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A Short Historical Sketch on the Idea of Freedom (An Introduction by James P. Young)

Freedom in the Ancient World

Athenian democracy is the paradigm of civic freedom. 

As is so often the case in an analysis of politics in the Western world, it is useful to start in ancient Athens. Athenian democracy is the paradigm of civic freedom, of democratic government through the direct participation of its citizens, and of "ruling and being ruled in turn," to adopt Aristotle's formulation. In Athens, all adult male citizens were eligible to attend the Assembly, which met 10 times a year and retained ultimate political authority, but the Council of 500 and the elaborate system of juries were the key institutions of government. Various civic offices were filled by election or through a lottery, thus ensuring widespread participation. One estimate suggests that in a given year, one out of six citizens would hold office. Terms were limited and there was a system of rotation in office. Juries were very large, and many citizens participated in them. Moreover, they had a legislative role and thus their duties extended far beyond those we associate with juries today. Laws passed by any of these bodies could, in theory, be changed or overruled by the Assembly. All of this was consistent with the high value the Athenians placed on the active participation of its citizens. Aristotle, for example, insisted that man is a political animal and that anyone who did not live in a political system had to be either a beast or a god. (It is interesting to note that the English word idiot is etymologically derived from the ancient Greek word for a private individual, or someone not engaged in civic affairs.)



Sophocles, ancient Greek playwright
But it has to be stressed that citizenship in Athens was not extended to most of its inhabitants. Of the city's population of approximately 300,000, only 30,000 were citizens. The ancient Greeks practiced slavery, women did not have political rights, and a large class of the residents of Athens was comprised of aliens who conducted much of the city's commerce but were denied citizenship. Nevertheless, in spite of these limitations on democracy, the enormous achievements of ancient Athens indicate what is possible when free citizens govern themselves. And for those who were citizens, there was a substantial, though certainly not complete, degree of political equality. One major development that begins to emerge in ancient Greek politics is the idea of a higher law, which is a step on the road to the development of constitutionalism, the indispensable idea that freedom depends on limiting the powers of government. This conception is rooted in the philosophical distinction between nature and convention. Ordinary laws are matters of convention, or consensus among human lawmakers, but in the Greek view, there are higher laws based on truths fixed in nature. Thus Plato's Republic can be read as a critique of Athenian democracy; in his alternative portrait of an ideal government, philosopher kings rule according to their careful analysis of the nature of justice. Another powerful example is Sophocles' great play Antigone. The title character Antigone's brother has been denied the proper burial called for by the religion of ancient Greece, having been declared a traitor by the king. She appeals to the existence of a law higher than the royal decree. This standard remained philosophical or even religious, and was not yet institutionalized in a formal body of law. Nor was it the same as a claim to individual rights against the state. However, it was a move in that direction, and it is clearly an ancestor of the Jeffersonian theory of natural rights and of a higher, constitutional law, which will be discussed below.

Freedom depends on limiting the powers of government. 

Following the decline of the Athenian polis, or city-state, the theoretical and practical problems of politics underwent a great deal of change. The small scale of the polis had advantages that could not be replicated in the vast empires of Alexander the Great or ancient Rome. In particular, the ideal of civic freedom went into sharp decline. Epicureanism, a philosophical school founded in 306 BC, advocated a life of tranquillity and taught that wise men avoid politics unless absolutely compelled to participate. And the Roman philosopher Cicero, along with other thinkers of the period, advanced a universal law of nature based on right reason and entirely independent of any physical location. According to this view, all men are equal, not necessarily in wealth or learning, but in their possession of reason and their basic perceptions of the good. It is in many ways an interesting and attractive theory, and one that had great historical influence, but it tended to detach citizenship from any particular political unit. Philosophers began to claim that they were not citizens of, for example, Athens, but rather citizens of the world, a form of cosmopolitan idealism that continues to be debated to this day.



Plato, classical Greek philosopher

The Romans produced little truly distinguished political theory. However, they did make some interesting contributions to political practice that foreshadowed the contemporary scene. Political participation in Rome was less direct than it had been in Athens. Something much like political parties and interest groups began to emerge, though as the Roman Republic gave way to the despotic Roman Empire, Romans increasingly came to be subjects rather than citizens. Still, the framers of the U.S. Constitution were steeped in the philosophical and political literature of ancient Rome, and it is not accidental that when Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers, they collectively adopted the Roman pseudonym Publius. Terms such as senate and republic are directly descended from Roman institutions, though republic did not have the same democratic connotations in ancient Rome, or in the early United States, that it has today. For example, in the Federalist Papers, Madison clearly distances himself from Athenian participatory democracy and views representative, republican political institutions as a means to tame democratic passions.

The Magna Carta established the principle that the king was not above the law. 

In the medieval world there was little sense of individual liberty, though there were some steps toward the institutionalization of limits on the power of the dynastic state. Recurrent tension between state and church resulted in a sort of balance that restrained both institutions, though of course the two often cooperated. More important in the long run was the Magna Carta of 1215, in which the feudal barons of England succeeded in forcing King John to agree, in writing, to accept limitations on his power over them, thus establishing the principle that the king was not above the law and providing the foundation upon which English constitutionalism was built.

This principle further developed in the work of Edward Coke (pronounced Cook), a prominent English jurist in the early 17th century. He strongly defended the English common law as a bulwark against the Church, Parliament, and the king, and he insisted that the Magna Carta defended the rights of all Englishmen and not just the position of the barons against the king. He also famously proclaimed the principle that "a man's home is his castle." In the important case of Dr. Bonham, he provided a precedent for the American doctrine of judicial review, announced in the 1803 Supreme Court case Marbury v. Madison, which granted the courts the power to declare statutes invalid if they violated constitutional principles.