What do we mean when we talk about “liberty?”

roman-slaveWhile it may appear that we all use the word in the same way, closer examination reveals that Americans have a wide range of meanings for the term. For instance, when those of us at Acton refer to liberty we tend to have in mind the definition we use in our “core principles”: Liberty, in a positive sense, is achieved by fulfilling one’s nature as a person by freely choosing to do what one ought.

Other individuals and organizations often define the term in ways that differ, either subtly or radically, from the Acton Institute. Liberty, then, is less an easily definable term than a word used to refer to a range of loosely related concepts. Understanding how “liberty” has been used in the past can therefore help us understand how and why we have different views of it today.

A prime example is political historian Quentin Skinner’s explanation of “neo-Roman liberty.”

3:AM: You are known as a leading historian of political history and in particular the formation of ideas around human liberty. One of the key ideas you’ve written about is what you label ‘neo-Roman’ liberty.‘ This began back in Ancient Rome didn’t it, where freedom was contrasted with slavery, wasn’t it? Can you tell us what its distinctive traits are?

Quentin Skinner: The vision of personal freedom that interests me is articulated most clearly in the Digest of Roman Law, which is why I have wanted to describe its later manifestations as examples of ‘neo-Roman’ liberty. The fundamental distinction drawn at the outset of the Digest is between the liber homo, the free person, and the servus or slave. The law needed to begin with this contrast because law applies only to free persons, not to slaves. So one crucial question was: what makes a slave? The answer given in the legal texts is that a slave is someone who is in potestate, in the power of a master. The contrast is with someone who is sui iuris, able to act in their own right. Long before these argument were summarised in the legal texts, they had been elaborated by a number of Roman moralists and historians, above all Sallust, Livy and Tacitus. These writers were interested in the broader question of what it means to say of individuals – or even of whole bodies of people – that they have been made to live in the manner of slaves. The answer they give is that, if you are subject to the arbitrary will of anyone else, such that you are dependent on their mere goodwill, then you may be said to be living in servitude, however elevated may be your position in society. So, for example, Tacitus speaks of the servitude of the entire senatorial class under the Emperor Tiberius, so wholly subject were they to his lethal caprice.

The entire interview is fascinating and well worth reading, particularly for the section on the distinction between the “neo-Roman” and Christian views of liberty:

3:AM: This distinction seems a crucial one and might explain why republicanism can seem to accommodate such a wide range of political views, from extreme authoritarianism in the name of liberty to collectivism? Is our historical blindness an impediment to our ability to understand many of the cross currents of our contemporary situation? I guess the issue here is the role of history and having an historical perspective.

QS: I do not myself associate neo-Roman theories with what you call authoritarianism in the name of liberty. Such authoritarianism generally springs, it seems to me, from the assumption that there are certain true ends for mankind, and that liberty consists in following them. An example would be the Aristotelian belief that our freedom is best realised in serving the community. Another example would be the rival Christian belief that we attain true liberty (‘Christian freedom’) only in serving God. These paradoxical arguments – in which freedom is connected with service – differ from the core neo-Roman ideal that freedom consists in independence from the arbitrary will of others. The desire to be free of such discretionary power does not have to be held in virtue of the belief that we ought then to proceed to use our independence to act in specific ways. The neo-Roman theory is not interested in telling you how you should make use of your liberty; it merely wants you to espouse a particular view of how liberty should be understood. I strongly agree with you when you speak about our current historical blindness. I think that we have closed ourselves off from understanding a lot of our history by failing to see that, until relatively recently, the concept of liberty was generally understood in a way that we now find unfamiliar and even hard to grasp. We tend to think of freedom essentially as a predicate of actions. But the earlier tradition took freedom essentially to be the name of a status, that of a free person by contrast with a slave. Let me end by following out your last train of thought. I believe that there is certainly a sense in which we fail to understand some features of our contemporary situation through not having a grasp on the neo-Roman way of thinking about liberty. For a neo-Roman thinker, many of the situations that in a market society are regarded as free – even as paradigmatically free – would appear as examples of servitude. The predicament of de-unionised labour, of those who live in conditions of economic dependence, of those in particular who live in dependence on violent partners, and of entire citizen-bodies whose representative assemblies have lost power to executives – all these would appear to a neo-Roman theorist to be examples of being made to live like slaves.

Many modern conceptions of liberty have much in common with the neo-Roman view. The economic liberty espoused by Distributists, for instance, seems to share as many, if not more, of its foundational premises with neo-Roman rather than classical Christian conceptions of liberty. Similarly, many secular advocates of liberty appear to have a watered-down conception of neo-Roman liberty. They mistakenly think that simply because they are free from coercion that they are “free”, where in reality, as Skinner notes, the neo-Roman thinkers would consider them to be voluntarily enslaved to others.

The neo-Romans would also, of course, consider Christians be “slaves” too—a charge which we would happily concede. For the Christian, being free from the power of a human master is of no consequence if we are still enslaved to our sinful nature. We understand that the only way we can truly be free is by becoming “bondservants of Christ” (Eph. 6:6).


  • RogerMcKinney

    All Skinner is saying is that freedom means different things in different spheres: political freedom is different from freedom as defined by religions and personal freedom. People who are politically free can freely choose to become servants of others, and in Christianity we know that those who don’t serve God are slaves to their passions.

    The real problem today is that socialists have been dishonest and redefined freedom as freedom from want. That requires the state to take from some and give to others in order to “free” them.