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The understanding of freedom as “an absence of restraint” took shape with the Protestant Reformation in the early sixteenth century: religious freedom represented a denial of church authority. This view is vastly different from that of most cultures in world history, including Europe until the Renaissance, where freedom was understood as the opportunity to fulfill human potential.
Defining the term freedom poses several challenges for world historians. (Freedom is usually regarded as synonymous with liberty, the term freedom being a descendant of the German language and liberty of the French. Some commentators use liberty to refer primarily to the political context of freedom.) In the modern West (itself a problematic term, here defined as Europe and its cultural descendants in places like North America), freedom has most typically been understood in a negative sense, as an absence of constraint. In most other cultures in the world, however, as well as in Europe itself until the Renaissance, freedom was—and is—more often understood in a positive sense as representing the opportunity to fulfill potential that is latent in the human personality. This essay will first consider the modern definition, then the global (and traditional Western), concluding with some reflections on the larger significance of freedom.
The dominant modern Western understanding of freedom as an absence of constraint is a consequence of numerous developments beginning with the Protestant Reformation. The assertion by Martin Luther at the beginning of the sixteenth century that the individual conscience is the ultimate arbiter of orthodox doctrine undermined the universal claims of the Christian church. Religious “freedom” thus came automatically to represent a denial of the authority of the church. At the same time, the philosophical school of natural law—by that time a synthesis of Stoicism, Aristotelian thought, and Christian theology—began to change its focus from an emphasis on duty to an emphasis on rights. The conviction grew that the individual was an autonomous (that is, a “law unto oneself”) moral and political entity over which the church, and then the state, had only limited authority. To assert a “right,” therefore, meant to throw off the chains, or constraints, of those in either ecclesiastical or political power—hence the emphasis on negative freedom as an absence of constraint.
In its modern political form, this worldview contributed to the doctrine of popular sovereignty and liberalism. In some cases, it also contributed eventually to the rise of democratic institutions in the modern West beginning in the United States and Great Britain. To be sure, democracy had existed elsewhere as well. It may well have characterized the participatory interactions of hunting-gathering societies before the advent of agriculture. Nevertheless, most historians believe that the roots of historical democracy lie in the West, where it flourished for a short time in classical Athens and republican Rome before disappearing for 1,500 years. After reappearing briefly in the city-states of Renaissance Italy, it then took on its modern form only after the rise of the nation-state in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, first in the United States and Great Britain and then gradually spreading elsewhere in the last two centuries.
The economic expression of this modern understanding of freedom as an absence of constraint was best expressed by Adam Smith’s theories of liberal capitalism, embodied in The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. There he argued that the most efficient and productive economy is one in which individuals in the marketplace are allowed to make choices without interference by the government. Adam Smith’s views were eagerly appropriated by the middle class in Britain, intent upon removing all obstacles to free trade (thereby increasing their profits). From that time on, the philosophical basis of liberal capitalism—expressed most notably in the twentieth century by Friedrich von Hayek—has been this definition of freedom.
The social counterpart of laissez-faire economic doctrine in the modern West was the social contract theory, which began with the work of thinkers like Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century. This theory holds that in a state of nature human beings are entirely solitary. At some point they realize that the benefits of living together outweigh the loss of some of their natural freedoms, which sociability requires them to surrender to society. Society, therefore, is held to be an artificial construction of the individual human will, whose purpose is to serve the interests of the individual. The individual is primary; the society is secondary. The rights of the individual thus take precedence over duty to society, the purpose of the latter now being only to serve the former.
