that resulted in proscription of the Roman civil war.

    Solon in the 6th Century B.C. wiped out mortgages to prevent a civil war . . . so private property was a big issue.

    Thanks for the link to the lecture.

    • Of course property mattered to people in all times. But, according to Rawlings, it was much less interesting to the Greeks in the age of Pericles than it was to either the Enlightenment thinkers or to us today. So it’s a matter of relative emphasis. The focus on property came with Locke.

      See Chapter 8 in the Fora video (in the table of contents below the video):

      “the chief purpose of forming a community is to protect our property” — Locke

      Also see Chapter 22 (Question 8): The Greeks “did not care much about money” — Rawlings

      (Think of it this way: Human nature will always care about a number of things, such as sex, food, wealth, power, virtue, happiness etc. But the relative emphasis among these cravings, especially in a debate about what freedom might mean, can change over time.)

  2. Hi Andreas,

    Interesting you bring that up, I just finished reading Satre’s – The age of reason – first of the trilogy wherein he deals with the concept of individual freedom. Now as I see it, individual freedom will always conflict with freedom of people at large.. government, etc. And the very concept of freedom is a catch in itself… for when you want a particular kind of freedom, you are limiting it to that something, and if there was only freedom, we still wouldn’t feel free.. it requires us to feel liberated only by comparison.

    Probably only the sufis got it right. The ultimate freedom is to be a nobody wanting nothing. But then we wouldn’t have much to discuss after that.

    And while I am at it, will take the freedom to wish you a very happy new year… let 2011 see more insights and more interesting people.
    warm regards,

    • Happy NY to you, too, Alok.

      I forgot nearly all of my Sartre, but I’m glad that you’re reminding us that he had lots to say on the subject of freedom. Chiefly, as I seem to recall, that freedom gives us anxiety — because being free means being free to screw up, so we’re afraid of screwing up.

  3. Another intriguing post, Andreas. Especially since I am reading up on Hamilton and Madison and the Constitutional Convention.

    A book I never finished (it’s in my bookcase somewhere awaiting my return) called Freedom in the Making of Western Culture by Orlando Patterson delves into the concepts of freedom and liberty. This post will probably trigger that urge to pick it back up.

    But your post brought to mind a thought: That we (the US) started with the idea of freedom as “freedom to” and has devolved into “freedom from” because the idea that freedom is collective is lost to a selfishness over time without external threats. We may have reached a point where personal freedom (which I see as the cause of “freedom from”) can no longer be set aside to battle an external threat.

    • Interesting point about the possible need for an “external threat”. All the “freedom to” cultures mentioned (Athens, 1776 US, etc) were (relative to us) small, homogenous and did face an external threat.

      They were thus communities. By contrast (this is a famous quote but I forgot where I heard it), our modern nation states are “societies masquerading as communities.”

  4. I don’t understand this distinction at all. In order to be free to do things, I must be free from things that restrain me. Sounds more like two sides of the same coin than mutually exclusive notions of freedom.

    And perhaps someone ought to explain to our confounded ancient Greek time traveler (a) that given the prevalence of slavery in ancient Greece, by his own reasoning his people weren’t “free” to do their own work, (b) that we are free to elect our political representatives (not to mention run for office ourselves), (c) that everyone with an Internet connection is free to address not only the nation but the world 24/7, and (d) that anyone who wants to join our armed forces is free to join , i.e., we can all decide for ourselves whether we want others to defend us or whether we want to directly participate in our own defense (although, admittedly, the cutoff age to join these days is 41 1/2, not 60); the equation of more choices with less freedom escapes me.

    • I don’t understand this distinction at all. In order to be free to do things, I must be free from things that restrain me. Sounds more like two sides of the same coin than mutually exclusive notions of freedom.

      I would say it is more a balance that is never maintained for very long. As long as you have government, some freedom will be curtailed if only for the good of society. If for nothing else, to maintain a semblance of order. Without society’s order, your freedom will be curtailed by those around you who may be stronger and have wants or desires that are counter to your well being.

