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For other uses, see Liberty (disambiguation).
"Freedom" redirects here. For other uses, see Freedom (disambiguation).
The Magna Carta (originally known as the Charter of Liberties) of 1215, written in iron gall ink on parchment in medieval Latin, using standard abbreviations of the period. This document is held at the British Library and is identified as "British Library Cotton MS Augustus II.106"

Liberty, in philosophy, involves free will as contrasted with determinism.[1] In politics, liberty consists of the social and political freedoms enjoyed by all citizens.[2] In theology, liberty is freedom from the bondage of sin.[3]


Main article: Free will

Philosophers from earliest times have considered the question of liberty. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–180 AD) wrote of "a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed."[4] According to Thomas Hobbes, "a free man is he that in those things which by his strength and wit he is able to do is not hindered to do what he hath the will to do" (Leviathan, Part 2, Ch. XXI).

John Locke (1632–1704) rejected that definition of liberty. While not specifically mentioning Hobbes, he attacks Sir Robert Filmer who had the same definition. According to Locke:

"In the state of nature, liberty consists of being free from any superior power on Earth. People are not under the will or lawmaking authority of others but have only the law of nature for their rule. In political society, liberty consists of being under no other lawmaking power except that established by consent in the commonwealth. People are free from the dominion of any will or legal restraint apart from that enacted by their own constituted lawmaking power according to the trust put in it. Thus, freedom is not as Sir Robert Filmer defines it: ‘A liberty for everyone to do what he likes, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws.’ Freedom is constrained by laws in both the state of nature and political society. Freedom of nature is to be under no other restraint but the law of nature. Freedom of people under government is to be under no restraint apart from standing rules to live by that are common to everyone in the society and made by the lawmaking power established in it. Persons have a right or liberty to (1) follow their own will in all things that the law has not prohibited and (2) not be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, and arbitrary wills of others."[5]

John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), in his work, On Liberty, was the first to recognize the difference between liberty as the freedom to act and liberty as the absence of coercion.[6] In his book, Two Concepts of Liberty, Isaiah Berlin formally framed the differences between these two perspectives as the distinction between two opposite concepts of liberty: positive liberty and negative liberty. The latter designates a negative condition in which an individual is protected from tyranny and the arbitrary exercise of authority, while the former refers to the liberty that comes from self-mastery, the freedom from inner compulsions such as weakness and fear.


Main article: Political freedom


A romanticised 19th-century recreation of King John signing the Magna Carta
The Statue of Liberty, donated to the US by France, an artistic personification of liberty.

The modern concept of political liberty has its origins in the Greek concepts of freedom and slavery.[7] To be free, to the Greeks, was to not have a master, to be independent from a master (to live like one likes).[8] That was the original Greek concept of freedom. It is closely linked with the concept of democracy, as Aristotle put it:

"This, then, is one note of liberty which all democrats affirm to be the principle of their state. Another is that a man should live as he likes. This, they say, is the privilege of a freeman, since, on the other hand, not to live as a man likes is the mark of a slave. This is the second characteristic of democracy, whence has arisen the claim of men to be ruled by none, if possible, or, if this is impossible, to rule and be ruled in turns; and so it contributes to the freedom based upon equality."[9]

This applied only to free men. In Athens, for instance, women could not vote or hold office and were legally and socially dependent on a male relative.[10]

The populations of the Persian Empire enjoyed some degree of freedom. Citizens of all religions and ethnic groups were given the same rights and had the same freedom of religion, women had the same rights as men, and slavery was abolished (550 BC). All the palaces of the kings of Persia were built by paid workers in an era when slaves typically did such work.[11]

In the Buddhist Maurya Empire of ancient India, citizens of all religions and ethnic groups had some rights to freedom, tolerance, and equality. The need for tolerance on an egalitarian basis can be found in the Edicts of Ashoka the Great, which emphasize the importance of tolerance in public policy by the government. The slaughter or capture of prisoners of war was also condemned by Ashoka.[12] Slavery was also non-existent in the Maurya Empire.[13] However, according to Hermann Kulke and Dietmar Rothermund, "Ashoka's orders seem to have been resisted right from the beginning."[14]

