Skip to main content
In Search of Freedom
Mar 1, 2008

Throughout the ages, people have given different meanings to freedom. Every scholar has defined it in their own way according to their own thinking. At times, the concept of freedom has served as a tool to justify particular causes, and indeed has been a pretext for many shameful actions. On witnessing these, one asks, “What is this thing that has so shaken the world?”

Today, the Western world is seen by many as the representative of freedom and democracy. How has freedom been understood and treated in the history of the West? To answer this question, we will go on a journey through history, in which we will restrict ourselves to continental Europe, focusing on different periods in terms of how freedom has been approached and used. Here, we basically define freedom as being free from suppression or obstacles which have deliberately been placed before an individual by others to impede said freedom.

In the Middle Ages, freedom was not relevant to the masses in Europe. Most people did not even dream of it, since inequalities in society were the norm. A person could not attain freedom, but some were born free. Freedom was a privilege inherited from the class that your family belonged to. Being born into the lower classes was a fate one had to accept. This limited concept of freedom based on social status was further acknowledged or legitimized by the dominant religious authorities, that is, the Christian clergymen. “Keep silent and obey the orders of the feudal lord; hope you will be rewarded in the next life” became the common prescription for the masses that kept them subjugated to and suppressed by the political authority. . In other words, if one was not of the upper-class, one could “freely” make a choice between the despotic order of the feudal lord and the in justice of the clergy, who were abusing the social role assigned to them as the unquestionable judges.

A breaking point in the stable intellectual line of the Middle Ages was certainly the Renaissance and the Reformation. Those who had the opportunity to study and read the works of the ancients directly, without the filtering of the Church, became aware of new directions for human thought. This current, propelled by these newly educated people, nurtured the idea of freedom of “thought” and “belief.”

The development of gunpowder and the cannon brought an end not only to the feudal-lords but also to the age. These changes reduced the importance of the skilled cavalry in warfare, which were supplied by the feudal lords to the kings, and in turn reduced the importance in the lords. Even well-fortified cities fell when faced by this immensely destructive force. Therefore, small feudalities had to unite, or else be erased. The strength of the state/king increased, while the lords’ sovereignty was reduced. Centralized authority became the dogma. Everything belonged to the monarch, including the authority to decide who had the freedom to do what.

Ironically, the concept of sovereign states was fortified through strong and able monarchies, which later produced the nation state. As the France of Louis XIV grew stronger, for instance, it started to dominate the surrounding territories. In its effort to support military campaigns, the powerful French state pushed forward the idea of a “French nation.” This new concept of nation superseded all local bases of identity, particularly, at the expense of religion.

Freedom under the shadow of capitalism

In the age of monarchy, everything was controlled and directed by a supreme state, the symbol of sovereignty. The idea of individuals with basic freedoms, such as freedom of thought or freedom of speech, was inconceivable as the state demanded complete obedience of its subjects. In other words, individual freedom would have been a threat to authority. Therefore, despite all the changes in the overall picture, the main component of society, the individual, was still overlooked.

While the feudal order became history with an alliance between the king and the rising bourgeoisie in towns and cities, in turn the bourgeoisie played a key role in introducing the concept of a state with limited powers. In the end, such limitations on the state meant greater freedom for the citizens.

With the new discoveries and inventions that led to industrialization, the bourgeoisie demanded more freedom. Its power was its wealth, which directed politics, its weapon was “reason,” which was used to challenge and abolish the monopoly of the Church on ideas, and its flag was “freedom for all.” For all? Could there really have been a chance of freedom for a person who could hardly make living? However, for the bourgeoisie, the answer was in the affirmative. To them, freedom was two-fold: freedom of thought and economic freedom, the core idea of a freely operating market. Both of these were held sacred and were considered to be closely intertwined. In this sense, the bourgeoisie, the primary agent of capitalism, was the first social agent to celebrate and pursue human liberty.

