A Genealogy of Liberty by Quentin Skinner — Lecture Transcript

Title: A Genealogy of Liberty
Presented by: Quentin Skinner
Presented on: October 27, 2016
Presented at: Stanford Humanities Center for the Harry Camp Memorial Lecture 

  • This is a sanitized transcript intended for reading. The video is embedded at the end if you’d rather watch it.
  • Sections in square brackets are digressions which can be skipped. Those between parentheses are corrective or complementary additions.
  • Images are screenshots from the lecture video.


As has been noted, the requirement of the occasion is that the lecturer should address “an issue concerned with the dignity and worth of the individual, both in its historical development and in its present significance”. And that was what decided me to try to say something about the concept of liberty which is surely the core concept in our thinking about the dignity and worth of the individual. Since, in speaking of liberty or freedom — I shall use those terms interchangeably — we are undoubtedly referring to one of our core moral and political values, it would be good if I could work towards a definition of the term on which we might, at least in principle, be able to agree.

But here, I am a Nietzschean and that’s, of course, reflected in my title. And what Nietzsche has to say about these definitions in On the Genealogy of Morality (is that) concepts that have histories cannot have definitions. This is a really deep point. Of course, some concepts have definitions but if they have a history, they can’t. Freedom is unquestionably one such concept because the meaning and the application of the term have been contested throughout the history of the modern world. So, there is a big methodological question how, in such a case, should we proceed. And I am going to follow Nietzsche’s suggestion: which is, by genealogy — trying to see how the concept evolved in our culture but also how it was contested, how rival understandings of how to think about it emerged and did battle.

[Nietzsche loves this idea that concepts… I mean Wittgenstein tells us that these concepts are tools. Nietzsche prefers to say: No, they’re weapons. We are doing battle here and these are all ideological conflicts. So, this kind of genealogy is what I shall attempt.]

However, this is obviously a vast undertaking and I am going to have to do something arbitrary to bring my materials under some kind of control. So, what I have decided to do — it is arbitrary — is to concentrate on the genealogy as it unfolds in the English language tradition of classical liberal political philosophy. Why? Because if I make that my focus, I am not simply tracing a descent or a series of descents. I am also pointing to a set of views that are alive in our culture here and now and which help to supply many of us with an element of our moral and political identity.

The Liberal Concept

To begin, within the classical liberal tradition, the earliest treatise in which the concepts of civil and political liberty are systematically analysed is also, as it happens, one of the most important works of political philosophy in the English language. And that is Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, first published in 1651. Chapter 21 of Hobbes’s Leviathan is entitled ‘Of the Liberty of Subjects’ and that really inaugurates the modern discussion. I don’t think that’s in dispute and that’s why I am going to start there.

A further merit of beginning with Hobbes is that his understanding of civil liberty has turned out to be extraordinarily influential so that his analysis is also a very familiar one as this shows us at once.

Quentin Skinner A Genealogy of Liberty 01

Within the classical liberal tradition, the earliest treatise in which the concepts of civil and political liberty are analysed is (in) Hobbes and we’re looking at the analysis. And I have called this ‘The Liberal Concept’.

And as you see, it’s a very simple concept: it just has two components. It proposes that for an individual to enjoy freedom as a citizen of a state, there must be power on the part of the individual to act in pursuit of a given option or, at least, alternative and there must be no interference on the exercise of that power by any external agency.

So, let me take these two ideas in turn. First, power. Hobbes insists — and this is a valuable insistence — that it makes no sense to talk about freedom except in a relation to whether you have a power to perform that action or not. That’s contrary to a very strong tendency in contemporary Anglophone political philosophy which is to suppose — I mean I quote Jerry Cohen, for example, in his essay Freedom and Money — that “inability is a sufficient condition of unfreedom” or — Amartya Sen makes the same claim in his great treatise, Development as Freedom. I quote — (that) “if you are unable to perform an action, you are unfree to perform it.”

Now, Hobbes suggests, avant la lettre obviously but usefully, that that is not a good way to think about the relationship. He would want to say that if you lack the power to act in a certain way — I don’t know what… the power to walk on water — then you are neither free to do that nor are you unfree to do that because you are simply unable to so it. And if you are simply unable, the question of freedom does not arise: you are not free but you are not unfree; we’re in the wrong discourse; you are just unable. You can put that point the other way around and if you do so, you bring out it’s philosophical significance; which is that if you are unfree to act in some particular way, that must be because you have been disempowered by some identifiable agency. This is the point that Foucault, in his discourses of power, has made important, made famous, in our time. All talk about freedom is nested within discourses of power and that seems, to me, right. And that’s the Hobbesian thought — Foucault, of course, taking it from Hobbes.

