“Ambitious and impressive…At a time when the very survival of both freedom and democracy seems uncertain, books like this are more important than ever.”—The Nation
“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.”—Publishers Weekly
“Ambitious and bold, this book will have an enormous impact on how we think about the place of freedom in the Western tradition.”—Samuel Moyn, author of Not Enough
“Brings remarkable clarity to a big and messy subject…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.”—Lynn Hunt, author of History: Why It Matters
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.