Few words have so many different meanings that are so incongruous with one another as the word freedom.
At first, the expectation is that freedom equates to no rules. It’s a fallacious notion, for real freedom has rules — ones that are necessarily fair, moral, even metaphysical — and, like all time-honored traditions, they took eons for humans to extrapolate, to create civil order out of primal chaos.
“No rules” negatively (though accurately) connotes a “Mad Max”-like world of lawless, base immorality, where one may pursue selfish gain without restraint, rob and steal others’ property, engage in extramarital affairs, or wantonly harm our fellow man. Typically, people of conservative persuasion around the globe have found such acts repugnant; some even misjudge or malign Western freedom on such bases.
Yet, those who are well versed in Western traditions know that such repulsive acts as theft, adultery, and murder could never produce real freedom, but just the opposite. For in truth, as self-contradictory as it seems, freedom has rules.
If the idea of a “freedom with rules” sounds unreasonable, that’s because it is! As Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote: “The rules of morality are not the conclusions of our reason.” One may find it perfectly “reasonable” to steal to satiate hunger or feed one’s family, for example, yet theft is justifiably a crime. Somehow, though, these customs and traditions, irrational as they may be, whatever their form, prove important — nay, indispensable — to a free society. Thus, we unintentionally reap the blessings of freedom by following its customs and rules.
But what are these customs? Where are they to be found in Western tradition? And once found, how is freedom to be extrapolated from them? Exploring this is the chief aim of this article.
The Biblical Bedrock of Freedom
One of the earliest promulgations of this tradition was set down in one of the world’s oldest books: The Bible. In “Genesis,” God creates man in His own image, signifying the sanctity of human life — that life is sacred. The purpose of life, too, is sacred: to love as God loves, offer salvation to our fellow humans, and return to Heaven. This sanctity of life clarifies why killing is a crime (and bequeaths a natural right to protect life), as we shall see.
Another biblical example is “Exodus,” where the Israelites, enslaved under Pharaoh, are destined to be freed by divine intervention. Moses leads those who would follow him into the desert, pursued by Pharaoh, to the Red Sea where, seemingly trapped, their faith proves well placed; God parts the Red Sea and they cross to the other side, while Pharaoh’s pursuing forces are swallowed up as the corridor of water closes behind their former slaves.
Exodus illustrates freedom from tyranny, but also another form of freedom — one that addresses the “rules vs no rules” disparity. For, on the other shore, on Mount Sinai, God gives Moses the stone tablets known as the Ten Commandments, on which are inscribed such revelations as “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not steal” — expounding moral laws from above. In other words, freedom isn’t absolute, but on condition of following moral laws. Such God-given laws came to be called “revealed laws.”
The idea is thus: freedom from the tyranny of slavery, and freedom for obedience to moral laws.
A third example lies in what is oft called the “greatest story ever told”: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Charged with sedition by the Romans, He was tortured and crucified, which, the Bible says, atoned for the sins of all humanity (Jesus has been likened to the “sacrificial lamb” during Passover, which sanctioned the Israelites from disease and death in Egypt), so that man might live forever — meaning return to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Though casting a slightly different light on the subject of freedom, the crucifixion mirrors Exodus: whereas the bondage of man’s sins, the chains upon his eternal existence, are unfastened by Jesus, the slaves under Pharaoh were freed in Exodus. In both cases, the adherents are delivered so they may obey moral laws given them by their Lord.
Here, again: freedom from what is wrong and freedom to do what is right.
Speaking of Christianity, let’s turn to the early Christians who followed in Jesus’s footsteps and were persecuted by the Romans for 300 years. Some suffered the same fate as their Master — crucifixion. This persecution grew more systematic as the centuries wore on: the religion was made illicit, with many Christians being made into martyrs by the Romans. Yet, “Love thy enemy” and “Turn the other cheek,” as preached by Jesus, were shown by his followers, resulting in a redemption of sorts.
For Christianity was legalized in A.D. 313 by Constantine, the emperor famous for signing the Edict of Milan and converting to Christianity himself in 317. It’s not hard to see the parallels here: As the Israelites, armed with faith, found deliverance, and as Jesus redeemed mankind, so did the early Christians atone; so were they delivered.
A Trend of Tolerance
Constantine’s edict led to the formation of the Catholic Church, which opened its doors to the mainstream, including the powerful and elite. And so did the church increase in power across Europe. Yet the call for freedom would echo resoundingly from within — against the very church from which it sprang. Various ecclesiastics, nobles, religious thinkers, and groups in Europe pushed against papal dominance, favoring a more pluralistic religious freedom.
Around the time of the signing of Magna Carta (1215) — an historic contract between King John and his subjects, limiting the power of the monarchy — the Church of England claimed that religious rights were being infringed upon by the papacy, and saw to it that protections were written into that agreement.
Three centuries later, a German priest named Martin Luther protested against corruption in the Catholic Church, and opposed its practice of selling indulgences (exchanging forgiveness like a common commodity). In 1517, he famously nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, airing his grievances. Luther would lead a movement that forever fractured the Church’s monopolistic hold over Europe, in favor of a freer approach to religion — a more personal spirituality. Despite opposition from the Church, he found support, and, thanks to the advent of the printing press, which amplified free speech, his ideas took hold throughout Europe, inspiring church reform and the founding of Protestantism.
