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How have we defined liberty in the past?

Posted By Administration, Friday, February 15, 2019
Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Ruth Lewis a member of our Emerging Fellows program examines the definition of liberty in her second blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Past philosophers have often stepped outside the current paradigm of their times, pushing controversial or even blasphemous ideas to challenge the current worldview. They were the futurists of past times, evolving a forward worldview that would change the oppressive society in which they lived, just as futurists today challenge our society’s worldviews, helping to shape the forward visions and actions of our society’s future.

In the 18th Century, the Enlightenment was shaped by philosophers like Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith and Voltaire who pushed beyond the paradigm of their times, the enshrined First and Second Estate’s monopoly on power and faith. They showed that freedom could be gained for the common people through rational and scientific thought. They promoted dangerous ideas of liberty, tolerance, and separation of church and state. They proposed the concept of a constitutional government, which could formalise the limitations and exercise of political power over the population. These concepts of liberty spread from Britain to the Americas inspiring the American Revolution, and to France inspiring the French Revolution. This latter upheaval intended to free the commoners of the yoke of feudalism, but led to tyranny, despotism and a dictatorship in many ways worse than the original regime.

The 19th Century introduced concepts like democracy and social philosophy, that inspired philosophers like John Stuart Mill to highlight and repudiate inequality and subjugation between lower and middle classes and the aristocracy, between women and men in education, property ownership, marriage and political influence, and between slaves and their masters. Mill highlighted the dangers of the repressive societal pressure that can stifle freedom of thought and discussion, of character and of action.

The development of the law of human rights had foundation in ancient societies and religions and entered Western law through transcripts including Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Right of Man and Citizen and the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. However, a unified declaration of human rights was constituted through the United Nations after the existential horror of World War II. This formed the concept of ‘crimes against humanity’, attempting to enshrine the right to life and liberty for all people on Earth, holding governments accountable for the treatment of people living within their sphere of influence.

In the mid- 20th Century, philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin described a two-toned way of looking at the world – as either a fox or a hedgehog, based on the Archilochus poem. This described how people’s knowledge and approaches to life can be inspired as a fox by many little things, or as a hedgehog by one ‘Big Idea’. A fox will reconcile to recognise that ‘the truth’ may be fully unknowable, but the hedgehog – who tries to fit the universe to a unifying code – will never be content until ‘truth’ is fully explained. Berlin was a master fox who drew inspiration from many sources. His 1958 essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ described the conflict between ‘negative freedom’, in pursuit of freedom from oppression, and ‘positive freedom’ which describes what we are free to do. Berlin’s concept of negative freedom was formed after fleeing the Russian Revolution as a child, where he realised that a revolution founded in the freeing the proletariat from State oppression could deliver an even more despotic and oppressive rule.

In our contemporary complex, interconnected world, our Western worldview is formed by multifaceted information reacting with our historically based roots. In internal overload, it seems to produce a humanistic purposeless of meaning. Our liberty to see and speak and act as we feel seems to have led to a morass of confusion and a lack of purpose. What do we need to free ourselves from? Can our liberty to think as a fox through many versions of the truth formulate a higher-level purpose for our humanity and produce the agency to take us there? Now that we are free, what do we want to do?

If our past is the key to our future, our notions of personal liberty formed through adversity and interpreted by our philosophers should give us the wisdom to invest in a better future for our world. But our hard-won liberty has given rise to private asset ownership through economic capitalism and wealth accumulation for some but not all, echoing the inequalities of past centuries which we have sought to overturn.

© Ruth Lewis 2019

Tags:  freedom  law  people 

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