On Thursday, October 17, world-renowned political theorist Quentin Skinner came to the University of Georgia to give the School of Public and International Affairs’ George S. Parthemos Lecture. His topic was “How Should We Think About Freedom?”
Skinner introduced his lecture on freedom by recalling a point made by Nietzsche: a concept can either have a definition or a history. Skinner thought it would be best to discuss freedom in terms of its Anglophone history (not because the Anglophone tradition is superior, but because that is what he knows), and so began his lecture with the “liberal conception of freedom:”
To enjoy freedom is to enjoy the power to act in pursuit of an action.
To lack power is to lack freedom.
Skinner then proceeded to cover approximately four hundred years of thought as he discussed how various writers critiqued this concept of freedom.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) critiqued this understanding of freedom by pointing out that unfreedom is not lacking power, it is being disempowered by interference. For Hobbes, freedom means a lack of interference with one’s power to act. Hobbes understood interference to refer exclusively to bodily interference (as opposed to coercion of the will); Skinner used the example of locking the audience in the lecture hall — in that situation we would not be free to leave.
John Locke (1632-1704) countered Hobbes by arguing that coercion of the will does take away freedom. If someone breaks into your house in the night, holds a knife to your throat and demands you sign away your estate, you do not “freely” sign it away. Skinner pointed out that while Locke’s contribution was significant, he did not adequately analyze what constituted “coercion,” he merely gave examples.
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), on the other hand, did analyze the meaning of coercion. According to Bentham, coercion must be credible, immediate and serious.
J.S. Mill (1806-1873) introduced an interesting facet to the concept of freedom: that you yourself can be the agent of interference. Two examples used by Mill are passion and inauthenticity. If your will aligns not with reason but with passion (if you are a “slave to your passions”), then it ceases to be freedom and becomes license instead. Inauthenticity refers to being bound to the “customary” as opposed to personal inclination; you do what you are supposed to do in society or in your circle of friends rather than what you actually desire to do.
Though they are not in the Anglophone tradition, Skinner mentioned Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud for their contributions to the notion of self as an agent of interference. Marx contributed the idea of false consciousness (regarding the subordination of the lower classes) and Freud that of the unconscious (mental processes within yourself that you are unaware of).
A common thread exists in the thinkers that have been discussed: freedom is the absence of interference. This is a “negative” understanding of freedom; but does a more “positive” aspect exist? Indeed, freedom can be thought of according to the normativity of human nature, where freedom is acting according to your interests.
Therefore, freedom does not necessarily mean a lack of interference with one’s power to act, it could also mean the self-realization of your nature, potential or essence. What are your interests? Who are you? Your ability to answer these questions determines whether you are truly free.
Skinner ended his lecture with his own thoughts on freedom. Taking a page out of Roman slave law, Skinner argues that to be free is to not be dependent upon the arbitrary will of another. Dependence is here equivalent to servitude, and the awareness of dependence generates self-censorship.
Freedom is incredibly important to us as a nation, and the pursuit of freedom has been paramount in our history. Skinner’s lecture was not only enlightening, it also served as an important reminder of the complex nature of a concept that we often take for granted. Few would claim that citizens of the dystopia in Orwell’s 1984 are free. But what about the citizens of the British pleasure-state in Brave New World? Are they “slaves to their passions?” What about Lord of the Flies? Are the boys free on their island?
Let us think about such things. We are free to do so.
—Ryan Slauer is a senior studying economics and Latin
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