Friday, February 05, 2010

David Hackett Fischer on two freedoms

A continuation of this post and an answer to the question I posed: "But is the Greco-Roman conception of freedom really that opposed to the Germanic/Northern European one?"

Lew Daly summarizes David Hackett Fischer's delineation of two different notions of liberty in Liberty and Freedom (Google Books):

Fischer looks at our political heritage from the vantage point of distinguishing liberty and freedom as almost two different traditions. He starts with etymology and cultural linguistics, and the differences he finds in that regard are rather striking. Our English “liberty” derives from Latin and Greek—from the Latin libertas and the Greek eleutheros. The basic meaning here is “release from restraint,” or more generally, being separate and distinct from others. “Freedom,” on the other hand, is an Anglo-Saxon word that derives from the Indo-European root friya or priya, which, strikingly, means “dear” or “beloved.” The Norse, German, Dutch, Flemish, Celtic, Welsh, and English words for freedom all share this root in the concept of endearment or belovedness. We see this in the English word “friend,” sharing the same root as “free,” as with Freund and frei in German. Notably, the oldest known word associated with the idea of freedom is a Sumerian word, Ama-ar-gi, the root meaning of which is literally “going home to mother.” The word was used to describe the slave’s return to his family, his transformation from a condition of bondage to one of belonging, Fischer stresses.

Freedom was intrinsically a collective idea in the Northern languages. Broadly speaking, it did not refer to individual independence, but signified the condition of being joined to a free people, joined by rights of belonging and by reciprocal duties of membership in that people. It is implicitly a concept attached groups if not groups of families, that is, communities. A belonging that frees the person, as the group is free, must be sustained by an equality of rights and duties within the group, independent of other authorities.

While not devoid of corporate applications in the law, Greco-Roman “liberty,” in contrast, meant emancipation from other people—individual separation and independence from others’ control. It is a concept of status attached to individuals. The medieval libertas ecclesiae is translated “freedom of the church” in English, Latin and English “liberty” being insufficiently corporative to apply to the Church as a body (although Latin does have the physical concept of “corpus” itself, of course). In its common use in the Roman Empire, liberty was the opposite of slavery: the context of its meaning was the imperial state stratified into nobility, commons, freedmen, and slaves. Liberty meant release from slavery into the status of freedmen, nothing more. It could not be conceive as arising from one’s membership in a free community.

Is Greco-Roman/Anglo-American liberty nothing more than Isaiah Berlin's "negative freedom"? And what of Germanic freedom? While Fr. Pinckaer's does not explicitly discuss a communitarian aspect to the freedom for excellence, it is there implicitly since the freedom for excellence is intrinsically linked to Catholic ethics, which is communitarian. (See George Weigel for a brief explanation of Berlin and Pinckaers.) Freedom for excellence includes the freedom to act justly and for the sake of the common good, as well as the freedom to love God and neighbor. Freedom for excellence takes the social dimension of human morality very much into consideration. In contrast, Greco-Roman/Anglo-American liberty seems rather impoverished, if it is just "negative freedom." Is this really so?

I think not, since Aristotle too is a "communitarian," and his notion of liberty cannot be separated from his politics as a whole. (I believe this is also the case with the Romans, especially Cicero and the Stoics.) First, Aristotle distinguishes the freeman from the slave. Though I cannot find a reference at the moment, he also explains that the Greek city-states are free because they rule themselves and are not ruled by others. True liberty is not only not being subject to the rule of others but requires that one rules one's self--this is true of both political liberty and individual liberty. Otherwise, a polity that is ruled by disordered appetite will soon succumb to enemies from without or from within. Moreover, the free individual is able to direct himself to his good, and this includes fulfilling one's obligations to others and living with others well. A man who is enslaved to his appetites is not really free, since he does not live in accordance with reason. Reason does not rule in him, and he does not rightly order himself to the goods of life. (Note that this is similar to what St. Paul tells us about being enslaved to sin--Christ has come to free us from death, but more importantly, from sin, so that we may love God as we should. One could say that Aristotle is expressing natural morality while St. Paul is talking about supernatural morality, but I do not think this distinction is correct.)