I turn secondly to this idea of interference. Hobbes’s claim, here, is, in effect, about how to understand this idea of disempowerment. You’re said to be disempowered, and hence unfree, if and only if someone has interfered with your capacity to exercise a power. So, on this analysis, freedom simply consists in absence of interference by such external agencies.

[By the way… I mean that explains why in current political theory freedom is so often defined as a negative concept. Not wrongly because the suggestion that we have got here is that the presence of freedom is always marked by an absence. And if you ask me what absence? the answer is absence of interference. That marks the presence of liberty.]

So, there’s Hobbes’s view. But obviously, that doesn’t get us very far because if freedom turns out to consist in absence of interference, then what is interference? That’s not a clear concept at all. But it turns out that freedom is the blank: freedom is the negative concept. What we’ve actually got to understand is interference. That’s where all the conceptual work is being done.

Of course, Hobbes hasn’t failed to notice that and he goes on to give us an account of interference. And again, it’s an extremely straightforward one. Here’s Hobbes’s understanding of the concept of interference.


External agencies are said to interfere when they act on the body of the individual in such a way that an action within the power of the individual is prevented or compelled. Notice (that there are) always two modalities for taking away freedom. You can stop someone from acting or you can prevent them from doing anything else. So, limiting choices. Two modalities of limiting choices due to the application of physical force by the external agency in such a way that any alternative is rendered impossible.

So, we have arrived at Hobbes’s definition of freedom. Freedom is, I quote the beginning of Chapter 21, “absence of external impediments to motion”. There is the Hobbesian analysis.

May we just contemplate it for a moment and as you do so, you’ll immediately notice one very important implication which I need to underline. It is said to be only bodily interference that takes away freedom of action. So, the implication here is that if it is only your will that is coerced… I mean, if, for example, you only obey the law because you are frightened of the consequences of disobedience — which is the state’s standard assumption about you — then what Hobbes wants to say is that when you obey the law, you are nevertheless acting freely and you are always free to disobey. Because this is only coercion of the will and that does not take away freedom.

Again, Chapter 21 of Leviathan, “Fear and liberty are consistent.” Hobbes really means that and he doesn’t illustrate but one can illustrate it with an example which is extremely common in early modern philosophy — John Locke, for example, uses it — and this is the example of the highwayman. The highwayman is the person who points the gun and says Your money or your life? Hobbes says You’re being offered a choice! That’s what you have to recognise. You’re being offered a choice. You could decide to hand over your money or you could decide to hand over your life. But choice is freedom and that’s a choice. And Hobbes summarises this in a nasty joke when he says that when you decide to hand over your money, you not only do it willingly, and therefore freely, but very willingly.

So, there’s the Hobbesian analysis of what I am calling the ‘Liberal’ view of freedom. It’s a version of that view. And it’s important for me to add because I am doing genealogy this evening, that this way of thinking remains widely endorsed in contemporary political philosophy. For example, you’ll find exactly this view elaborated and defended in two of the most ambitious recent works on the theory of individual freedom. I am thinking of Ian Carter’s book with Oxford, The Measure of Freedom, or Matthew Kramer’s book, also with Oxford, The Quality of Freedom. So, this genealogical strand runs right down into our own time.

Looking at this though, you might think, look, something has obviously gone wrong in the Hobbesian analysis because something is amiss with this analysis that there is compatibility of freedom with coercion of the will. And the view that there is something amiss with that thought was what got taken up in the next generation after Thomas Hobbes. So, I now… my genealogy is already on the move. I am moving down into this next generation and in particular in the criticism to be found in the most celebrated work of political philosophy in the Anglophone tradition of that next generation, namely John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government first published in 1689.

I want to say a word about Locke’s retort to Hobbes. Locke agrees, of course, that you’re unfree to act if you’re prevented bodily from exercising a power. It would be remarkable to deny that. You’d get into the Stoic paradoxes of freedom if you denied that. But Locke wants to insist that you will also be rendered unfree whenever your will is coerced. Here is Locke in Paragraph 176 of the Second Treatise: “Should a robber break into my house and with a dagger at my throat make me seal documents to convey my estate to him? Would that give him title?”

The question is purely rhetorical because what Locke wants you to agree is that in such a predicament, you really do not have an alternative. It’s really idle to say that you have an alternative. So, coercion of the will may not render the action impossible — which of course is Hobbes’s condition, the impossibility condition — but it certainly renders it, what Locke calls, “ineligible”. Ineligible: that’s to say, it’s not an object of choice. You’d never choose it. So, to that degree, you just are not free. The addition of Locke’s critique makes the genealogy look like this.


