July 21, 2019 | 92° F

FINNERTY: Defining freedom, liberty in modern times

Opinions Column: Waxing Philosophical


With recent events on campus, the question of freedom and liberty has been prominently raised and contested. Regardless of the political affiliation you maintain, the terms, “freedom” and “liberty” are usually bid as the object of assertion or reflection. What then, does one imply when speaking of these terms?

Obviously the context here is American politics, with the subject being individual legal status or sometimes freedom from the latter in certain instances. Therefore, it ought to be safe to conclude that the ideas of freedom and liberty are definable by the parlance of enlightenment literature and philosophy. However, any semantic inquiries are bound to find the paradigm more problematic.

Thomas Jefferson, one of the great figures of American history and politics, was often inclined to muse on the idea of liberty and freedom. After perusing through several documents and letters authored by him, Jefferson appears to believe in at least two related forms of liberty. Jefferson, responding to Isaac Tiffany in 1819 wrote, “of Liberty then I would say that, in the whole plenitude of it’s extent, it is unobstructed action according to our will: but rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will, within the limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’; because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual.” So on the one hand Jefferson incorporates the philosophical with the political, while also attempting to define in terms extraneous to the idea itself, namely that of something being an inherent right, based on egalitarianism.

Equality, in most instances, is the mechanical function allowing for the idea of liberty and the exercise of freedom. However, one must be necessarily free from something in order to possess the noun freedom, such a term is almost comparative, and I believe this is where the line between modern society and enlightenment values decline.

A friend of mine, Andrew O’Connor, who is both a member of Young Americans for Liberty and an adherent to a form of libertarian anarchism, was kind enough to lend me his definition of the word in question, “Freedom is the absence of assault or coercion on one’s body, actions or property.” Even further clarifying that freedom is not a right granted by government authority, but is innate and self-realizing.

So is freedom a universal ideal, encompassed by a society at large or does it reside with individual authority? Perhaps an either/or is not strong enough to deduce meaning, but the question still stands: What do the words “freedom” and “liberty” refer to in the world? Both are synonymous concepts, surely, but what do the words indicate? Edmund Burke wrote in his “The Thirteen Resolutions” that, “Abstract liberty, like other mere abstractions, is not to be found.”

In regard to non-abstract liberty, compliments to Burke, how is one to embrace and promote this ambiguous term? For example, how is the issue of free speech, as brought to light recently by the Young Americans for Liberty, to be enforced? Can such an ideal even be enforced without violating the very premise it functions on? Hence the modern dilemma. Equality, in such a construct, must be granted to all parties. However, the sustainability of any proposition relies on the variables at play.

The statements from YAL’s guest speaker Milo Yiannopoulos, and the reaction from the protestors both act as variables in this equation. Both sides make the claim to be operating on a principle of freedom, and both sides entirely offend the other. Although of the left and more biased in support of the protestors, I will say that based on my previous inquiry into the definition of freedom, Yiannopoulos did have the right to speak, based only on the idea of equality ensuring liberty, should that be the correct formulation (the right to protest, however, is where I depart).

Contrary to Andrew O’Connor, I do not believe it is necessary to label the government as an antithesis to liberty and freedom, but rather when formed and instituted properly, an extension of such a concept. This modern notion of corporate enterprise, super PACs and extensive non-public spending is far from the ideal I ascribe to liberty and find any concern to be entirely warranted. Can the government be instituted in a way to protect liberty rather than force some hybrid of it? Perhaps, but only by a consistent and unified persistence, part of which relies on a unanimous definition of what it is we all are fighting for.

Jonathan Finnerty is a School of Arts Sciences junior majoring in classics and philosophy. His column, "Waxing Philosophical," runs on alternate Fridays.


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Jonathan Finnerty

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