Freedom and the Free City

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Liberty is perhaps the oldest tradition of the Western world. The first historian of the West, Herodotus, makes clear the cardinal importance of this tradition in his Histories, where he attributes the victory of the Greeks over their Persian enemies in no small part to the freedom that the Greeks enjoyed. They were fighting for hearth and home — for their own independence. The Persians fought because they were slaves to their king, and he would kill them if they didn’t fight.

Freedom for the Greeks was not the same thing as modern freedom, of course. For starters, the Greeks had slaves. Greek freedom was also characterized more by the free city than by the free individual. Benjamin Constant, one of the founding fathers of classical liberalism, gave a famous speech on "The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns," in which he found modern liberty, on the whole, more agreeable. There is no need to quarrel with his judgment, although a case can be made for Athenian liberty, at least, even in modern terms. What is more important is to examine Greek liberty for lessons about a kind of freedom that has been largely forgotten today, the freedom that derives from man’s right to form associations and that culminates in the free city.

When Aristotle called man a political animal, he did not have parties and elections in mind. Man is a zoon politikon in the sense that the polis, the "city-state," is the natural culmination of man’s nature; it is his end, as far as social organization goes. Not that all men live in cities. First comes the family, which arises out of biological necessity; next the tribal village in which man may more easily obtain the necessities of life than in the family alone. The city may come into being thereafter, so that man may pursue, in leisure, his highest nature. As Aristotle says in at the beginning of his Politics, “every city is a kind of association, and every association is joined together for the sake of some good.”* And further, one good on account of which cities are established is justice — "for rules of justice are the organizing principle of political (i.e., city-based) association."*

Modern translators of Aristotle tend to render polis as "state." This is misleading, just as thinking of man as a "political" animal in the partisan or statist sense is not quite right. "City-state" is a fair translation for polis, but the basic, dictionary definition of the word is simply "city." You get translations with very different apparent meanings depending on whether you render polis as "state" or "city." Aristotle was no anarchist, but neither was he the statist that English translations make him out to be. Moreover, when Aristotle says that every city is a kind of association, we should bear in mind that this can include free associations. This is historically valid — Athens itself seems to have had its origins in the voluntary association of tribal fishing, farming and shepherd communities who came together for trade, mutual defense, and religious purposes. Or, for a modern example, think of the origins of colonial settlements in North America, which were often established on a voluntary basis and in pursuit of some good, usually a good conceived of in religious terms. Cities and communities need not originate in conquest.

Many Greek cities also began as colonies established for economic or political reasons. Such colonies dotted the Mediterranean coast from modern Turkey (Byzantium, now Istanbul) to modern France (Massilia, now Marseille). Often these colonies were begun by people who, like our own colonial forbears, held different values from those of their native city or country. In these cases, rather than two or more factions fighting for control of the mother city, in order that one might impose its values — its sense of the good — upon the other, the two separated, one group leaving to found a colony, so that each community could pursue whatever it understood to be the good. These separations could take place voluntary or on account of one faction being banished.

For the ancient Greeks freedom meant above all the freedom of the city, its autonomy and independence. Some Greek cities, most notably Athens, went further, extending freedom to the individual as well as the city. But the free individual presupposed the free city, for if your city were ruled by an external power whatever liberties you may personally enjoy would not be secure. To be sure, tyranny could come from within the city as well as from the outside, but foreign rule entailed coercion, while home rule meant less or virtually none. Citizens of free cities usually paid no direct taxes; subject peoples, on the other hand, could be compelled to pay tribute.

Greek liberty, in both theory and practice, was particularistic. Different cities might pursue different ideas of the good and employ different codes of justice. The formation of colonies allowed sub-groups within a city that held different values to find their own way. Compare that with the winner-take-all approach to liberty in America today. On questions like abortion there are irreconcilable differences — different beliefs about what a person’s rights are, who counts as a person, and what constitutes the good. Rather than the two sides separating, each to live according to its values in its own communities, all are forced to abide by the dominant power, the federal government. Separation is the best solution to intractable conflict, but the modern State does not permit such separation. Secession is the ultimate expression of political separation, but there are intermediate forms such as home rule and federalism of the sort that prevailed prior to the Civil War. Today however the federal government does not tolerate free associations governing themselves locally, except in isolated cases such as the Amish.

The Greek experience is not as remote from our reality as we might imagine. Aristotle was not writing prescriptively when he called man a political (city-based) animal. Man still today lives in what Aristotle would have called poleis (cities), for the small, medium and large towns in which most of us live are just that. The Greek city was considerably smaller than modern megalopolises and was usually closer in size to a large town — in some cases even to small town. What makes our world so different is that our cities are not free, they are all subordinate to the overarching power of state and federal government. Some who consider themselves defenders of freedom rejoice in this, since it means that one standard of liberty prevails everywhere, at least within the bounds of the United States. (Note that logically there’s no reason why this liberty shouldn’t be extended beyond American borders — even if it means bombing foreigners into freedom, as the "liberventionists" desire.) But what does it mean when an individual finds himself bound to a system of justice with which he does not agree? When, further, free associations in which he is a member are forbidden from assuming independence and asserting, even on a voluntary basis among their own members, their own code of justice? For whenever the sense of liberty and justice of a "lower" unit is found to be in disagreement with federal or state authorities, it is the more general power that prevails. This despite the fact that surely there is less likelihood of a consensus on liberty and justice emerging from a "community" of 290 million people, as we have in the United States today, than among the small number in a local community or city. What makes some libertarians think that a heterogenous collection of 290 million strangers cares more about the individual and his rights than a local community of his friends, family and neighbors would? Not to mention that the less consensus there is, the more the coercion there must be.

Greek liberty, the freedom of the city that arises out of the freedom of association and separation, is something of a lost tradition today. It is not however a tradition alien to our own, simply one which has been obscured by the rise of the universalistic and highly centralized welfare state. An analogue to the Greek liberty described above is to be found in the American traditions of federalism and secession, and is related to the principles behind the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity and the federalism of the great Protestant thinker Johannes Althusius. The roots are to be found in Jerusalem as well as Athens. Professor Chandras Kukathas of the University of New South Wales has also explored related ideas in his essay "Two Constructions of Libertarianism," in which he compares a universalistic "Union of Liberty" with an heterogeneous "Federation of Liberty" that preserves the freedom of localities (for both better and worse). Recovery of these traditions, and integrating them with modern, individual liberty, is a task to be undertaken seriously by freedom-loving individuals and associations. It is not less the task of those who want to conserve civilization, given that civilization is itself the product of the city-association, which is another lesson the Greeks can impart to us. However dormant the old liberty may be today, we may expect that it is never lost forever, given that man’s nature has not changed since the time of Aristotle. He is still a "political" animal.

*The phrases cited are from section 1252a and 1253a in the Aristotelian corpus. The translations are my own. Several English translations of the Politics are available on-line, include those by Rackham and Jowett.

Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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