We now have Thomas Hobbes over on the extreme left wing — he doesn’t want to be there but that’s where I have put him. There is Hobbes’s analysis coming down on the left-hand side. — or most people within the classical liberal tradition have wanted to say that a bending of the will by coercion also takes away freedom of action. Notice, however, that we are now dealing with a concept that makes no appearance in Hobbes’s analysis as it’s coming down the left-hand side here — that of coercion. And indeed, according to this view, if you’re going to understand freedom, that is one of the fundamental concepts that you’ve got to understand.

Now, you see how clever Hobbes was. Because what do we mean by coercion? That’s not a clear concept at all but it’s suddenly being made central to the liberal analysis. You’d think that Locke — the founder, as it were, of the Anglo-American liberal story — would have something to tell us about coercion. He gives no analysis of this concept in the Treatises of Government. It is a very surprising omission. All he does is to give us some of what he takes to be clear examples of coercion. So — the usual fatal move in analytical political philosophy — he invites you to consult your intuitions and you think Yes, that’s definitely coercion. He gives four examples: threats, promises, offers, bribes. All of these, he says, ‘bend the will’ and, in that way, take away your freedom.

But don’t those examples point to the need for an analysis because if we were consulting our intuitions we would surely want to say This list is looking a bit dubious. Consider, for example, the fact that the list includes bribes. Is it really true that if I offer you a bribe I coerce you into acting in a certain way? Suppose a politician accused in court of having accepted a bribe assures the judge that he should not be held responsible because the sum of money involved was simply so enormous that he had no choice. (And that) he couldn’t fail to take it. That’s not going to be a legal defence, oddly enough. What this shows is that the Lockean account needs something that Hobbes deliberately keeps free of.  We’ve got to engage with this idea of what it means for the will to be coerced. That’s to say, what’s to count as the sort and extent of the bending of the will that we do want to say takes away freedom. That’s not something that Locke provides and as far as I can see, there’s no one in the Anglophone classical liberal tradition who really faces this squarely until Jeremy Bentham does in his great treatise written in the 1780s called On the Limits of the Penal Branch of Legislation.

So, the genealogy is now moving from the late 17th-century down towards the late 18th-century. Bentham proposes that we need to distinguish two different ways in which you can bend someone’s will. Fundamentally two opposed ways. One is that you can promise that you will reward them for compliance with your will. So, I say something like If you do what I want, I’ll give you a million dollars. Now, if you refuse you’re no worse off. If you accept you’re better off. You’re a million dollars better off. Contrast that, Bentham says — he doesn’t give the dollars example — with a case where I threaten you with penalties for non-compliance with my will. So, for example, I say If you don’t do what I say I’ll kill you. So, in that case you either comply with my will in which case you’re no better off or you don’t comply with my will in which case you’re substantially worse off. In fact, you’re dead!

Bentham’s proposal is that coercion, we can only properly speak of in the second type of case. The second type of case is coercion — that is, threatening me with penalties for non-compliance — as long, Bentham adds, as certain features of the threat itself are fulfilled. And these are, I think, ingenious and important. One is the threat must be credible. That’s to say, you’re going to have to avoid this threat. Secondly, the threat must be serious. That’s to say, well worth avoiding it. And thirdly, it’s got to be immediate. So to speak, you can’t run away; you’re going to have to face it. So, if there is a threat which fulfils those three criteria, then coercion is what we are facing.

Now, in contemporary political philosophy, there’s been a lot of work done on coercion. Some of the classic work was done by Robert Nozick, especially a major essay of his called Coercion. And he, of course, uses Bentham’s analysis — everyone has used Bentham’s analysis — and he ingeniously points out that it doesn’t quite work because you can think of cases where there would be a reward which is nevertheless coercive. But what I think we’d have to say — and which even Nozick agrees with — is that Bentham has isolated the paradigm case of coercion and so I think we can incorporate the refinement.


Coercion is rendering alternatives ineligible standardly and basically by means of threats so long as the threats are credible, immediate and serious.

Is that perhaps the analysis of freedom that you want? If so, this is a very short lecture. It’s worth asking that question because within the classical liberal tradition the answer that we have unhesitatingly been given for a long time was Yes, that is it. That’s the analysis we want of the idea of freedom. And indeed, you might reflect on the most celebrated single contribution in our time to my subject this evening, namely Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, Two Concepts of Liberty. Among the two concepts that he analyses, Berlin has a preferred account of freedom. So, what is his favoured account? You’re looking at it. That’s his preferred account. So, it’s entitled to our very respectful attention because notice again the genealogy has come right down to our time.

However, within the liberal tradition there arose a further complicating moment with the publication of what is undoubtedly the most celebrated text on my exact topic this evening, namely John Stuart Mill’s essay called On Liberty of 1859. One of the moves that Mill makes in that very original text is to point out that that the liberal tradition thus far — and he is thinking of what I have been talking… he’s thinking about Hobbes, he’s thinking about Locke, he’s thinking about the utilitarians, of course, and especially Bentham — endorses one principle that Mill considers questionable. And there it is … at the middle at the top of the chart: that freedom consists in the absence of interference with the exercise of your powers by external agencies. That’s to say, by another person, or by a group or, important of course for these writers, natural agencies: anything that threatens to leave you powerless.

