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Right of Liberty

As we saw previously in the article on Pursuit of Happiness, the writings of John Locke (1632-1704) heavily influenced the works of Thomas Jefferson and other early American statesmen who wrote and signed the founding documents of the United States, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Locke was an English philosopher and physician and was regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. He was also known as the "Father of Classical Liberalism".

Locke considered happiness a natural part of the divinely ordained order of the universe and he makes a very interesting observation regarding the “pursuit of happiness” and human liberty. He points out that “The necessity of pursuing happiness is the foundation of liberty.”   This can be explained in either of two ways: Our natural or innate need for the pursuit of happiness requires liberty or our liberties provide the opportunities for us to pursue happiness.  In either case our liberty and our happiness are closely linked. 

It was Locke’s understanding that since God has, as a law of nature, given each person the desire to pursue happiness, the government should not try to interfere with an individual’s pursuit of happiness. Therefore we have to give each person the liberty to pursue happiness so long as that liberty does not interfere with the liberty of others to do likewise. This is how we derive the basic right of liberty from the right to pursue happiness. 

But what is this right of liberty?  Some use the words “right” and “liberty” interchangeably.  For example, we have the right of free speech or the liberty to speak freely.  According to Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), "a free man is he that... is not hindered to do what he hath the will to do."  John Stuart Mill, (1806–1873) in his work, On Liberty, was the first to recognize the difference between liberty as the freedom to act and liberty as the absence of coercion.  Sir Robert Filmer (c.1588–1653) defined it as “A liberty for everyone to do what he likes, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws.”

John Locke draws a clear distinction between natural liberty and political liberty.  He provides this definition that includes a refutation of Filmer’s work:

“In the state of nature, liberty consists of being free from any superior power on Earth. People are not under the will or lawmaking authority of others but have only the law of nature for their rule. In political society, liberty consists of being under no other lawmaking power except that established by consent in the commonwealth. People are free from the dominion of any will or legal restraint apart from that enacted by their own constituted lawmaking power according to the trust put in it. Thus, freedom is not as Sir Robert Filmer defines it: ‘A liberty for everyone to do what he likes, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws.’ Freedom is constrained by laws in both the state of nature and political society. Freedom of nature is to be under no other restraint but the law of nature. Freedom of people under government is to be under no restraint apart from standing rules to live by that are common to everyone in the society and made by the lawmaking power established in it. Persons have a right or liberty to (1) follow their own will in all things that the law has not prohibited and (2) not be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, and arbitrary wills of others.”  [Two Treatises on Government]

Now, because it is not the aim of this site to get you only to read, but rather to encourage you also to think and ponder, we offer you the following quotes on liberty to consider for yourself. 

Quoting Montesquieu; The Spirit of Laws: Book XI, “It is true that in democracies the people seem to act as they please; but political liberty does not consist in an unlimited freedom. In governments, that is, in societies directed by laws, liberty can consist only in the power of doing what we ought to will, and in not being constrained to do what we ought not to will.  We must have continually present to our minds the difference between independence and liberty. Liberty is a right of doing whatever the laws permit, and if a citizen could do what they forbid he would be no longer possessed of liberty, because all his fellow-citizens would have the same power.”

“What is so beneficial to the people as liberty, which we see not only to be greedily sought after by men, but also by beasts, and to be preferred to all things.” - Marcus Tullius Cicero

“Liberty consists in the power of doing that which is permitted by the law.” - Cicero

“We are in bondage to the law in order that we may be free.” - Cicero

“We must be the slaves of laws, if we want to be free.” - Cicero

“Freedon of men under government is to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power vested in it; a liberty to follow my own will in all things, when the rule prescribes not, and not to be subject to the inconstant, unknown, arbitrary will of another man.” - John Locke

“The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of nature for his rule.” - John Locke, The Second Treatise of Civil Government

“To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.” - John Locke, The Second Treatise of Civil Government

“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions..." - John Locke, The Second Treatise of Civil Government

“You shouldn’t desire anything that you cannot achieve by yourself. Your greatest possessions are a freedom. She isn’t able to make you beautiful, rich, respected, strong and happy in the eyes of the whole world, but she can only make you free. She doesn’t make you the master of things, but the master of yourself.”

- Descartes

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

- Nelson Mandela

”America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

- Abraham Lincoln

”Responsibility is the price of freedom.”

- Elbert Hubbard

”Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”

- Ronald Reagan


”Liberty cannot be preserved without general knowledge among the people.” - John Adams


”Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” - Viktor E. Frankl

”A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.”

- Bob Dylan

For more thoughts on the Declaration of Independence or natural law check out these other Heavy Questions articles.   What Makes Us Equal? or Pursuit of Happiness or Right to Life.

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