Takashi Shogimen. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

Liberty is an integral concept in Western political and social thought. Liberty as an inalienable social and political attribute of individuals emerged in the formation of the modern political discourse in the West. Since Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) the concept has often been categorized in a threefold manner: moral liberties (freedom of moral choice, such as freedom of conscience), civil liberties (freedom of individuals as constituting members of a civil society, such as freedom of speech) and political liberties (freedom of individuals in relation to the state, such as freedom of political association), all being attributes of individuals. Pre-modern Europe, by contrast, did not necessarily attribute liberties to individuals but to social relations and communities. Non-Western worlds did not produce an idea equivalent to liberty in their own intellectual traditions. Around the nineteenth century, however, they assimilated the Occidental idea of liberty primarily as a concept denoting the independence of the nation state rather than the liberties of individual human beings. In what follows we shall survey Western conceptions of liberty chronologically, and discuss the Islamic, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese variations of it.

Ancient Conceptions

Liberty or freedom (eleutheria) in ancient Greece denoted the status of the free man and woman as opposed to that of the slave. The division between free persons and slaves was deemed to be a social and natural institution. Free status was identified by a set of various rights and privileges. Hence, liberty was exclusive and could not be shared by every individual. Indeed, one of the rights of free individuals was to own other individuals as slaves. Similarly, the political freedom of a community also denoted the subjugation of other communities under its control. The preservation of an individual’s liberty was not considered to be inconsistent with the depravation of another’s, and this was also the case with a political community. In addition, the Greek (especially Athenian) concept of liberty entailed equality of political rights and freedom of male political participation in the public sphere.

In his philosophical framework, Plato (c. 428-348 or 347 B.C.E.) left little room for liberty or freedom. Liberty was not a constituent element of human dignity, and freedom of thought was nothing other than the freedom to be incorrect, that is, a greater chance to deviate from the objective truths. Aristotle’s (384-322 B.C.E.) definition of liberty resembles the contemporary notion; for him, the general essence of freedom is being one’s own person for one’s own sake rather than belonging to another. What discriminates the slave from the free man, then, is not that he is restricted in his actions and subject to coercion but that everything he does is done to serve the interest of someone else. Whether Aristotle enshrined individual freedom in the sense of personal autonomy is a contentious issue. The place of autonomous practical rationality in his ethics becomes problematic when set against his claim of the individual’s subordination to the state (polis). Aristotle’s alleged dearth of interest in personal autonomy would be consistent with the reduction of the individual to a mere part of the state, while the recognition of personal autonomy in the Aristotelian ethical system would not.

The Roman idea of liberty (libertas) was a civic right acquired under positive law; namely, it was a constituent of the membership of the civic body (citizenship). Roman civil law was applicable to citizens of Rome only; noncitizens were ruled by the law of nations. Roman liberty was by definition a positive right that was guaranteed (but could also be withdrawn) by the law. Law-abiding citizens enjoyed the liberty of a Roman citizen and, before the law, all the citizens were equal. The slave was legally defined as a thing (res)—rather than person (persona)—and was subject to the mastery of another person.

In the final days of Roman republicanism, Cicero (106-43 B.C.E.) significantly related forms of government with the idea of liberty. He drew on the Polybian discourse on the change of constitutions and characterized each form of polity according to the degree of liberty attributed to it. Cicero’s notion of liberty was equality of juridical rights, not equality before the law. He considered that democracy was marked by the excess of liberty granted to the ruled, and he recommended a just equality proportionate to dignitas (reputation or merit).

Early Christian ideas of liberty concerned interior disposition, which contrasted sharply with Greek and Roman ideas of liberty. St. Augustine of Hippo’s (354-430 C.E.) discourse on freedom revolved around the idea of free will. Just as God is by definition unwilling and incapable of sin, so Adam, before the Fall, knew the distinction between good and evil and had the God-given power to choose the good alone. After the Fall, however, Adam and his descendents were motivated to choose evil. At the heart of Augustine’s conception of liberty was the incapability of sin. From this perspective, individuals, who are “free” in the this-worldly sense are no more free than slaves. In terms of sinful humanity, neither “free” persons nor slaves have the right to be free in this world: the liberty of humans can only be achieved eschatologically.