      Your list of freedoms are only valid within what we call “free societies.” And there may be issues of financial status with the access to the internet even withing free societies. In addition, you are not free to join our (U.S.) military unless you are a resident alien or a naturalized citizen or a native born citizen.

      I believe that the idea of less imposition of restriction (things that restrain you) is what leads to isolationism. I also think it is a selfish desire that harms society. But I understand it and respect others’ having that desire. As I said, I think the ideal is to try to maintain a balance between the two concepts (freedom to and freedom from) and swing the pendulum back when it swings too far toward one or the other.

    • Yes, I was referring to what we call “free societies,” such as the modern U.S.

      And yes, even in a free society, not everyone has access to the Internet, just as I would bet that in ancient Greece not everyone was equally free to address the nation. In theory, perhaps, but not in practice. Without radio, TV, Internet, newspapers, and microphones, “addressing the nation” sounds like it may have presented a few technological obstacles such that only a teeny-weeny percentage of the population ever got to do anything that even came close to what could reasonably be considered addressing the nation.

      And while one cannot join the U.S. military unless one is a U.S. citizen or a resident alien, I doubt that every tourist was free to enlist in the military of ancient Greece.

      Obviously, unlimited individual freedom begets its very opposite. The freedom to swing your fist stops at the tip of my nose, as Justice Holmes so aptly put it. I’m not aware of any society that didn’t put restraints on personal behavior for the common good, be it ancient Greece or the modern so-called free world.

      I’m simply not understanding what freedoms the ancient Greek had that I do not have. Irrespective of whether I disagree or disagree, I usually understand—or at least believe I understand—what someone is talking about. In this case, I simply cannot follow Mr. Rawlings train of thought at all.

      In order to be free to do something, I must be free from whatever restrains me. Call me naive, but my desire to be free to go for a run in the park and my desire to be free from the handcuffs that tie me to the bedpost in my house sound like one and the same desire to me.

  5. I’m saddened you struggle to understand freedom when you possess such a wealth of it yourself. Perhaps you should lose a little.

    I feel a prisoner on this blog. I didn’t used to.

    Freedom is that which allows us to come to provisional terms with authority without ever accepting it. It is the force behind all true human achievement and aspiration and can only be generated from within, not by the state or any other institution, nor, indeed, by any other individual.

  6. To have lived in ancient Greece sounds awful. It must have been hell for nonconformists and introverts (probably the same thing).

    It sounds like your average individual ancient Greek male citizen lived under the tyranny of mass opinion (the tyranny of the brutish majority). By being forced to participate all the time in all meetings and decisions, and forced to serve in the army until sixty, he was forced to participate in his own individual subjugation.

    In this society, slaves and women may have had more inner freedom than male citizens, for they knew that they weren’t free, and so didn’t have to lie to themselves about it.

    If there is no inner freedom, is there really any freedom?

    • You’ve put your finger (on your keyboard) on the nub of the matter.

      Is there any freedom? I guess the point is that it means different things to any one individual in any one culture at any one time. That is by itself amazing, given how confident each of us usually is in wielding the word as a weapon in whatever debate we’re having at the moment.

      Re the Greeks: You’re describing people like Alcibiades, Socrates, Diogenes, Aspasia (the mistress of Pericles)…..

      Ironically, the misfits in Athenian democracy are now, to us, the most INTERESTING individuals. Makes you think.

  7. Fascinating as always–I think this discussion is driven by our freedom to define what exactly “freedom” means. It is interesting to think about contemporary debates on Bill of Rights issues (e.g., freedom of speech, right to bear arms) in light of Rawlings comments.

    • Indeed. In fact, the whole debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists during ratification of the Constitution reads as though we were having it today, in a Tea Party year.

      Timeless, in a world. Hence there will be more of it here….

  8. It is the very attempt to define freedom which is misconceived,Thomas. How can a thing define itself? The danger is that some will come to think a particular definition, or compromise, is the last word – an absolute.

