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A definition of freedom

February 17, 2018

I happened on a video lecture on the genealogy of liberty, posing the question: In most precise terms, what is the definition of freedom? Language is quite literally the architect of our reality, and a clear definition of freedom is of grave significance.

The lecturer had presented various historical definitions of freedom, beginning with freedom as the power to pursue an option and the lack of external interference in doing so. This worked well enough for some time, until it became important to define “interference." Interference was then defined to be any of physical force, a bending of will, or coercion that render the pursuit of alternatives ineligible. That was fine for some time, until it became important to define coercion, and so on.

Further down the trace, he introduces self-interference as a form by which one can limit their freedom, including but not limited to passion, inauthenticity, and false consciousness. An alternate definition of freedom was then introduced as the freedom to self-realize, or, for one to have the ability to discover the essence of their nature, which I really liked.

The lecture culminated in a new definition of liberty proposed by the author himself, and this is where things began to get interesting.

He states: You are not a free man or woman if there is dependence on the arbitrary will or power of others. He says, the mere fact of dependence takes away freedom of action. And of course, as I was hoping he might, he lists “dependence on the arbitrary power of bosses.”

So, what is this distinction between the free and the slave? The answer given in the Roman law — and it’s extremely influential — is that it’s the mere fact of having a master that makes you unfree. The mere fact, that is, of living in a state of dependence on the arbitrary will of somebody else.

I think what’s interesting is the seeming evolution of freedom as something originally related to that of physical or coercive obstruction, usually executed by a governing state, to a sort of permeation of "microliberties" in everything we do, the sum of which is your net liberty. He makes it very clear that this definition of your dependence on arbitrary power is agnostic to the source. It could be a state, your boss, or your husband. He makes reference to the plight of women’s historical lack of liberty as due to their unrelenting dependence on men for economic stability.

The dependency that I'm talking about— and this is extremely important to me— is very specific. It is dependency upon a dominating power—it is a status relationship with dominance and dependence—that takes away freedom. So the power that generates the dependence that takes away freedom is an arbitrary power where that power is arbitrary if there is someone who can operate it with impunity, without tracking your interest. They don't have to track your interests. They might, but they don't have to. And if they don't, it's done with impunity.

The important aspect of the author's newly proposed definition is that it references not an active obstruction of liberty, like you might imagine from physical force or mental coercion, but a looming, distant one. You do not have freedom of action if you are at the mercy of a capricious boss, even if this boss has never chastised you before; the mere fact of a boss’s ability to decide your fate if he or she so chooses severely constricts your freedom.

This definition of liberty is one I can strongly relate to, as can probably many of you. It’s the reason employment can feel so excruciatingly painful at times. It seems, it’s no mistake. In the pure definition of it, it's slavery.

You can watch the full lecture here:
A Genealogy of Liberty: A Lecture by Quentin Skinner

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