Medieval Conceptions

Medieval Europe, it is often argued, is an insignificant period in the history of liberty. And yet “liberty” (libertas orfranchise) is a word that can be found in a wide range of medieval documents: charters, plea rolls, theological treatises, and polemical writings. Liberty was, in medieval Europe, widely and primarily grasped as territorial immunity from seigneurial justice. The exclusion of public judges from an individual’s land was the privilege attached to and exercised in the landlord’s territory, and it could only be granted by a higher authority that acknowledged the capacity to act as a holder of a court or to be a judge.

The libertas and franchise, however, were privileges, and their recipients were often communities. They were not the rights of individual citizens. Indeed, medieval European society has been described as consisting of tightly bound corporate groups, in which individuals were absorbed, and liberty was often attributed to such groups rather than individuals. Should “liberty” be supposed to be an attribute of individuals, it might appear difficult to narrate a medieval history of liberty. But the “discovery of the individual” is now traced back to the world of intellectuals, higher clergy, and aristocracy in the twelfth century. Accordingly, recent research has denied that liberty as an attribute to individuals was not known in medieval Europe. Liberties as individual rights were also known in terms of personal freedom from, say, arbitrary imprisonment and extortion of money for release. This idea of individual liberties can be found in the record of royal justices and parliaments. Article 39 of the Magna Carta (1215) stipulated that “no free man should be captured and imprisoned or disseized or outlawed or exiled or in any way harmed except by a lawful tribunal of his peers and by the law of the land.” King John (r. 1199-1216) was compelled to concede to the requests of the rebellious barons and accepted that royal legislative and judicial authority was limited not only by the divine and natural law but also by his need to obtain counsel and consent of his subjects. In the fourteenth century, the privilege was not limited to the aristocracy as “free men” but to all: no men of whatever estate or condition he may be was to be captured and imprisoned unlawfully. Historians are divided over the significance of the charters of liberties. While the charters appear to offer new liberties, some scholars argue that they merely acknowledged freedoms that had already been enjoyed de facto by individuals as well as communities.

Similar conceptual change took place in the sphere of political and legal theory. It is well known that Henry de Bracton (d. 1268) noted the concept of liberty in Roman law as “the natural power of every man to do what he pleases, unless forbidden by law or force.” Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224-1274) maintained that by nature all human beings were both free and equal. Aquinas’s concept of liberty denotes the individual’s capacity for free choice, in which one is master of oneself, as opposed to servitude, a markedly Aristotelian conception. The English philosopher William of Ockham (c. 1285-?1347) was perhaps the greatest champion of individual liberty before the Renaissance and the Reformation. His ecclesiastical protest against the heretical doctrine of papal absolutism culminated in his assertion of the liberty of evangelical law, which may be grasped as volitional freedom of moral choice. Also Ockham’s “nominalist” outlook rejected the quintessentially medieval idea of corporation, thus attributing what he called “right and liberties granted by God and nature” to all individual humans rather than any fictitious groups. His discourse on natural rights and individual liberty has long been considered as the “semantic revolution” of the medieval language of rights. His intrinsically destructive anarchism, it was argued, anticipated the collapse of medieval Latin Christendom followed by the Reformation. Recent research, however, has shown that Ockham’s notion of right as the subjective power of an individual’s volition originates in the writings of canon lawyers in the twelfth century, such as Uguccione da Pisa (d. 1210), who held that human rationality included a capacity for moral discernment.

