Two kinds of liberty

At least since the days of the founders, ideas about America have been intertwined with ideas about liberty. At Thanksgiving we celebrate the Pilgrims who came seeking religious liberty, and one of our cherished national symbols is the Statue of Liberty.

But what kind of liberty? Liberty from what to do what? For an exploration of the idea of liberty from the ancient Greeks to the present, check out this talk: Two Strands of Liberty in the Western Canon (website) by Cornell University historian Hunter Ripley Rawlings III.

Rawlings describes what the ancient Greeks and Romans meant when they spoke about liberty. For them, freedom implied the obligation to serve the state and to participate in the public’s business. This idea of liberty was very much on the mind of the American revolutionaries who built the American state and in many cases saw themselves the reincarnations of ancient Romans.

It struck me, listening to Rawlings’ talk, that the Greek conception of freedom has a lot in common with the Biblical notion of freedom. For example, in Exodus 8:1, God tells Moses what he should say to Pharaoh: “Let my people go, that they may serve me.” In this context, freedom is not an end in itself. The Israelites win their freedom from slavery, but only in order that they might do God’s will. This is not just freedom from oppression, but it implies the obligation to do something important.

The founders had another intellectual legacy, namely the Enlightenment. Enlightenment philosophers like Locke spoke about the rights of the individual, which included the right of being free from state control. This idea saw its constitutional embodiment in the Bill of Rights.

Rawlings ends his survey by suggesting that today we should spend some time rethinking about the classical ideas of liberty, which embody also a sense of public obligation. We should think about what we want our freedom for, and not just what we want freedom from.

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