Liberty. Does It Require an Absence of Material Want?

By Craig Knoche

Freedom from and freedom to versions of liberty require absence of external and internal constraint, respectively. But does this miss something? Doesn’t true freedom also require an absence of want? How can one be free if one lacks adequate resources to pursue one’s aims? One can explore about these ideas by reflecting on how the ancient philosophers understood the related concept of happiness.

Before Plato (428-347 BCE) the prevailing understanding of happiness was that it is achieved and consisted of the possession of human excellence (aka virtue), which was understood to be the possession of external goods including wealth (e.g., money, food, shelter), physical strength, good looks and health, political power and prestige, and good birth. But through the character of Socrates, Plato developed an alternative conception of human excellence. Rather than external success in life, happiness became the internal perfection of a person. This is analogous to ‘freedom to’ understood, as the absence of internal constraint by and conflict among the passions. As internal character states, happiness and freedom unlike wealth, strength, beauty, political power and honor, are durable and not easily taken away. But once internalized and distinguished from the external success to which it was associated it is natural to ask whether it is possible to be happy (and free) in the absence of these external manifestations. Is it possible to be happy (and free) if one is poor, weak, ugly, low-born, shunned and disgraced? Plato, Aristotle (384-322 BCE), their successors, and the Hellenist Stoic and Epicurean philosophers offered different answers to this question all of which provide different insights into whether liberty is possible in the absence of external resources.

Plato raises the question of happiness in the absence of resources in the Republic through the character Glaucon who challenged Socrates to prove that a good (virtuous) person could be happy despite having a reputation for evil and as a result being “whipped, stretched on a rack, chained, blinded with fire and at the end . . . . impaled”[1]. Socrates offers a mixed reply. On the one hand, he appears to suggest that virtue alone (without external goods and despite the pain) is sufficient for happiness, and by analogy that one can be free in the absence of external goods so long as one has mastered and harmonized one’s passions. However, on other occasions, he seems to suggest that the possession of wisdom (a virtue) is sufficient to ensure the possession of adequate external goods, i.e., that wisdom would suffice to avoid the situation that Glaucon described. Regardless of whether Plato thought the possession of external goods are necessary for happiness (and freedom), it is clear that he regarded their possession as insufficient. In particular, Plato’s Socrates is famous for having maintained that virtue is knowledge, which implies that one cannot be happy (or free) while possessing ample external goods unless one also knows how to use those goods appropriately.

Aristotle’s conception of happiness has much in common with Plato’s in that he endorses the view that possession of a certain amount of external goods is necessary though insufficient for happiness.[2] However, Aristotle did not address the question of how much is sufficient. The answer to this question was left to Plato and Aristotle’s Hellenistic successors – the Epicureans and Stoics.

Epicureanism was a school of philosophy founded by Epicurus in 3rd century BCE and that flourished into the 3rd century AD, though some of its principles (e.g., atomistic materialism and hedonism) experienced a renaissance in the enlightenment and endure to the present. Epicureans regarded happiness as pleasure, so in this they were hedonists though not unrestrained hedonists. Their philosophy is summarized in the four-fold doctrines[3] one of which can be summarized as the ‘good is easy to obtain’. The general idea is that happiness (and liberty) require a minimal set of external goods which are easily obtained when one’s desires for such goods are sufficiently moderated. For example, a simple meal of bread and water is sufficient for happiness.

Stoicism was a school of philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium also in the 3rd century BCE and which flourished in the Roman Empire until being displaced by Christianity in 4th century AD. Unlike Aristotle and Epicurus, the Stoics promoted one thread of the Socratic notion, namely that virtue – as an internal state of character as opposed to possession of external goods, is alone sufficient for happiness (and freedom).[4] In this, Stoicism is similar to Buddhism which teaches that one can be happy once one acknowledges, understands and embraces one’s suffering. Happiness (and freedom) is entirely an internal state of mental equanimity, detached from internal passions for and possession of external goods.

What can be learned about liberty from these philosophic thoughts about virtue and happiness? First, these philosophers would regard liberty as more an internal state of mind involved with character traits than with possession of external goods and the absence of external constraints in their pursuit, i.e., it’s more about freedom to than freedom from. Secondly, they would disagree about whether possession of external goods is necessary. Epicurus said yes but that only a minimal amount is necessary. The Stoics said no. Plato and Aristotle said yes, but maintained that their possession would be useless without knowledge of how to use them appropriately. Thus, our present political debates about whether and how much society and/or government should ensure distribution of some minimal set of goods has a long pedigree.

[1] Plato, Republic 361c

[2] Cf. Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics 1095b32-1096a2, 1099a31-b8, 1101a14-16 and 1153b19-21

[3] AKA the Tetrapharmakon

[4] Cf. Cicero, De Finibus 3.41-44

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