Like many people in the United States and over the past decade or so, I have been continually asking myself what in the world is happening to our country. I could go into great detail on a vast number of topics including, but not limited to, crime, bathrooms, public schools, the American debt, the American deficit, elections, race, law enforcement, COVID...and the list goes on and on and on. For a thinking people, the question then becomes why. Why is virtually everything constantly on fire? Instead of picking anyone of these above-mentioned problematic topics and elaborating in detail, it is important to stop and take a step back to a vastly wider perspective in order to understand the bigger picture.
As a country and an American people and as much as it pains me to say, we have lost our way. We have detoured from our path of freedom and liberty which was bequeathed to us by our American forefathers' forefathers. Our way is a path beginning in the dark ages of England, and a path which leads to the greatness of all of us regardless of race, color, or creed. Our way is our collective journey towards true liberty which will lead to the freedom and liberty of all the people in the world. It is the story of the continual evolution over time from authoritarianism towards freedom and liberty. It is also an evolution of ideas including Judeo-Christian values, democracy, the rights of man, republicanism, the rejection of authoritarianism, and natural law. The relevance of our way, the American way, is found in these very ideas. The ideas of freedom and liberty have transformed the world from the authoritarianism of ancient times toward forms of the self-government of man. Such transformation is ongoing and not without errors and mistakes, and as such, the study of the evolution of the American way, including both the good and the bad, is relevant in that we can discover the truth over time.
The question then becomes what do the words freedom and liberty really mean.
First, we should make a distinction for all points forward that the words freedom and liberty have different meanings. Most Americans make really no distinction between the meanings of these two words, but in fact, entire books have been written on this very subject. The word freedom is derived from proto-German a couple thousand years ago making its way to the British Isles during the Norse invasions prior to the 10th century. In fact, and despite British Isles being separated from northern Europe by large bodies of water, many northern European languages have very similar variations of English words, but truth be told, we inherited word freedom from these northern European languages thousands of years ago as a result of invasions of the British Isles from the east and southeast. In Dutch, the word freedom is vrijdom. In German, it is vrituom. There are also similar variations in Scandinavian languages. Similar to Slavic languages in which the word freedom has a completely different root and in French, the word freedom is translated as liberte which is a more ancient Latin base. In conclusion and being that the words freedom and liberty have origins, they also have slightly different meanings.
A thorough study of the etymology of each word could be very interesting for another time, but suffice it to say, the slight difference in the meanings between freedom and liberty is found in their perspective. The word freedom is an internal construct, while the word liberty is an external construct. Freedom is internal to you and in your mind. Freedom is your personal right to do as you choose without and any restraint at all. Koos J. Malan states in his article, “The Foundational Tenets of Johannes Althusius’ Constitutionalism,” that a free individual is “perceived to be capable and at liberty to make free choices on her own personal identity and lifestyle.” This idea of freedom is the concept of “so-called negative freedom, that is, freedom or immunity from intervention or prescription by the state.” This definition can be enlarged to include intervention by individuals as well. An example of negative freedoms is the Bill of Rights - freedoms which the government is forbidden from restraining.
The word liberty is external to you and is a social construct. Liberty is a social condition in which a free people live without oppression by government, or in other words, political freedom. As Alexander Rosenthal-Pubúl points out in his article, “Reflections on Ancient and Modern Freedom,” the idea of negative freedom is a more recent (last 400 years) philosophical development whereas liberty, or ancient freedom “in classical Greek philosophy by contrast is centered on an ideal of self-mastery.”
These two definitions of freedom and liberty are quite similar with the exception that liberty (ancient Greek and Latin freedom) is a limited freedom constrained by oneself through virtue, self-mastery, and the truth. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle tells us of these “virtues.” A free man must have a certain state of mind including acting with knowledge and deliberate purpose to choose an action for its own sake with a required permanent fixed disposition of character. This Aristotelean definition of liberty is summarized well by Edmund Burke, in his "A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly" in 1791, as follows:
Men are qualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in proportion as their love of justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without…men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.
Hence, liberty is internal freedom combined with virtuous self-restraint. Pure freedom without any internal restraint (virtue and temperance) combined with no external restraint (government) is the definition of anarchy. As Burke tells us, our society must be controlled, and such control must come from within (virtue and temperance), or it will most certainly come from without (government authoritarianism). Without any virtue and temperance restraining a free people (liberty), the restraint will come externally from the government (authoritarianism). In short, liberty equals the combination of freedom and virtuous self-restraint, and our American way is a constant journey on the path from ancient authoritarianism progressing towards this true liberty.
These aforementioned principles are the very reason why our American forefathers believed as follows:
George Washington said, “Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people.” Patrick Henry asserted, "A vitiated [impure] state of morals, a corrupted public conscience, is incompatible with freedom." James Madison quipped, “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical [imaginary] idea.” In other words, and if we are not a virtuous people and as Madison states, it is an illusion that our government can protect our liberties.
Next time, we will get into the virtues as outlined by Aristotle in his book on ethics. Please feel free to subscribe if you like our content.