While freedom and virtue are linked for the individual, someone may still argue that Aristotle's political liberty, being a condition for living the good life, seems to be nothing more than Berlin's negative freedom. That is, there is no connection between individual liberty and political liberty. But this ignores the foundation of political liberty in virtue. The citizen, as citizen, must be concerned with duties to others and to groups not only as an executor of those duties but also as legislator. Only those who are virtuous can legislate or rule well. And given the Aristotelian unity of the virtues, this must be the full range of virtues -- not just virtues with regards to the self, but the virtues with regards to others. The Greek or Roman is not a lone individual whose only social relation is defined only in terms of being subject to another as a slave--he has duties to his family, kin, friends, and to the community at large.

More importantly, though, for political liberty to be merited in the first place, the citizens must be virtuous. Virtue is not only required for political liberty to be exercised well. The vicious who rule may have power over others, but they do not have the moral right to do so -- their mere possession of power justifies its use. If an entire community becomes morally decadent it may lose the right to rule and be subject to outsiders who have a better claim. (As is the case with the barbarians.)

Even if it seems that I am writing in this way, I think it would be incorrect to attribute to Aristotle the view that freedom is a "physical" freedom that must be ordered to right use and virtue. Rather, both individual and political liberty are informed by morality and the good; virtue is the basis of both individual liberty and political liberty. Aristotle's account approximates Fr. Pinckaer's freedom for excellence, even if it is not fully elaborated and falls short in important aspects (with respect to the love of God).

As one can see from the example of Fr. Pinckaers' writings, good Catholic moral theology takes as its starting point the discussion of liberty within Sacred Scripture (and Sacred Tradition), and provides an explanation of liberty in terms of the Good, and acts ordered to the Good. Germanic "freedom" is not present in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas; he is not German, and he uses his sacred and secular [Greco-Roman] sources, such as the writings of Aristotle, for reflection and speculation. Hence Catholic theologians have taken what was implicit in the Greco-Roman sources and developed it more fully, in harmony with what has been Divinely revealed. I think it can be said that Catholic moral/political theology has not been so concerned with political liberty as a good in itself, even though in the past it has examined questions of sovereignty and authority. This is because political liberty cannot be identified with the common good of a political community, even if it can determine, in part, the means for how the common good is to be obtained. Political liberty, even if it is required by justice, nonetheless is a good subordinate to the common good of the political community. It is the common good that must determine who has legitimate authority here and now, not claims of justice and political liberty.

Might the reason for the apparent contrast between the Germanic freedom and Greco-Roman liberty lie in the respective stages of social, political, and cultural development? The Germans, not being as advanced in their development of political science as the Greeks and Romans, took the self-rule of a people as a fact and did not perceive any need to explain it at any length? Besides, was there diversity in tribal governments? If not, then there would be less of an impetus to examine different forms of government and the nature of authority and citizenship. In contrast, a society where there is a greater differentiation of function, along with competing claims to rule from members of different groups is more likely to spur the sort of reflection that leads to the development of political science. Hence, the old Germanic "freedom" is proper to ethics, but the Greco-Roman notion of [political] freedom is proper to the science of politics, which looks at how the citizen is to govern, as opposed to how the individual member of a society is to act. But I think, rather, that Fischer has given us an incomplete picture of Germanic society.

I am curious to see if the Germans said anything about freedom with respect to Roman encroachment and claims to rule. What word did they use to talking about being free from the Romans? The Germans also distinguished between slaves and non-slaves -- how did they describe the condition of each? What word did they use that is comparable to freedom in modern English? Did one tribe ever attempt to conquer another? Were they regarded as outsiders, or where they somehow integrated with the conquered, thus destroying the distinction between us and them necessary to distinguish self-rule from rule by another? Perhaps Fischer has not done enough research on these matters. We might learn that the Germanic peoples too had a notion of liberty that is similar to the Greco-Roman one.

