Finally, Christianity is also responsible for our modern concept of individual freedom. There are hints of this concept both in the classical world and in the world of the ancient Hebrews. One finds, in such figures as Socrates and the Hebrew prophets, notable individuals who have the courage to stand up and question even the highest expressions of power. But while these cultures produced great individuals, as other cultures often do even today, none of them cultivated an appreciation for individuality. It is significant that Socrates and the Hebrew prophets all came to a bad end. They were anomalies in their societies, and their societies moved swiftly to get rid of them.
In his essay “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with That of the Moderns,” Benjamin Constant made a vital distinction between how the Greeks and Romans viewed freedom and how we in the modern era view freedom. Constant noted that for the ancients, freedom was the right to participate in the making of laws. Greek democracy was direct democracy in which every citizen could show up in the agora, debate issues of taxes and war, and then vote on what action the polis should take. This was real power, the power of the citizen to shape the decisions of the society. Thus the Greeks exercised their freedom through active involvement in the political and civic life of the city. There was no other kind of freedom.
Indeed Constant reports that in most ancient cities “all private actions were submitted to a severe surveillance. No importance was given to individual independence, neither in relation to opinions, nor to labor, nor, above all, to religion. The right to choose one’s own religious affiliation, a right which we regard as one of the most precious, would have seemed to the ancients a crime and a sacrilege. There was hardly anything the laws did not regulate. Thus among the ancients the individual, almost always sovereign in public affairs, was a slave in all his private relations.”
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.