Of all ancient cities, only Athens permitted its citizens reasonable latitude in personal decisions. Athens could do this, Constant argues, largely because of its massive slave population. That the Athenians did not entirely depart from the practices of other ancient cities can be seen in their practice of ostracism, which Constant notes “rested upon the assumption that society had complete authority over its members.” Each year, citizens would be asked to write on a ballot the names of persons who, in their view, deserved to beexpelled from the city. Anyone who received more than a specified number of votes would be sent away, sometimes for a period of ten years, sometimes permanently. When the Athenians inexplicably voted to ostracize one of their best men, Aristides the Just, the only explanation given by the citizens was that they were tired of hearing him called “the Just.”
All this, Constant writes, is entirely different from the modern idea of freedom. We don’t have direct democracy; we have representative democracy. Yes, we vote on election day, but even then our vote is one of a hundred million, so each citizen’s influence on the overall outcome is very slight. This is not the kind of freedom most important to us today. Rather, the modern idea of freedom means the right to express your opinion, the right to choose a career, the right to buy and sell property, the right to travel where you want, the right to your own personal space, and the right to live your own life. This is the freedom we are ready to fight for, and we become indignant when it is challenged or taken away.
This modern concept of freedom we inherit from Christianity. Christianity emphasizes the fact that we are moral agents. God has freely created us in His own image, and He has given us the power to take part in His sublime act of creation by being architects of our own lives. But God has also granted to other human beings the same free- dom. This means that in general we should be free to live our lives without interference from others as long as we extend to others the same freedom. My freedom to swing my fist has to stop at your nose. John Stuart Mill’s influential doctrine of liberty, which so many of us take for granted, is a direct inheritance from Christianity. It is no use responding that Mill was a product of the Enlightenment understanding of human freedom and equality. That notion was itself a product of Christianity. Where else do you think the Enlightenment thinkers got it?