Modern Conceptions

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) has often been considered as a theorist of political leadership, a founder of modern political science, or a preacher of amoral power politics. Recent scholarship, however, has increasingly paid attention to his republicanism, describing him as a theorist of political liberty. His Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (1535; trans. Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy) discussed why the city of Rome attained supreme greatness, and liberty was considered as a means to such greatness. The work, filled with references to Roman writers such as Livy, Cicero, and Sallust, is interpreted as an assertion of republican liberty. Machiavelli grasped liberty as the counter-concept of slavery, which parallels his contrast between the free way of life and tyranny. According to him, the preservation of liberty is closely related to the maintenance of a particular form of polity because the enslavement of a political community will inevitably jeopardize individual freedom. The liberty of individual citizens can only be secured if the political community is maintained in a state of liberty. In this sense, coercion to a specific type of polity does not obstruct but rather warrants freedom, and coercion and the Machiavellian concept of liberty are not mutually exclusive. This maintenance of a free commonwealth in turn requires the individual citizen’s service to the common good, which can be motivated through the cultivation of civic virtues. This republican idea of liberty was influential among the English Puritan writers in the seventeenth century including James Harrington (1611-1677) and John Milton (1608-1674), and America’s Federalists in the eighteenth century.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) has been regarded as no more a defender of liberty than Machiavelli, and yet his conception of liberty, in sharp contrast to Machiavelli’s, was no less important in the history of the concept. Hobbes’s notion of human freedom was characterized by the absence of external impediments: he discerned when an individual is not hindered to do whatever he has the will, desire, or inclination to do. Hobbes rejected freedom of the will; for him, to say that the will is free is nothing other than to say that a form of internal motion is not constrained from moving by something external, and this was absurd. According to him, liberty “properly called” is what he called “natural liberty,” that is, under the “natural” condition, humans have no legal obligations; they are capable of exercising powers without being physically prevented or compelled. In the Hobbesian world of nature, then, one can maximize the enjoyment of liberty when one is alone: a radical and extreme departure from the ancient conception that is embedded in a political and social context. The “artificial” condition of humans, under which people give up their natural liberties and live under human law is in sharp contrast to the natural condition. Liberty we can enjoy under the artificial condition was called the “liberty of subjects,” which is identified with the absence of legal prescriptions; hence, “artificial” liberties. Unlike Machiavelli, Hobbes dismissed the idea that the preservation of individual liberty requires the maintenance of a particular type of regime. There is no such thing as a “free” commonwealth because all the commonwealths have laws. To enter subjection to civil rule, however, did not require the complete renunciation of natural liberty; indeed, natural liberties, for instance, to preserve oneself, were inalienable natural rights.

It has been argued that liberty as a universal God-given attribute rather than a privilege determined by political and social institutions is a distinctively “modern” notion. Indeed, the ancient concept of liberty was inconceivable apart from the political and social context, while the modern one was free from such contexts and was rather linked to metaphysical views about the nature of humans. In such modern views, liberty is prior to any political or social arrangements. However, recent research has traced its origin back into medieval Scholastic discourse; hence, the distinction between “modern” and “premodern” concepts of liberty is increasingly blurred and contentious. Seen in this light, Sir Robert Filmer’s (d. 1653) attack on the “modern” idea of natural liberty by asserting the naturalness of subjection to an absolute monarch was a radical break with the long-established tradition. Filmer derived his vision of patriarchal monarchy from Adam’s unlimited dominion over his spouse and offspring. The traditional theory of natural liberty, for Filmer, identifies liberty with license and would allow the members of society to withdraw their obedience as it pleased them, thereby making social order unstable. John Locke (1632-1704) defended the older idea of natural liberty against Filmer’s criticism by demonstrating the rationality of liberty. Liberty was the will or power to do or not to do what was willed and it gains a moral dimension when it is exercised through identifying the will with the dictates of the reason or intellect that discovers objective good in the natural law. According to Locke, law and freedom are not mutually exclusive; unlike Hobbes, following the law constitutes the fulfillment of liberty. Locke thus restored the nexus between liberty and moral order that was severed by Hobbes. In contrast to Hobbes and Filmer, moreover, Locke attributed to the state the function of assuring the protection of its citizen’s “property” including civil and religious liberty.

In criticizing the malaise of inequality in the despotism of the ancien régime, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was perhaps the most eloquent proponent of the idea of liberty in modern Europe. Rousseau considered that human beings enjoyed freedom in the “natural” state where social and political customs and institutions were nonexistent. The emergence and development of society, however, created moral and political inequality and undermined human beings’ “natural” virtue, freedom and equality, which, in his view, culminated in the France of his day. Rousseau thus reclaimed human freedom by asserting popular sovereignty. In participating in the making of the law, men would obey themselves through obeying the law. The kernel of Rousseau’s idea of liberty was thus self-mastery, namely every individual’s unlimited sovereignty. This conception of liberty transformed the function of the state. In contrast to Locke, who separated religion and morality from politics, Rousseau held that the state might become the constitutive element of the intellectual and moral development of man. This doctrine of liberty influenced Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) idea of freedom. In their passionate celebration of liberty commentators like Benjamin Constant (1845-1902) discerned the potential danger of legitimating totalitarian tyranny or charismatic dictatorship exemplified by the experience of Jacobinism.