    It is too valuable a commodity to risk in this way. What it is, however, becomes obvious when it is taken away. Compromise it in the least, and you threaten that which truly binds us together.

    In this context there are no degrees of freedom nor variations. Perhaps this discussion is about autonomy, where there are degrees and variations and in practical terms is in the gift of one person to another.

    Try this thought experiment. I ban you from contributing to this blog for six months. You refuse the ban – you are free. You consent – you are free. You obey – you are not free. Clear enough, but there is no definition that can be derived.

    The from and the to in the title to this post are mere semantics. The one flows from the other.

    • The one flows from the other. Exactly. Two sides of the same coin.

      Let’s try this thought experiment. Someone sets his blog to Private/Invitation Only. Whether I refuse, consent to, or obey the new restriction makes no difference. Of course, the gatekeeper exercises his freedom to restrict access to his property, yet thereby curtailing the erstwhile freedom of the public to visit, replacing it with a lesser freedom, namely the novel burden of having to request permission to access, the granting of which is entirely out of the petitioner’s control.

    • Nice summary of the problem. I am free to define freedom, even if it means I take yours away. I could take exception to your statement: “You obey–you are not free.” Because if I am not contributing to this blog I am free to do other things with my time!

    • This reminds me of a short debate a couple of my shipmates had back in 1967. Herb argued that we were not free (by “we”, he meant American citizens of draft age). His opponent (I do not recall his name) responded that we were free. Herb countered that we could be drafted. His opponent said that we had an obligation to serve because we were free. Herb ended the debate by say:

      “If you have an obligation then you are not, by definition, free.”

      Herb had also once said that a slave was free, in a sense. He said that a slave always had the right to refuse to obey.

      Herb was more argumentative than logical and consistent.

    • You have probably gathered by now that I find this topic quite upsetting. You might as well define what it is to be human as define freedom.

      I feel for Herb, Douglas. By seeking to define he destroys, and he wants to define by default. Why dissect a healthy baby? It is vital to distinguish autonomy. This enables you to deal with Herb. There are exigencies in an imperfect world. To attach ultimate significance to a definition of “freedom”, particularly one of law, is to slow or even halt, the easing of our bonds.

      Yes, there is only one freedom, Cyberquill. I recoil from both Greek and Enlightenment definitions, as Rawlings describes them. You prick my conscience, although I do have a mockery of an explanation for setting my blog private – more than one – and it is definitely not personal. I could say, I suppose, that it is my property in a sense, but then I would be yielding to an Enlightenment definition. I wish I knew how to manage it properly, though!

      You, too, Thomas, touch on the distinction between autonomy and freedom. Of course you are free to seek to define freedom and I am free to criticise the attempt and respond honestly. The question is not whether you do something else with your time, but whether you would rather continue to contribute (as I feel sure you would). 🙂

      Should I or should I not be obsessive about this? I rank freedom with beauty, truth, the pursuit of happiness, being born equal and other such indefinables. If they are self-evident, why proceed to define them?

      A Happy New Year, everyone.

    • @ Douglas

      “If you have an obligation then you are not, by definition, free.”

      Herb had also once said that a slave was free, in a sense. He said that a slave always had the right to refuse to obey.

      Herb was more argumentative than logical and consistent.

      Herb was spot-on in what he said. He may have been a little ahead of his time.

      Let us be thankful for the Herbs of this world.

    • @Richard, never had to “deal with Herb”, I appreciated him. I rather enjoyed his view of life. Herb was not constrained, you might say, by convention or by the rules of military life. Eventually, of course, the latter led to his being separated from service somewhat short of his enlistment period.

      Herb and I had many, many conversations in the year or so we served together on that ship. While not all were deep and meaningful, all were enjoyable.

      I view him more in the way Philippe seems to.

    • Thank you for the link to your blog, Douglas.

