Freedom and Citizenry VIth Form Intro

Freedom, comprising as it does two different concepts, namely “freedom from” and “freedom to”, neither of which admits of any but general definitions, is a somewhat vague notion.” (Wirszubski, LIBERTAS AS A POLITICAL IDEA AT ROME DURING THE LATE REPUBLIC AND EARLY PRINCIPATE, CUP, 1968)

There is certainly an important sense in which the conception of the autonomy of the individual apart from the community is absent from Greek thought: the freedom of the Greeks is public, externalized in speech and action. This freedom derives precisely from the fact that the same man belongs to a deme, a phratry, a family, a group of relatives, a religious association; and, living in this complex world of conflicting groups and social duties, he possesses the freedom to choose between their demands, and so to escape any particular dominant form of social patterning. It is this which explains the coexistence of the group mentality with the amazing creativity and freedom of thought of classical Athens: the freedom which results from belonging in many places is no less a freedom than that which results from belonging nowhere, and which creates a society united only in its neuroses.”  (Murray, O ’‘Life and society in Classical Greece.’’ In: J. Boardman et al., eds., The Oxford History of the Classical World. Oxford, 1985: 210)

The idea of being “free” is a difficult concept to delineate in modern day terms as there are such different ideas of “freedom” depending upon the system in which an individual live, political, social, religious and personal. To understand what the term “freedom” meant two and a half millennia ago is even more complex. How far can there be an acceptable definition of “freedom” in our terms in a social structure which allowed slavery, the non-participation of women, the non-participation of metoikoi (resident aliens) and an idea of purity of blood based on the concept of autochthonous origins of the people of Attika, all of which would be classed as unacceptable in modern democratic, liberal “free” societies?

On this subject (ie freedom), the Athenian democracy looks different depending on whether we view it historically, within its ancient context, or compare its beliefs and practices to those of modern democracies in the Western nation-states.” (Balot, Greek Political Thought, Blackwell, 2006, 56)

Can we, however, condemn the Hellenic idea of being free? As Murray points out above, Athenian freedom was based upon the right to participate at all social and political levels (though the social class an individual citizen belonged to would restrict or open up the upper magisterial positions) – the right to participate in the society was paramount – a societal coherence that rested upon that citizen freedom, whereas our ideas of freedom rest upon the concept of the freedom of the individual to exercise his or her (the latter being something totally beyond the ken of an Athenian of the pre-Classical and Classical eras) rights on whichever level he or she choose. Indeed, voting habits and statistics from many modern democracies would appear to demonstrate the exercising of the right NOT to participate by abandoning their personal choice in elections and referenda – something seemingly diametrically in opposition to the expectation of participation in the first great democracy. For the Hellenes,

…unrestrained individual freedom is no freedom after all because it is uncompromising. In the worst case, it turns against others and prevents the individual from maturing through social intercourse. Responsible action requires the presence and understanding of other people. Only an existence within a public sphere allows a person to have an actual presence, to be seen and heard. By acting and speaking, individual human beings reveal who they are, actively show their personal uniqueness, and enter a milieu in which they were otherwise invisible. Through word and deed, people are distinguished, rather than simply classified along accidental lines like age, education, wealth, and so on.” (Walter, Epilogue: Legacy of Ancient Greek Government in A Companion to Ancient Greek Government-Wiley, 2013, 521)

This participation on the surface is perhaps surprising to us – our valuing individual liberty and freedom above most other things – but the role of the Athenian citizen’s freedom is to be part of the political life which is specifically for the good of the polis as a whole – it is by all having the right and duty to speak and express an opinion openly before the assembled mass of the citizenry on the Pnyx that the Athenians express their equality of rights and ergo their freedom at a most basic level. For this to function, there is a prerequisite for there actually to be a certain level of restriction. Freedom is a consequence of liberty from any form of bondage (hence the importance of Solon’s seisakhtheia – throwing off of burdens) as this was the first step in the gradual process of engendering this freedom in the social structure of the Athenian state. Aristotle in Politics expresses the need for the economic restrictions which will prevent any form of runaway economic imparity, something which per se will impose restrictions on the freedom to participate and ergo will have a deleterious effect on the correct running of the state by artificially building inequality, based upon the lower strata of society falling into a state of penury:

The truly democratic statesman must study how the multitude may be saved from extreme poverty; for this is what causes democracy to be corrupt. Measures must therefore be contrived that may bring about lasting prosperity. And since this is advantageous also for the well-to-do, the proper course is to collect all the proceeds of the revenues into a fund and distribute this in lump sums to the needy, best of all, if one can, in sums large enough for acquiring a small estate, or, failing this, to serve as capital for trade or husbandry, and if this is not possible for all, at all events to distribute the money by tribes or some other division of the population in turn.” (Arist. Pol. 6 1320a33–b3 – Rackham)