Roman law also embraced certain limited forms of liberty, even under the rule of the Roman Emperors. However, these liberties were accorded only to Roman citizens. Many of the liberties enjoyed under Roman law endured through the Middle Ages, but were enjoyed solely by the nobility, never by the common man. The idea of unalienable and universal liberties had to wait until the Age of Enlightenment.

Social contract[edit]

In French Liberty. British Slavery (1792), James Gillray caricatured French "liberty" as the opportunity to starve and British "slavery" as bloated complaints about taxation.

The social contract theory, most influentially formulated by Hobbes, John Locke and Rousseau (though first suggested by Plato in The Republic), was among the first to provide a political classification of rights, in particular through the notion of sovereignty and of natural rights. The thinkers of the Enlightenment reasoned that law governed both heavenly and human affairs, and that law gave the king his power, rather than the king's power giving force to law. The divine right of kings was thus opposed to the sovereign's unchecked auctoritas. This conception of law would find its culmination in the ideas of Montesquieu. The conception of law as a relationship between individuals, rather than families, came to the fore, and with it the increasing focus on individual liberty as a fundamental reality, given by "Nature and Nature's God," which, in the ideal state, would be as universal as possible.

In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill sought to define the "...nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual," and as such, he describes an inherent and continuous antagonism between liberty and authority and thus, the prevailing question becomes "how to make the fitting adjustment between individual independence and social control".[15]

Origins of political freedom[edit]

England and Great Britain[edit]

England and following the Act of Union 1707 Great Britain, laid down the cornerstones to the concept of individual liberty.

In 1166 Henry II of England transformed English law by passing the Assize of Clarendon act. The act, a forerunner to trial by jury, started the abolition of trial by combat and trial by ordeal. [16]

In 1215 the Magna Carta was drawn up, it became the cornerstone of liberty in first England, Great Britain and later, the world. [17][18]

In 1689 the Bill of Rights grants 'freedom of speech in Parliament', which lays out some of the earliest civil rights.[19]

In 1859 an essay by the philosopher John Stuart Mill, entitled On Liberty argues for toleration and individuality. If any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.[20][21]

Also in 1859, Charles Darwin, wrote On The Origin of Species expounding the theory of natural selection. Thomas Henry Huxley defends Darwin against religious fundamentalists who decry his work.[22]

In 1958 Two Concepts of Liberty, by Isaiah Berlin, determines 'negative liberty' as an obstacle, as evident from 'positive liberty' which promotes self-mastery and the concepts of freedom.[23]

In 1948 British representatives attempt to and are prevented from adding a legal framework to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (It was not until 1976 that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights came into force, giving a legal status to most of the Declaration) [24]

United States[edit]

The United States of America was one of the first nations to be founded on principles of freedom and equality, with no king and no hereditary nobility. According to the 1776 United States Declaration of Independence, all men have a natural right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". But this declaration of liberty was flawed from the outset by the presence of slavery. Slave owners argued that their liberty was paramount, since it involved property, their slaves, and that the slaves themselves had no rights that any White man was obliged to recognize. The Supreme Court, in the Dred Scott decision, upheld this principle. It was not until 1866, following the Civil War, that the US constitution was amended to extend these rights to persons of color, and not until 1920 that these rights were extended to women.[25]

By the later half of the 20th century, liberty was expanded further to prohibit government interference with personal choices. In the United States Supreme Court decision Griswold v. Connecticut, Justice William O. Douglas argued that liberties relating to personal relationships, such as marriage, have a unique primacy of place in the hierarchy of freedoms.[26] Jacob M. Appel has summarized this principle:

I am grateful that I have rights in the proverbial public square – but, as a practical matter, my most cherished rights are those that I possess in my bedroom and hospital room and death chamber. Most people are far more concerned that they can control their own bodies than they are about petitioning Congress.[27]

In modern America, various competing ideologies have divergent views about how best to promote liberty. Liberals in the original sense of the word see equality as a necessary component of freedom. Progressives stress freedom from business monopoly as essential. Libertarians disagree, and see economic freedom as best. And, starting in the early 21st century, the Tea Party movement sees big government as the enemy of freedom.[28][29]


France supported the Americans in their revolt against English rule and, in 1789, overthrew their own monarchy, with the cry of "Liberté, égalité, fraternité". The bloodbath that followed, known as the reign of terror, soured many people on the idea of liberty. Edmund Burke, considered one of the fathers of conservatism, wrote "The French had shewn themselves the ablest architects of ruin that had hitherto existed in the world."[30]



Main article: Liberalism

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics, liberalism is "the belief that it is the aim of politics to preserve individual rights and to maximize freedom of choice". But they point out that there is considerable discussion about how to achieve those goals. Every discussion of freedom depends of three key components: who is free, what are they free to do, and what forces restrict their freedom.[31] John Gray argues that the core belief of liberalism is toleration. Liberals allow others freedom to do what they want, in exchange for having the same freedom in return. This idea of freedom is personal rather than political.[32] William Safire points out that liberalism is attacked by both the Right and the Left: by the Right for defending such practices as abortion, homosexuality, and atheism, by the Left for defending free enterprise and the rights of the individual over the collective.[33]


According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, Libertarians hold liberty as their primary political value.[34] Libertarian philosophers hold that there is no tenable distinction between personal and economic liberty – that they are, indeed, one and the same, to be protected (or opposed) together. In the context of U.S. constitutional law, for example, they point out that the constitution twice lists "life, liberty, and property" without making any distinctions within that phrase.[35] Their approach to implementing liberty involves opposing any governmental coercion, aside from that which is necessary to prevent individuals from coercing each other.[36] This is known as the non-aggression principle.[37]

Republican liberty[edit]

According to republican theorists of freedom, like the historian Quentin Skinner[38][39] or the philosopher Philip Pettit,[40] one's liberty should not be viewed as the absence of interference in one's actions, but as non-domination. According to this view, which originates in the Roman Digest, to be a liber homo, a free man, means not being subject to another's arbitrary will, that is to say, dominated by another. They also cite Machiavelli who asserted that you must be a member of a free self-governing civil association, a republic, if you are to enjoy individual liberty.[41]

The predominance of this view of liberty among parliamentarians during the English Civil War resulted to the creation of the liberal concept of freedom as non-interference in Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan.[citation needed]

Socialism and Marxism[edit]

Main articles: Socialism and Marxism

Socialists view freedom as a concrete situation as opposed to a purely abstract ideal. Freedom involves agency to pursue one's creative interests unhindered by coercive social relationships that one is forced to engage in in order to survive under a given social system. From this perspective, freedom requires both the material economic conditions that make freedom possible alongside the social relationships and institutions conducive to freedom. As such, the socialist concept of freedom is held in contrast to the liberal concept of freedom.[42]

The socialist conception of freedom is closely related to the socialist view of creativity and individuality. Influenced by Karl Marx's concept of alienated labor, socialists understand freedom to be the ability for an individual to engage in creative work in the absence of alienation, where alienated labor refers to work people are forced to perform and un-alienated work refers to individuals pursuing their own creative interests.[43]

For Karl Marx, meaningful freedom is only attainable in a communist society characterized by superabundance and free access, which would eliminate the need for alienated labor and enable individuals to pursue their own creative interests, leaving them to develop their full potentialities. This goes alongside Marx's emphasis on the reduction of the average length of the workday to expand the "realm of freedom" for each person.[44][45] Marx's notion of communist society and human freedom is thus radically individualistic.[46]