But what Mill asks in Chapter 3 of the essay On Liberty is this: Is it true that freedom is necessarily interpersonal in this way that we’re looking at? or Could it be the case, somehow, that the agent who takes away your freedom could be you? It’s not interpersonal… that you could be the agent of the destruction of your own freedom. As soon as you entertain that thought, the liberal tradition begins to look a lot more complicated and this complication is one of the major nodes of late 19th-century social and political philosophy as people begin to ask Can we make sense of this radical extension of the classical liberal tradition? So here it is with the extension added.


No interference by external agencies or, some people want to add, by the self. The self can prevent or compel its own actions due to the operation of… what? How are we going to start to fill this out? That’s the analytical challenge that we now face. Here we are wading into extremely deep philosophical waters about the notion of the self. And is it a divided notion in the way that this is presupposing? But the writers that I am interested in this tradition this evening are resourceful about this and have a number of answers and here is the first.


The suggestion is that the will, so to speak, can ally itself either with reason or with some passion of the soul — as Descartes would call it, some passions de l’âme: anger or envy or hatred or something that just blows you away. Where the resulting action is motivated not by one of those passions but by reason conquering those passions, the resulting action is said to be free. That’s a free action. Notice very strong conceptual connection being suggested here between freedom and reason. Where on the other hand it is passion that has blown you away, the resulting action is held to be not fully free.

The writers who like to think in these terms from the 17th-century onwards make a distinction between liberty and license. If you’re acting out of passion, that is not free action. That is licentious action. It’s only if you’re acting according to freedom as your motive that you act freely. There are deep roots for that view. For example, what I just said is a paraphrase of what John Locke already says in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding of 1690. Mill certainly alludes to this idea especially when he is comparing the higher and lower pleasures when he is criticising Bentham. But Mill isn’t so much interested in (passions). Mill is much more interested in what he takes to be a second possible internal constraint on our freedom and it’s this.


Mill introduces this suggestion with the claim that, as he says at the start of the essay, “In our time,” — he’s speaking of mid-Victorian England — “the yoke of law has become lighter but the yoke of opinion has become heavier.” I think that’s right in as much as most of the protests that were offered in the name of freedom in the early modern period were offered in the name of freedom as against the state. But Mill, who is here closely following his elder contemporary Tocqueville, is much more impressed by the power not of the state but of civil society within the state to limit your freedom. And that that happens through demands for conformity to convention. Demands of civil society — they are implicit demands of civil society — for you to follow certain norms and conventions of behaviour. And Mill thinks that where that demand is very strong, as he thought it was in 19th-century Britain, then the effect will be to cause you inauthentically to internalise those social norms until you follow them in preference to your authentic desires. He is very concerned about this point. I quote Chapter 3 — it’s a beautiful epigrammatic passage of the essay On Liberty: “The people of England think themselves free but they choose what is customary in preference to their inclination until it does not occur to them to have any inclination except for what is customary.”

So, people — this is Mill’s point — are not reflecting on their choices and if you don’t stand back in this Socratic way that he always asks you to do from your choices, then they’re not genuinely free choices because you’re simply allowing the circumpressures of your society to dictate what you think are your choices.

I have spoken of Mill as the great spokesman for that view in the Anglophone classical tradition of liberalism and I think that is correct. But notice that that came down to our time in existentialist moral philosophy which is an enormous extension of just that idea of how the self can enslave the self through inauthenticity.

Let me round up this part of my discussion by adding a word about one other possibility in late 19th-century social philosophy although I have to say that this will cause me to skid off my purely English language track just for a moment although the works I want to talk about are all translated into the English language. So here is the possibility that I want to put before you.


The idea that you might undermine your own freedom by acting with a consciousness which is false. False to what? False to your own true or real interests. Maybe not false to your phenomenal desires but false to your real interests. Notice how close Mill comes to this when he talks about the permanent interests of men — he’s talking about men always, I am sorry — as progressive beings.

But the classic expression in late 19th-century social philosophy of this view is in Karl Marx. And Marx’s key suggestion is, as you know, that social being determines consciousness. If your consciousness is determined by society in which freedom of action is conceived of in bourgeoise terms, then you will become the agent of your own servitude. Because you will be endorsing a bourgeoise — and Marx would wish to say a false — understanding of what is in your real interest. And I don’t need to tell you that that strand of genealogy has also come powerfully down into our own time especially through the German tradition. But Habermas — the great exponent of the distinction between phenomenal desires and real interests in social philosophy in our time — has of course been in the English language since the 1960’s and so this part of the liberal story also comes down to our time.