Before the Enlightenment the idea of liberty revolved around its relationship to the moral order on the one hand and the relationship between state and individuals or society on the other. After the time of the revolutions at the turn of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, a new perspective was introduced in the discourse on liberty. The pre-Enlightenment perspective overlooked the fact that individual freedom could be constrained and even undermined by power of society, as opposed to the external constraints represented by the state. This problem, which Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) first highlighted in his defense of homosexuality and Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) discussed in his Democracy in America (1835, 1840), was the main subject of John Stuart Mill’s (1806-1873) incisive and extensive criticism in On Liberty (1859). Mill’s work was primarily written in protest against the coercive force of moralism that pervaded Victorian society. What Mill called the “tyranny of the majority” captured and criticized the coercive reality of public opinion that was intolerant of any dissidence, eccentricity, and difference. Hence, he limited the authority of society over individuals from his utilitarian perspective; interference with other individual’s activities is permitted only if they are likely to cause definite harm to some other persons, thereby violating their social rights. The flip side of this idea was the assertion of the freedom of thought. “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” This defense of freedom of thought and speech was rooted in his emphasis on individuality and self-development, which formed an antithesis to the Protestant ethic of self-restraint. Mill’s criticism of the “tyrannical” force of social custom also crystallized in his assertion that the women should be liberated from the “subjection” to the men.

Contemporary Conceptions

Modern liberalism regarded liberty as a property of each individual, thereby conceptualizing it as free from politics. Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) criticized this “anti-political” conception of liberty and preached a return to the ancient political notion. For Arendt, freedom was something “disclosed” in the collective action of individuals toward a shared goal; freedom and the act of exercising power are synonymous, not mutually exclusive. Arendt’s celebration of political practice in the polis of ancient Greece resulted in an assertion of republican freedom.

Although Arendt’s conception increasingly received serious attention, what has determined the paradigm of the discourse on liberty since the middle of the twentieth century was Isaiah Berlin’s (1909-1997) 1958 lecture “Two Concepts of Liberty,” which was later published in Four Essays on Liberty (1969). Its basic framework is easy to draw: Berlin distinguished between positive and negative liberty. Positive liberty denotes rational self-determination or autonomy, while negative liberty denotes the absence of constraints imposed by others. Despite its simplicity, however, Berlin’s conceptualization was controversial and required further clarification. In 1969 he reformulated the concept by introducing two questions. Negative freedom can be determined by answering the question: “How much am I governed?” By contrast, the positive concept can be determined by the answer to the question: “By whom am I governed?” Thus Berlin offered a revised definition of negative liberty: “not simply the absence of frustration (which may be obtained by killing desires), but the absence of obstacles to possible choices and activities.” Berlin’s negative freedom concerns “opportunity for action rather than action itself,” which was labeled later by Charles Taylor (b. 1931) as an “opportunity-concept.”

Berlin acknowledged positive freedom as “a valid, universal goal,” and yet his goal was to suggest the potential danger that positive liberty could readily be turned into the principle that legitimizes oppression, thereby demonstrating why negative liberty was preferable. Positive freedom as self-mastery, according to him, generates a metaphysical fission of the self into a “higher,” “real,” or “ideal” self and a “lower,” “empirical,” or “psychological” self. When the “higher” self is identified with institutions, churches, nations, races, and so forth, the doctrine of positive freedom turns into a doctrine of authority, or at times, of oppression. Berlin’s discourse forms an intriguing parallel to Benjamin Constant’s dual concept of liberty. Constant made a distinction between ancient and modern notions of freedom. He argued that liberty for the ancients was the freedom to participate collectively in the exercise of sovereignty, while liberty for the moderns was the freedom from interference by the community. Constant criticized Rousseau’s unlimited notion of sovereignty—he read Rousseau’s texts as supporting despotism. The resemblance between Constant’s criticism of modern liberty and Berlin’s caution about “positive” freedom is striking, and yet they differed significantly. Constant grasped modern liberty as the inalienable right of individuals, while Berlin’s positive freedom is “choice among alternatives or options that is unimpeded by others” (John Gray). Constant’s modern freedom and despotism are mutually exclusive, while Berlin’s freedom and despotism can coexist.

