The Meaning of Freedom:
by Maurice Cranston (b. 1920)
from Chapter I of his 1953 book Freedom (r. 1967)

Consider how much -- or rather how little -- you say if you say you are free. Imagine a meeting with a stranger. You know nothing about him or his predicament. He approaches you and says: 'I am free.' You are baffled. Has he just escaped from prison, from his debts, from his wife, from his sins? He has told you he is free, but he has not told you what he is free from. He has confided remarkably little.

Yet if the stranger had said: 'I am hungry', you would have known only too well what he meant. In its structure the sentence 'I am free' looks like the sentence 'I am hungry'. That resemblance is deceptive. For whereas 'I am hungry' has one meaning, 'I am free' might have any one of a vast range of possible meanings. If we are to know which of those innumerable possibilities is intended, we must know what it is that a man who says he is free, is free from. He must name a constraint, impediment or burden. [1]

Suppose I say 'This bird was in a cage, but now it is free'; then I shall have given meaning to the words 'it is free' by saying that it was in a cage. I have said it is free from its former captivity: I have said what it is free from. Sometimes the situation in which the words are spoken is such that the impediment, constraint or burden need not be named because that factor is already understood. A divorce court judge knows when a petitioner speaks of her 'freedom', that she means her freedom from the matrimonial tie. But the context does not always enlighten. The word 'libre' on the door of a cabinet in France means 'unoccupied': the word 'free' on a similar door in England means 'no charge for admission'.

There is a story of a German pupil of Martin Heidegger having proclaimed in all solemnity that he was resolved. He had learned from his master the importance of 'the resolve'. But he did not know what he was resolved to do. 'Ich bin entschlossen, ich weiss nur nicht wozu!' It would be no less absurd for a man to say he was free and not to know from what.

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Should we have considered being free to rather than being free from? Such an approach might attract a mind which is anxious to emphasize the positive. It is unlikely, however, to lead very far.

I may say 'I am free to dine with you this evening' or 'I am free to leave London tomorrow'. I mean, when I use these words, that I am free from anything that would prevent my doing what is mentioned. 'I am free to dine with you this evening' is another way of saying 'I am free from any sort of engagement or impediment that might have stood in the way of my dining with you this evening'. It is shorter, but it is not more 'positive'.

No one thinks a set of circumstances constraining unless he wants to do something which those circumstances prevent or hinder. The law which forbids the importation of parrots into the United Kingdom is not felt as a constraint or impediment by people who have no desire to import parrots into the United Kingdom. If we have no desire to do things, we should hardly know the meaning of constraint.

Constraints stand opposed to our desires; freedom stands opposed to constraints. A reason for liking freedom is that we do not like constraints. Nor do we like the other thing with which we contrast our freedom. We speak of being free from burdens -- such as debts and responsibilities -- which we tend to dislike. We speak of being free from nuisances -- such as rats and the noise of other people's parties. A complication arises from the fact, which we must later examine, that some burdens (duties, responsibilities), even some constraints are liked. But generally the presence of constraints, impediments and burdens is unwelcome. It is when they are absent, and we rejoice, that we say we are free.

We do not speak of ourselves as being free from something we should welcome. We hear of 'a tax-free investment'. Who has ever heard of a 'dividend-free investment'?

Compare the three phrases: 'to be without', 'to lack' and 'to be free from'. We use the word 'lack' when we speak of things we are without and regret we are without. 'I lack Spanish', 'I lack powers of concentration'. We use the expression 'free from' when we speak of those things we are without and are glad we are without. 'My throat is free from infection', 'The house is free from damp'. We use the words 'without' or 'has not', when we are indifferent. I say 'John Locke died without issue', because I am neither pleased about that fact nor sorry.

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Our habit of saying we are free when we are without something we are glad to be without, might prompt us to agree with writers who tell us that freedom is good. I think we should not agree too readily. For there is no one freedom but many freedoms; and they are as various as are constraints, impediments and burdens.

Furthermore, if once a man agrees, in conversation with philosophers and politicians, that freedom is good without being quite clear what he means by 'freedom', he is likely to find himself being told what 'freedom' means, and forced to agree that that is good.

Many philosophers and politicians have written about 'freedom' as if it were a word like 'immortality' or 'monarchy' or 'popery'; something both lofty and difficult to understand, but nevertheless positive and uniquely descriptive. Having allowed themselves the privilege of using the word 'free' without naming the constraint, impediment or burden to which it stands opposed, such writers have often come to assume that there is something vulgar about associating the word 'free with any particular constraining factor. Aristotle [2] says that if freedom means the absence of constraint, it points to a state of affairs in which 'each man lives as he likes', a thought from which Aristotle recoils. Heidegger does not speak for himself alone when he says: 'Freedom is not what common sense is content to let pass under that name.' [3] He speaks for a long line of philosophers who have felt with Aristotle that what common sense is content with is a 'mean conception of liberty'. [4]

There is said to have been in Nashville, Tennessee, a Negro gentleman whose name was Marquis Of. Visitors would sometimes ask him 'Marquis of what?' 'Just "Marquis Of"' he would say. If they continued to look puzzled, he would explain: 'In Nashville "Of" is a respected family name. My first name is Marquis, and nobody in Nashville would ever think of asking me "Marquis of what."'