Historical writings on liberty[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The fact of not being controlled by or subject to fate; freedom of will." Oxford English Dictionary.[1]
  2. ^ "Each of those social and political freedoms which are considered to be the entitlement of all members of a community; a civil liberty." Oxford English Dictionary.[2]
  3. ^ "Freedom from the bondage or dominating influence of sin, spiritual servitude, worldly ties." Oxford English Dictionary.[3]
  4. ^ Marcus Aurelius, "Meditations", Book I, Wordsworth Classics of World Literature, ISBN 1853264865
  5. ^ Two Treatises on Government: A Translation into Modern English, ISR, 2009, p. 76
  6. ^ Westbrooks, Logan Hart (2008) "Personal Freedom" page 134 In Owens, William (compiler) (2008) Freedom: Keys to Freedom from Twenty-one National Leaders Main Street Publications, Memphis, Tennessee, pages 133–138, ISBN 978-0-9801152-0-8
  7. ^ Rodriguez, Junius P. (2007) The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery: A-K ; Vol. II, L-Z,
  8. ^ Mogens Herman Hansen, 2010, Democratic Freedom and the Concept of Freedom in Plato and Aristotle
  9. ^ Aristotle, Politics 6.2
  10. ^ Mikalson, Jon (2009). Ancient Greek Religion (2nd ed.). Wiley-Blackwell. p. 129. ISBN 978-1405181778. 
  11. ^ Arthur Henry Robertson, John Graham Merrills (1996). Human Rights in the World: An Introduction to the Study of the International Protection of Human Rights. Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-4923-7.
  12. ^ Amartya Sen (1997). Human Rights and Asian Values. ISBN 0-87641-151-0.
  13. ^ Arrian, Indica:

    "This also is remarkable in India, that all Indians are free, and no Indian at all is a slave. In this the Indians agree with the Lacedaemonians. Yet the Lacedaemonians have Helots for slaves, who perform the duties of slaves; but the Indians have no slaves at all, much less is any Indian a slave."