Berlin’s negative liberty was underpinned by his commitment to pluralism. For Berlin, the absence of constraint covers a diverse and conflicting range of values from good to evil. Berlin never tried to reconcile colliding and incommensurable values and rejected any principle that claims to resolve the conflicts. This position forms an intriguing contrast with that of Joseph Raz, who defended negative freedom, by anchoring the moral basis of freedom in autonomy. For Raz, the value of free choice-making is determined by its contribution to the positive freedom of autonomy, which is the intrinsic value. Berlin refuses to give negative freedom such an instrumental status; namely, he celebrates negative freedom as the intrinsic value.

The criticism against the negative concept of liberty highlights the notion’s indifference to opportunities or choices. Charles Taylor argues that freedom is important to us because we are purposive beings; hence, we discriminate external obstacles (and, therefore, opportunities available to us as the result of the absence of the external obstacles) according to their significance. The restrictions of religious practice, for instance, may be deemed a serious obstacle and hence a significant threat to liberty, while more traffic lights may not be perceived as serious blow to our freedom. Furthermore, obstacles are not necessarily external; we may be fettered by feelings such as shame or fear or by two conflicting desires (for instance the choice between career and marriage), and we have to discriminate between our motives. Actions arising out of irrational fear or spite cannot be said to be free. Thus Taylor suggests that the negative notion as an “opportunity-concept” is seriously flawed, and abandons one of the important elements of liberalism, that is “self-realization.”

Berlin’s negative concept of liberty did not only attract criticisms but also found a loyal heir in John Rawls; he understood liberty as freedom from interference. Rawls did not offer an explicit general definition of liberty, but his attribution of the exalted status of liberty, which constituted one of the two principles of justice, is noteworthy. According to the first principle, “Each person is to have an equal right to most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for others.” Rawls was very specific about “basic liberties,” which included “political liberty (the right to vote and to be eligible for public office) together with freedom of speech and assembly, liberty of conscience and freedom of thought, freedom of the person along with the right to hold (personal) property, and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure as defined by the rule of law.” The priority of these liberties does not allow any of them to be sacrificed except for the sake of liberty.

In addition to the arguments surrounding Berlin’s thesis, a “third” concept of liberty has emerged. Intellectual historians, including J. G. A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner, have explored the republican (or “neo-Roman”) concept of liberty in early modern republican discourses, and the political philosopher Philip Pettit has theorized republicanism with a focus on the new notion of liberty as nondomination. Hannah Arendt’s republican ideals were inspired by political practice in ancient Greece and the American Revolution, while this “third” concept of liberty does not originate in Arendt’s vision but rather derives from sixteenth-century Italian humanism and seventeenth-century English republicanism.

Domination, according to Pettit, is exemplified by the relationship of master to slave or master to servant. The “third” concept of liberty proposed by Pettit is neither “non-interference” nor “self-mastery” but “non-domination” that requires that no one has the capacity to interfere on an arbitrary basis in the choices of the free person. Liberty as nondomination differs from the positive notion in that the former emphasizes avoiding interference rather than achieving participation. Yet, republican liberty also differs from the negative concept. Domination occurs without actual interference; and republican liberty would repudiate the presence of a master who did not actually interfere, while the negative concept of liberty would not. Republican liberty rejects arbitrary interference, and what is required for non-arbitrariness in the exercise of power is not consent to the power, as is often claimed by the contractarian theorists, but “the permanent possibility of effectively contesting it.” Institutionalized contestability, Pettit argues, would promote “the absence of uncertainty, the absence of a need to defer strategically to the powerful, and the absence of a social subordination to others.”

Quentin Skinner participates in the debate from an entirely different angle: he has revised the history of the concept, thereby offering a third concept of liberty that contemporary political philosophers have overlooked. Skinner’s case studies of the history of the concept of republican liberty range from Machiavelli to seventeenth-century republican writers including John Milton. Skinner’s notion of neo-Roman liberty underlines that it opposes dependence or slavery rather than coercion, on the one hand, and that it requires a specific institutional arrangement, namely the “free state,” on the other. The former point represents an antithesis to the Rawlsian narrower notion of liberty as natural rights, and coercion as the antonym of liberty, while, as for the latter, Skinner departed from Berlin who asserted that liberty is independent of the forms of polity.

In the early 1990s Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the “end of history,” in a work by the same title, marked by the victory of liberal democracy and market capitalism. Although the number of “liberal democracies” is steadily increasing worldwide, one can hardly say that the notion of liberty is universally shared. Indeed, the civilizations outside the Occidental world did not embrace liberty as a social and political concept until the encounter with Western ideas, especially in the middle of the nineteenth century. The reception of these ideas was, largely speaking, lukewarm at best and, more often, hostile. In addition, those who favored the Western idea confronted the following two problems: one was doctrinal—how to relate a foreign idea to the their own intellectual traditions—and the other was semantic—how to translate the word “liberty” into their own language.

