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Ancient Conceptions

Liberty or freedom (eleutheria) in ancient Greece denoted the status of the free man and woman as opposed to that of the slave. The division between free persons and slaves was deemed to be a social and natural institution. Free status was identified by a set of various rights and privileges. Hence, liberty was exclusive and could not be shared by every individual. Indeed, one of the rights of free individuals was to own other individuals as slaves. Similarly, the political freedom of a community also denoted the subjugation of other communities under its control. The preservation of an individual's liberty was not considered to be inconsistent with the depravation of another's, and this was also the case with a political community. In addition, the Greek (especially Athenian) concept of liberty entailed equality of political rights and freedom of male political participation in the public sphere.

In his philosophical framework, Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 B.C.E.) left little room for liberty or freedom. Liberty was not a constituent element of human dignity, and freedom of thought was nothing other than the freedom to be incorrect, that is, a greater chance to deviate from the objective truths. Aristotle's (384–322 B.C.E.) definition of liberty resembles the contemporary notion; for him, the general essence of freedom is being one's own person for one's own sake rather than belonging to another. What discriminates the slave from the free man, then, is not that he is restricted in his actions and subject to coercion but that everything he does is done to serve the interest of someone else. Whether Aristotle enshrined individual freedom in the sense of personal autonomy is a contentious issue. The place of autonomous practical rationality in his ethics becomes problematic when set against his claim of the individual's subordination to the state (polis). Aristotle's alleged dearth of interest in personal autonomy would be consistent with the reduction of the individual to a mere part of the state, while the recognition of personal autonomy in the Aristotelian ethical system would not.

The Roman idea of liberty (libertas) was a civic right acquired under positive law; namely, it was a constituent of the membership of the civic body (citizenship). Roman civil law was applicable to citizens of Rome only; noncitizens were ruled by the law of nations. Roman liberty was by definition a positive right that was guaranteed (but could also be withdrawn) by the law. Law-abiding citizens enjoyed the liberty of a Roman citizen and, before the law, all the citizens were equal. The slave was legally defined as a thing (res) —rather than person (persona) —and was subject to the mastery of another person.

In the final days of Roman republicanism, Cicero (106–43 B.C.E.) significantly related forms of government with the idea of liberty. He drew on the Polybian discourse on the change of constitutions and characterized each form of polity according to the degree of liberty attributed to it. Cicero's notion of liberty was equality of juridical rights, not equality before the law. He considered that democracy was marked by the excess of liberty granted to the ruled, and he recommended a just equality proportionate to dignitas (reputation or merit).

Early Christian ideas of liberty concerned interior disposition, which contrasted sharply with Greek and Roman ideas of liberty. St. Augustine of Hippo's (354–430 C.E.) discourse on freedom revolved around the idea of free will. Just as God is by definition unwilling and incapable of sin, so Adam, before the Fall, knew the distinction between good and evil and had the God-given power to choose the good alone. After the Fall, however, Adam and his descendents were motivated to choose evil. At the heart of Augustine's conception of liberty was the incapability of sin. From this perspective, individuals, who are "free" in the this-worldly sense are no more free than slaves. In terms of sinful humanity, neither "free" persons nor slaves have the right to be free in this world: the liberty of humans can only be achieved eschatologically.

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