The invention of modern freedom—the equating of liberty with restraints on state power—was not the natural outcome of such secular Western trends as the growth of religious tolerance or the creation of market societies. Rather, it was propelled by an antidemocratic backlash following the Atlantic Revolutions.
We tend to think of freedom as something that is best protected by carefully circumscribing the boundaries of legitimate state activity. But who came up with this understanding of freedom, and for what purposes? In a masterful and surprising reappraisal of more than two thousand years of thinking about freedom in the West, Annelien de Dijn argues that we owe our view of freedom not to the liberty lovers of the Age of Revolution but to the enemies of democracy.
The conception of freedom most prevalent today—that it depends on the limitation of state power—is a deliberate and dramatic rupture with long-established ways of thinking about liberty. For centuries people in the West identified freedom not with being left alone by the state but with the ability to exercise control over the way in which they were governed. They had what might best be described as a democratic conception of liberty.
Understanding the long history of freedom underscores how recently it has come to be identified with limited government. It also reveals something crucial about the genealogy of current ways of thinking about freedom. The notion that freedom is best preserved by shrinking the sphere of government was not invented by the revolutionaries of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who created our modern democracies—it was invented by their critics and opponents. Rather than following in the path of the American founders, today’s “big government” antagonists more closely resemble the counterrevolutionaries who tried to undo their work.
Ambitious and impressive…Explores an alternate history of the concept from the ancient world to the Age of Revolution to the Cold War, charting those moments when new notions of freedom—such as freedom from government supervision or repression—deviated from its more classical and longstanding definition as self-government… At a time when the very survival of both freedom and democracy seems uncertain, books like this are more important than ever, as our societies contemplate both the heritage of the past and the prospects for the future.
Ambitious and bold, this book will have an enormous impact on how we think about the place of freedom in the Western tradition.
At once magisterial and finely grained, this is history on the grand scale. De Dijn succeeds in bringing, with clarity and a lightness of touch, the weight of the past to bear on freedom and its fragilities in our own time.
With remarkable sweep and erudition, de Dijn recounts the whole history of thinking about freedom in the West. In the process, she also profoundly upends the standard liberal narrative, convincing us that what we understand by freedom today—namely, the opportunity to be left alone to do our own thing—is a recent invention. This is an important book for historians, political theorists, and all readers who like big ideas.
De Dijn has written a marvelous book on the history and various meanings of freedom. Its scope is enormous, its writing elegant, its insights strikingly original. We will all be reading this book for many years to come.
A sweeping history of the idea of freedom in the West, from Ancient Greece, to our time…Shows how the notion of democratic freedom has developed and deepened…Importantly, de Dijn traces how the Old Oligarchy—which was overthrown by Athenian democracy—feared the redistributive power of political democracy. From the time of Ancient Athens until today, this fear has been a constant in reactionary thought.
For two millennia liberty was conceived as popular self-government. But nineteenth-century liberals and conservatives redefined freedom as the guarantee of individual rights against state power, and democratic equality as a threat to liberty. This timely book presents urgent and persuasive arguments to rethink liberty and democracy in an era of fast-increasing inequality.
This book brings remarkable clarity to a big and messy subject, the definition of freedom in the Western tradition. New insights and hard-hitting conclusions about the resistance to democracy make this essential reading for anyone interested in the roots of our current dilemmas.
A wonderful book—extremely well written, engaging, and compelling. De Dijn offers a sweeping history of the notion of freedom across 2,000 years, arguing that identifying liberty with limited government, the way we do today, is a very modern idea.
Thought-provoking…Helps explain how partisans on both the right and the left can claim to be protectors of liberty, yet hold radically different understandings of its meaning…This deeply informed history of an idea has the potential to combat political polarization.
Works through the intellectual history of the idea of freedom from antiquity to the present and puts those ideas in their political and historical context to show how the idea of freedom was used…Challenge[s] us to look at our history to better understand our present and to fight for our future.
Annelien De Dijn delivers a compelling and accessible analysis of a highly relevant subject…In a post-pandemic world that has exposed the fragile tension between individual rights, collective interests and democratic legitimacy, De Dijn’s plea for a re-evaluation of our understanding of liberty deserves to be listened to.
Beautifully written…De Dijn’s work is singularly ambitious and iconoclastic, seeking to restructure a field thick with entrenched interpretation while sending a message about the necessary reform of the politics of the present.
- 2021, Winner of the PROSE Awards
- 432 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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