[I seem to be in a Foucauldian mood this evening — Foucault of course famous for the claim that there’s no such thing as an exhaustive taxonomy. That must be right! And in any case, I want to leave the enquiry as open as we can possibly leave it. We are talking about freedom. So, I would be very happy if people had more say about that in the discussion.

By the way, the most obvious thing that’s going to occur to us is the unconscious. Freud always saw himself as a theorist of freedom and very unfortunately sexist way of putting it but he said the aspiration of his theory was to make people a master in their own house again. That’s to say… well, you all know the theory and it skids away from social philosophy so I haven’t talked about it but there might be other candidates besides Freud’s theory.]

We know have — I think you’d agree — an array of different conceptions of freedom and it’s definitely beginning to look like a genealogy in that some choices are required, there are disputes here which are going to be irresolvable: some people are going to say We don’t want to add the self; some are going to say We have to add the self; some are going to say The external interference has to be only bodily; some are going to say It includes the will. So, there is no way of turning this into a narrative now. This is the collision that Nietzsche talks about.

However, we should notice that all of what you’re looking at have one basic element in common as they explicate freedom. They all think of it as absence of interference. Notice, interference turned out to be an incredibly complex concept. There it is at the top. It’s doing all the work. It’s all about what it means for there to be interference. Intrusions of various kinds — they may well up from you, they may be circumpressures of your society, they may come from the state: they’re all intrusions — are all interferences.

The Hegelian Concept

But towards the very end of the 19th-century — which is where my genealogy has now reached — a number of Anglophone political philosophers begin to argue that what you’re looking at is radically incomplete. And these are the people who are drawing on the philosophy of Hegel who had argued that to think of liberty like this — as Hegel says in a wonderful passage in The Philosophy of Right only the English could be so crude. This is freedom? You haven’t even started!

This is the negative moment of a dialectic. Freedom is a dialectical moment. You are free from something but you’re also free to do something. Of course, the liberal tradition is not without a response to Hegel. And you find the response at the top of the chart. We want to be impeded. If you ask impeded from doing what? The answer is impeded from doing whatever you want. That’s the glory of the liberal tradition. It doesn’t block that off.

You could say, therefore, that there’s always kind of positive element in the notion of freedom because you can always ask why you want to be free from impediments. I mean, what is this freedom for? Why is it a value for you? And that is a positive question. But I so think it’s a great strength of this tradition that I have so far laid out that it answers the Hegelian question with whatever you want. Although, of course — and Mill is famous for this — within the bounds of what he calls the ‘harm principle’: whatever you want, provided it doesn’t harm others.

But I need at this stage to notice a very different answer that rose to prominence in English language political philosophy at the very end of the 19th-century. And according to the view of things that I now want to say a word about, we want to be free not in order merely to act at will so that it’s a kind of blank space but rather, in order to act in such a way — and here’s the Hegelian thought — as to realise the essence of your nature.

In Anglophone political philosophy, the leading exponent of this view was the philosopher T.H. Green (and also) of course, F.H. Bradley, Bernard Bosanquet (and) a large number of philosophers at the turn of the 19th– into the 20th-centuries. Green wrote an essay called On the Different Meanings of Freedom. And he ends by saying: “To be free is to have realised that which we have in ourselves to become.”

So, being and becoming (are) very important in this Hegelian way of thinking about freedom. And according to this view, we ought, therefore, to characterise as free — that’s to say truly free, wirklich, real freedom as Hegel would say — only those persons who, as Green puts it, have in fact acted in such a way as to realise the essence of their nature.

Notice that a wide conceptual gulf has now opened up at this point between this view and everything that we’ve so far looked at. The Hegelians do not think of freedom as absence of interference on any understanding of interference. Rather, they’re claiming that freedom is self-realisation.


What has happened is that this tradition of thinking has helped itself to a massive additional premise which is that human nature is normative. There’s a normativity in human nature which this is saluting. And that’s Hegel’s objection to the liberal tradition. It doesn’t accept the normativity of human nature.

You may not think it makes sense to say that human nature is normative although we do talk like this. We say of certain things that is completely inhuman. So, it’s in our thinking that human nature might be normative. And if you’re willing to entertain that thought, then, obviously, there are going to be as many different theories of liberty as self-realisation as there are coherent views about what constitutes the essence of what it is to be truly human — that normative essence of human nature.

So, we need to ask what view about the normativity of human nature did these writers actually espouse. You could espouse many I guess but if you think about the western way of traditional thinking about this in very general terms, we really only ever espouse two large pictures at this point. One is classical and one is Christian. Now, Green is a Christian and he is very taken with the idea — this Christian paradox — that what freedom might be is service. Service to God might be freedom because it’s in service to God that you realise the essence of your nature.

