Over the centuries, there have appeared two great conceptions of freedom. The first vision, which one can call “epic freedom,” is freedom as Hegel or Marx understood it, the freedom of messianists and of revolutionaries. The meaning of freedom, on this view, is the progressive emancipation of man: step by step, battle by battle, mankind is supposed to break with its alienations and become the creator and absolute master of its fate. Epic freedom is the assumption of a cosmic mastery, more and more aware of itself. Crises become mere historical stages on the way to the final achievement of human emancipation.

The other position, very different, regards crises as intrinsic to freedom. This more modest conception can be called “tragic freedom.” It is liberty understood in doubt and anxiety about the fate of man. Tragic freedom works in uncertainty, sailing toward no glorious destiny. Man is free, yes—free to learn from his mistakes. Or not. Socrates, who exemplifies this second view, ceaselessly puts freedom to the test; he questions it, explores it, experiments with it. His famous daimon, his interior voice or intimate conscience, is a negative spirit, one that offers only interdictions. Recall that the majority of the Socratic dialogues end in aporia, at an impasse; they do not lead anywhere. They must be perceived as exercises of free thought, not as stages on the way to a human epiphany.

So to write the history of the idea of freedom is to navigate between two shores, one tragic and critical, the other epic and euphoric. Each epoch cultivates its own relation to freedom. Each, moreover, imagines its own Greece, for it was ancient Athens that first enacted—in the public square, the agora—our relation to freedom, or rather our conflicting relations with freedom. Epic ages (the early Renaissance and the Enlightenment, for example) picture a Greece of original harmony. Times of chaos (such as sixteenth-century Europe, the twentieth century, and probably the dawn of the twenty-first) see Greece as the mother of all crises. This tragic vision—of freedom and of Athens—is surely the wiser of the two.

The Athenians demonstrated incredible audacity in affirming that human freedom must be understood without the gods, who are held not to be implicated in human affairs—no longer at the helm, so to speak. That affirmation is the source of philosophy, as we learn from Plato’s Apology. Socrates was “the wisest of men,” announced the Delphic oracle. Perplexed, Socrates neither affirmed nor denied this, but began an inquiry. He started to question all of Athenian society—rich and slave, learned and illiterate, wise and foolish. He questioned all claims to knowledge, whether religious, sophistic, traditional, or moral, including those concerning the ultimate ends of the community, which everyone claimed to know, even though they only approached such subjects superficially or arbitrarily. Socrates popped the mental bubbles that imprisoned those who claimed, with arrogant certainty, to possess absolute knowledge. He explored the Athenian doxa—common opinion—and brought to light those parts of it, poisoned by optimism, that concealed risks and thus put the city in danger. But true to his doubt before the oracle, he had no ready answers.

Socrates’s uncertainty revealed a rupture that gave birth to philosophy. The divine word is a mystery; it can mean everything or nothing. Zeus neither speaks nor holds his tongue but makes a sign, as Heraclitus said. Man discovers that he himself is responsible for giving meaning to this sign. The word from above, or from elsewhere, must be deciphered. This is the Greek genius: the separation of heaven and earth.

Consider in this light the story of Croesus, the king of Lydia, famous for his extravagant wealth. The king asked the Delphic oracle to reveal the outcome of a war that he expected to start against the Persians. The oracle responded that he would bring down an empire. Sure of himself and of his luck, Croesus launched an attack—and his own empire fell. To counter the obscurity of oracles, Herodotus invented historical inquiry, just as Socrates pushed a similar logic to its limit and invented philosophical inquiry. A kindred mistrust was already at work at the heart of the Iliad, in which the gods seduce, cheat, lie, and hate. The jokes and tricks of the heavenly ones oblige mortals to count only on their freedom. “Virtue has no master,” says Socrates in the Republic. “You will possess more or less of it as you honor or dishonor it.”

This is not to say that the history of monotheistic religions is dogmatic or univocal when it comes to freedom, of course. For example, the Talmudists take a quasi-Socratic position with respect to the divine word, which they discuss, explore, and question ceaselessly. They open up the space of human freedom by observing that while the word of God is pure and perfect, men are impure and imperfect, and so their interpretation of that word will never be definitive. Indeed, human imperfection engenders freedom of interpretation in all three great monotheistic traditions, to various degrees.

With the Athenians, however—and this is an important difference—the gods are as imperfect as human beings, and the divine words are consequently doubtful and impure. In this sense, the Greek experience seems more radical than that of the monotheisms, since it presupposes no adherence to a unique word that would dominate the thought and freedom of men and women. For the Greeks, there was no way around the permanent crisis that constitutes the existence of a free human being.

