Lecture 1: The Idea of a Free Society

Freedom and Tradition: An Introduction to Classical Liberalism and Conservatism

A Course with Professor Thomas Patrick Burke
Fall 2006

  1. Historical Background

The idea of a free society in our modern sense of the term emerged first in England in the 17th century, a product of the English Enlightenment. Why it happened there and then, and why the era is so called, we will examine shortly. It did not spring up out of nowhere, but was the result of a long historical process both practical and theoretical, which we will attempt to summarize, because it may have some lessons for us at the present time in our encounter with those who are hostile to our free society.

The Ancient World

Terms such as “a free society” or “a free people” were in common use already in the world of ancient Greece and Rome. What they usually meant, however, was something rather different from what they mean typically for us in the United States today. A people typically considered themselves free in the ancient world primarily when they were not subject to a foreign power, but governed themselves. This of course is a very powerful idea: it had great appeal then, it had great appeal at the time of the American War of Independence and it continues to have great appeal now. Whatever else the foreigner may offer, his rule is the death of freedom. We have been experiencing this viewpoint recently in the Middle East. (Neither this nor any other statements in these lectures are intended in a party-political sense.)

This ancient view that freedom means self-government is a part of what we still mean by freedom. But it is only a part. If we look back at the ancient societies that called themselves free, we will have difficulty in entirely sharing their viewpoint. Even Athens with its historic democracy was not what we today would consider a free society, as its treatment of Socrates showed. Not only did freedom in our sense not exist, but it was far from being considered even an ideal.

Aristotle was one of the more tolerant-minded and far-seeing thinkers of the ancient world, indeed some believe he has a claim to be considered the greatest thinker of all time. Here are some of the practices he considered should be protected or enforced in society either by law or by custom:

  • Slavery, for some persons are “natural slaves” who will fare better with a master.
  • Citizens should not be merchants or farmers, which are ignoble professions.
  • All citizens should share in common meals.
  • Expenses for the gods should be borne by the entire populace.
  • Abortion should be compulsory to limit the population.
  • Pregnant women can be required to get exercise by walking to the temple of the goddess of fertility.
  • The law should prohibit shameful speech, paintings and writings.

Fred. D. Miller, Jr., Nature, Justice and Rights in Aristotle’s Politics. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995.

In Aristotle’s view, the state existed for a definite purpose: to lead its members to acquire virtue, for that was man’s true well-being; and law was the preeminent means to achieve that end. It was not the purpose of law to create “freedom.” However, the ancient Greeks took the first step on the road that was to lead to the ideal of freedom which characterizes classical liberalism and finds a home in modern America: they created the concept of “the citizen.” Although every country now is said to have citizens, they have imported this concept, for the most part only in a merely verbal and superficial sense, from the West, where it was first developed. The earliest organization of human beings was by blood relationship: the family, the tribe and the clan, and for much of the human race these are still the entities to which one owes one’s primary allegiance. The citizen was something different: a person who gave his first allegiance not to his tribe, but to his city. Greek cities were very different from most modern cities in that modern cities tend to exist in and be subordinate to the much larger political units that we call countries or nations, as Philadelphia exists as part of the United States. Greek cities, however, during the classical period up till the end of the 4th century B.C. were politically independent entities, city-states which created their own distinct identities out of their own laws and customs, such as Athens or Sparta, and made war or peace as they chose.

