The Nature of Freedom
Freedom is an ancient concept that has been at the foundation of many of humanity’s struggles. Slaves from the beginning of civilization understand when they do not have freedom. People living in countries oppressed by political leaders know their lack of political freedom. Philosophers ponder the nature of freedom until the concept appears clear to them. However, what is the nature of freedom? Is “freedom” an individual’s ability to think or speak as he or she pleases? Does freedom come with having the financial ability to spend and invest without restriction? Or is it freedom from restraint, with the opportunity to move about the world as the individual chooses? Who has the right to freedom? Leaders or the people who follow them? Or do any of them deserve freedom at all?
Plato and Socrates had similar points of view on the nature of freedom. This relationship is inevitable. Not only did Socrates’ have an influence on Plato, ostensibly as his teacher, but also, what we know about Socrates comes from Plato’s writings. For that reason, it is difficult to know how the philosophy of one may have differed from the other. However, they also differ significantly on the value of freedom and whether or not an ordinary person needed it or had the capacity to understand or value it if it were granted.
Socrates presented a bit of a dilemma for the government. He lived in a democratic society, although the idea of democracy differed in ancient Greece from the democracy we have today. Socrates, however, encouraged all people, not just citizens, to think about things that may have had an effect on their satisfaction with their roles. Many of the people who lived in that society also considered his ideas as dangerous, given that they adhered to the Sophist position that knowledge was a commodity that could, and perhaps should, be purchased rather than allowing every person in society the freedom to have access to it, regardless of position.
One thing that Socrates spoke about was the nature of freedom. Although Socrates appeared to think that the concept of freedom was manifold, he did have some clear ideas on what it was not. For example, freedom does not come from the government itself, because, the only thing that those who govern can teach about is governance. However, the Athenians seemed to understand freedom as being political in nature. The character of Socrates, in Plato’s The Republic speaks at great length about tyranny. Given that the Greek republic began in an attempt to protect their citizens from invasion, this focus is unsurprising; however, it is interesting that it retains such a significance in Plato’s writing. Clearly, the state has control over whether its citizens have freedom from tyranny; however, it does not dispense personal freedom to individuals.
In Book VIII of The Republic, however, Plato’s character of Socrates argue that citizens in a democracy have freedoms that extend beyond that of freedom from tyranny. Citizens also have the freedom to “say and do what he likes” and to “order for himself his own life as he pleases” (216). Although the government does not overtly provide these things to its citizens and although it does not teach these things to its citizens, a good government permits its citizens to make these pursuits. However, as the Allegory of the Cave illustrates, a person is only truly free if he is able to see the truth through reason; otherwise he is not capable of understanding the true meaning of the shadows and he is unable to impart this knowledge to others (Plato).
In Socrates’ philosophy, the truth was difficult for even a philosopher to find, as evidenced in many of his arguments, although best supported by “proof” in the Allegory of the Cave (Plato). This difficulty resulted in his defining freedom as ephemeral, rather than giving it distinct characteristics. Plato, however, felt that truth could be defined in a concrete fashion. Plato, like Socrates, also disagreed with the Sophists who suggested that “freedom” was a subjective and something of human invention. For Plato, however, freedom was an actual privilege, which. Citizens could only have a harmonious life, according to Plato, only if they gave up some or all of their individual freedoms, which were often regulated by a person’s position in society. Guardians, for example, had no personal freedoms at all. They were expected to live a communal life because they had absolute power; however, given their ability to reason through “only by the criterion of knowing and not knowing” Socrates (through Plato) seemed to think them worthy of this power despite their relative lack of freedom.
The people who lived under the rule of the Guardians also had no freedoms; Plato felt that the people were ignorant and corrupt and so could not be trusted to make correct decisions. Unlike Socrates, then, freedoms were reserved for only a select few in society, who he deemed to be wise enough and fit enough to use them without harm to others. Not only is it possible for only these select few to understand wisdom, this class also determines which community freedoms the citizens and other people within the state would have. In addition, the state limits the individual’s access to knowledge, which Socrates considered essential to freedom..
Using Plato’s reasoning, however, an ordinary person cannot rise from his position. Those who rule in a democracy, according to Plato, can only rule wisely if they also govern the wise because the two are closely entwined. Despite the state containing both freeman and masters, such a political state is completely enslaved, in that Plato views even the best of the people to be “miserably degraded and enslaved” (236)
Both Socrates and Plato viewed the concept of freedom as being related to the state. In Socrates’ view, a democratic state allowed people to pursue knowledge, which in turn created the ability for those people to greater understand the true meaning of the world and the true meaning of freedom. In Plato’s view, personal freedom was limited in a non-democratic state, with freedom being defined in the more traditional Athenian view as freedom from tyranny. In both cases, the average person did not understand the meaning of freedom; however, in Plato’s view of the world, neither did the average person deserve freedom.
Plato. The Republic. Mineola, New York: Dover-Thrift, 2000.