Freedom- is it the ability to make laws that affect you, or the absense of laws?
In order to better understand a question, sometimes it helps to ask another. (As eye-rollingly worthy as that sounds, you might notice it works for you! 😉)
So here’s mine: When you think of the Greeks, what imagery springs to mind? Stone homes? Barbarism? Strange food?
Or democracy, maybe?
Because while so many people I know will tell me that they think of the Greeks as being, compared to our era, what they describe as ‘backward’, as soon as they’ve read into the Greeks they come back saying “Did you know that they had a conception of democracy not so unlike ours today?”. Then there are the incredible ideas that came out of the works of genius writers of the time, Aristotle being a name you will probably recognise 🙂
The Greeks actually had a very interesting conception of freedom. They believed, unlike the conception that freedom is that without laws, that we are already subject to the laws of nature, which we have not made ourselves, and yet are subject to. Politics, then, is seen as the highest area where freedom can be exercised in that that’s where and when we are able to influence the laws that govern us (true to a greater extent then as the Greeks governed through a system of Direct Democracy). Law, then, to the Greeks, enables the actualisation of freedom.
This perspective on freedom is described as Positive Freedom– duty is the actualisation of our fullest capacity of freedom, according to the Greeks, who believed that because our private lives happen in isolation, they’re not actually important. They believed that the individual only made sense when within society; those who had no need for society, if not Gods, were beasts, and what differentiated the latter from humans was defined as the ability of speech and reason, which only humans, as opposed to bees or cows, possess. (On a side note, I’ve really no idea where the cow comparison came from. Bees I have heard, cows is more of a random thing. I have nothing against cows btw 😂😉).
The Greeks contrasted themselves to Barbarians- and no, I don’t mean the caveman-like movie stereotypes here 😂 In the Greek conception, Barbarians were those who didn’t speak Greek- significant? Yes, because what not speaking Greek really meant was an inability to do business through speech, which the Greeks saw as a hugely important part of being human and actualising your freedom. To put this into plain English, they believed in putting an emphasis on participation and activity in the public sphere, and obeying laws you’ve made yourself 🙂
Politics was also seen as a ‘site of immortality’, in that it is in the Polis that others speak of us and our deeds live on. Key word here? Glory. Achieving something people will speak about. To the Greeks, even if I nail Whitney Houston’s Where do Broken Hearts Go? (hahhhh as if 😂)- that’s in the private sphere, and I won’t be remembered for it compared to a great political victory, which to them would be considered an action that is immortal in its legacy (think the immense feats of Alexander the Great, and other important leaders in history).
If I’m going to leave you with one last important point, it’s going to be this one: there is a belief amongst many writers and analysts that for all the benefits in terms of accountability and representation that the Greeks enjoyed through their system of direct democracy (the most direct form of rule by the people, for the people), the freedom of the few was sustained by the unfreedom of the many.
It’s something that took forever for me to understand, but I’ll do my best to explain it briefly here. Although many Greeks could participate in Politics and ‘actualise’ their freedom, reach perfection, in other words- there were many more that were excluded, including wonen, slaves and foreigners. It’s been estimated that although there were 300,000 people living in Athens at the time of the Greeks, only 30,000 could actually debate the rules imposed on them, the rest having no say on the matter. It is quite strange to think that sometimes for something to exist, it must have an opposite, but in this case it is true. Freedom can be defined by what it is not, and what it is not existed at the time of the Greeks and arguably exists even today.