Two Concepts of Freedom

– Modern or liberal idea of freedom:

‘Freedom from…’ Lack of coercion, restraint or interference. Being permitted to act on your every whim is total freedom according to this view.

– Pre-modern and traditional idea of freedom:

‘Freedom for…’ Ability to fulfil one’s purpose (‘telos’ in Greek.) Also contains within it the idea of not being constrained by one’s lower self.


This difference in approach to freedom stems chiefly from a difference in their view of a man’s purpose or telos. Pre-modern cultures took it for granted that every man and woman had their own telos – modern Western deCivilization assumes no such thing exists.


Modernity says… “be yourself” or “do you own thing.”

Tradition says… “become who you are.”



Francis Fukuyama (in The End of History and the Last Man):

In the Anglo-Saxon liberal tradition familiar to us, there is a commonsense understanding of freedom as something like the simple absence of restraint. Thus, according to Thomas Hobbes, “LIBERTY, or FREEDOM, signifies properly the absence of opposition—by opposition I mean external impediments of motion—and may be applied no less to irrational and inanimate creatures than to rational.” By this definition, a rock rolling down a hill and a hungry bear wandering around in the woods without constraint would both be said to be “free.” But in fact, we know that the tumbling of the rock is determined by gravity and the slope of the hill, just as the behavior of the bear is determined through the complex interaction of a variety of natural desires, instincts, and needs. A hungry bear foraging for food in the forest is “free” only in a formal sense. It has no choice but to respond to its hunger and instincts. Bears typically do not stage hunger strikes on behalf of higher causes. The behaviors of the rock and the bear are determined by their own physical natures and by the natural environment around them. In that sense they are like machines programmed to operate by a certain set of rules, the ultimate rules being the fundamental laws of physics.

By Hobbes’s definition, any human being not physically constrained from doing something would be considered “free.” But to the extent that a human being has a physical or animal nature, he or she can also be thought of as nothing more than a finite collection of needs, instincts, wants, and passions, which interact in a complicated but ultimately mechanical way that determine that person’s behavior. Thus, a hungry and cold man seeking to satisfy his natural needs for food and shelter is no more free than the bear, or even the rock: he is simply a more complicated machine operating according to a more complicated set of rules. The fact that he faces no physical constraint in his search for food and shelter creates only the appearance, but not the reality, of freedom.

Hobbes’s great political work, Leviathan, begins with just such a portrayal of man as a highly complicated machine. He breaks human nature down into a series of basic passions like joy, pain, fear, hope, indignation, and ambition, that in different combinations he believes are sufficient to determine and explain the whole of human behavior. Thus Hobbes does not in the end believe that man is free in the sense of having a capacity for moral choice. He can be more or less rational in his behavior, but that rationality simply serves ends like self-preservation that are given by nature. And nature, in turn, can be fully explained by the laws of matter-in-motion, laws that had been recently explicated by Sir Isaac Newton.

Hegel, by contrast, starts with a completely different understanding of man. Not only is man not determined by his physical or animal nature, but his very humanity consists in his ability to overcome or negate that animal nature. He is free not just in Hobbes’s formal sense of being physically unconstrained, but free in the metaphysical sense of being radically un-determined by nature. This includes his own nature, the natural environment around him, and nature’s laws. He is, in short, capable of true moral choice, that is, choice between two courses of action not simply on the basis of the greater utility of one over another, not simply as the result of the victory of one set of passions and instincts over another, but because of an inherent freedom to make and adhere to his own rules. And man’s specific dignity lies not in a superior calculating ability that makes him a cleverer machine than the lower animals, but precisely in this capacity for free moral choice.

But how do we know that man is free in this more profound sense? Certainly, many instances of human choice are in fact merely calculations of self-interest that serve nothing more than the satisfaction of animal desires or passions. For example, a man may forebear from stealing an apple from his neighbor’s orchard not out of any moral sense, but because he fears that retribution will be more severe than his present hunger, or because he knows his neighbor will be going away on a trip and that the apples will soon be his for the taking. That he can calculate in this fashion does not make him any less determined by his natural instincts—in this case, hunger—than an animal who simply grabs for the apple.

Hegel would not deny that man has an animal side or a finite and determined nature: he must eat and sleep. But he is also demonstrably capable of acting in ways that totally contravene his natural instincts, and contravene them not for the sake of satisfying a higher or more powerful instinct, but, in a way, purely for the sake of the contravention. This is why the willingness to risk one’s life in a battle for pure prestige plays such an important role in Hegel’s account of history. For by risking his life, man proves that he can act contrary to his most powerful and basic instinct, the instinct for self-preservation.



And Julius Evola (in Fascism Viewed from the Right):

While we are discussing these issues critically, since the question of the concept of liberty has arisen, it will be a good idea to add an additional brief reflection on the sense that liberty can have in a state based not on the social contract, but on human will, as the Fascist state wanted to be.

Plato said something that we have already cited on other occasions, that it is a good idea for the person who does not have a sovereign within to have one outside. This insight leads us to distinguish a positive liberty from the purely negative, that is external, liberty which can be equally enjoyed by someone who, although free in respect to others, is not free in respect to himself, that is, in respect to the naturalistic part of his own being. We should add to this the well-known distinction between being free from something and being free for something (for a given task or a given function). In one of our recent works we indicated that the principal cause of the existential crisis of contemporary man was precisely the attainment of a ‘negative’ liberty, with which, in the end, one does not know what to do, given the lack of sense and the absurdity of modern society. In truth, personality and liberty can be conceived only on the basis of the individual’s freeing himself, to a certain degree, from the naturalistic, biological and primitively individualist bonds that characterise the pre-state and pre-political forms in a purely social, utilitarian and contractual sense. Then it is possible to conceive that the true state, the state characterised by the ‘transcendence’ of the political level that we have discussed, furnishes a propitious environment for the development of personality and true liberty in the sense of virtus*, according to the Classical understanding. With its climate of high tension, it issues a continual appeal to the individual to carry himself beyond himself, beyond simple vegetative life. Obviously everything depends on giving appropriate and just reference points to encourage this impulse, so that the effect is really ‘anagogical’, that is, drawing upward. (For this, let us say in passing, it is absolutely inadequate to offer as a reference point an abstract ‘common good’ that reflects, in magnified form, the same ‘individual good’ conceived in material terms.) Once the mistake of ‘totalitarianism’ has been eliminated, it is therefore important to reject in the clearest way the accusation that a political system based on authority is, in principle, incompatible with the values of the person and suffocates liberty. The liberty that is experienced as negative is only an insipid liberty, formless, small and basically of little interest, and all the arguments for a ‘new humanism’ offered by intellectuals and litterateurs with no centre are futile against this fundamental truth.


* Latin: ‘virtue’. In the Roman world, virtus referred to one’s masculine qualities, which were identified with honour, courage and service to the people and the state. To the Romans, virtus was something that could only be had in the public sphere; using these same qualities in the pursuit of a personal goal was not respected.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s