Philip Pettit on What It Means to Be Free: Yascha Mounk and Philip Pettit discuss small-r “republicanism” and how to make sure people don’t suffer from domination. (Persuasion, DEC 9, 2023)

Yascha Mounk: One thing that I talk a lot about on this podcast is the idea of liberalism and philosophical liberalism. Persuasion understands itself in many ways as a defender of liberal values. Now, you come from a tradition that is related, but subtly distinct, that of republicanism.

Why don’t you explain to readers who may not know what republicanism is, what the core claims of the republican tradition are, and how they, to ask a very undergraduate question, compare and contrast with the tradition of liberalism?

Philip Pettit: The main thing to be said is that they both prioritize the ideal of freedom. The language of freedom is very much to the fore in each way of talking. The first contrast, I think, to make really is historical: what most people will identify now is a continuing republican tradition that goes back to classical Rome, to the Roman Republic. And whereas the liberal tradition, so-called, only identifies itself and appears in a distinctive form from the late 1700s. The contrast, though, in conceptual terms, is mainly a contrast in their way of understanding freedom.

The way that the Romans understood it was that, in order to be free, you basically had to be free of a “boss,” so to speak. It was having a boss, having a master, or having a dominus, in the Latin phrase, that made you unfree. And they made this split visible or salient by a particular image, which was the slave whose master is very kindly, gentle, gives the slave more or less carte blanche, and is very gullible so that the slave can run rings around the master, and for the Romans, that person, though they could act as they wish, almost across a whole range of choices, was not free, because they suffered towards the Romans called dominatio, which meant simply the existence of a master. Of course, the master didn’t actually interfere with them, but he still made them unfree. Because whatever they were free to do, whatever they had a choice of doing, they were free to do only because the master allowed them. It was ultimately the master’s will that remained in charge. And that’s a very important idea in this long Republican tradition, which begins in Rome, as I say, but it continues through, for example, the northern Italian cities of the High Middle Ages, the Renaissance cities, into the Dutch Republic, Polish Republic, the English Republic in the 17th century, and of course, the American republic—in particular, in the American Revolution and the War of Independence of the 18th century, as well as in the French. […]

Pettit: First of all, the American Constitution, written in 1787 or so, does reflect, I think, a very long tradition of republican thinking, as all of the Founders were well aware. When they campaigned, in many cases, they actually wore a toga. They were that aware of the Roman connection, and that that’s where they were coming from.