Some readers of philosophical and political books are like those people of Nashville, Tennessee. They are so used to the name of 'freedom' that they would never think of asking 'freedom from what?' It may even seem ill-mannered to suggest that it should ever be done. I believe that it should always be done.

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Lord Acton proposed to write a history of mankind in terms of its struggle towards freedom. Rousseau opened his treatise on The Social Contract with the famous words: 'Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.' If the word 'free' had unique descriptive meaning, Acton and Rousseau would have been in conflict here over a matter of fact, Acton holding that men were becoming more free than they once were, Rousseau that they had become less free. Since the word 'free' has not such uniquely descriptive meaning, it does not follow that Acton and Rousseau were in conflict on any matter of fact.

They were at variance in what they understood by 'freedom'. Acton seems to have meant by 'freedom' -- freedom from the constraints of nature, freedom from disease and hunger and insecurity and ignorance and superstition. Freedom from these constraints I will call the Progressive image of freedom.

When Rousseau spoke of 'freedom' in this context, he usually meant freedom from the constraints of advanced political institutions of modern European civilization. Freedom from such constraints is promoted by a return to more primitive and natural ways of living. I will call this the Romantic [5] image of freedom.

The Progressive and the Romantic are thus both employing the same word 'freedom', but they are asking for different things. They are demanding freedom from different constraints. What is more, each is asking for a freedom which experience teaches us can only be purchased at the price of precisely that freedom which the other cherishes. Freedom from the constraints of nature (the Progressive demand) has been achieved, where it has been achieved, in exchange for the constraints of advanced political institutions -- policemen, compulsory education and the Welfare State. Where the constraints of advanced political institutions have been removed, as they were removed from the Negroes who left the United States for Liberia, servitude to nature and the hardships of a primitive society have replaced the earlier servitude to the institutions of the modern state.

The Progressive looks forward. The more civilized and industrialized a society, the more freedom (freedom, that is from the constraints of nature) he discerns. The industrial revolution, the progress of science, the spread of education are all seen as liberating forces. The Progressive tends to admire such societies as England and the U.S.A.

The Romantic, on the other hand, looks backward. If there is servitude to nature, where there are no advanced political institutions, such servitude, he argues, is at least natural. The servitude to political institutions which follows from the existence of the modem state is artificial, and for that reason evil. The Romantic admires communities like the ancient Swiss cantons of Glarus and Appenzell, where men kept a primitive democracy alive in modern times, and lived close to the soil, unlettered and poor, but without political masters.

The conflict here is a simple one. The state of affairs the Progressive sees as servitude the Romantic calls freedom, and that which the Romantic sees as servitude the Progressive calls freedom. There is a quarrel here in which the opposing principles are both given the same name. It is freedom versus freedom, and the surprising thing is that we are able to make anything at all of their encounter. Imagine hearing a wireless commentary on a boxing match between those celebrated pugilists of the past who shared the name of Johnson. How perplexing it would be if the commentator spoke of both of them as 'Johnson'. But no commentator would be so foolish. The accent would be on James and John and not on Johnson. There is a lesson here for philosophers and politicians and all who write and talk about freedom.

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It may be said that so far as political (as distinct from philosophical) controversies go, the word 'freedom' is generally understood precisely because the constraining factor from which that freedom is claimed is generally understood.

At the time of the Roman kings, for example, 'freedom' was unequivocal. It meant freedom from the rule of the kings. But when that rule ended, when freedom (in that sense) was achieved, 'freedom' ceased to be unequivocal. With the abolition of the Roman monarchy, as Dr Wirszubski has pointed out, [6] the Romans began to shift the reference of the word 'liberty' to something positive. 'Libertas' meant no longer the absence of monarchy, but a concept of popular government embodied in the republican constitution of the commonwealth. The res publica populi Romani Quiritium was the embodiment of libertas populi Romani, just as civitas Romana was the embodiment of libertas civis Romani. However, as Dr Wirszubski explains, the Roman constitution was not a constant. The word 'libertas', associated with the republican constitution during the Republican period, was later associated with the Principate, in spite of the radical changes in the nature of the Principate during the first century A.D.

The example of Rome shows that the word 'libertas' had one accepted meaning only so long as it stood opposed to one particular constraint to which everyone knew it stood opposed. Once that state of affairs ended, the word 'libertas' floated unanchored on the tides of demagogy.

The lesson of Rome is the lesson of history generally. The word 'liberty' has its least ambiguity in political use in times of centralized oppression. That is because the constraint or burden from which liberty is sought is clearly understood. In Europe between 1815 and 1848 a man who proclaimed liberty would be understood to mean liberty from the kings and emperors who then occupied the thrones of Europe. There was no doubt about what Byron meant when he sang:

This is because there was no doubt about what Byron wanted freedom from. When he told how he mused at Marathon and 'dream'd that Greece might still be free' [8] he could not have been thought to mean anything but 'free from Turkish rule'.