      It is a trap to suppose we can rationalise the nature of freedom either positively or by default: whether you are an Andreas or a Herb. I do not propose, therefore to challenge anything said there about it.

      The definer’s motive is good for she seeks to protect freedom. I merely indicate that any definition provides an excuse for taking freedom away. If that happens its reality becomes vividly apparent and we come to know it as so much more than a state of mind, whatever that is.

      We cannot rationalise love, but we know when it is absent. By contrast with freedom, we are aware, or easily made aware, of love when we have it.

      What does freedom do? Here I venture a few observations. It does not destroy, it does not divide, it does not cause to suffer.Those are physical realities. It is shared but does not compromise the sharers. It is the force behind, say, the rule of law, but not its sanctions.

      In making any comment I cannot do freedom justice. It is not freedom that is slippery, as Andreas says on your blog, it is I, even though its benefits are constant and throughout my being.

    • @Richard, you have a great way with words. The comparison between love and freedom is wonderful. Though you and I certainly have met people who ignored the love in their lives in order to pursue happiness and, by so doing, lost that and then realized what it was.

      Perhaps there are different freedoms (or definitions of) and that is what is being discussed. As Dr. Rawlings pointed out the difference between the Ancient Greek definition (which seems, to me, to be collective) and our own (which I see as individual). It is the debate that Herb had with another shipmate. Herb argued for individual freedom while the shipmate argued for the collective freedom. We tend to see individual freedom as The One True Freedom. It is, after all, what we were taught in school (one might say “indoctrinated to believe”) where we were not allowed individual freedom very often, if at all. Of course, I see school as a Process of social domestication. Training the individuals to work within the group.

      I don’t believe complete individual freedom is possible within a society. Within any group, actually, even a family. As I see individual freedom, it is only achievable in the mind. And complete individual freedom is what I see as “freedom from”… as in “freedom from all external restraints.” All a society can hope to achieve in that form of freedom is a (fluid) balance between individual and collective freedom.

      In school, I was taught to believe that the Spartans fought for their freedom at Thermopylae and I did believe that. Until I learned what life was like for the average Spartan. I saw no freedom in its society at all. Another example might be… William Wallace’s compatriots fought for their freedom also. But it was only the freedom to live under a king of their own. A king who might not be any different than an English one in terms of how they would be treated. There were no real differences in their individual rights between the two.

      We, as an emerging nation in the latter 18th Century, really did introduce a new philosophy of freedom. We proposed that individual freedom could co-exist with collective freedom. Many didn’t believe it would last, many thought we would eventually have to accept a “king”, a hereditary monarchy, at some point. I think many still believe that today. Maybe not a monarch but a totalitarian leader of some sort to maintain order within a complex society.

    • It is a joy to engage with you, Douglas. You are a hard nut to crack. The historical question and the nature of a constitutional monarchy are potent diversions and I refuse to be drawn. 🙂

      Back to freedom itself.

      Here is Oscar Wilde:

      I know not whether Laws be right,
      Or whether Laws be wrong;
      All that we know who lie in gaol
      Is that the wall is strong;
      And that each day is like a year,
      A year whose days are long.

      And Beethoven:

    • It is a joy to engage with you, Douglas. You are a hard nut to crack.

      @Richard… “nut” being the operative word, I take it? 🙂

      Oscar Wilde (in that same poem) wrote this:

      “Yet each man kills the thing he loves”

      And I wonder if he also meant freedom.

      We are, after all, prisoners of society and, therefore, partially “Free from” and partially “free to”. Without removing ourselves from society, we cannot be truly free (as in both).

      That video is an interesting juxtaposition. Hitler approved of Beethoven.

    • Yes, straight to the kernel!

      The final stanza of The Ballad of Reading Gaol was a tempting option for the very reason you give, but I plumped for the reference to Law instead.

      Freedom is not the same as licence, I suppose, Douglas. We are not prisoners of society any more than we are prisoners of life.

      What is so bone-chilling about Hitler is that he is one of us.

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