This ties in with the citation from Wirszubski at the start – it is the freedom to participate in the democratic processes which is granted by the freedom from the socio-economic pressures of poverty and deprivation both in monetary and in participatory rights that stands at the absolute central position in the Athenian understanding. As Farrer has put it:

Democratic politics also prompted citizens to construe their aims politically, and to reflect on their actions in terms of general, relatively abstract considerations. Political theory was part of democratic politics; self-understanding was political.” (The Origins of Democratic Thinking, CUP, 2008, 1)

Self-understanding allowing participation in the system is again key to the freedom which was central to the democratic ideals. What, then, allowed that self-understanding? That comes through knowledge, both group on a wider social level, and individual in receiving answers to thoughts and considerations after the open and frank debates and addresses to the Ekklesia.

Democratic order and freedom depend upon the dynamic reconciliation of man’s particularity and autonomy with the requirements of communal life. To exhibit the nature and extent of this integration of ethics, politics and cosmology is to reveal a distinctive democratic theory.” (ibid 2)

Such a “hegemony of popular ideology and public discourse was, in a sense, the basis of Athens’ political order. Athens was a democracy, not just because the ordinary citizen had a vote, but because he was a participant in maintaining a political culture and a values system that constituted him a free agent and the political equal of his elite neighbor.” (Ober, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, Princeton, 1999, 40)

This last point, however, raises an interesting question as Balot expresses:

Could leaders have distinctive virtues in a democracy without compromising political equality? How could Athenians both regulate disruptive political rivalries and promote desirable elite competition oriented towards the common good?” (The Virtue Politics of Democratic Athens in Camb. Companion to Ancient Greek Political Thought, CUP, 2009, 273)

The freedom lay in the right of isēgoria – the right to speak freely to the Ekklesia and in such the right to challenge the political elite and make them explain and justify their words, their actions, their political careers before the gathered Demos. Furthermore, these rights of challenge gave the people the freedom to know – as without the knowledge, how could proper decisions for the good of the polis be taken if such knowledge not be freely available? This is, however, more the theory than necessarily the everyday practice when it came to certain of the questions of the running of the state.

Sokrates, in Plato’s Republic Book VIII, 557b, asks two key questions which give us a clear understanding of the understood norms of the period:

Isn’t the polis (ie Athens) full of freedom and free speech? And isn’t there license in it to do whatever one wants?”

There is an open right to pursue their own desires and express these within the limits which were prescribed by the laws, but these were again part of the freedom to participate in that these laws were passed by the direct action in voting by the assembled citizen body on the Pnyx. Again Socrates here gives us an insight (557b):

“…each man would organise his life in it (the democratic polis) privately just as it pleases him.”

Roochnik (2009):

…because all citizens are counted as members of the dēmos, and alike share in the freedom the city protects for them, they are counted as equals whether they are superior, mediocre, or inferior human beings.” (The Political Drama of Plato’s Republic in Camb. Companion to Ancient Greek Political Thought, 169)

The freedom and liberty on a purely personal level, as long as it did not directly countermand the laws made by the citizen body as a whole, was, perhaps not sacrosanct, but an area more or less out of the sphere of state control. This gives the individual citizen the right to both forms of freedom here, but, for the Athenians, the right of the group participation was paramount as without this, the private liberty would not exist as such were not the rights and freedom allowed in the Oligarchies or Tyrannies, these being the alternatives. Thucydides:

I believe that, if a polis is successful collectively, it benefits private citizens more than if it flourishes citizen by citizen but trips up as a whole. For a man who is successful on his own account is nonetheless lost if his city is destroyed, but if man is doing badly, he is much more likely to come through safely in a thriving city.” (Thuc. 2.60.2–3)

…freedom came to be linked with equality. In the isonomies and democracies, equality was a safeguard against tyranny and arbitrary rule, and hence a guarantee of freedom. Once the equality of the citizens was established, an entirely new kind of freedom arose-the freedom to participate in politics, and in particular to vote; to this was later added the freedom to live as one chose. “The city is free, the people rules,” we read in Euripides. Freedom was thus realized in popular rule. Thenceforth it was agreed that freedom (together with equality) was the central feature of democracy.

Being linked to equality, freedom was detached from the horizon of nomistic thinking, where it could denote only concrete rights within an inherited order. Through this break with tradition, the concept became sufficiently abstract to embrace the citizens’ freedom in political life (and subsequently in private life).” (Meier, The Greek Discovery of Politics, Harvard, 1990, 169-70)

To be continued, as it is now nearly midnight.


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