  14. ^ Hermann Kulke, Dietmar Rothermund (2004). "A history of India". Routledge. p.66. ISBN 0-415-32920-5
  15. ^ Mill, J.S. (1869)., "Chapter I: Introductory", On Liberty. {}
  16. ^ "The History of Human Rights". Liberty. Retrieved 17 August 2015. 
  17. ^ Danziger & Gillingham 2004, p. 278.
  18. ^ Breay 2010, p. 48.
  19. ^ "Bill of Rights". British Library. Retrieved 23 June 2015. 
  20. ^ Mill, John Stuart (1859). On Liberty (2 ed.). London: John W.Parker & Son. 
  21. ^ Mill, John Stuart (1864). On Liberty (3 ed.). London: Longman, Green, Longman Roberts & Green. 
  22. ^ Linder, Doug (2004) "Thomas Huxley"
  23. ^ Carter, Ian (5 March 2012). "Positive and Negative Liberty". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 16 August 2015. 
  24. ^ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Final authorized text. The British Library. September 1952. Retrieved 16 August 2015. 
  25. ^ The Constitution of the United States of America, The World Almanac and book of facts (2012), p. 485-486, Amendment XIV "Citizenship Rights not to be abridged.", Amendment XV "Race no bar to voting rights.", Amendment XIX, "Giving nationwide suffrage to women.". World Almanac Books, ISBN 978-1-60057-147-3.
  26. ^ GRISWOLD v. CONNECTICUT U.S. Supreme Court 381 U.S. 479 (1965) Decided June 7, 1965
  27. ^ A Culture of Liberty
  28. ^ Iain McLean and Alistair McMillan, Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0-19-920516-5.
  29. ^ Capitol Reader (21 June 2013). Summary of Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto - Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe. Primento. pp. 9–10. ISBN 978-2-511-00084-7. 
    Haidt, Jonathan (16 October 2010). "What the Tea Partiers Really Want". Wall Street Journal (Dow Jones & Company, Inc). Retrieved 17 March 2015. 
    Ronald P. Formisano (4 April 2012). The Tea Party: A Brief History. JHU Press. p. 72. ISBN 978-1-4214-0596-4. 
    Williams, Noel S. (5 October 2013). "The Tea Party is Colorblind". American Thinker. Retrieved 18 March 2015. 
  30. ^ Clark, J. C. D., Edmund Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France: a Critical Edition, 2001, Stanford. p. 66-7, ISBN 0-8047-3923-4.
  31. ^ Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics, Oxford University Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0-19-920516-5.
  32. ^ John Gray, Two Faces of Liberalism, The New Press, 1990, ISBN 1-56584-589-7.
  33. ^ William Safire, Safire's Political Dictionary, "Liberalism takes criticism from both the right and the left,...", p388, Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0-19534334-2.
  34. ^ "Libertarianism". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2014-05-20. libertarianism, political philosophy that takes individual liberty to be the primary political value 
  35. ^
  36. ^ David Kelley, "Life, liberty, and property." Social Philosophy and Policy (1984) 1#2 pp: 108-118.
  37. ^
  38. ^ Quentin Skinner, contributor and co-editor, Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage, Volume I: Republicanism and Constitutionalism in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, 2002, ISBN 978-0-521-67235-1
  39. ^ Quentil Skinner, contributor and co-editor, Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage, Volume II: The Values of Republicanism in Early Modern Europe Cambridge University Press, 2002, ISBN 978-0-521-67234-4
  40. ^ Philip Pettit, Republicanism: a theory of freedom and government, 1997
  41. ^ Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, Harvey C. Mansfield & Nathan Tarcov, translators, University of Chicago Press, 1996, ISBN 0-226-50036-5
  42. ^ Bhargava, Rajeev (2008). Political Theory: An Introduction. Pearson Education India. p. 255. Genuine freedom as Marx described it, would become possible only when life activity was no longer constrained by the requirements of production or by the limitations of material scarcity…Thus, in the socialist view, freedom is not an abstract ideal but a concrete situation that ensues only when certain conditions of interaction between man and nature (material conditions), and man and other men (social relations) are fulfilled. 
  43. ^ Goodwin, Barbara (2007). Using Political Ideas. Wiley. p. 107-109. ISBN 978-0470025529. Socialists consider the pleasures of creation equal, if not superior, to those of acquisition and consumption, hence the importance of work in socialist society. Whereas the capitalist/Calvinist work ethic applauds the moral virtue of hard work, idealistic socialists emphasize the joy. This vision of 'creative man' , Homo Faber, has consequences for their view of freedom...Socialist freedom is the freedom to unfold and develop one’s potential, especially through unalienated work. 
  44. ^ Wood, John Cunningham (1996). Karl Marx’s Economics: Critical Assessments I. Routledge. p. 248-249. ISBN 978-0415087148. Affluence and increased provision of free goods would reduce alienation in the work process and, in combination with (1), the alienation of man’s ‘species-life’. Greater leisure would create opportunities for creative and artistic activity outside of work. 
  45. ^ Peffer, Rodney G. (2014). Marxism, Morality, and Social Justice. Princeton University Press. p. 73. ISBN 9780691608884. Marx believed the reduction of necessary labor time to be, evaluatively speaking, an absolute necessity. He claims that real wealth is the developed productive force of all individuals. It is no longer the labor time but the disposable time that is the measure of wealth. 
  46. ^ Karl Marx on Equality, by Woods, Allen. "A society that has transcended class antagonisms, therefore, would not be one in which some truly universal interest at last reigns, to which individual interests must be sacrificed. It would instead be a society in which individuals freely act as the truly human individuals they are. Marx’s radical communism was, in this way, also radically individualistic."


External links[edit]

  • Media related to Liberty at Wikimedia Commons