Islamic World

The Arabic word for liberty or freedom is hurriyya, stemming from hurr, meaning “free.” “Free” as a legal term signified the opposite of “slave,” while it denoted, as an ethical term, “noble” character and behavior. The legal concept of freedom, which was already known to the pre-Islamic world, continued to be used in Muslim jurisprudence. Hurriyya occupied an important place also in metaphysics: one of the significant repercussions of Sufism on political thought was the retreat from politics. The Sufist doctrine of renunciation maintained that poverty, self-humiliation and complete surrender of personality was the highest value of life, which underpinned the apolitical character of the doctrine. Accordingly, a Sufi mystic philosopher, Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240), defined hurriyya as “slavery to God,” namely freedom from everything but God. Personal freedom was valued within the religious, moral, and customary sphere determined by the umma (Islamic community of believers), yet it was never considered to be an absolute moral value. Thus hurriyya never enjoyed exalted status as a fundamental political value.

It was Ottoman Turkey in the eighteenth century that introduced the Western ideas of liberty to Islam. The treaty of Kücük Kaynarch in 1774 between Russia and Turkey established the free and independent status of the Crimean Tatars from the two countries. The Turkish term first used for liberty, however, was not hürriyet, derived from the Arabichurriyya, but serbestiyet. Serbest is a Persian word, meaning “exempt,” “untrammeled,” and “unrestricted”; accordingly,serbestiyet denotes the absence of limitations or restrictions. This negative concept of liberty does not convey such meanings as citizenship or participation to government. The use of serbestiyet in a political context dates from the early fourteenth century and was a commonplace in political discourse by the late eighteenth century. Celebrated Ottoman ambassadors, such as Azmi Efendi and Morali Esseyid Ali Efendi, used serbestiyet in terms of political liberty in their memoranda.

Hurriyya entered the Islamic political lexicon in 1798 when Napoléon Bonaparte arrived in Egypt and addressed the Egyptians in Arabic on behalf of the French Republic “founded on the basis of freedom and equality,” and the term hurriyya was chosen for the translation of “freedom.” Again, the Ottomans made a significant contribution to the widespread political use of the term. Sadik Rifat Pasa (1807-1856) was one such writer. He observed that European prosperity derived from political conditions such as security of life and property and freedom. Rifat’s Concerning the Condition of Europe, which was written during his sojourn in Vienna, represents the early Ottoman reception of the Western idea of political liberty. But his understanding of liberty was limited to the security of subjects from arbitrary coercion by the government, not the right to participate in it. Rifat also introduced the new language of rights into his largely traditional framework of Islamic political thought.

The Ottoman assimilation of the concept of political liberty was accelerated by the rise of a new Turkish literary movement led by the Young Ottomans including Ibrahim Sinasi (1826-1871), Ziya Pasa (1825-1880), and Namik Kemal (1840-1888). Their popular weekly journal Hürriyet was launched in 1868. Perhaps Namik Kemal is the most systematic of these thinkers; he was the first to correlate the ideas of human right and parliamentary government so as to achieve a new vision of freedom and self-government. Heavily influenced by the writings of Montesquieu and Rousseau as well as the practice of the French Third Republic and the British parliamentary system, Kemal attempted to marry the language of modern liberal-parliamentary democracy to Islamic political language. For the first time in the history of Islamic political thought, popular sovereignty was based on the liberty of the individual. However, the tyranny of Abdülhamīd II (1842-1918) stifled the Ottoman pursuit of liberty.

Egypt under British rule assimilated liberal political thought quite independent of the Turkish experience. Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid (1872-1963) was probably the most systematic exponent of Islamic liberalism. Under the influence of Mill, Lutfi al-Sayyid squarely situated freedom at the center of this thought. For him, freedom meant absence of unnecessary control by the state: a negative concept of liberty. Freedom was “the necessary food for our life,” the human’s inalienable natural right: it was a necessary condition for humans to be human in the fullest sense. Hence, Lutfi al-Sayyid celebrated limited government: political and legal arrangements and institutions that safeguard liberty were the “natural” and “true” form of government. An opponent of pan-Islamism and Arab nationalism, Lutfi al-Saiyyd was also concerned with the freedom of the nation. He argued for the liberation of Egypt from foreign rule. In this context, liberty and independence were considered almost synonymous.


