4 min read

Freedom - Ancient and Modern

Freedom - Ancient and Modern
Photo by Miltiadis Fragkidis / Unsplash

Our last post - a few months ago, I will admit a bit of a dereliction of duty - opened various strands of thought. One, maybe the most important, is about freedom.

Freedom has been a goal of human society for millennia. At least since God took the Jews out of Egypt, freedom has been recognized as a fundamental value. Ancient Greeks, ancient Jews, ancient Christians, moderns, liberals and conservatives - pretty much everyone discusses freedom.

But what is freedom? Freedom means different things to different people at different times. People usually separate “the ancients’” conception of freedom from “the moderns’” - and while generally correct it’s worth diving a bit deeper. An excellent book, A Free Will by Michael Frede discusses different definitions of freedom among the ancients.

Aristotle defined freedom as an action performed through “choice” - meaning in accordance with our rational understanding of the world, but specifically when such is not mistaken. Meaning we can misconstrue reality, then falsehood prevents us from being free.

Aristotle didn’t have an idea of a “will” which was free but rather different types of motivation - rational and nonrational. We don’t choose non-rational motivations. You don’t choose to be hungry, for instance, or to get angry. We choose rational motivations.

Rational and non-rational do not correspond to good and bad. We can have bad (false) rational motivations, stemming from error about the Good, and good (reasonable) nonrational desires, based in reality. Such as blinding fury towards people mutilating children. So for Aristotle being free means having reasonable rational and non rational desires, which are true and directed towards the good for humans.

Later, stoics introduced the idea of a will. We do not simply eat because we are hungry. No, we are hungry and our rational faculty assents to said hunger and we “choose” to eat. However, stoics believed that the external world is entirely deterministic. We have no external choice. We can only “will” anything regarding the outside world. We cannot choose anything about it. We can choose only that which is internal: how we take whatever happens to us.

However, even that freedom is limited. If we have incorrect beliefs we cannot truly be free. According to the stoics if we have any incorrect belief, nothing can be free because beliefs do not exist independently of one another but as a non-reducible system.

So only a wise man can be free, according to the stoics. Because freedom demands that our rational faculty be directed toward truth. Otherwise, freedom is no freedom at all. But rather misdirection.

So, there is an ancient view of freedom. Or, rather, of a lack of freedom. A lack of freedom is when something systematically stands in the way of man achieving his true good. And as a corollary we may say that freedom involves man actually being directed and directing himself towards his true end. Nothing stands in the way of him achieving human excellence. True freedom is action purely in concert with man's true essence and end. That may be error or untrained desire or some sort of demiurge, or - more importantly - society.

Society cannot be reduced to a collection of individuals and man cannot be separated from society. Any society that systematically prevents man from achieving his end fails at supplying freedom in any real sense, that anyone before John Mill would have recognized.

It's important to understand that freedom is a negative conception, but it's completely dependent on the positive conception of the Good for man, of man's essence, his form or his end. Man is free when nothing stands in the way of his ability to express the truly human potentialities in him.

Moderns, especially Mill and everyone following him, recognized this negative element of freedom, but either disregarded, ignored or forgot that the full conception of freedom rests on a conception of the Good. Ryszard Legutko discussed this at length in his recent book, The Cunning of Freedom, and so did Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) in his seminal essay, "Truth and Freedom."

The moderns replaced this deep with an anemic shadow, a weak facsimile of freedom: "its essence lies in our will not being subject to other human wills: in our will alone ruling over our actions, only being checked when it injures the basic, indispensable requirements of life in society." That's how Bertrand De Jouvenel in On Power defined it. (I'm a fanboy of his, but his one failing was his liberal individualism).

Mill changed things so deeply that we can no longer fathom the true meaning of freedom. Instead of a lack of freedom entailing systematic prevention of reaching the Good for man, freedom is now any external limit placed on man’s desire.

Some “right” liberals, like Jouvenel or Hayek, try to limit a lack of freedom to coercion by the desires of others. A free man is a man who does not become a tool for another’s will. But why stop there? That’s simply arbitrary. Anything limiting the will from outside destroys freedom. Even having to produce value to live. Anything.

So, really, there are two consistent conceptions of freedom. The woke left’s or some ancient’s. Aristotle, Plotinus, Maimonides - whatever it is, we need to go back before liberalism, and in fact, before modernity.

The sages wrote in the mishna: "No man is free who does not involve himself in the Law, for it says 'etched (haruth) on the tablets' do not read 'etched (haruth)' rather 'freedom' (heruth)." A simple homily, based on an atypical spelling of a word, but they encapsulated in one sentence the thousand words I've written here.

Yes, if we are to truly resurrect freedom as it’s meant to be, we must reject every aspect of the modern liberal frame. Nothing less will do. Good luck to us.