Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) has often been considered as a theorist of political leadership, a founder of modern political science, or a preacher of amoral power politics. Recent scholarship, however, has increasingly paid attention to his republicanism, describing him as a theorist of political liberty. His Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (1535; trans. Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy) discussed why the city of Rome attained supreme greatness, and liberty was considered as a means to such greatness. The work, filled with references to Roman writers such as Livy, Cicero, and Sallust, is interpreted as an assertion of republican liberty. Machiavelli grasped liberty as the counter-concept of slavery, which parallels his contrast between the free way of life and tyranny. According to him, the preservation of liberty is closely related to the maintenance of a particular form of polity because the enslavement of a political community will inevitably jeopardize individual freedom. The liberty of individual citizens can only be secured if the political community is maintained in a state of liberty. In this sense, coercion to a specific type of polity does not obstruct but rather warrants freedom, and coercion and the Machiavellian concept of liberty are not mutually exclusive. This maintenance of a free commonwealth in turn requires the individual citizen's service to the common good, which can be motivated through the cultivation of civic virtues. This republican idea of liberty was influential among the English Puritan writers in the seventeenth century including James Harrington (1611–1677) and John Milton (1608–1674), and America's Federalists in the eighteenth century.
Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) has been regarded as no more a defender of liberty than Machiavelli, and yet his conception of liberty, in sharp contrast to Machiavelli's, was no less important in the history of the concept. Hobbes's notion of human freedom was characterized by the absence of external impediments: he discerned when an individual is not hindered to do whatever he has the will, desire, or inclination to do. Hobbes rejected freedom of the will; for him, to say that the will is free is nothing other than to say that a form of internal motion is not constrained from moving by something external, and this was absurd. According to him, liberty "properly called" is what he called "natural liberty," that is, under the "natural" condition, humans have no legal obligations; they are capable of exercising powers without being physically prevented or compelled. In the Hobbesian world of nature, then, one can maximize the enjoyment of liberty when one is alone: a radical and extreme departure from the ancient conception that is embedded in a political and social context. The "artificial" condition of humans, under which people give up their natural liberties and live under human law is in sharp contrast to the natural condition. Liberty we can enjoy under the artificial condition was called the "liberty of subjects," which is identified with the absence of legal prescriptions; hence, "artificial" liberties. Unlike Machiavelli, Hobbes dismissed the idea that the preservation of individual liberty requires the maintenance of a particular type of regime. There is no such thing as a "free" commonwealth because all the commonwealths have laws. To enter subjection to civil rule, however, did not require the complete renunciation of natural liberty; indeed, natural liberties, for instance, to preserve oneself, were inalienable natural rights.
It has been argued that liberty as a universal God-given attribute rather than a privilege determined by political and social institutions is a distinctively "modern" notion. Indeed, the ancient concept of liberty was inconceivable apart from the political and social context, while the modern one was free from such contexts and was rather linked to metaphysical views about the nature of humans. In such modern views, liberty is prior to any political or social arrangements. However, recent research has traced its origin back into medieval Scholastic discourse; hence, the distinction between "modern" and "premodern" concepts of liberty is increasingly blurred and contentious. Seen in this light, Sir Robert Filmer's (d. 1653) attack on the "modern" idea of natural liberty by asserting the naturalness of subjection to an absolute monarch was a radical break with the long-established tradition. Filmer derived his vision of patriarchal monarchy from Adam's unlimited dominion over his spouse and offspring. The traditional theory of natural liberty, for Filmer, identifies liberty with license and would allow the members of society to withdraw their obedience as it pleased them, thereby making social order unstable. John Locke (1632–1704) defended the older idea of natural liberty against Filmer's criticism by demonstrating the rationality of liberty. Liberty was the will or power to do or not to do what was willed and it gains a moral dimension when it is exercised through identifying the will with the dictates of the reason or intellect that discovers objective good in the natural law. According to Locke, law and freedom are not mutually exclusive; unlike Hobbes, following the law constitutes the fulfillment of liberty. Locke thus restored the nexus between liberty and moral order that was severed by Hobbes. In contrast to Hobbes and Filmer, moreover, Locke attributed to the state the function of assuring the protection of its citizen's "property" including civil and religious liberty.
In criticizing the malaise of inequality in the despotism of the ancien régime, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) was perhaps the most eloquent proponent of the idea of liberty in modern Europe. Rousseau considered that human beings enjoyed freedom in the "natural" state where social and political customs and institutions were nonexistent. The emergence and development of society, however, created moral and political inequality and undermined human beings' "natural" virtue, freedom and equality, which, in his view, culminated in the France of his day. Rousseau thus reclaimed human freedom by asserting popular sovereignty. In participating in the making of the law, men would obey themselves through obeying the law. The kernel of Rousseau's idea of liberty was thus self-mastery, namely every individual's unlimited sovereignty. This conception of liberty transformed the function of the state. In contrast to Locke, who separated religion and morality from politics, Rousseau held that the state might become the constitutive element of the intellectual and moral development of man. This doctrine of liberty influenced Immanuel Kant's (1724–1804) idea of freedom. In their passionate celebration of liberty commentators like Benjamin Constant (1845–1902) discerned the potential danger of legitimating totalitarian tyranny or charismatic dictatorship exemplified by the experience of Jacobinism.
Before the Enlightenment the idea of liberty revolved around its relationship to the moral order on the one hand and the relationship between state and individuals or society on the other. After the time of the revolutions at the turn of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, a new perspective was introduced in the discourse on liberty. The pre-Enlightenment perspective overlooked the fact that individual freedom could be constrained and even undermined by power of society, as opposed to the external constraints represented by the state. This problem, which Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) first highlighted in his defense of homosexuality and Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) discussed in his Democracy in America (1835, 1840), was the main subject of John Stuart Mill's (1806–1873) incisive and extensive criticism in On Liberty (1859). Mill's work was primarily written in protest against the coercive force of moralism that pervaded Victorian society. What Mill called the "tyranny of the majority" captured and criticized the coercive reality of public opinion that was intolerant of any dissidence, eccentricity, and difference. Hence, he limited the authority of society over individuals from his utilitarian perspective; interference with other individual's activities is permitted only if they are likely to cause definite harm to some other persons, thereby violating their social rights. The flip side of this idea was the assertion of the freedom of thought. "If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind." This defense of freedom of thought and speech was rooted in his emphasis on individuality and self-development, which formed an antithesis to the Protestant ethic of self-restraint. Mill's criticism of the "tyrannical" force of social custom also crystallized in his assertion that the women should be liberated from the "subjection" to the men.
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