Liberty in the sense of spiritual liberation from the cycle of birth and death was a key idea in Indian thought. The liberty of the individual in civil or political society was foreign to classical Indian political thought. The equivalent to the idea of civil rights can be found in the ancient literature of Smritis, but it differed significantly from the Western idea in that the former was considered to belong exclusively to the upper classes (especially the order of the Brahmanas).

The idea of liberty came to the fore of Indian political thinking with the encounter with the modern West, epitomized by the intellectual contributions of Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) and Manabandra Nath Roy (1887-1954). Gandhi’s idea of liberty was framed in the idea of swaraj, a multifaced concept of the utmost importance in his thought. Swaraj, literally meaning “self-rule,” was also used by Gandhi to signify national independence and the political, economic and spiritual freedom of the individual. As was the case with the “modern” Islam, national independence was closely related to the idea of liberty, meaning collective freedom from alien rule. Gandhi, however, did not conceptualize it negatively. National independence, framed in the idea of swaraj, was not merely freedom from foreign rule but also self-government. Gandhi’s commitment to political freedom turned him into a defender of rights, and yet he refused to base the peace and security of collective life on rights. He always placed individual duty (dharma) and social and moral interdependence above rights because, for him, rights were the consequence of the fulfillment of duties. Gandhi considered his celebrated satyagraha (passive resistance) as the performance of his duties and hence also as a method of securing rights by personal suffering. Gandhi’s conception of liberty also entailed an economic dimension: it denoted freedom from poverty. He attacked the contemporary reality of poverty by practicing voluntary poverty in order to demonstrate solidarity with the poor, while he criticized technology-oriented industrialization for its imperialistic exploitation of the masses. Although Gandhi located liberty in a political and economic context, his notion of liberty was also spiritual: self-rule through the practice of virtues toward self-realization. Gandhi’s novelty lies in the fact that to the notion of spiritual freedom, which was derived from the classical Indian tradition, he added political, economic, and social dimensions. This perspective derived from Gandhi’s internal dialogue between the Western Utopian thought represented by Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), John Ruskin (1819-1920), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), and Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) and the classical Indian thought manifested in the Hindu devotional work the Bhagavad Gita.

Whereas Gandhi’s leadership of the Hindu masses was enormously influential and successful, Manabendra Nath Roy’s gained no popular appeal. Roy’s political position changed over time from nationalism, then to communism, and finally to radical humanism. His colorful but unsuccessful commitment to the Indian freedom movement, however, was guided consistently by an ardent desire for individual freedom. The intellectual context of Roy’s political and literary activity was, unlike that of Gandhi, distinctively Westernized, markedly severed from the Indian traditions. Roy defined freedom as the “progressive disappearance of all restrictions on the unfolding of the potentialities of individuals,” and anchored the desire for freedom in biological nature. His conception of liberty was radically negative to the extent that individual freedom and social responsibility were mutually exclusive. Roy considered liberty to be dependent upon the mind of the individual rather than external conditions, and yet his belief in popular sovereignty as an inalienable right determined his preference for people’s direct political participation in parliamentary democracy.


The Chinese language did not know a word for “liberty” before the nineteenth century. The modern translation of “liberty,” ziyou (meaning, literally, self-determination), had to be coined in response to the reception of Western ideas. The closest classical term, ziran (meaning, literally, “the natural”), denoted a Taoist sense of harmony with nature. This is not to say that the idea of personal freedom was totally foreign to classical Chinese philosophy. Confucian belief in human perfectibility, however, concerned interior spiritual freedom, differing from the Western political and social concept. Likewise, freedom as a right was not conceptualized until the nineteenth century. Kang Youmai (1858-1927) was one of the first Chinese intellectuals who introduced the Protestant idea of free will. His Complete Book of Substantial Principles and General Laws (written between 1885 and 1887) described human beings as owners of the “right of autonomy” (zizhu zhi quan), thereby adopting the language of rights.