There’s a very strong story. Of course, it’s the one the Nietzsche is denouncing, isn’t it? — in On the Genealogy of Morality, that’s the slave morality. But that’s not a political theory. On the contrary, that’s sort of a rejection of politics. If we’re talking about a political theory of this kind, then we are driven back into the classical story that the way in which we most fully realise ourselves — that’s to say, the arena for our talents, the arena for our virtues — is the civic arena. And it is not service of God but service of fellow human beings that discloses you as a free person. So, I am suggesting we’ve inherited two principle views about his idea that liberty has this positive concept and one is essentially the Arisotelian view that we are the ‘zôion politikòn’ or the political animal. And that’s what it is to be free — it’s to realise that that’s your nature.


And here of course is the superceding view that No, our true nature is spiritual.


Again, I want to emphasise that this way of thinking has come right down right down into our time. Amongst recent philosophers who have unambiguously taken up position A — which of course is all I am talking about because I am talking about politics this evening — the most prominent has been Hannah Arendt, hasn’t it? Especially in her wonderful essay called What is Freedom? I quote it: “Freedom is politics.” Now that is a wonderful remark. She’s not saying freedom requires politics or… she’s saying the activity of politics is the arena in which your virtues and your talents are put to work in such a way as to make you most fully the free person that you have it in yourself to become. So, there is your self, realised.

[Another Hegelian which… I mean…. I think this is… I suppose… mediated through Heidegger in Hannah Arendt’s case but] A pure Hegelian writing in the English in our time is Charles Taylor. Charles Taylor, in his great treatise Sources of the Self, has this distinction where he wants to say freedom is usually understood as an ‘opportunity concept’, as he calls it. That’s to say, to be free is just to have options which, of course, is what we are seeing all over the left-hand side of this genealogy. But he wants to say (that) that’s not how to think about freedom. Freedom is not an opportunity concept. It is an ‘exercise concept’. That’s to say, I can only tell if you are a free person once I have seen how you conduct yourself.


The Neo-Roman Concept

I want to pause at this juncture because I think it would be quite generally agreed — [and you’d have to be a quite wide minded contemporary analytical philosopher in political theory to think that we need to incorporate so much: I mean, what is the currently the latest and therefore in bold would be unhesitatingly crossed out by a lot of the people I have talked about down the left-hand side] — that this (is) where we’ve now got the genealogy.

If you think that, then, I think you’re missing an element in the genealogy which has indeed been largely successfully effaced by the ideological triumph of classical liberalism but which needs crucially, I think, to be added to the picture. And my desire to add something to the picture which is not there — we’ve left Isaiah Berlin very far behind, haven’t we? — is really my excuse for standing before you this evening and it’s with this further force that I want to end.

I can best begin by suggesting that we can see what’s missing by making a point about Hobbes’s argument that commentators on Hobbes philosophy never seem to point out which is that when he gives you this story — which I have put all the way down the left-hand side — this is extremely polemical. It begins a story which has become our story. So, we are prone not to see that this a fiercely polemical thing that he is doing in talking about freedom. He is trying to discredit a completely a completely different way of thinking about freedom. And look how successful it was. I mean, this is a story that rolls through right down into contemporary political theory. So, what Hobbes was objecting to has rather got effaced.

To see the contention that Hobbes is trying to discredit, I think the best thing to do is to go back to what is in fact one of the founding texts of modern western political theory. And that is The Codex of Roman law, which has an extraordinary influence in all our cultures, begins by making a distinction between the figure of the free man or woman, liber homo, and the figure of the slave.

According to this view, ex hypothesi, a slave is unfree. But notice that in order to understand what freedom is, on this account, what you crucially need to understand is what makes a slave unfree. Then, you’ll understand freedom. It’s crucial to see that the answer has nothing to do with interference. This was something that was very prominent in Roman comedy and in classical reflections on slavery. (We have) slave characters in Plautus whose master is either completely benign or is always away: they do whatever they want. This was put on the Roman stage. They’re not interfered with in the pursuit of their goals. But they are still slaves. That’s what makes those comedies so uneasy.

A slave who only ever did his master’s bidding and did it willingly would never suffer coercion and so you’d have a deep paradox of a free slave. By contrast, many free citizens in antiquity would have had extremely circumscribed lives, especially circumscribed by poverty. So, what is this distinction between the free and the slave? The answer given in the Roman law — and it’s extremely influential — is that it’s the mere fact of having a master that makes you unfree. The mere fact, that is, of living in a state of dependence on the arbitrary will of somebody else. As the digest of the Roman law expresses the point, it’s the fact of living in potestate, that is to say within someone’s power and hence at their mercy: that’s what takes away freedom. That’s what takes away your status as a liber homo — homo of course in Latin meaning man or woman — a free man or woman.