Global and Traditional Western Views
The modern Western understanding of freedom and rights is separated from that of the rest of the world, and from the traditional Western understanding, by a vast gulf. From the perspective of most cultures in world history, freedom was understood in its positive sense, as the opportunity to fulfill the human potential. In its political form, freedom was a condition that could not be separated from its complementary partner, namely, responsibility (or duty). Like two sides of a coin, each was understood to have meaning only in relation to the other. Politics, therefore, was inseparable from morality. The purpose of government was not to cater to individual wants, but to foster a society that fulfilled the noblest aspirations of the human personality. For the early Greeks, for example, that meant serving the community through perfecting the rational and moral faculties. In all cases, it was assumed that the purpose of life was not primarily to serve oneself but to serve others, and the proper exercise of freedom—or choice—was therefore to carry out one’s responsibility to the common good. In this understanding, politics was also education, in the root sense of the term, to “lead out” (e-ducere) that which is latent in each individual. Education and politics and morality, then, were intimately linked with freedom.
In its social context, this traditional, and global, understanding of freedom worked itself out in much the same way. The relationship between the individual and society was not adversarial but complementary. Freedom was understood to be not a natural attribute of individual autonomy but a gift that can exist only within the larger context of social responsibility and moral authority, without which it degrades into license. The purpose of freedom, therefore, was to carry out the responsibilities that come with each role we are called to play in life. In India, for example, those responsibilities were expressed in following the dharma (law), appropriate to one’s station in life.
In the economic realm of the premodern West, as well as most of the rest of the world, freedom and politics have been closely related. In the premodern context of world history, the role of government was not usually seen as inhibiting prosperity but facilitating it. The doctrine of mercantilism, against which Adam Smith wrote his masterpiece, embodied this understanding. The freedom of merchants to conduct their business depended on the peace and security (and high tariffs) provided by the state. Whether one speaks of the economic prosperity of the Mediterranean world under the Pax Romana or the countries served by the Silk Roads, the political responsibility of states to maintain law and order guaranteed the economic freedom of merchants to trade. Obviously, of course, when the state failed to carry out those responsibilities and became itself an instrument of oppression and exploitation, the economic freedoms of the people were compromised. When that happened, prosperity usually declined, and with it the eventual power of the state as well. To some degree this paradigm still holds true, as when critics of globalization argue that the real culprit is not the global trade itself but the absence of a global structure of law capable of punishing those who abuse their power.
In its religious forms, the positive understanding of freedom contains a fascinating paradox in which the differences between it and the negative understandings of freedom tend to dissolve. From a negative perspective, freedom manifested itself as a liberation of the immaterial soul from the constraints of the material body [for Christians, it was salvation; for Hindus swaraj (self rule) and moksha (liberation), for Buddhists nirvana (extinguishing of self)]. From a positive perspective, however, this liberation could come only by surrendering oneself entirely to one’s duty or to God’s will. The only way to transcend constraint, in other words, was to accept constraint. The religious realm of human freedom also raises profound moral questions about the nature of good and evil. Put simply, the freedom to choose between good and evil, or right and wrong, implies that some will choose the former and others the latter. Evil, or suffering, in this view, is a necessary price of freedom. The most famous exposition of this problem is contained in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s (1821–1881) rightfully famous chapter from The Brothers Karamazov entitled “The Grand Inquisitor,” in which Christ returns to Earth during the Spanish Inquisition only to be arrested by the Grand Inquisitor himself and interrogated in prison. In a long monologue, the Spanish priest accuses Christ of having made a tragic mistake by giving freedom to humankind. No sooner do people have the power to choose, he asserted, than they abuse it by making choices that cause needless suffering to themselves and others. Better to take away their freedom and force them to do what is right. Since the Grand Inquisitor’s proposition leads to tyranny, of course, we reject it, but often without remembering that the possibility of freedom—which insures that some will choose badly—contains a tragic imperative that can be mitigated but never eliminated.
