Democratic Participation and Individual Rights: A New History of Freedom?

Freedom, one of the most important problems of political philosophy, has always been at the center of the attention of the greatest thinkers. This is why drawing a history of freedom is roughly equivalent to drawing a history of Western politics itself. It is with this more than ambitious work that the very recent volume by Annelien de Dijn, professor of Modern Political History at the University of Utrecht and already author of an excellent work on French political thought between the end of the 18th and the middle of the 19th century (De Dijn , 2008), he wants to confront himself. Published for Harvard University Press, in fact, Freedom – An Unruly Historyit intends precisely to retrace the problematic history of the idea of ​​freedom, aiming to range over an incredible time span, that is, from Greece reaching, if not to the present day, at least to the last years of the twentieth century.

 

The purpose of the Dijn is in fact twofold. On the one hand, in fact, the text attempts to show the historical evolution of the very idea of ​​freedom, also and above all in its problematic relationship with the idea of ​​democracy, on the other, in parallel, to contest the typically liberal identification, as understood by the author, of freedom with the possession of some inalienable individual rights, thus showing the tension and conflict of this perspective with the “democratic” idea of ​​freedom. This is how the work starts right from Greece, the moment in which, according to Dijn, the idea of ​​freedom is manifested for the first time, however exquisitely understood as a democratic faculty of self-government. According to a rather classical position, to which Dijn adheres, it would be precisely in the contrast with the Persia of Xerxes that the Greeks would have developed, in contrast to the despotic and slave regime of their adversaries, an ideological awareness of their otherness. Marrying the narrative of Herodotus, in fact, the conflict against the great Eastern Empire would have been configured as a great clash between free and slaves. The Greek tradition of “not bowing” to any other man, even at the cost of one’s life, would have made the difference. Greekness is, therefore, despite its undoubted limitations, of which the author is aware, the first moment in Western history in which freedom appears not as a simple opposite of slavery but as a specific form of government, indissolubly linked to democratic practice. in fact, the conflict against the great Eastern Empire would be configured as a great clash between free and slaves. The Greek tradition of “not bowing” to any other man, even at the cost of one’s life, would have made the difference. Greekness is, therefore, despite its undoubted limitations, of which the author is aware, the first moment in Western history in which freedom appears not as a simple opposite of slavery but as a specific form of government, indissolubly linked to democratic practice. in fact, the conflict against the great Eastern Empire would be configured as a great clash between free and slaves. The Greek tradition of “not bowing” to any other man, even at the cost of one’s life, would have made the difference. Greekness is, therefore, despite its undoubted limitations, of which the author is aware, the first moment in Western history in which freedom appears not as a simple opposite of slavery but as a specific form of government, indissolubly linked to democratic practice.

 

It is in the Roman republic that Greek freedom continues its history. In Rome, in fact, after the brief monarchical parenthesis, for Dijn, the very term of res publica comes to designate a form of res populi, identifying once again in self-government and popular participation the decisive character of freedom. The Roman republic, therefore, despite its differences, in fact preserves the same concept of freedom as the Greeks (De Dijn, 2020: p. 73). It is with Caesar, however, and subsequently with Octavian, that the link between democracy and freedom is drastically broken for the first time in history. The advent of the Empire provokes a complete overturning of the paradigm of self-government which until then had informed the Roman political world. The sovereignty of many is replaced by the power and the will of one. This deprivation of democracy, in Dijn’s perspective, is simultaneously read as a deprivation of freedom. However, it is in this phase of despotic and pyramidal power that, especially by historians such as Livio, Plutarch and Tacitus find space, albeit veiled, for ferocious criticisms of this new form of power (De Dijn, 2020: p. 106), developing a sort of structural reflection on the limits of despotic or imperial power. Instability, for example, is according to Tacitus the fundamental characteristic of the absence of self-government, and therefore of freedom. The deprivation of democracy, far from increasing personal security and the solidity of public affairs, only increases its uncertainty, reducing it to mere dependence on the will of the sovereign. and therefore of freedom. The deprivation of democracy, far from increasing personal security and the solidity of public affairs, only increases its uncertainty, reducing it to mere dependence on the will of the sovereign. and therefore of freedom. The deprivation of democracy, far from increasing personal security and the solidity of public affairs, only increases its uncertainty, reducing it to mere dependence on the will of the sovereign.

