Ever since I came to political awareness many moons ago, I’ve been puzzled by the words liberty and freedom, and why we have two words for what appears to be the same idea. I have a feeling that I’m not alone. I’ve never researched it specifically, and in all my reading I’ve never seen an explanation that differentiates the two words, until now.
On the advice of a friend I purchased David Hackett Fischer’s at least seven pound tome, “Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas.” What a great looking book, and it’s really impressive on the book shelf, especially when people come over and think one reads such very large books. But despite the natural intimidation that comes from opening very thick books, I decided to tackle the introduction. That I could handle. What a revelation, especially as I head an organization that seeks to promote a culture of liberty in the United States.
Historically the words are indeed not synonymous, which is why there are two words and not one. I know that’s kind of obvious, but all words come from somewhere and derive their meaning in some part from that history. The study of where words come from is called philology, not a discipline that attracts many in the current day, but it is fascinating nonetheless.
Fischer points out that Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “liberty and freedom were ‘habits of the heart,’ by which he meant customs, beliefs, traditions and folkways of free people.” And Tocqueville believed that these habits had a special importance in the United States more so than any other nation in the world. So it is imperative, especially for those who appreciate and work for the growth of America’s Founding values of liberty and freedom, that these words are understood in all their rich historical meaning.
The words come from two different worlds and, not surprisingly thus, from two entirely different worldviews. It is amazing to me that many cultures have no words for the concepts these two words embody, just one more reason to appreciate our Western cultural heritage. Liberty is of ancient Roman and Greek origin, whereas freedom derives from a large family of ancient languages in northern Europe. The former always implied some degree of separation and independence, while the latter meant “someone who was joined to a tribe of free people by ties of kinship and rights of belonging.”
Fischer points out that there has been considerable study of the Roman idea of libertas as emancipation and independence, but not so much the ancient idea of freedom as the rights of belonging in a free society, along with the obligations and responsibilities that entails. But far from liberty meaning doing anything you want, ancient meaning of the word was a formation of ethical ideas of considerable complexity. And freedom was something impossible to understand apart from the obligations of belonging to a free people.
I’ll end this brief overview with two paragraphs from Fischer that encapsulate his argument well:
It is interesting (and urgently important for us to understand in the modern world) that these ancient traditions of liberty and freedom both entailed obligations and responsibilities. But they did so differently. The goal of libertas and eleutheria (the Greek equivalent) brought with it an obligation to act in a wise and responsible way—not as a libertine. A person with liberty was responsible for his own acts.
A person who was born to freedom in an ancient tribe had a sacred obligation to serve and support the folk, and to keep the customs of a free people, and to respect the rights of others on pain of banishment. In modern America too many people have forgotten this side of our inheritance. They think of liberty as license without responsibility, and freedom as entitlement without obligation. To think this way in the modern world is to remember only half of these ancient traditions.