But didn’t this Athenian democracy, for all its freedom, condemn to death its most radical disturber, Socrates? To take the measure of this murder, at once physical and symbolic, it is important to understand how rare such events were. Athens was a tolerant city. Marginal people or rebels might be exiled, but they were seldom killed. To receive the death penalty, the father of philosophy had to anger a very powerful coalition of interests and opinions: Athenian conservatives, who reproached him for mocking gods and traditions; ambitious sophists, whose vanity and arrogance he denounced; and finally, the institutional democrats, who could not forgive the participation of a few of his former disciples in the dictatorship of the Thirty—the tyrants who ruled Athens briefly under Spartan protection at the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC.

Socrates represented a reality that Athens, after the Peloponnesian debacle, did not want to see or remember. The return to democracy following the brief period of dictatorship was accompanied by an amnesty law, which quickly became an amnesia law. To bring up past quarrels was forbidden. Mentioning the disorder that had divided the city, or even the military defeat itself, became taboo. Thus Socrates’s outspokenness, which made Athens famous, proved profoundly troubling to the war-sick Athenians themselves. But by making free speech a capital crime, Athens acted against its own past. The city, already worn out, eliminated itself, its own genius, along with Socrates.

The philosopher could have fled, but he was 70; he had no interest in leaving the city. He rejected his loyal friends’ proposals for escape. He wanted to drink the hemlock. His name had been linked unshakably with the great Athenian intellectual revolution, and he would not allow it to be forgotten. And he succeeded: from his death sprang a new blossoming of philosophy. In a strange resurrection, a number of logoi sokratikoi emerged—improvisational theatrical performances in which eccentric characters, all calling themselves “Socrates,” waited on street corners to question passersby about their convictions. With his death, Socrates sealed his destiny. His questioning resonates infinitely, to the dismay of those who hold power and claim absolute knowledge.

Socrates’s relentless questioning challenged all claims to absolute knowledge. (FIRST-CENTURY AD FRESCO, EPHESUS/Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY)
Socrates’s relentless questioning challenged all claims to absolute knowledge. (FIRST-CENTURY AD FRESCO, EPHESUS/Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY)

Athens taught us that free will and critical thinking go together. The necessity of submitting celestial voices and their dictates to the painstaking criticisms of reason is a matter not of pride but of modesty: it is not because I think myself good or intelligent, but because I know I am fallible and capable of deceiving myself, that I am bound to investigate oracles, just as Socrates did with the Delphic message. The evil spirit—perhaps myself—“often disguises itself as an angel of light,” Immanuel Kant later observed. To think is to defend one’s freedom against one’s imagination and to guard against a deceiving God, for “we were all children before becoming men,” as Descartes said, and spent many years governed by our passions, not our reason.

To believe that it is enough to believe is a pathology that threatens every religion, even a secular and materialist one. To listen to voices without ever questioning them is superstition. To fail to examine the authenticity of one’s commitments is arrogance. The combination of superstition and arrogance yields fanaticism: God is in me, and I am in God; there is no point in thinking, since my brain already occupies a little part of paradise. Free thought, by contrast, requires us to look reality, including unfortunate reality, in the eye. In response to the claims of a prayer that commands, implores, and requires, Aristotle proposes a cool attention that points out and observes. Non-pathological religions distinguish the temporal and the spiritual: king and priest in the Bible, caliph and preacher among the Muslims, the way of the world and the way of faith in the Christian tradition. “I believe in order to understand,” say Augustine and Anselm, the first intellectuals of post-Roman civilization.

To discover one’s freedom is to recognize a capacity for self-intoxication and self-deception, and thus to condemn oneself to doubt. This experience of freedom is primary for a current of modern philosophy, just as it was for the thinkers of antiquity. Descartes, in this sense Socrates’s son, called it “a freedom, by which we can refrain from admitting to a place in our belief aught that is not manifestly certain and undoubted, and thus guard against ever being deceived.”

One might object that this doubt, this constant questioning, is at odds with the dream of a harmonious world that some say characterized classical Greece. But that idea of harmony, of a golden age lost and ever sought, was by no means a particularly Greek one. Rather, it was an after-the-fact misinterpretation of Athenian philosophy—first Neoplatonic, then taking Byzantine, Shiite, and Florentine forms, eventually finding a place in the nineteenth-century university, and surviving until the present day.

By contrast, Thucydides and the Greek tragedians evoked an original chaos, a confusion and violence linked indissolubly with liberty. Aware of the universality of what was at stake in Athens, Thucydides presented his history as “a treasure for all times.” He described the upheaval of war, both external and internal, that produced the Greek experience. Athens at the beginning, in his telling, was little more than a shabby bunch of bandits, pirates, runaways, outlaws—anything but the divinely chosen city celebrated in myths and rituals. Athenian freedom was born from drunken brawls and quarrels over shares of booty. No prophet opened the Red Sea for Athens, no god showed it the path to follow. Freedom gave rise from the beginning to disorder: how to think, survive, act, and resist in the jumble of human relations.