The citizen is a member of the city-state, not just in the sense that he resides there, but that he bears responsibility for it. Together with his fellow-citizens he contributes to its financial upkeep and to its defense, and he is entitled to share in its benefits. Citizenship in Athens was restricted to males who had completed their military training and whose parents had been citizens. This was a relatively small group, perhaps no more than a quarter of the population. Democracy in Athens was not exercised through the election of representatives, as ours is, but was direct: all citizens had the right to vote in the Assembly directly on any proposed legislation, which meant that thousands of men spent a great deal of their personal time without pay engaged in the process of government. Although Aristotle lived much of his life in Athens, he never became an Athenian citizen, but remained a citizen of his native city of Stagira, and at the close of his life went back there. It is very important to understand that the true concept of citizenship, as a social relationship demanding a loyalty that supersedes the tribe, has never really taken root outside the West. China has never had citizens in this sense, nor India, nor the societies of the Middle East. If you grew up in the United States or any other Western country, you have grown up in a culture deeply stamped with the concept of citizenship. To the citizen, his country is a value in itself and exists in its own right. It does not really exist for a purpose. But people who come to the nations of the West from elsewhere must learn this concept: it is not part of their societal inheritance. In its absence, one’s first allegiance remains typically to one’s blood relatives and the tendency is to look upon civil society merely as a tool for the achievement of one’s personal ends.

To return to the question of ancient freedom: The Romans created what Immanuel Kant called the greatest achievement of the human mind: Roman law. Largely by its means they created an empire that functioned more or less successfully for some 700 years. The Romans extended the concept of citizenship throughout all their dominions. St Paul boasted that he was a Roman citizen. Yet the freedom associated with that citizenship was from our perspective today very limited. To organize a private association, for example, official permission was needed from the government, for Rome operated on the assumption that all private associations were potentially dangerous to the state.

In ancient societies it was generally taken for granted that there should be an official or established religion and no others should be permitted. For religion was considered to provide the foundation of the society. The gods were the ultimate source from which the laws and customs of the society derived their validity. The worship of the gods provided an overarching framework of meaning within which the state had its being. The state was not a merely secular object, therefore, but an intrinsically sacred and religious reality, which freedom of religion would overturn. On this principle, in the 4th century Christianity went in a relatively short time from being banned as a threat to the empire to being enforced as the sole and established religion of the empire.

It was also taken for granted that there should be what we would consider heavy restrictions on trade and commerce. Activity that we today classify as “economic,” such as producing, buying and selling, was embedded in the customary framework of social life and subject to innumerable restrictions deriving from customary ways of doing things. Trade for the purpose of making a profit, as we saw with Aristotle, was considered a low and mean occupation for a free man. Farming was accepted as respectable up to a certain point, but to be genuinely respected a free man had to give his main energy to public affairs.

In short, the ancient societies that called themselves free did not possess any great degree of freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of association or freedom of commerce. For peoples outside the West, this is still the natural mentality today.

The ancient Greeks contributed at least one more building block to the modern edifice of the free society, however: the concept of natural law.

This was especially the creation of the Stoics, during the three centuries before the birth of Christ. They were deeply moved by the discovery that the realm of nature was governed by universal physical laws. This led them, amongst other things, to believe in the existence of God, on the ground that law is the product of mind — which many consider still a powerful argument. They were further convinced that the domain of law was not confined to the physical world but extended into the realm of morality. There was a natural moral law. Cicero, who was wholeheartedly committed to this Stoic doctrine, gives perhaps the clearest explanation of it. It means that the moral law is not merely subjective, but objective. It holds good whether we believe in it or not, whether we follow it or not, whether we understand it or not. It is not a matter merely of the individual’s personal feelings or convictions, nor is it a matter of the conventions of society. It is not relative or conditional, but unconditional and absolute. It exists objectively. That is to say, it exists in nature. “If justice does not exist in nature, it does not exist anywhere!”

It is true that this natural moral law is not empirical: it cannot be experienced by our five senses as the physical world can be, and so its laws cannot be known in the way that the physical laws of nature are known. But it can be known by reason. Reason tells us that murder is wrong, that robbery is wrong, that rape is wrong, and so on for all crime. No doubt some questions of right and wrong are complex and difficult, but in the end the patient inquiry of reason can lead to a definite conclusion. Right and wrong are not found by mere desire or emotion, but by impartial and objective questioning.