It’s nothing to do with non-interference. It’s absence of dependence. It’s the core idea of what it means to be free. And the reason is that you will not be a liber homo, free man or a woman, but you will be a slave if there could be interference contrary to your interests and undertaken with impunity because of your dependence on the arbitrary will of someone else. There’s the fundamental claim.


Notice here that there is a continuity with most liberal accounts of freedom, that’s to say the presence of freedom is still said to be marked by an absence. But it’s not absence of interference, it’s absence of dependence. But there’s also a major contrast here with the classical liberal story because it’s possible on this account to be unfree even if there is no interference with the exercise of your powers and not even any threat of any such interference. You could still be unfree. That claim looks absurd to some contemporary political theories. For example, Matthew Kramer, in his book The Quality of Freedom, which by the way is the longest book review I have ever received, says how can there be loss of freedom when there is no interference? How can that be?

According to the writers I am, talking about whom I want to call neo-Roman writers on freedom, it can be the case. And in two related ways. First, there’s an epistemological point to be made. If you are wholly dependent on the goodwill of someone else, then you never act according to your own will which is what freedom requires. Any action you perform will be the outcome both of your own will and of the silent permission of the person on whose goodwill you depend who could with impunity have stopped you but chose not to. That’s always going to be there. That permission. So, all of what look like free action are actually permissions. So, you never act autonomously. There’s the first claim.


It is the fact of dependence that takes away freedom. You’re never autonomous.

The second point that the neo-Roman writers make stems from the consideration that it’s obvious that you couldn’t live subject to the arbitrary will of someone in any domain of your life let alone if you are a chattel slave in every domain of your life… you couldn’t remain for long ignorant of being in someone’s power in any domain of your life without noticing it. You are quickly going to notice that. But as soon as you notice it, what’s going to happen? It’s going to generate self-censorship. It cannot fail to generate self-censorship. And there’s the second way in which your freedom is going to be undermined.


Let me just spell that out. This is really a core claim I think. The first claim is very important because it’s about how power is silent. You could say classical liberalism is very bad about power being silent. It always wants to see the interference… see the noise. But some power is completely silent. This is what this tradition is more sensitive to I think. And the way this core claim works is that if you know that your predicament is that you are in somebody’s power, you never know what might happen to you. You are in their power. You don’t know what could happen. Anything could happen. Maybe nothing will happen; or maybe nothing bad will happen; but anything could happen. You’re going to want to do everything, in respect of the person at whose mercy you’re living, to keep out of trouble. So, you cannot fail to self-censor systematically in the hope of keeping out of trouble. You don’t know what the trouble is but you have to mould yourself in such a way that you do your best to keep out of trouble. Summarised by Tacitus in a very unpleasant epigram — but you see what he’s saying, as he says — (that) there is no chance for a slave — he means a true slave, a chattel slave — not to be slavish. How could you be other than slavish? Because that’s your existential predicament.

As you have seen, with the rise of — what you’ve got on the board which I have now pushed over to the right wing which is where it all belongs — this story that I have told you, (the neo-Roman concept) mainly gets effaced but not entirely. There’s a kind of rocky descent that we can end this lecture by looking at. Because we can ask this question. I am not talking about chattel slavery. This is… the question is very precisely formulated.


Who live as slaves in some domain of their life(sic) — some domain or other — in someone’s power? If that’s true in any domain in your life, then you are living in that domain as a slave. Let’s see what the answers that were given to that question.

The main answer given in the 17th-century — the answer given by James Harrington to Hobbes in the most important English language 17th-century treatise on Republicanism, James Harrington’s Oceana of 1656 — was this: anyone who lives as the subject of a monarch lives as a slave in certain domains of their lives.


Because all monarchs — as Harrington says — have prerogatives; but prerogatives are, ex hypothesi, discretionary powers. To the extent that a monarch has discretionary powers, their subjects depend on that monarch’s will. It’s arbitrary. But to live in any domain of your life in the state of dependence on someone’s arbitrary will is what it is to lack freedom.

The next claim we find becomes very important with the emergence of the empires of the enlightenment period.


All who live in colonies under imperial powers live as slaves. That is the argument used against the British by the 13 American colonies in 1776. And it’s the argument used by such defenders as the American colonies in England as Joseph Priestly, Richard Price and, above all, Thomas Paine. The common core of their argument — best known as Paine’s argument — is that if you are governed, and especially if you are taxed, by a colonial power, and thus have no representation in the legislative that’s imposing those taxes, that’s to say that in that domain of your life, you are entirely dependent on the goodwill of that representative assembly for the level of taxation that is imposed.