Thucydides witnessed the decline of Athens, so his sober vision is readily understandable. Yet his tragedian predecessors, who lived in the days of Greek splendor, showed a similar lucidity. Aeschylus and Sophocles depicted cities torn apart—Thebes, Argos—where the original chaos was unleashed again and again. In Argos, vendetta follows a mad course: King Agamemnon sacrifices his child, Iphigenia; he is assassinated by his wife, Clytemnestra, avenger of her daughter; and their son, Orestes, seeks justice by killing his mother. In Thebes—a peaceful city protected by insurmountable walls, founded by Cadmos, husband of the goddess Harmony—it is the very desire for absolute harmony that leads to disaster. This city of Oedipus dreams of exorcising all disputes, all chaos, in the regulation of a perfectly closed universe. Oedipus proceeds to kill his father and sleep with his mother.

Athens was a divided city that accepted its divisions, though not without difficulty. Though the harmonious interpretation of Greece derives, again, from Plato, the fact is that Plato spoke from a more down-to-earth standpoint: that of Thucydides’s Athens, the city that fought and lost the Peloponnesian War and was still fresh with the blood of civil war. His dialogues supposedly take place before this defeat, but they were written and read afterward.

The example of the Symposium is enlightening. This text tells of a feast, organized to celebrate the triumph of the poet Agathon, in which the great minds of Athens participate in a philosophical and poetic competition on the theme of love. We seemingly encounter a contest of optimism, long interpreted as an ode to harmony—the text served as a manifesto of Neoplatonism. But Plato’s contemporary readers knew, of course, that this apparent triumph was a retrospective illusion, an event that preceded a disaster of untold scale. For instance, Alcibiades, whose celestial beauty the guests of the symposium celebrate, brought about the downfall of Athens by promoting a catastrophic military expedition to Sicily and then defected twice—first to Sparta, then to Persia.

None of the Athenian lights gathered around Agathon in the name of love had any inkling of the tragic events that would soon follow, just as our best financial minds had no idea in June 2008 that their universe would crash that October. The equally elite guests of a Symposium written today might be billionaires rather than poets, gathering at Davos to give speeches about the health of the modern economy. But when we read such a work, we would hardly identify its author as an optimist or an idealist.

If Athens really was the birthplace of human freedom, how does one account for its acceptance of slavery? Many have reviled Aristotle for defending the institution, but at least he never described it as determined by the enslaved person’s essence. The slave is potentially a free citizen because, like all human beings, he has the capacity to reason. He is a citizen who is not yet actual, who has not yet realized his potential. When Aristotle spoke of slaves as living instruments, he was referring not to any essential quality of theirs but to their social status. True, he offered no moving pleas for emancipation. But he did provide all the philosophical tools for producing that emancipation.

Alexander the Great, Aristotle’s student, was the first apostle of intermarriage, creating a true model of cosmopolitanism and challenging the limited thinking—we would say racism—of his Macedonian comrades-in-arms, who had not had the opportunity to study with the Athenian philosopher. When Alexander seized the Persian city of Susa, what did he do? Like a good Aristotelian, he respected the city, took a native for his wife, and compelled his generals to do the same. None of this, again, is to say that the Judeo-Christian tradition is inimical to freedom. Historically, Judeo-Christianity has been a liberating force—Judaism constituted a formidable obstacle to the Roman Empire and its mad project of a world-state, while Christianity was a salutary ideology of emancipation for persecuted Romans. But conceptually, the Greeks anticipated everything to do with freedom.

The Greeks’ tragic view of freedom even established principles with which to resist the worst. Modern conceptions of human rights based on a shared vision of ultimate ends are less persuasive than the Athenian vision, which highlights the direct experience of suffering and the solidarity of the humiliated and mistreated. A reading of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Thucydides illuminates the cruelty that pierces the evening news and amplifies our indignation. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, it’s worth recalling, resulted from the bewilderment caused by the revelation of the death camps.

Even the separation of state and conscience can be found in the Athenian crucible. In 441 bc, well before the Gospels and “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,” Greece produced a powerful text on the subject: Sophocles’s Antigone. King Creon forbids his niece Antigone to bury her brother, who has betrayed Thebes; Antigone defies the king, appealing to the unwritten laws of tradition; Creon changes his mind, but not soon enough, and Antigone, confined to a cave by her uncle, takes her own life.

