Printer Frendly Version

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

The Emergence of the Early Modern State

History cannot always be arranged into neat periods, but it is clear that from the Renaissance, through the Protestant Reformation, to the English Civil War in the 17th century, important forces that we associate with the onset of the modern world were at work. Prior to this time, Western Europe had no national borders in the modern sense. Politics, economics, and religion were not well-differentiated parts of the social whole. The Protestant Reformation began a process of separation that helped to undermine the power and authority of the medieval Church and fostered a form of individualism based on the idea of the priesthood of all believers. The invention of the printing press and the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages furthered this trend. The gradual separation of church from state as well as civil society from state allowed for the creation of a sphere of economic competition and new markets for commodities, labor, and capital. This development was hailed in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, which articulated the idea of a free, self-regulating market. Such intellectual and economic changes improved social mobility, reducing the importance of heredity in favor of merit and eroding the principle of dynastic rule. Finally, new concepts of personal autonomy emerged, including that of Lord Coke above, holding out the promise of freedom to pursue a variety of interests without interference from the state. These separations did not occur all at once, nor were they perfectly achieved, but they served as important milestones on the road to modern conceptions of liberty.

Thomas Hobbes, English author of the 1651 book Leviathan

This period witnessed corresponding developments in political theory. The ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and their heirs in the medieval world, had assumed that men were by nature rational and political animals, and that the proper and natural political order could be discovered through rational philosophical analysis, as in Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics. (The Politics in particular was accepted as authoritative in the medieval world.) However, Thomas Hobbes broke sharply with this view of the world in his 1651 masterpiece, Leviathan, one of the most intellectually powerful works of political philosophy in the English language.

No doubt affected by the recent English Civil War, Hobbes hypothesized that humanity's natural state was a violent, asocial "war of every man against every man" in which life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Driven by their fear of death amid this unrestrained, competitive individualism, men enter into a social contract and establish a state, in effect giving up their natural freedoms in exchange for order and safety. The resulting all-powerful state is symbolized by the biblical monster Leviathan. Still, Hobbes allows some exceptions to this submission, arguing that men retain the fundamental right to self-preservation that underlies the social contract. If obeying the ruler's order means giving up their lives, or if the ruler fails to adequately protect them, men may disobey. Furthermore, in any given area of behavior, individuals remain free to do as they please so long as the ruler has not specifically indicated otherwise.

In 1690 John Locke carried on the social contract tradition in his Second Treatise of Civil Government. He too envisions a state of nature, but it is much less grim than the version portrayed by Hobbes. Where Hobbes saw a condition of violence and terror, Locke perceived mere "inconveniences." In nature, he noted, there is no known and settled law, men are placed in the position of being judges in their own case, and property is insecure. Thus, there is reason to leave nature, but men are not necessarily desperate to do so, meaning they are in a position to negotiate favorable terms for the social contract.

John Locke, author of Second Treatise of Civil Government
For Locke, the underlying reason for leaving nature and establishing society is to protect men's natural right to their "lives, liberties, and estates," a phrase with a clear echo in the "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" of Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. After individuals form society, society creates government as its agent; the two remain distinct, with society in the superior position as the creator and potential reformer of the state. Government holds its power in trust, and when the trust is violated, power "devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty." Of course Locke, given his benign view of human nature, anticipates that such revolutions will be rare. He believes that it is generally possible to make decisions through a consensual process in which the members of society agree to abide by the will of the majority. Through this process, property can be preserved and regulated when necessary.

The theory extrapolated by Locke is perhaps the first clear instance of what has come to be known as liberalism, though the term was not used as such in Locke's time. All the elements of modern liberalism are present in his work: a deep concern for individual rights, a belief that government is necessary or at least beneficial, and a recognition that government can do great damage if it is not controlled by the people, through revolution in extreme cases. The history of liberal thought and practice is complex, but Locke's treatise is a standard place to start an analysis of its characteristics.

All the elements of modern liberalism are present in John Locke's work. 

Before turning our attention to the liberal tradition that followed Locke, it is interesting to compare his theories to the conception of freedom proposed by the Swiss-born French political thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his provocative work The Social Contract (1762). Rousseau's state of nature is milder than those of both Hobbes and Locke. Men in nature are born free and live in a kind of blissful innocence, while in contemporary society they are often "in chains." The problems begin when someone encloses a piece of land and declares it his property.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, political thinker and author of The Social Contract
This leads to an inequality of fortunes and the domination of some men by others. The solution to the problem lies in a tight communitarian form of government. It is the community and its well-being that is the focus of Rousseau's interest, not the individual as with Locke. The community is guided by what Rousseau calls the general will, or the collective self-interest as determined through reason. The general will must be distinguished from the will of all, which is merely the sum of all the existing opinions in the community. The general will, Rousseau claims, is always right and "tends to the public advantage." If individuals dissent from the general will, failing to pursue the common good and through it their own interests, they must be "forced to be free." This places Rousseau well outside the framework of Anglo-American thought, and even though he was a near contemporary of the founders of the United States, he had virtually no influence in late-18th-century America. He has sometimes been called a totalitarian democrat, but this was not his intent. Consider for a moment this nonpolitical example.
The general will, Rousseau claims, is always right and "tends to the public advantage." 
I am in Grand Central Station with a ticket for Washington, D.C. I pass through the gate and show my ticket to the attendant. There are two platforms in front of me. To my left there is a train going north to Boston and to my right one going south to Washington. I turn left and head for the Boston train. The ticket taker, seeing my mistake, runs after me, grabs me by the shoulders, and pushes me toward the Washington train. Might he not be said to be forcing me to be free by helping me to reach my true goal? Transferred from the individual level to politics, this is a complex and somewhat troubling principle. "Forcing people to be free" risks treating adults like children, but are there not times when citizens become thoroughly confused by the issues before them? It seems clear, if his ideas are carefully read in context, that Rousseau did not have the totalitarian intentions that have often been attributed to him, but the radicalism of his conception of freedom and his flamboyant way of expressing it have limited his influence in liberal Anglo-American society.