Ancient and Modern Liberty

Freedom… what is it really, a concept, a theory, a reality, an illusion, something individual, particular, or universal? Is it a form, a substance, inherent, or does it have to be fought for? What is for certain is that this “thing” has been thought of differently throughout centuries.

Today, we think of freedom as an inherent right that pertains to every individual without exception. Although, many times it has to be fought for because it is interfered with and obstructed to the point that it is taken from us. Yes, we might have a rule of law known by all and applied to all that supposedly protects us from those who try to snatch our freedom, but if this functioned perfectly, why do we at times still seek liberty? In this modern world we have freedom of speech, right to use property as pleased, right to travel, right to associate with others, right to have some influence over government, and so on. Modern thought sees freedom as an individual right, though ancients saw it distinctively.

Ancient Greece viewed freedom rights as something collective not individual. It was the right of the city, state, or assembly because individuals had the absolute liberty to decide in public affairs. For instance, ancients had the freedom to discuss and make decisions about war and peace, form foreign allegiances, vote on new laws, examine magistrates’ records, call magistrates before the people in assembly, accuse and render judgments on magistrates, etc. This old world forced people to become subjective to collective decisions, even if these hampered the individual’s rights. In other words, they were free in public, but slaves in private. What you could do collectively to an individual (e.g. exile), could be done against your individuality, as well.

Now, why did these huge differences exist? What are their sources? Well, primarily, today a nation of 300 million citizens cannot go to a gigantic assembly to expose their beliefs. The bigger the country, the smaller is the political importance to any given individual, and vice versa. Therefore, ancient Greece had the ability to include all of its citizens; it had few and thus their voice could be heard in the assembly. Additionally, we don’t have slavery today. Slavery in the past enabled people to utilize their leisure time in enforcing their public liberties, like analyzing government. Presently, our focus on individual rights took us to justly abolish slavery at the cost of sacrificing leisure for acquiring political knowledge.

When it comes to commerce, it was smaller than today and there was less incentive for hostility towards the government when it intervened in private affairs. Some might claim that Athens, whom had the most developed commerce, fits the exception to the last statement. However, ostracism existed, this gave the collective decision the right to tear an individual from his country, possessions, trade, wife/husband, children, and etcetera. You were thrown out of your society even if you didn’t do anything wrong. The good of the whole was better than the individual’s.

Which freedom do you prefer, the modern or ancient? As mind blowing as it may seem, society has been little by little exchanging modern liberty for ancient liberty. A good example of this is the great power the people have given the government to educate children to its pleasure. This is done under the declaration that the ancient world accomplished extraordinary things and we must be like them. Yet, I tell you, please don’t imitate the ancient world.


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