Aristotle famously remarks that everything which the law does not expressly permit is forbidden. Some people take this as showing how different the classical concept of liberty is from the modern one. For we say just the opposite: That everything which the law does not expressly forbid is permitted.
There really is a difference between the classical and modern concepts of liberty, but that isn’t it. If Aristotle’s remark had been intended literally, it would be absurd. Because of the law’s silence about rotation, respiration, and osculation, you would be forbidden to turn over in bed, take a breath, or kiss your spouse.
What Aristotle did mean by his comment isn’t clear, but there are all sorts of ways to make sense of it without taking it literally. What he actually says is that “the law does not expressly permit suicide, and what it does not expressly permit it forbids.” But suicide is self-murder, and murder is expressly forbidden by the law. So some think he might mean only that in the context of an existing prohibition, any act for which the law does not expressly declare an exception is prohibited.
So if that isn’t it, then what is the difference between the classical and modern concepts of liberty? Among the classical thinkers (bearing in mind that not all ancient thinkers were classical), the term “liberty” referred not to the absence of governance, but to a certain kind of governance -- whether over a multitude of people, a single man, or an aspect of a man.
Thus, in the political sense, the people of a republic were called “free” because they collectively ruled themselves (rather than being under the thumb of a tyrant).
In the domestic sense, a freeman was called “free” because he ruled himself (rather than being ruled by a master).
In the moral sense, a virtuous man was called “free” because he was ruled by the principle which most fully expressed his nature, his reason (rather than being at the mercy of his desires).
And in the religious sense, a Christian was called “free” because he served the Author of his being, in whose image he was made, apart from whom he could not truly be himself, for to be alienated from the one in whose image I am made is to be alienated from my own being.
By degrees, the meaning of the term changed. So long as they do not think too deeply about the matter, modern people tend to regard freedom not as freedom from the wrong kind of rule, but as freedom from rule.
In the political sense, this would make the people of a republic freer than the people of a tyranny only if they happened to make fewer rules for themselves than a tyrant would. In fact, the only true freedom would be anarchy, which has no rules at all, although freedom in this sense turns out to be inconvenient.
In the domestic sense, a freeman would be freer than a slave not because he ruled himself, but only because he was more nearly able to do as he pleased – if, in fact, he was more nearly able. In the moral sense, a virtuous man would be freer than a vicious one only if his reason happened to put less constraint on his will than his base desires did. The only true freedom would be following whatever impulse one happened to have at the moment. However one might dress this up by calling it “autonomy,” as though we were gods, the condition is less superhuman than subhuman.
In the religious sense, a person would be free only if he served nothing and no one. Since in this view of things, God looks like a tyrant, some suppose that the only free spirit is the atheist. Carrying the modern line of reasoning still further, some take the view that not even the atheist is truly free, if he serves the cause of atheism.
The culmination of the modern idea is that no one is truly free unless he does what he does merely because he does it; unless he has no particular reason for doing anything at all; unless his choices are meaningless. In this sense, freedom is not so much inconvenient as futile, and human existence is absurd. Which is just what such people conclude.