About a week or two ago, Ernst Roets delivered an important lecture on the concept of freedom at Akademia. This lecture is based on his extensive doctoral thesis, which he completed last year at the University of Pretoria, under the guidance of prof. Koos Malan, have completed.
As Roets points out, freedom is one of our greatest civilizational words and practices. In this article he is joined by pointing to the historical and systematic significance of the concept – especially how it emerged in the African world.
The concept of freedom stems from the deepest sources of our civilization, as Roets points out, namely the Classical-Greek, Roman and Judeo-Christian. Already with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the concept of free man is skillful, although freedom is always seen here as virtue ethics and in connection with the community (polis).
In Roman-Hellenism, this concept of freedom is steered in a more individualistic direction – in schools of thought such as Skepticism, Epicureans and the Stoics. Of these three, the latter is the most important, which also influenced Paul’s understanding of freedom – in his interpretation of the meaning of Christ in the New Testament.
The Christian understanding of freedom therefore also contains elements of the free person, but someone who exercises his or her freedom with responsibility. This understanding of freedom eventually culminated in the Protestantism of Luther and Calvin via Augustine. Here are the maxims: Freedom with responsibility and vigilance concerning human hubris.
The concept of freedom then follows a modern trajectory where the French Revolution is a decisive event, with thinkers such as Burke and Payne taking different positions and someone such as Tocqueville joining to a large extent Burke’s more conservative position.
For the purposes of this contribution, however, with the modern conception of freedom in mind, I want to move more specifically to the context of Afrikaners in South Africa.
By the late 1830s, a number of free burghers, who remained in the north-eastern part of the Cape Colony, decided to free themselves from British authority. In the process, their compatriots, who remained behind, remained British subjects in the Cape without giving up their church or their Dutch-Afrikaans language – two cornerstones of an independent community and culture. The land movers had a long history of seeking freedom.
The first stirrings of a search for independence – the so-called Patriot movement of the late 1770s (against the Dutch VOC authorities) – grew stronger during the British colonization of the Cape and contributed to the northern movement of people known as as the Great Trek. It was especially the experience of alienation, of being a colonized colonist, that contributed to a strong desire for individual and collective freedom. It should be seen as a version of positive freedom rather than negative freedom – a well-known distinction made by the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin in a famous essay in the late 1950s and further elaborated by Michael Sandel.
Negative freedom means freedom from external interference, which Sandel the unbound self (“unencumbered self”) mention. Here it is about maximum freedom – the maximum freedom of the individual vis-à-vis his or her environment. This is an understanding of freedom that many Afrikaners follow these days, like many Westerners elsewhere. Against this is positive freedom the freedom to live a specific life – or to be able to live a free life. (In his version, Ernst Roets very interestingly refers to positive freedom as fulfilling freedom).
In his famous essay, Berlin (1984: 22) writes that the positive conception of freedom (“liberty”) no na vore kom no “… if we try to answer the question… ‘What am I free to do or be?’, but ‘By whom am I ruled?’ or ‘Who is to say what I am, and what I am not, to be or do?’” In light of the quote, the relationship between individual freedom and democracy is therefore more complex than many people think.
Although Berlin ultimately very carefully chooses negative freedom over positive freedom, Michael Sandel offers a qualified version of this distinction in his work from the 1980s. With reference to Hegel’s arguments against Kant, positive freedom in a certain sense joins communitarian critics of modern (rights-based) liberalism. Here the claim to the priority of rights over the good is questioned – and the image of the free-of-choice individual embodied by it.
In connection with Aristotle, the argument is that we cannot justify political events without references to common purposes, and that we cannot conceive of our personal lives without referring to our role as citizens and participants in a communal life not to refer.
Sandel’s (1984: 9) interesting contribution is that he between a unbound self (“unencumbered self”) and a situated, narrative and bound (“encumbered”) referred to himself. “I am situated from the start, embedded in a history which locates me among others, and implicates my good in the good of the communities whose stories I share.”
Similar to Gadamer’s concept of the hermeneutic self in his philosophical hermeneutics, we are not talking about a personal self in isolation, but one that is dialogically connected with others – and that is rather influenced by the common good than abstract rights. One could argue that the Afrikaners of the Patriot movement (in the 18th century), the Voortrekkers and the citizens of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (in the 19th century) according to the understanding of positive freedom – a bound, situated and hermeneutic self – as articulated by Sandel, lived.
One could also argue that the vast majority of Afrikaners of the 20th century, through a variety of institutions, felt more at home in the positive than negative conception of freedom.
What is remarkable, however, is that a large part of the Afrikaner elites moved towards an understanding of negative freedom and individual rights in the 1980s. On this basis, the NP also conducted the negotiations with the ANC, which after 1994 culminated in the new state and Constitution.
However, the older conception of positive or fulfilling freedom did not disappear with it, but gained a new vitality through the creation of new institutions and the arguments of the intellectuals. One can only keep one’s eyes open and ears pricked and you will notice the understanding of positive freedom among contemporary leaders in the African world.
The challenge now is to communicate and debate the complicated relationship between negative and fulfilling freedom as best as possible in a community context, the South African context and on an international level. This is an issue that requires all of our attention.
Berlin, I. 1984. ‘Two Concepts of Liberty.’ In: Liberalism and its Criticsedited by Michael Sandel. Oxford: Blackwell.
Sandel, M. (ed.) 1984. Liberalism and its Critics. Oxford: Blackwell.
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