Freedom is the ability to act. Many thinkers pondered this and wondered what does it mean to act and what kinds of actions should an individual commit based on the goals and consequences of those actions in the world we live in. The following thinkers understood freedom to be an essential part of life both natural and political but had different views on what the source of freedom is and how to use that freedom properly.
Machiavelli stated that the individual should act in a manner that best secures their freedom and they should leave morality out of the picture. This does not mean do whatever you want since what you want now might compromise your security in the future. This self-control, environmental awareness, and prudence is the virtue of a prince. They can restrict their irrational desires without restricting their ability to do what is necessary to better secure their livelihoods and freedom.
Hobbes argued against the individual approach of Machiavelli and said that individuals should give up their rights to a sovereign who can do a better job at securing freedom than they could alone in the state of nature. The powers or freedoms an individual has in the state of nature, which they use to secure their wellbeing and freedom, ought to be given up to a sovereign made up of many individuals. This sovereign has a greater power than the sum of the individuals and can better secure itself and in turn its subjects in the state of nature. The sovereign, itself surviving in the state of nature, has the right to do whatever it deems necessary to secure itself in such a state just as an individual has that same right when they are in the state of nature.
Similarly to Hobbes, Winthrop’s little speech on liberty claimed that there were two types of freedom. Natural liberty is man vs everyone, where the individual could do both good and evil but will ultimately and naturally do evil. Civil liberty includes the covenant with God and man which establishes moral law, and political constitutions between men. Civil liberty is the end goal of government so an authority designed to do what is good in the eyes of God and the constitutions of man must be obeyed while authorities not consistent to these are unlawful and should be resisted.
Locke expounded on Hobbes by asserting that individuals should consent to a social compact that is designed for creating an environment most conducive to the individual's freedom. This consent has to be free and maintained. Any force or violation of consent puts the government and the people in a state of war where the people appeal to heaven for victory over the government. To maintain the state of civility both the individual and government should reserve their actions and only do what is productive in maintaining the civil society and not start a war.
In line with Locke, Montesquieu adds that individuals should not view freedom as the ability to do whatever they want to others or else others can do what they want to them, instead people should look for freedom in laws that limit individuals from being tyrannical while also limiting the government from being tyrannical. The state through due process of making laws should be the authority in which citizens subject themselves to and no unlawful authority should be tolerated. The balance between individual and political body is itself made up of balances of the powers within the two. The government can be balanced by separating and checking the three powers of the government. Legislative power, or the power to create laws, the judicial power, or the power to judge violators of the law, and executive power, or the power to execute the laws and violators.
Out of Montesquieu the American founders showed what they thought of freedom in the Federalist Papers. Federalist #1 says that liberty is apt to infection but a strong government secures liberty anyway. In Federalist #10 Madison states that liberty is apt to faction but is still essential to political life. Here lies the distinction of the different types of freedom. Too much freedom, and the individual can be corrupted and start a war with other people or the government. Too little freedom and the individual is a mere subject to another’s will where their government is not supported by consent but by force, and so a certain amount of freedom is necessary. Deducing from this, there is a balance of freedoms and a civil society is one where the government and the people support each other in maintaining this balance.
Nietzsche pushed back on the idea of the balancing act and said that to live in your own horizon and no one else’s is freedom. To live as the last man or someone caught up with the world they did not create is to not live freely. This concept of freedom is individualistic, more so than Machiavelli’s freedom, since Nietzsche does not only say to obey oneself he also supports forcing or willing others to obey. After all nothing is true, everything is permitted. God is dead therefore individuals have the freedom to cast their horizon for others to follow. Those who are able to do this are ubermensch, who know that the horizon is fabricated yet are able to live as if it is real.
Lewis refutes Nietzsche and even Machiavelli’s Godless ends and believes in a greater good beyond the individual. To Lewis there is licentious freedom and noble freedom, where one’s animalistic desires are not a liberty but a restraint to further freedom, and by restraining these desires and pursuing virtue we become truly free. Here is the balancing act again. God is alive therefore individuals have the freedom to pursue noble actions and avoid evil ones. Professor Innes’ chapter on liberty in “Christ and the Kingdom of Men” is in line with Lewis and says that freedom is the license to do what we want and is not the highest good in itself. Nobel freedom is self governance to preserve oneself by restricting their own desires so that there is no “war of every man against every man,” a fear that Hobbes mentions in the “Leviathan.” The government has freedom but its noble freedom is to secure the rights and well being of its citizens. The people have a similar freedom where their noble freedom includes respecting one another. Individuals have freedom to work with or fight against the state and the people, but the noble choice is the former. Moral freedom where despite the failures of others the individual decides to do what is good.
In summation of these concepts and arguments, freedom is the ability to act, but not all action is free nor are all of its consequences conducive to freedom. In the pursuit of maximum freedom one ought to do what is necessary given the nature of the world, both natural and civil, to achieve this end. Naturally, one should stay away from the state of war since war is the environment with the least security for oneself and instead they should join and remain in the state of civility.
To join, one consents to deposit some of their freedom or power in a trust called a government which uses the sum of its citizen’s trust to better secure freedom for itself and its constituents. This trilateral power of the individual in nature is held in trust within the government. The power to legislate, judge, and execute one’s will.
To remain, an individual must keep out of a state of war between them and their fellow citizens or between them and the government and in turn the government must maintain the trust of its citizens by neither violating the freedoms that the people did not consent to give up nor allowing its citizens to be in a state of nature or war.
The people should be prudent in their own actions and be diligent of the actions of the government while the government ought to reciprocate this behavior. Mutual governance, including self-governance, is the balance between the individual and the government that is essential to maintaining the state of civility. When the government restricts a freedom that the people do not consent to deposit to the government then that is a civil rights violation. This violation puts the people and the government in a state of war but this could be solved through civil means through protests, petitions, and an amending process. These civil means should be lawful and respected on all sides to prevent the escalation to a more severe and natural war.
If the people violate each other or a lawful and civil government, then that government is responsible for quelling those violators. Equally, if the government violates the people and rejects civil reforms then it is the responsibility of the people to resist, abolish, and make a new government to restore the state of civility.
The actions someone or some government does that better secures their freedom, which usually includes the externality of securing other’s freedom as well, is virtuous, noble, and reasonable. Actions done that start or perpetuate the state of war is viceful, ignoble, and unreasonable to the law of nature. A civil government would be designed after the trilateral of power mentioned earlier that its constituents consent to giving up to the government. These three powers, when held by an individual, signal that they are in the state of nature and most likely in a state of war. Therefore, the civil government meant to protect its constituents from nature and war ought to keep these powers separated and checked.
Freedom is the ability to act and there are actions that can increase freedom and there are actions that can diminish it. It is the end purpose of civil society, both the people and their institutions, to discover and implement the actions that increase freedom and restrict or abolish those acts which diminish it. These disquisitions from thinkers were about how this would look like in practice. Each building off and critiquing preceding thoughts in a perpetual deliberation. This is relevant today because we need to continue this essential civil discussion.