The Chinese encounter with the Western idea of liberty may well be illustrated by the translation of the works of nineteenth-century English intellectuals by Yan Fu (1854-1921). He became widely known for his translation of T. H. Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics, which introduced evolution theory to the Chinese intellectual world at the turn of nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Deeply inspired by Herbert Spencer’s (1820-1903) concept of social organism, Yan Fu maintained that the individual’s pursuit of self-interest would generate a Darwinian struggle for survival that should result in the evolution of a more harmonious society. Yan Fu claimed to have derived from Spencer his own notion of human freedom denoting the release of an individual’s “energy.” His Spencerian liberalism was a radical departure from the orthodox Confucian ethic that regarded the pursuit of self-interest as the source of evil, while his translations also distorted the original meaning of other writings from the West. One such case is his translation of Mill’s On Liberty: Yan Fu bent Mill’s original conception of liberty to meet his own political purposes. Mill considered liberty of the individual as an end in itself. However, Yan Fu’s Spencerian outlook produced a distorted understanding of Mill’s concept as a means to the advancement of the people’s virtue and intellect, ultimately to achieve the freedom of the state.

One of the powerful promoters of individual liberties (ziyou) and rights (quanli) in the Late Qing China was Liang Qichao (1873-1929). He absorbed a wide range of Western philosophy and social sciences through Japanese translations, but he endeavored to anchor the ideas of liberty and rights in the Confucian intellectual heritage. It has been debated how the Chinese reception of social and political concepts and discourses from the modern West relates to classical Chinese traditions. For instance, freedom of thought is at the heart of contemporary Western liberal democracy, while “harmony and unity of thought” (tongyi sixiang) is celebrated in post-socialist China. This contrasting attitude toward freedom of thought has received scholarly attention in connection with the lingering Confucian tradition.


In modern Japanese, “liberty” is normally translated jiyu. The Japanese first encountered the idea of liberty in Dutch,vrijheid, and the translator could not find any proper translation, leaving it untranslated. Indeed, when Western scholarship flooded into the Japanese intellectual scene through the translation of works such as Samuel Smiles’s Self Help (1859) and Mill’s On Liberty, “liberty” was commonly recognized as a difficult word to translate. After a variety of translations were attempted, jiyu survived as the only term widely used today. Unlike the case in China, jiyu had already existed in the Japanese vocabulary before Japan’s exposure to the Western idea of liberty; however, the first Japanese translators of “liberty” were not entirely convinced with their choice of the term. Fukuzawa Yukichi (1834-1901) is arguably responsible for the proliferation of the word, and yet he noted that jiyu (and any other Japanese word) failed to capture the precise meaning of liberty. According to the contemporary usage, jiyu signified “selfishness,” “arbitrariness,” and “emancipation of human desire”—in a word “license.” The moral connotation of jiyu was rather negative. Some maintain that the notion of jiyu is rooted in the Taoist idea of formless but freely moving spirit, while others see its affinity to the National Learning (kokugaku) emphasis on human desire, as the novelist and poet Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693) once wrote: “Humans are the desires with four limbs.” The first translators’ concern with possible misunderstanding and misconceptions soon became real: althoughjiyu became a buzz word in the 1880s when the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement (jiyu minken undo) reached its height, the majority of intellectuals and political leaders who supported the movement grasped jiyu in terms of “license.” Consequently liberalism was considered to be a licentious ideology.

The leaders of the Japanese Enlightenment often understood the concept of jiyu in connection with the independence of their country as a nation state. The liberty and independence of the state were the focus of debate, whereas civil liberties often escaped the attention of intellectuals. The indifference to civil liberties forms the background to the state’s oppression of free speech and academic enquiry. In 1919, Morito Tatsuo (1888-1984), of the Faculty of Economics in Tokyo Imperial University, published an article on the social thought of the anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin (1842-1921), and the authorities filed charges against him and the editor of the journal that published the paper. Morito was expelled from the university and imprisoned. Minobe Tatsukichi (1873-1948) of the Faculty of Law at Tokyo Imperial University was known for his view that the emperor was an organ of the state. In 1935, his “organ theory,” which had gained wide support in the academic community, suddenly became the object of public condemnation. Minobe was compelled to resign from the Membership of the House of Peers, and his books were banned and burned. These incidents did not merely represent the state’s oppression of intellectual freedom, but also reflected the public’s skepticism toward the mistranslated “liberty.” The widespread confusion of jiyu with license had prevented the Japanese from appreciating the value of civil liberties, and heavily discredited liberalism until Japan’s disastrous defeat in 1945.