We use the term freedom in political, economic, social, and religious contexts. But what exactly does it mean to be free? The answer to this question is crucial because different conceptions of liberty entail different political ideals, and different models of government. A good starting point to explore what it means to be free is with the distinction introduced by the early 19th century intellectual Benjamin Constant.
In an 1819 work titled “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns,” Constant offered two antagonistic ideas of what it means to be free. The Ancient conception of freedom centered on the collective, and the Modern focused on the individual. In essence, Constant’s idea of “liberty of the ancients” was one which allowed citizens the right to directly influence politics through debates and votes as in ancient Greece. By “liberty of the moderns,” Constant meant the possession of civil liberties, and having control over one’s life within the rule of law.
Consider the implications. The modern conception of liberty, a product of the Enlightenment, asserts that as individuals we have rights that are universal. Our rights do not depend on membership in a community or in government. We are born free and we institute governments to protect our freedoms. Historians place the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, between 1715 and the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789.
In contrast, in the Ancient conception of liberty there is no understanding of unalienable individual rights. In this vision of liberty the collective comes first, and people only have the personal freedoms that society chooses to give them. Thus, government is the source of our freedoms. The Ancient conception of liberty was reawakened during The Romantic Era that followed the French Revolution, and was at its peak between 1800 and 1850.
The two conceptions of freedom are dramatically different. Whereas the thinkers of the Enlightenment viewed individual rights as supreme, the Romantics saw the freedoms of the collective as paramount and above those of the individual.
Over a century later, in 1958, political theorist Isaiah Berlin published his “Two Concepts of Liberty,” somewhat paralleling Constant’s typology with his own distinction between negative and positive freedom. In Berlin’s analysis, negative freedom is understood as freedom ‘from’ interference by other people. That is, freedom from oppression or coercion. In line with the Enlightenment’s and Constant’s Modern conception of liberty, Berlin’s negative freedom is freedom from impediments to our actions imposed by other people.
This is the supreme value of the liberal ideal of a citizen free to pursue his or her own idea of the good life without interference from the state, provided that they do not cause harm to others. In classical liberalism, the role of the state is mostly to ensure the peaceful running of a society of free individuals. The emphasis is on equality under the law, and equality of opportunities, not necessarily equality of outcomes.
Berlin’s positive freedom, or freedom ‘to’, parallels Constant’s Ancient conception of freedom centered on the collective, where the state must interfere to enable individuals to develop their potential. Politically, positive freedom grants freedom to the collective to act in accordance with its will. The politics of freedom ‘to’ are exemplified by the welfare socialist and Marxists views in which being free–in the ‘to’ sense–justifies states to use oppression and coercion to achieve a desired distribution of society’s output. This view implies that individuals are not the best judges of what is best for them and thus the state, who knows better, must decide on their behalf.
The negative freedom of the Moderns describes freedom from tyranny and the arbitrary exercise of authority. The positive freedom of the Ancients specifies having the means to act. The interaction of these two conceptions of freedom gives rise to conflicts about what it means to be free.
We have yet to resolve the tensions between the values of the Enlightenment and the values of Romanticism. In our contemporary worldview, we seem to agree that nations ought to be free. But, incongruously, many embrace the socialist view that freedom is given by government, and individuals have no fundamental right to freedom.