The concept of natural law developed by the Stoics was taken up by the early Christian church and became in a certain sense the foundation of its ethical system. Of course, in another and very important sense, Christian ethics went far beyond it, because it went far beyond the idea of justice. The true foundation of Christian ethics is the figure on the cross. This Christian conception of heroic self-sacrifice and of ultimate compassion and forgiveness has had its own role to play in making possible the peaceful life of men together in society despite their immense differences of belief, temperament and interest. Meanwhile, St Thomas Aquinas argued that the natural moral law represented the will of God, being the application to the created human world of the eternal law constituted by the very nature of God. In other words, Aquinas anchored the natural moral law in a deeper foundation, the nature of God.

The concept of the natural moral law was to provide the foundation on which John Locke, as we shall see, built up the first theory of the free society.

The Mediaeval World

If the remote foundation of the modern world was laid by the Roman empire, its immediate foundation was laid during the Middle Ages, and this is true also of the idea of a free society. Historical developments of great significance for the future emergence of limited government and the free society took place during those centuries. Perhaps the chief of these was the absorption of the Germanic peoples and their lands, outside the boundaries of the Roman empire, into Christendom, or the expansion of Christendom to include them. This produced deep changes in Christianity and Christian society, which in the West up to this point had been essentially Latin. Representative government in the sense we have it today owes its origins very largely to the Germanic traditions of government. Also, the Germanic style of religion was different, and that difference was eventually to reassert itself in the Reformation, which was to play a large role.

A second, related effect of the coming of the Germanic peoples was the creation of what we call Europe. Roman civilization had been centered on the Mediterranean, which it surrounded: mare nostrum. With the conversion of the Germanic peoples to Christianity, and at the same time the expansion of Islam around the Mediterranean, the center of Western civilization shifted north beyond the Alps, to what we now call France and Germany, so that what happened there became decisive.

A third consequence of the coming of the Germanic peoples was the creation of the feudal system. When the Roman empire in the West, with its centralized system of government, collapsed around the sixth century (an event which took place, according to the best opinion of scholars, because of economic decline brought about by high taxes), the functions of government such as the enforcement of law were taken over by local lords who could provide people with protection. In return they required readiness for military service, and the ownership of land was attached to that service. The primary bond of civil society became the personal relationship of mutual loyalty between the local lord and his dependants. But this meant it was difficult to create the kind of enormous administrative apparatus which the Roman empire had built up, and which has become again a mark of governments in the 21st century. By comparison with these, feudal government was small and weak.

A further effect was economic. With the collapse of the Roman empire, commercial activity, trade and the market died out in most of Europe . Everywhere only a subsistence economy was maintained, with each manor having to live off what it could itself produce. The use of money almost disappeared, to be replaced by barter. Education evaporated. The emperor Charlemagne used to practise writing at night before he went to bed, for he had never learnt it as a child. The standard of living plummeted. Gradually, beginning around perhaps the 10th century, some people began again to produce not only for their own consumption but also for sale to others. The economy of Europe had to be built up again from the ground up. But this meant that it was governed by local customs rather than by the dictates of a central government.

Related to this was the creation of a new legal system, which we call the Common law. The foundation of our American legal system was laid in England in the 12th century by King Henry II, who gave the magistrates of his courts the authority to render legal decisions in the name of the Crown. The law of England from then on consisted mainly not of the edicts of the king, or even of laws passed by parliament, but of the decisions of the courts in settling disputes. It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of this in the emergence of the free society. It meant that the law of the land grew from the bottom up rather than from the top down.

We will mention one last aspect of the Middle Ages that has had far-reaching consequences. After the collapse of the Roman empire, the local bishop was often the only functioning authority in an area, and in consequence came to be accepted not only as religious authority but also as the civil ruler, a state of affairs which persists in some regions of Europe even today. The bishop of Rome became the direct civil ruler of much of central Italy, the papal states. Meanwhile the lands to the north became unified politically as the “Holy Roman Empire.” The emperor of this empire was elected by the more powerful feudal lords. His power, however, was limited, first by the constraints of the feudal system, and even further by the political power of the pope. The popes claimed for themselves the right to confirm or depose secular rulers, including the emperor, and this right was widely acknowledged, on the ground that the spiritual power was superior to the earthly power. This meant that for several centuries there were in Europe two independent supreme authorities. A case could be appealed to the pope against the emperor, or to the emperor against the pope. This effectively limited the power and the reach of the highest secular authorities for several centuries.

