We tend to think of freedom as something that is best protected by carefully circumscribing the boundaries of legitimate state activity. But who came up with this understanding of freedom, and for what purposes?
In a reappraisal of more than two thousand years of thinking about freedom in the West, Annelien de Dijn argues in her Freedom: An Unruly History (Harvard University Press) that we owe our view of freedom not to the liberty lovers of the Age of Revolution but to the enemies of democracy.
The conception of freedom most prevalent today—that it depends on the limitation of state power—is a deliberate and dramatic rupture with long-established ways of thinking about liberty. For centuries people in the West identified freedom not with being left alone by the state but with the ability to exercise control over the way in which they were governed. They had what might best be described as a democratic conception of liberty.
Understanding the long history of freedom underscores how recently it has come to be identified with limited government. It also reveals something crucial about the genealogy of current ways of thinking about freedom.
Annelien de Dijn is a professor of political History at Utrecht University
Yorgos Giannakopoulos is a historian of Modern Britain and Europe. He has recently guest edited the special issue “Britain, European Civilization and the idea of Liberty” for the History of European Ideas (2020)