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Feb 9, 2005 8:34 am

Liberty and Freedom

In the light of our continuing discussion of various"Isms" (see recent additions to this conversation by Kenneth R. Gregg,"Capitalism, Mutuality, and Sharing" and Sheldon Richman's"I, Liberal"), I just wanted to bring a recent NY Times article to the attention of readers.

Historian David Hackett Fischer, author of Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America's Founding Ideas, tells us that"Freedom's Not Just Another Word." He speaks of a monument in Baghdad that declares, in essence, that"Freedom is not a gift from people with tanks," but something to come from within. Fischer remarks, however, that"[t]here is no one true definition of liberty and freedom in the world" on which people coming from different traditions or different places can agree."And, yet," he writes,"there is one great historical process in which liberty and freedom have developed, often in unexpected ways." He continues:

The words themselves have a surprising history. The oldest known word with such a meaning comes to us from ancient Iraq. The Sumerian"ama-ar-gi," found on tablets in the ruins of the city-state of Lagash, which flourished four millenniums ago, derived from the verb"ama-gi," which literally meant"going home to mother." It described the condition of emancipated servants who returned to their own free families—an interesting link to the monument in Baghdad. (In contemporary America, the ancient characters for"ama-ar-gi" have become the logos of some libertarian organizations, as well as tattoos among members of politically conservative motorcycle gangs, who may not know that the inscriptions on their biceps mean heading home to mom.)
Equally surprising are the origins of our English words liberty and, especially, freedom. They have very different roots. The Latin libertas and Greek eleutheria both indicated a condition of independence, unlike a slave. (In science, eleutherodactylic means separate fingers or toes.) Freedom, however, comes from the same root as friend, an Indo-European word that meant"dear" or"beloved." It meant a connection to other free people by bonds of kinship or affection, also unlike a slave. Liberty and freedom both meant"unlike a slave." But liberty meant privileges of independence; freedom referred to rights of belonging.

It's of interest that Fischer points to an ever-evolving proliferation of meanings for both words, however (and some of this is reflected in the ever-evolving meaning of the word"liberal," for example)."Through 16 generations, American ideas of liberty and freedom have grown larger, deeper, more diverse and yet more inclusive in these collisions of contested visions," Fischer observes. For Fischer, the"rights of individual independence" and the"rights of collective belonging" are essential parts of the same fabric.

Fischer might find some agreement on this point with thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment who emphasized both liberty and the connections among social actors who constitute a civil society. But even neo-Aristotelian defenders of genuine liberalism would agree. For example, philosophers Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen, in their book, Liberty and Nature: An Aristotelian Defense of Liberal Order, defend the view that there is a link between free commerce and friendship, especially so-called" civic friendships" and"advantage-friendships." Their view of human freedom entails a"thick" theory of the person, fully in keeping with the rational and social character of human beings as projected by Aristotle. So, in a sense, both"liberty" and"freedom" as Hackett describes them, are entailed in any robust defense of liberal order.

Just some more grist for the mill in our definitional explorations of meaning.

Cross-posted to Not a Blog.

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Kenneth R Gregg - 2/10/2005

I'll look for it. Fischer has a couple of books that he is currently working on which I'm looking forward to seeing.


Kenneth R Gregg - 2/10/2005

I'm not always a big fan of neologisms, but my favorite is one that Spencer MacCallum used in an essay in Reason magazine in the early 1970's, "Associated Individualism." This captured a lot of the sense of being in social settings which respect individuals.

Just a thought.
Just Ken

Sheldon Richman - 2/10/2005

In 1998 I briefly tried to counter the straw man of "atomistic individualism" with "Molecular Individualism."

Kevin Carson - 2/9/2005

"In contemporary America, the ancient characters for 'ama-ar-gi' have become the logos of some libertarian organizations...."

They're used in the design of the endpapers in Liberty Classics books, which are beautifully made in most other ways as well.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 2/9/2005

Hi Ken,

There is a more "collectivist" reading of that line---and given today's political vernacular, it is a likely reading. I don't think I'd ever refer to the "rights" of collective belonging in any event.

However, the larger point I was suggesting is that there is a very important aspect of the classical liberal tradition that understands the genuinely social character of human beings. Genuine liberalism and individualism are not "atomistic." They recognize that a variety of voluntary social relations are the lifeblood of civil society.

Sheldon Richman - 2/9/2005

One of my favorite essays.

Kenneth R Gregg - 2/9/2005


Interesting that you mention the Fischer book that I'm currently reading. It's oversized, much rather like one of those books found on the coffee tables in someone's house who has no bookshelves covering most of the walls (Reason Forbid!).

I'm rather uncomfortable with the belief that 'the "rights of individual independence" and the "rights of collective belonging" are essential parts of the same fabric.' Benjamin Constant is a pretty good corrective for that view in his classic essay, "Liberty of the Ancients Compared With That of the Moderns." He points out the distinctions between the old classic collective sense of liberty and the modern individualist form.

Just a thought.
Just Ken

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 2/9/2005

Hey, you're right Sheldon. Gotta do what we can. And thanks, Bill, for the heads-up on the C-SPAN broadcast... I was unaware of it.

William Marina - 2/9/2005

Fischer discussed this at length during his 3 hours or so on C-Span. It is worth watching if shown again.

Sheldon Richman - 2/9/2005

There's much discussion of freedom/liberty going on these days. This is good for our team, and we should make the most of it before it fades away like the low-carb-diet fad--which, along with the word "liberal," I haven't given up!