Towards the close of the Middle Ages trade and the market slowly began to make progress. In England this was led especially by the making and exporting of woollen cloth. One result of this was that for first time a middle class began to emerge in England and in Europe . It was out of this middle class that the impetus was to come for representative government, or “democracy” as we now call it. In a traditional society composed only of an aristocratic class and a peasantry there is no foundation for such a form of government, because the aristocracy already possess political power, while the peasantry are typically too preoccupied with the daily struggle to make a living to understand what is necesssary to make a government function. But a middle class comes, through the necessities of trade and business, to possess the knowledge of how to make a government work.

For a variety of reasons England was the first modern nation to develop a middle class. England never had a true peasantry, and the aristocracy, living on the land (instead of in the cities, as in much of Europe) took an interest in agriculture and trade. It is important to understand the sequence here. Many people in the underdeveloped world today are attracted to democracy for purely utilitarian reasons, because they believe it contains the secret of economic prosperity. But the evidence of history seems to indicate that the causation ran in the opposite direction: the increase of trade created the middle class, and the middle class demanded and produced democratic government. This suggests that the secret of creating democracies lies first in economic development, in creating a significant middle class. In much of the world, however, this is still lacking, because trade is severely restricted.

The mediaeval limitations on the power of government were gradually undermined during the 16th and 17th centuries by the rise of absolute monarchies, especially in France under Louis XIV and the Tudors, Stuarts and Cromwell in England. What followed was ironical, however. For these monarchs and their nations wanted to increase their power, which meant developing their economies. And the development of their economies strengthened their middle classes, which eventually led to the overthrow of the absolute monarchies and their replacement by representative government. This transformation took place first of all in England, beginning in the 17th century.

  1. England

The “Glorious Revolution”

In 1688-89 England underwent a constitutional revolution in which supreme power was transferred from the king to parliament, the first such event in modern Europe. The principal role of the elected parliament, like that of the U.S. Congress, had always been to provide money for the king by approving taxes. This gave parliament eventually the power to pass laws, so long as the king agreed with them. But until 1689 parliament was constitutionally subordinate to the king. In 1688, however, parliament became afraid that the king, James II, who had converted to Catholicism, would subject England politically to the pope. In his place they invited a Protestant, William, the duke of Orange in the Netherlands, and his wife Mary (James’s sister) to occupy the throne, on condition that they recognize the supremacy of parliament. William accepted this condition and became England ‘s (and Europe ‘s) first constitutional monarch. Historians refer to this as the “Glorious Revolution.” It represented a triumph of the “Whigs” who were largely middle class or “gentlemen” over the “Tories” who tended to be aristocrats.

The Act of Toleration

The first freedom was freedom of religion. (The traditional term for these freedoms was “civil liberties” or “civil rights.” This terminology has its own importance and we will come back to it in a later lecture.) Paradoxically, freedom of religion was a result of the wars of religion. In the wake of the Reformation in the 16th century, bitter religious wars broke out between the Catholic and Protestant powers of Europe and continued for a hundred years. Eventually, however, people became exhausted by the religious strife and agreed that religious differences should be tolerated. On May 24, 1689 the English parliament passed the Act of Toleration, which permitted dissent from the Church of England and abolished the requirement of attending church on Sunday. It applied also, of course, to England ‘s colonies. No longer could the Puritans of Boston hang the Mary Dyers of this world because they were Quakers, as had happened in 1660.

Freedom of religion gave rise to other freedoms now generally recognized in the West: freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and freedom of association. During the 18th century it was to be followed by the emergence of the concept of free trade.