In France, at the end of the eighteenth century, the call for freedom was a call for freedom from despotic Bourbon rule, as in England during the first half of the seventeenth century the call for freedom had been a call for freedom from despotic Stuart rule.

The words 'freedom' and 'liberty' can be clearly understood in political manifestos only in so far as they are recognized as having definite reference to some such specific constraint. The meaning is most clear when those in authority admit that they stand opposed to liberty. Such admissions have rarely been made anywhere in the world; in England and America, perhaps never.

Charles the First is reported to have said from the scaffold on 30 January 1649: [9]

This seems to be a royal definition of the word 'freedom', or to be more exact, a redefinition. And it is clear what effect the royal utterance was designed to achieve. By proclaiming himself in favour of freedom (redefined) the King stole the colours of the rebels; or rather he stole the shorthand sign 'freedom' which they had made to stand for 'freedom from Stuart rule' and made that sign stand instead for 'freedom from anarchy'.

The proper rejoinder would have been to call for the full version of all such abbreviated slogans. That rejoinder did not come. The call for freedom lost its anchorage again. It came to be used, as so often before and since, to mean different and even contrary principles in the minds of different people.

America in the 1860s provides an instructive example. Both belligerents in the Civil War said that they were fighting for freedom. Some people may have thought because of this, that one side or the other was lying. In fact, each side was making an incomplete pronouncement. Both, so far as they went, were speaking the truth. The South could truly claim that it was fighting for the freedom of State governments from Federal interference; the North could truly claim that it was fighting, among other things, to free the Negroes of the South from slavery. Abraham Lincoln began to detect what was happening when he said in a speech at Baltimore in 1864: 'The world has never had a good definition of the word "liberty" ... in using the same word, we do not mean the same thing.' [10]

Another, no less thoughtful President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, is remarkable among the statesmen of history in having seen that it is not enough to speak of 'freedom' unless one explains what one wishes to be free from or free for. Thus, when he proclaimed as the goals of Allied policy in the Second World War, four freedoms -- freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of worship and freedom of speech -- Roosevelt made his programme meaningful. It was perhaps an unrealistic, Utopian programme, but at least it could be understood.

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When you talk of freedom, you cannot be sure of making your meaning clear by putting an adjective in front of the substantive. We often hear, for example, of 'economic freedom' and 'religious freedom'. Neither is unambiguous.

The expression 'economic freedom' has at least two meanings in current use. Sometimes the expression is used to denote what is also called a 'free economic system' -- an economic system free from the control of the State. Sometimes it is used to denote the freedom of the individual from economic hardship.

In the political writings of today both conservatives and socialists advocate 'economic freedom'. Conservatives, when they speak of 'economic freedom', usually mean 'the freedom of the national economy from the controls of the State'. Socialists usually mean 'freedom from economic hardship'.

What makes this ambiguity particularly unfortunate is that the 'economic freedom' recommended by the socialists is held by them to be possible only at the expense of 'economic freedom' in the sense in which it is recommended by conservatives. Thus the political controversies of the present day disclose a paradox analogous to the case where 'freedom' recommended by the Romantic and Progressive respectively turned out to be purchasable in either sense only at the expense of 'freedom' in the other.

Likewise we find the expression 'religious freedom' used sometimes to mean 'freedom (from state interference) for religious institutions', and at others to mean 'freedom (for individuals) from religious institutions'. (People who want freedom from religious institutions often look to State interference to secure it.)

An adjective in front of 'freedom' can be depended on to eliminate equivocation only if it says what that freedom is freedom from or freedom for.

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1. Compare the word 'free' with the word 'prepared'. If I say 'I am prepared', you will not learn much unless you know what I am prepared for -- war, the bath, the Day of Judgment or whatever it may be.

2. Politics, V, ix, § 15, 16.

3. Existence and Being (London, 1949), p. 334.

4. Aristotle, Politics, loc. cit.

5. The Progressive image of freedom does not underlie all Acton's teaching; nor was the Romantic image the only one held by Rousseau. Each offers what appears to be a definition of 'freedom' as follows:

(a) Lord Acton (History of Freedom, London, 1907, p. 3) says: 'By liberty I mean the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes to be his duty against the influences of authority and majorities, custom and opinion.'

(b) Rousseau (Du Contrat Social, I, 8): 'L'impulsion du seul appétit est esclavage, et l'obéissance à la loi qu'on s'est prescrite est liberté.' Rousseau adds, however, the note: 'le sens philosophique du mot liberté n'est pas ici de mon sujet.'

6. Libertas, by C. Wirszubski (Cambridge, 1952).

7. Childe Harold, IV. xcviii.

8. Don Juan, III. lxxxvi.

9. The Works of King Charles (London, 1662), p. 454.

10. Lincoln was unjust when he went on to suggest that 'liberty' for his own side in the war meant 'liberty for each man to do as he pleases with himself' while for his enemies the word meant 'liberty for some men to do as they please with other men'. His enemies could truly claim that they used the word 'liberty' to mean 'liberty for each American State to rule itself as it pleases'.

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