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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 L&P, where readers may leave comments. Discussion is posted here, here, here, and here.