There are three rival interpretations of Antigone. Some find in the play the affirmation of the superiority of ethics over politics, making Antigone the heroine of a universal moral law that overrides positive law. This reading is falsely edifying and kills the sense of tragedy. Others see in the story the conflict of two equally legitimate laws, with the ancient, unwritten religious law being surpassed by a modern, positive, and concrete law, anchored resolutely in historical progress. Thus Hegel sees in Antigone a tragedy in which two understandings of absolute legitimacy confront each other—and finally, he takes Creon’s side, not because the king embodies justice but because he represents a new stage of history, dear to the German philosopher’s heart: the regulatory state. Hegel views this founding Western drama through the lens of a progressivism that attributes a positive meaning to the development of history—a progressivism wholly foreign to Sophocles.

The third and most powerful interpretation blames the catastrophe on a violation of the border between two worlds or two laws. One, Creon’s, accords the state the power to guarantee individual freedom; his are the laws of the day. The other, Antigone’s, holds that the individual must have other reasons, both personal and legitimate, for defending her freedom, such as her moral and religious beliefs; hers are the laws of the night. Neither law is superior to the other; each has its own sphere. But Creon gives in to the immoderation of political power, going beyond the limits of daylight and unleashing chaos by requiring that his laws rule the night’s territory as well—the region of intimate morality and death.

On this reading, the sacred thing that Creon violates is not some universal commandment that Antigone incarnates and that would apply to everyone. Antigone is the heroine, instead, of the separation of day and night, of politics and morality, of public and private. Even before Jesus, she reminds us that there are a space and time in which Caesar’s commands in the name of public welfare are perfectly legitimate, and another space, another time, in which not Caesar but God commands—or, from a secular viewpoint, civil society, morality, and custom. The freedom of the individual need not destroy itself in the duties of the citizen.

Here we encounter the Aristotelian and, more broadly, Greek sense of the “right mean”: Antigone is the heroine of the right mean between the violent excess of power (Creon’s hybris) and complacent passivity (demonstrated by Antigone’s sister Ismene, who also loves her brother but won’t defy Creon). The separation between Caesar and God, as Christ formulated it, would come as no surprise to Antigone.

It happens that Athens’s ultimate problem was this hybris, this loss of measure, which always threatens freedom. As Thucydides showed, this imprudence was at once the motor of Athenian liberty and the cause of its fall. Athens was not always able to find the right mean between movement and rest, innovation and conservation, expansion and restriction. It pitched drunkenly between those poles and ultimately smashed against the reefs of impetuousness.

In light of Athens’s difficulties, Aristotle makes the question of the right mean the central problem of philosophy. Virtue consists of the right mean, meaning not indecision or softness but a point of equilibrium (which we must always rediscover) of human freedom. For freedom invariably produces disequilibrium. To live freely, in other words, is constantly to seek equilibrium within disequilibrium. Aristotle counsels neither pure rest nor extreme movement. It can even happen that excess can be good—in a situation characterized by excess. The right mean is determined by suitability to the challenges of the world and of the moment. This is the antidote to hybris.

The struggle for the right mean has been the West’s major problem since the time of Athens. Athens’s capital sin, the one that gnaws at Thucydides, is the destruction of Melos—just as the Greeks’ original sin is the genocide of Troy, as subtly indicated by Homer and Aeschylus and as shouted out by Euripides. The utter massacre of the Melians—all the men wiped out, the women reduced to slavery—prepares the folly of the Sicilian expedition. At decisive moments like that one, the Athenians take themselves to be gods, believing themselves free of all restraints and free to flout everyone’s freedom.

We can look at the Iraq War against this backdrop of the right mean. To allow Saddam Hussein to continue to torture and massacre his subjects and neighbors was one extreme; to strike out blindly demonstrated the opposite extreme, as we saw, for example, at Abu Ghraib. Having taken the side of those who favored militarily deposing the tyrant, I held my breath and crossed my fingers to see how things would turn out. I wasn’t reassured until the day when an Iraqi journalist dared, in Baghdad, to throw his shoes at the president of the United States of America. That never could have happened to Saddam Hussein or in any other authoritarian regime—China, Russia, the rest of the Arab world. For his insolence, the perpetrator did receive some prison time, but under Saddam, he would have lost his nose, ears, and tongue, and probably his life. The protester thus provided, despite himself, the proof that freedom had taken steps forward and that America was more Greek than Roman.

Athens did not perfectly succeed, and it eventually collapsed—just as our own democracies may someday collapse. I do not believe in the eternity of systems, even our own. Those founded on the attempted negation of chaos and the suppression of freedom will, I hope, collapse sooner. But those founded on freedom may be destroyed by the imbalance inherent in their constitutions, an imbalance that animates and sometimes consumes them.

Top Photo by LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP / Getty Images


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