September 2, 2019


Neo-Roman and Christian conceptions of liberty (JOE CARTER, September 2, 2019, Acton)

Understanding how "liberty" has been used in the past can therefore help us understand how and why we have different views of it today.

A prime example is political historian Quentin Skinner's explanation of "neo-Roman liberty."

3:AM: You are known as a leading historian of political history and in particular the formation of ideas around human liberty. One of the key ideas you've written about is what you label 'neo-Roman' liberty.' This began back in Ancient Rome didn't it, where freedom was contrasted with slavery, wasn't it? Can you tell us what its distinctive traits are?

Quentin Skinner: The vision of personal freedom that interests me is articulated most clearly in the Digest of Roman Law, which is why I have wanted to describe its later manifestations as examples of 'neo-Roman' liberty. The fundamental distinction drawn at the outset of the Digest is between the liber homo, the free person, and the servus or slave. The law needed to begin with this contrast because law applies only to free persons, not to slaves. So one crucial question was: what makes a slave? The answer given in the legal texts is that a slave is someone who is in potestate, in the power of a master. The contrast is with someone who is sui iuris, able to act in their own right. Long before these argument were summarised in the legal texts, they had been elaborated by a number of Roman moralists and historians, above all Sallust, Livy and Tacitus. These writers were interested in the broader question of what it means to say of individuals - or even of whole bodies of people - that they have been made to live in the manner of slaves. The answer they give is that, if you are subject to the arbitrary will of anyone else, such that you are dependent on their mere goodwill, then you may be said to be living in servitude, however elevated may be your position in society. 

The thing to remember is that while we rely on republican liberty, it is a means, not the end.

Posted by at September 2, 2019 2:33 PM