I suspect though that I need to do more research on Germanic freedom to have a better understanding of it, especially to answer this question: what does it mean to be "unfree" for the Germanic peoples? It seems that the original sense of "free" does not really have any connection to freedom as we use the word today, or to liberty, capacity, faculty. What is a better translation of the word into current English? And how did "free" come to be a synonym for "liberty" in English? I sense that Germanic freedom describes the nature of Greek (or Roman) kinship ties, even if I cannot think of the Greek or Latin equivalent at the moment. As I've said before, the Greeks and Romans were aware of these duties, and Fischer seems to be setting up a false opposition, given the changes in the meaning of "free" over time. It is misleading to talk of Germanic freedom as if it provides a corrective or supplement to our popular definition of freedom. It would be better to compare benevolence or philia or dike to eleutheria, and in Greek moral thought eleutheria is not separate from dike.

Fischer's account therefore illustrates the problem of reducing [comparative] "philosophy" to etymology and the study of language. One needs to take into account everything about Germanic society, and not just one word which was transformed in meaning.

It should be noted that the notion of liberty present in Aristotle or in [medieval] Catholic theology is compatible with an ordered or regulated marketplace. Anglo-American liberty is not reducible to classical liberalism or libertarianism, even if English and American thinkers were influenced by liberalism. (Otherwise, the Anglo-American political tradition would have to be rejected in so far as it is just liberalism in the English language.) Some exponents of the Anglo-American political tradition may emphasize a narrow understanding of political liberty -- this is the case with many "mainstream conservatives." To uphold an Anglo-American political tradition, we must correct for the liberalism that overtaken it, and reappropriate (or reintegrate as the case may be) the Greco-Roman and Catholic moral traditions, and not just republicanism.

A review of Liberty and Freedom by Virginia Postrel.

Ah, Sinéad O' Connor -- is she still pretending to be a priest?


Marmalade said...

You bring up some good points about word meanings earlier in history and about related words that might have been used. However, I wouldn't discount Fischer so easily. He is a historian of cultures and doesn't analyze words in isolation. Words are symbolic of deeper cultural traditions that he describes in several books.

papabear said...

Thanks for the tip, I still intend to check the book out.

Marmalade said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marmalade said...

I'd also recommend other books by Fischer. Two of his books in particular go into detail about freedom/liberty:

Albion's Seed

Fairness and Freedom

It is interesting to note that supposedly only Western languages have early origins for words specifically dedicated to concepts of freedom/liberty. Also interesting, only Scandanavian languages have early origins for words specifically dedicated to fairness.

As for the conflation of freedom and liberty, that mostly is an issue of the English language in terms of British history. Celtic language is similar to Northern European languages. Germans (Anglo-Saxons) and Scandanavians (Norse) settled there and introduced more of that Northern influence. Then the Normans introduced culture and language influenced by the Romans.

Fischer clarifies the two words as being a difference of focus.

Freedom is being among free people and being part of a free community. It has connotations of being connected to others, friendship and kinship. It relates to rights, another Germanic word.

Liberty is being separate from being ruled over or oppressed. It means not being a slave nor, for the Stoics, having a slave mentality. Liberty is a hierarch of privileges.

The difference was that in Northern Europe most people were born free, but most people were born enslaved in the Roman Empire. This influenced what people saw as the norm, whether freedom or slavery was the natural state.

Anyway, that is how Fischer discusses it, agree or disagree. By the way, he does discuss Greek and Roman philosophers such as the Stoics.

papabear said...

I am curious, then, how the Scandanavian words for fairness differ in meaning from justice.

Marmalade said...

I wrote about all of this a couple of years ago:

Fairness, especially from an American perspective, complicates matters. It originally just meant something being pleasing or good and also referred to how free people should treat one another in a free society. It didn’t mean equality or justice and it’s not so much about laws or rules. Fairness is more subjective or rather more intersubjective and more relative or rather more about interrelationships. To be fair necessitates characteristics such as honesty and authenticity along with requiring an attitude of respect and good intentions, understanding and sympathy. Not just about results, but also process.

The Scandinavians combine the values of freedom and fairness. That is a powerful combination as is attested by the examples of Scandinavian countries. I’d suspect that there is a particularly close relationship between cultures of fairness and cultures of trust. I’d also suspect a resonance with the correlation between economic equality and social health. Fairness seems to magnify the social factor of a free society.