What is at the Heart of Liberty?


Part I

Man can be understood from a variety of perspectives: physical, spiritual, and psychological. Of the many attributes man has, perhaps none is more cherished than liberty. Liberty is a notion that has evolved through time depending on the understanding of what man is. To understand what liberty means one must put that term into a cultural context. A brief review of the concept of liberty from an historical philosophical perspective will show how Justice Anthony Kennedy could arrive at the following conclusion, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of life.”

Often when discussing terms of nuanced meaning, such as liberty, a useful starting point is the dictionary, which gives a standardized definition. Liberty can be defined as 1. the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views or 2 the power or scope to act as one pleases.[1] Some synonyms for liberty are autonomy, choice, independence, and unconstraint. Antonyms for liberty are imprisonment, restraint, and captivity. Associated terms for liberty would include self determination, preference, and license to do what one wants. The etymology of the word liberty is from Latin libertas, the root being liber meaning to be free.[2] From the ancient definition of liberty, the notion of freedom is at its core.

Philosophy can be roughly broken into four time periods: Ancient Philosophy, Medieval Philosophy, Modern Philosophy, and Contemporary Philosophy with all time frames fluid. By briefly looking at these four time periods, it will be shown how Justice Kennedy came to his definition of the phrase for the heart of liberty.

Ancient Philosophy is from 585 BC- 430 AD. Socrates and Plato, two prominent philosophers of the ancient time period, had an understanding of man as a dualistic being. The human person was a soul entrapped in a body. A common metaphor was one of a pilot (the soul) on a ship (body). In contrast to them, Aristotle had a hylomorphic view of the human person in that the soul was the form of the body, an embodied soul. For all three of these philosophers, irrespective of how they comprised man happiness consisted in the pursuit of the virtuous life, and liberty was the ability to become virtuous. This idea is evidenced in Plato’s Republic, where the analogy of the soul to the city is made. A rightly ordered soul, like a city, is one where reason, imaged by a man, rules over the passions or thumos, imaged by a lion and the appetites imaged by a hydra head. Having one’s passions or appetites rule was considered being in bondage and thus cultivating a virtuous life led to freedom and liberty, regardless of external conditions. Socrates could comment as he was drinking the hemlock, that bad men cannot harm him. Evil was something that came from within a man, not something imposed from without.[3] Ultimately, freedom meant doing what we ought to do and a virtuous society was one where the government would encourage its citizenry to become moral. For the ancients doing anything one wanted was considered the opposite of freedom, licentiousness.

The second period of philosophy is the Medieval Period approximately from 430-1600 AD. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas are prominent philosophers from this time period. Augustine would build on Plato’s understanding of man without succumbing to a dualistic position. Thomas Aquinas would use the emerging works of Aristotle, rediscovered in his day, to put forth his systematic philosophical contributions. For both men, they would concur with the ancient understanding of happiness being predicated by the virtuous life. For them, virtue would consist in doing what one ought to do, informed by an understanding that there is an objective reality of truth. George Weigel accurately summarizes Thomas Aquinas understanding of freedom. Freedom, for St. Thomas, is a means to human excellence, to human happiness, to the fulfillment of human destiny. Freedom is the capacity to choose wisely and to act well as a matter of habit — or, to use the old-fashioned term, as an outgrowth of virtue.[4]

to be continued …


Kreeft, Peter. What Would Socrates Do?. Barnes & Noble Audio, 2004.

Oxford Dictionaries. “Liberty.” http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/american_english/liberty?region=us&q=liberty (accessed November 21, 2012).

Purdy, Chase Roanoke Times, Nov 1, 2012 San Antonio Express News

http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/article/Parents-want-to-collect-injured-son-s-sperm-3997101.php (accessed November 21, 2012)

Weigel, George. The Two Ideas of Freedom. Ethics & Public Policy Center: The Inaugural William E. Simon Lecture (December 1, 2001). http://www.eppc.org/publications/pubID.1530/pub_detail.asp.

[1] Oxford Dictionaries, “Liberty,” http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/american_english/liberty?region=us&q=liberty (accessed November 21, 2012)

[2] Ibid

[3] Peter Kreeft, What Would Socrates Do?, Barnes and Noble Audio, 2004, 17[4] George Weigel, “The Two Ideas of Freedom,” Ethics and Policy Center: The Inaugural William E. Simon Lecture (December 1, 2001), http://www.eppc.org/publications/pubID.1530/pub_detail.asp

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