In its artistic incarnation, freedom takes the form of the creative power of the imagination to express the deepest yearnings of the human spirit. The creative impulse in the human personality has been evident from the very earliest transition to modern Homo sapiens 100,000 years ago. Tools and ceramics were made to be not only practical but also beautiful. The astonishing diversity of cultural expression throughout the world, in every realm, whether music, dance, literature, painting, sculpture, ceramics, or a host of others, is wonderful testimony to the creative power of the human imagination. Those who worry that globalization will inevitably bring about an inevitable homogenization of culture can derive some comfort from knowing that this drive for freedom will resist that process. Cultural interaction, in the end, has been both a stimulus for artistic development, as well as, occasionally, an obstacle. The Silk Roads, for example, brought many influences from West to East, and vice versa, but in all cases the cultural life of the Eurasian continent was immeasurably enriched. Some of the most splendid examples of world architecture, such as the Taj Mahal, are witness to this remarkable capacity of humankind to absorb influences from without and then produce a synthesis that represents an entirely new level of achievement.
In science and technology the exercise of freedom in developing new tools has vastly increased the power of the human species to dominate both nature and other people. In terms of the interaction between people and the environment throughout world history, freedom has made it possible for humans to control the processes of nature far more than any other animal, but has also, especially when divorced from its complementary twin—responsibility—raised the specter of the potential extinction of the species. The tragic, as well as the beneficial, potential of human freedom is perhaps best illustrated by the progress made in the last 10,000 years in technology and science. The domestication of fire, for example, brought about a much greater array of human freedoms than ever before—humans conquered the night, overcame the seasons, and migrated to all regions of the world. But fire can destroy life as well as serve it. Just as a knife can kill game, it can also kill one’s neighbor. Every advance in choice brought an equivalent burden of responsibility, right down to the detonation of the first atomic device in 1945. It was, in fact, a failure of ideas and institutions to respond responsibly to this tragic potential of science and technology that led to the terribly destructive world wars of the twentieth century. Whether the human species, at the dawn of a new century and a new millennium, will be able to balance our new technological freedom with responsibility and thus avoid extinction is an open question.
In world histories written in the nineteenth-century West, freedom was the core organizing principle for a generation of historians who inherited the Enlightenment faith in progress and saw all history as the gradual growth of human freedom. The great German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel even went so far as to remark that all human history is an unfolding of the consciousness of freedom. In the twentieth century, however, historians shied away from freedom as an organizing principle. Perhaps freedom had been so intimately linked with the nineteenth-century faith in progress—blasted to bits by World War I and II—that it no longer seemed relevant. In any case, for those involved in political movements that sought deliverance from colonialism or other forms of oppression, freedom has remained a core value. From Mohandas Gandhi to Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, the human quest for freedom was far more than an intellectual exercise. Their example, and that of all those alive today who continue to struggle and suffer in the name of freedom and human rights, remind us that the highest expression of freedom is to serve the noblest values of the human spirit.
Freedom, in its negative sense of an absence of constraint, has been identified in this essay as the underlying ideology of liberal capitalism and (in the nineteenth century) of human progress. This optimistic view of capitalism, it should be said, was challenged by socialists who held that free-market competition had produced an unacceptable level of inequality and exploitation. The ensuing conflict between those champions of capitalism on the right who defined justice in terms of freedom and those advocates of socialism on the left who defined justice in terms of equality has lasted to the present and shows no signs of disappearing. The former praise globalization; the latter attack it. Both assume that freedom and equality are incompatible, and that an increase in one can come only with a decrease in the other. The two sides might find more common ground for agreement if they were to take an intellectual bath and then change into a new suit of definitions. By defining freedom in its positive sense as human fulfillment, and defining equality in terms of opportunity rather than condition, the proponents of “capitalist” and “socialist” views of the world might discover many of their differences melting away. In addition, they would be much more likely to cooperate effectively to reduce what both find most harmful to human progress, namely global poverty. If it is true, as the nineteenth-century writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge is once supposed to have remarked, that people are usually right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny, then one could argue that each party in this dispute is right in affirming its own definition of justice and wrong in denying the other’s. In the end, the richest fruits of freedom are to be found through a positive understanding of its deepest meaning.
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