But this dependency, as the colonists claim in the Declaration of 1776, serves in itself to take away freedom in that domain because they’re entirely at the mercy of the English parliament as to what level of taxation will be imposed and so their property is in permanent jeopardy: because they’re subject to arbitrary power.

So, that explains why the declaration of 1776 was called, and still is called, The Declaration of “Independence”. Independence from what? Well, from dependence, of course. Declaration of not being dependent on the arbitrary powers lodged the British constitution. So, notice that this country is founded on this view of what it is to be a free person.

Further quick answer comes powerfully to the fore in the revolutionary decades of the 1790s.


All women who lack independent means live as slaves. This is Mary Wollstonecraft’s central theme in the pioneering remarkable text of 1792, The Vindication of the Rights of Women. The starting point is with the fact that most women or at least very many women are or were at the time economically dependent on men. “The effect is that in order to survive, such women have to learn how to become the sort of people that men like.” And to the extent that that is how they are obliged to form their characters, they cannot act autonomously. In a number of domains in their lives, these people are not free.

John Stuart Mill writes the last of his major political texts in 1869, ten years after the essay On Liberty, and his tract as I am sure you know is called The Subjection of Women. It’s a little-observed fact about John Stuart Mill that he appears as the 19th-century apostle of classical liberty but he changes his mind. He comes over to this view and he begins the tract on The subjection of women by saying that because women do not have testamentary will — which was true in England at that time, they couldn’t make their own will, so he’s punning on will — they can’t make their own will. So, in that domain of their life they don’t have a will. And he says at the beginning of Chapter 1, “I see no such difference between the position of such women and that of bond slaves.” So, Mill, the great apostle of liberalism in his late life becomes what I am calling a neo-Roman theorist of liberty.

Now, how about this?


Have they been eliminated? What about this?


Deunionised labour forces, bosses who have it within their power to dismiss at will and with impunity — there are certain examples of that in my country, I am sure this is a more virtuous country than mine. We have to ask if these citizens are on this account living in that domain of their lives as free men and women. What about this?


Many democratic states — certainly mine and, again, I am sure America is more virtuous — possess extensive powers of surveillance over their citizens that can be exercised without the consent or even the knowledge of those citizens. So far, criticism has tended to focus on the exercise of those powers and it’s agreed that exercise of these powers is an affront to privacy. But that the payoff is security. And that’s a quotation from Obama. But on the view of liberty that I am now considering, this is not at all the right way to analyse the costs and benefits. On the neo-Roman account, it’s not exercise of these powers but the existence of these powers which matters and is the affront. And the affront is not to privacy, it’s an affront to liberty. Both because it is arbitrary — we don’t know what use could be made of it — and because since we don’t know what use could be made of it, we are very liable to start to self-censor. So, there’s a paradigm of unfreedom on this account.


Well here I draw to a close. In fact, I am a minute over 7 o’clock but I [have got one… Is that alright if I…? Because I really want this extra minute because I] want to place before you a compete genealogy with all the bits and pieces taken out — that’s to say all the bold which introduced each section and there it is.



And with the whole thing in front of us, the reason I want this final minute is to say: Well, what is the point of these remarks? What is the point of genealogy? I want to make two points here in fact and the first is that genealogy — in the way that I have been laying it out — is always critique. Genealogy is critique. Critique of what? Conceptual analysis. And the way that that works in the present instance is as follows. We are repeatedly told in contemporary Anglo-American political philosophy that there is, I quote John Rawls, “one coherent way of thinking about liberty. It is a negative concept and it consists in the absence of interference.” That is the analysis of freedom that underlies Rawl’s account of justice as equal freedom.

But there isn’t just one way of coherently analysing the concept of freedom in our time. I have spoken of writers like Arendt and Taylor who don’t think about it in these terms at all but they think coherently. And I have spoken of a legal tradition which insists that even if liberty is seen as negative, it’s not to be seen in terms of interference but, on the contrary, of domination and dependence. Each of these positions — we end up with three major features of the genealogical tree — are, I think, coherent in their own terms.

My other and final point is that while each of these accounts is, I think, coherent in its own terms, you can’t combine them. This in genealogy. You can’t get it to be a concept… the concept of liberty. You’re going to have to make some choices because they don’t fit together. So, what choice should you make?

And that brings me lastly to the most important point I want to make in this lecture which is that I do not think that university teachers should go around telling people what to think especially not in very great universities like this one. You can all think. You all know this. This is what Wittgenstein calls ‘assembling reminders’. So, that’s what I have done. I have assembled reminders for a particular purpose. And that I think is the task of the teachers — to try to clarify what it is that one needs to be reminded of in order to think about it. And that’s all I have tried to do in this lecture. I have tried to present you with information relevant to answering the question: how should we think about freedom? But as to the answer, I leave that to you.


Published by


I am chronic procrastinator.