Demanding a market free of all kinds of controls was the fundamental idea of economic liberalism. In response to the concerns of justice, economic liberalism claimed that the invisible hand of the economy would balance out the inequalities in due time, provided that it was able to operate free of control. Although not everyone supported these notions of freedom, the poorer classes did ally with the bourgeoisie against one common enemy: the royalty. As the bourgeoisie’s power reached a critical stage they united with the lower class, overthrowing the king and holding a revolution. However, this was not a revolution for all of society. In fact, for some thinkers, all that the bourgeoisie had done was to present the old ideas in a new suit. The bourgeoisie set the bottom line of freedom at the possession of property. This was quite apparent in the constitution of France for example, where those who could pay a certain amount of tax were allowed to vote. In other words, freedom for all meant freedom for those who could afford it. One’s right was proportional to the tax one paid. If you did not have enough money, you had no right to be represented.

Freedom vs. justice

Certainly, the liberal understanding of freedom was far from pleasing to everyone. The lower class had no teacher at that time. They started slowly to become aware of Marx’s teachings, who claimed that the “evil capitalist system” was due to collapse. The new teacher of the lower class also preached to them that “history is the history of struggle between classes, and we are in the final round. We must win this battle, and begin a new life in a new world.” Thus, the socialist/communist notion of “social justice” grew stronger. The Marxist thinkers revealed the hidden realities of the society and gathered the working class around one goal, i.e., getting rid of the “evil capitalist system.”

This kind of interpretation of the new order was very attractive for some. It appealed to the angry masses and asked that they raise their voices in response. The Marxist theory dealt primarily with economic justice and the distribution of wealth. It spoke not of the “freedom of human beings,” but of the economic independence of the lower classes, for in Marxist thought human beings were “working animals.” As a solution, people’s future was closely tied to the dominance of the proletariat, who were seen to be the true owners of the wealth produced in a society. In this scheme of thought, individual freedoms were of secondary importance to the well-being of society.

Thus, one can say that the Marxist view of freedom was an abuse of freedom. In brief, what it said was this: Freedom is good as long as it gives us reasons to complain about the existing system and permits us to rebel against the bourgeoisie. After all, we are exercising our freedom to speak! But it is fundamentally problematic in that it erases the individuality of the person in favor of the group (the proletariat, the working class), whose existence is based only on abstract notions of materialism and historical determinism.

Multi-dimensional freedom for multi-dimensional individuals

After the age of ideologies, freedom today is understood more properly as a personal dimension of being human, a quality that is directly related to individuality. Despite many violations of justice, at least fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of travel, are protected by most democratic governments. The demands placed by political authority on people’s personal lives seem to be less controlling in democratic countries as compared to authoritarian ones. Can we then say that issues concerning freedom have been settled? Unfortunately not.

To resolve this matter, one has to think of humans as multi-dimensional beings. As we know, everything we experience in social life has a reflection in our internal life and vice versa. Laws and regulations address the social, political or economic aspects of life. What about our internal capacities that affect our decisions? Do we not have a strong attachment to our desires and impulses, which sometimes makes us act according to emotions instead of reason? If the aim of any theory is to guide us to true freedom, it must account for the inner dimensions of freedom. Since this guidance cannot be provided by any political or social means, each individual must strive to attain inner freedom by using the means available to him or her. We may start searching for this guidance by contemplating the meaning of our existence and what freedom really means in relation with our status in the universe. Perhaps, complete freedom is never attainable as all of us are connected somehow with each other and with the rest of the creation.

However defined, freedom is the fundamental requirement for the flourishing of the individual. Through much of the historical developments in the concept of freedom, there are two certain conclusions we can draw. First, freedom as a human condition has been ignored and has become subject to violations. Our history is full of examples that support this contention in which everything is expressed in terms of abstract-plural concepts. Remember our history books: Nations migrate, armies fight, states make peace, or civilizations clash. The individual human being, if not an exaggerated hero, is individually absent in history.

Secondly, freedom has prevailed as an intrinsically valuable notion for our existence. Several unpleasant examples in history witness that negligence or resistance to the use of this fundamental right only results in drastic changes that make it more valuable.

Ozgur tagla is a teaching assistant at the School of Arts&Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh.