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You write in your post “How the Meaning of Liberty Did and Didn’t Change” that history presents us with two nearly opposite meanings of freedom.  Among the classical thinkers, you say, the term referred not to the absence of governance, but to a certain kind of governance.  But among the modern writers, it comes to mean not freedom from the wrong kind of rule, but something more like freedom from rule.

How did this shift take place?  I suspect that it was messy.


Your suspicion is right.  It was messy.  In the first place, the ancient meaning of liberty is not entirely unknown to the moderns:  When Alexis de Tocqueville writes in Democracy in America about “free” local institutions, he means local institutions of self-government.  In the second place, the meaning of liberty which predominates today was not entirely unknown to the ancients:  Florentinus is quoted in Justinian’s Digest as defining liberty as “one’s natural power of doing what one pleases, save insofar as it is ruled out either by coercion or by law.”

Usually, however, the classical writers called liberty in this sense mere “license,” distinguishing it from liberty in the sense of being able to govern oneself properly.  And although the modern writers too distinguish liberty from license, they become less and less able to explain the difference.

The new conception of liberty is perhaps most dramatically on display in Thomas Hobbes, who writes in his 1651 work Leviathan that “‘The right of Nature,’ which writers commonly call jus naturale, is the liberty each man hath to use his own power as he will himself for the preservation of his own nature, that is to say, of his own life; and consequently of doing anything which in his own judgment and reason he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto.”  He says a few lines later, “it followeth that in such a condition every man has a right to everything, even to one another’s body.”

In other words, my “natural” liberty is doing as I please, even if I think I need to kill you.  By this way of thinking, the fulfillment of our nature isn’t the cure, it’s the disease.

We see in Richard Price, a contemporary of the American Founders, something of how the older language of self-government became blurred so that it actually seemed to mean the mere absence of restrictions.  Here is what he says in Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, written in 1776:

“By physical liberty I mean that principle of spontaneity, or self-determination, which constitutes us agents, or which gives us a command over our actions, rendering them properly ours, and not effects of the operation of any foreign cause.  Moral liberty is the power of following, in all circumstances, our sense of right and wrong, or of acting in conformity to our reflecting and moral principles, without being controlled by any contrary principles.  Religious liberty signifies the power of exercising, without molestation, that mode of religion which we think best, or of making the decisions of our own consciences respecting religious truth, the rule of our conduct, and not any of the decisions of our fellow-men.  In like manner civil liberty is the power of a civil society or state to govern itself by its own discretion or by laws of its own making, without being subject to the impositions of any power in appointing and directing which the collective body of the people have no concern and over which they have no control.”  Price adds, “there is one general idea that runs through them all; I mean the idea of self-direction, or self-government.”

Taken at its word, this passage would seem to mean that simply by submitting to a just civil law with which I happen to disagree, I am deprived of my power of self-government.  Price doesn’t actually mean this, for in the next section he says liberty is the opposite of licentiousness.  So here, when he speaks of conscience, he probably means something like conscience well-formed by the natural law.  The difficulty is that he doesn’t say so; he doesn’t specify it in his definition.  So conscience comes to seem merely another word for will, which is how many people use the term today.

What we see is that more and more of the equipment of the classical natural law tradition was discarded with the aim of clarifying and simplifying matters.  Yet rather than being clarified and simplified, they became confused.