It wasn’t “no rules” that Luther and his followers wanted, but the freedom to practice moral laws uninfringed.
This reformation would spark a religious war across the continent, The Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), which ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, ushering in a novel religious toleration while diminishing papal dominance forevermore. Stemming from the movement Luther started, Protestant Puritans and Calvinists seeking religious freedom would, echoing Exodus, cross the Atlantic to become a mainstay in the colonies. The culture and morals they brought with them were cornerstones for what some call the greatest experiment in freedom the world has ever seen: the founding of America.
English Common Law: A Cornerstone for Freedom
In the centuries following Jesus’s crucifixion, European civilizations came to call both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible the “revealed law” — or God-given law. Built on this bedrock legal foundation, various customs sprang up throughout Europe, which evolved over the centuries. Eventually, they were loosely compiled within the feudal system to form what is called the “common law” — which is congruous with revealed law. Together, they set a powerful precedent for freedom.
Distinct from civil (or municipal) laws, common laws weren’t written as acts of parliament but germinated in the local customs of early Europe. In England, Anglo-Saxon King Alfred the Great (871 to 899) was one of the first to gather this hodge-podge of customs to form a common judicial system. His code of laws “Doom Book” contains the Ten Commandments and Christian code of ethics. Centuries later, Magna Carta, signed in 1215, strengthened this system; and 500 years later, it was systematized and taught by Sir William Blackstone (1723 to 1780), whose “Commentaries on the Laws of England” (1765) became the foundation for the American legal system.
Blackstone explains that English common law is rooted in “natural” and revealed laws, but emphasized revealed law as the most perfect and superior of all. He writes:
[I]f our reason were always, as in our first ancestor before his transgressions, clear and perfect, unruffled by passions, unclouded by prejudice, unimpaired by disease or intemperance, the talk would be pleasant an easy; we should need no other guide but this. But every man now finds the contrary in his own experience; that his reason is corrupt, and his understanding full of ignorance and error.
This has given manifold occasion for the benign interposition of divine providence; which, in compassion to the frailty, the imperfection, and the blindness of human reason hath been pleased, at sundry times and in divers manners, to discover and enforce it’s laws by an immediate and direct revelation. …
[U]ndoubtedly the revealed law is of infinitely more authenticity than that moral system, which is framed by ethical writers, and denominated the natural law. Because one is the law of nature, expressly declared so to be by God Himself; the other is only what, by the assistance of human reason, we imagine to be that law.
Blackstone further explicates the elevated, more superior jurisdiction of revealed and natural law over the more inferior civil law, as written in the legislature. He writes:
[T]he declaratory part of the municipal law … depends not so much upon the law of revelation or of nature, as upon the wisdom and will of the legislator. … Those rights, then, which God and nature have established, and are therefore called natural rights, such as are life and liberty, need not the aid of human laws to be more effectually invested in every man than they are; neither do they receive any additional strength when declared by the municipal laws to be inviolable. On the contrary, no human legislature has power to abridge or destroy them, unless the owner shall himself commit some act that amounts to a forfeiture. Neither do divine or natural duties (such as, for instance, the worship of God, the maintenance of children, and the like) receive any stronger sanction from being also declared to be duties by the law of the land. … For that legislature in all these cases acts only as was before observed, in subordination to the great lawgiver, transcribing and publishing his precepts. So that, upon the whole, the declaratory part of the municipal law has no force or operation at all, with regard to actions that are naturally and intrinsically right or wrong.
In addition to trumping legislation, this superiority of divine law extends over court rulings “… where the former determination is most evidently contrary to reason; much more if it be contrary to the divine law,” Blackstone writes. “For if it be found that the former decision is manifestly absurd or unjust, it is declared, not that such a sentence was bad law, but that it was not law; that is, that it is not the established custom of the realm, as has been erroneously determined.”
Thus, in our common law inheritance, our forebears impart to us a barometer for reading the fairness or unfairness of an act or rule, and the clairvoyance to see what is right, with recourse to follow our conscience to stand against what is wrong.
Nevertheless, civil laws ought to be followed, as is custom, as forfeiture in exchange for the benefits of living in a community (i.e. the social contract) — but only as far they do not transgress natural rights. Though powerfully enforced by governments they may be, edicts, civil laws, and rulings, we ought remember, are inferior, null, or not law at all when contrary to those higher laws.
Haven’t we witnessed today such brazen violations as: government health mandates abridging the right to gather and worship freely? Edicts preventing protest against draconian mandates? Usurpation of people’s rights to select their government freely? Suppression of free speech without remedy? And murder without penalty? As these infringements go unchecked, so does the solution — knowledge of customs — evaporate. With each generation, our traditions are exiled from schools and presses by those who would, for whatever reason, have us forget.
This is the first article in the trilogy “A Tradition Called Freedom: The People, The Times, The Belief.” Click here to read part Part 2, which will dive into how revolution and freedom relate, leading up to and including the American Revolution.