 

The Middle Ages, in continuity with the imperial phase, is the moment of the great sleep of freedom, doing nothing but sanctioning practices of government already started in imperial Rome and in the barbaric world through faith. The moment of the great awakening is the Italian Renaissance. The men of the Renaissance, in fact, are for Dijn children of the Greeks, rediscoverers of that lost world that centuries of darkness had tried to erase. According to Dijn’s reconstruction, both Machiavelli and Petrarch or Leonardo Bruni would be nothing else, as he encounters one of his most problematic aspects here, other than late disciples of classicism. The real problem with this perspective, in fact, is not so much the misrecognition of the originality of Renaissance thought, rather, the consequences that such an attitude has on the rest of the history of thought. In reading Machiavelli as a son of the Romans and the Greeks, in fact, Dijn condemns the internal republicanism to the same perspective. The whole awakening of freedom that from 1300-400 begins to spread throughout Europe is for her a classic awakening. Both Harrington and Sidney, as well as later Rousseau and Spinoza, in a time run-up that seems to know no rest or differences, are supporters of democracy and self-government, therefore of that freedom that the ancients had already discovered and affirmed. In short, it is in Dijn’s reconstruction the freedom of the ancients that informs modernity and prepares it to lead to the great revolutions of the 1700s. The great Atlantic Revolution,global history – both the American and French Revolution as well as their minor and national “daughters” is the true modern product of this renewed discovery of freedom. The great authors of the Federalist, like the protagonists of the Parisian struggles, are imbued with a profound classical culture, and it is in reading the classics that they find the strength and courage to fight for democracy (De Dijn, 2020: p. 188). But if undoubtedly the great ones of the American Revolution were children of the classics, so too were Hume, Blackstone, and Hale and of the great English legal tradition, of Montesquieu and Burlamaqui and of French institutional thought, as well as of Harrington, Paine and great history of radical and republican thought, all elements which in Dijn’s reconstruction disappear flattened, but which, undoubtedly, occupy a large part of the genealogy of the modern idea of ​​freedom.

 

It is precisely the absence of this world, typically modern and very different from classicism, which finally leads Dijn to see in the moment following the Revolution a phase of arrest and restraint of the democratic spirit. It is liberalism in particular, in the proposed reconstruction, frightened by the anarchic and violent tendencies of democracy, that reformulates the very idea of ​​freedom. So it is in the intellectual circles linked to Coppet’s circle in France, in federalist circles in the United States and in the English conservative world (however, the author escapes the fact that Burke professed himself an old Whig), that the foundations are being prepared for a new conception of freedom. No longer the faculty of participation and self-government but, on the contrary, a sphere of non-interference, an insurmountable private limit to political power. The center of freedom, in short, it ceases to be the public thing and becomes the individual. However, for Dijn, this new conception of freedom is accompanied by a radical rejection of democracy (De Dijn, 2020: p. 227-45). Characters such as Constant, Burke, Maistre, Webster, Ames and many others, albeit very different from each other, contest not only the primacy of democracy in the defense of freedom but also, and above all, the democratic claim to stand as a better form of government . Far from being effective, democracy itself is chaotic and democracy itself inevitably tends towards Caesarism and dictatorship, giving life and body to the government of the “worst”. Reversing the ancient argument of Tacitus, for the liberals true will and despotism are not experienced under a tyrant but precisely within the democratic government. It is in this “antipathy” to democracy that liberalism founds a new conception of freedom, in which many of the democratic resistances of the last two centuries finally find ground and reason, for the author. The struggle for suffrage (universal and then female), in fact, as well as for liberation from slavery, are for Dijn “democratic” attempts to reoccupy the sphere of freedom, competing for it with the individualist and liberal theory. While reaching up to the present day, and involving first-rate protagonists of the current political debate, including Mises, Berlin, Aron, Hayek but also politicians such as Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, it is ultimately about this dispute between individualism and democracy that the opera takes its last steps. Despite the great democratic achievements, Dijn observes in the epilogue,

 

Spectacular in its construction, but also in the enormous amount of texts that the book manages to deal with, Freedom – An Unruly History is undoubtedly a fundamental text in the reconstruction of the history of freedom. However, the gaze that the work adopts, perhaps inevitably, can only result in a partial story, in which, perhaps, some omissions weigh more than many presences. Because if undoubtedly the classics have founded the history of freedom, nevertheless also the moderns, and perhaps especially them, have contributed to its great development and story.

 

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