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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The liberal idea of freedom arose slowly with the
rise of the modern state and the gradual acceptance
of religious diversity in a part of the world where the
church was a unique institution and personal faith of
peculiar importance.

1. The Modern State. The modern state, as no polit-
ical community before it, is both highly centralized
and highly populated; its authority is extensive and
pervasive. The modern state includes millions of per-
sons. So, too, did many of the old empires; but these
empires were bureaucracies superimposed on a vast
number of small communities having a large measure
of autonomy, while the modern state controls closely
the lives of all its citizens. The old empires were chiefly
tax-gathering and military organizations, though they
also maintained some important public works, such as
roads and water supplies, and administered justice
between persons from different communities or enjoy-
ing a special status. These local communities were
self-governing even where the authority of the supreme
ruler was held to be absolute—as, for example, in the
Ottoman Empire. Thus, in these empires, supreme
authority, though extensive, was not pervasive, for most
people most of the time were not directly affected by
it, whereas in the modern state it is extensive and

In the city-states, in Greece, Italy, and elsewhere,
supreme authority, though pervasive, was not exten-
sive; and quite often a considerable minority of the
persons subject to it took part in deciding how it should
be exercised or who should exercise it. Supreme au-
thority was “close” to the persons over whom it was

Of the modern state it is often said that its authority
is “remote.” This is true or false, depending on how
we take it. The holders of supreme authority are not
personally known to the vast majority of the citizens,
or are known to them only as much advertised public
figures, and to that extent are remote from them. But
there are state officials everywhere, and the citizen has
more to do with them than ever before. Though he
rarely meets any of the men who take the important


decisions, he sees pictures of them and reads or hears
their words repeatedly. The “state” in one way or
another is very present to him.

This state, even where it is federal, is a tightly knit
organization in which everyone's rights and duties are
clearly defined. It is also quickly changing. To do what
is expected of it, it must be highly adaptable and must
have elaborate and precise rules for the guidance of
its officers. It could not be adaptable unless procedures,
powers, and obligations inside it were carefully defined.

In the modern state the rights and obligations of the
mere citizen, of the man without public authority, are
also well defined. He has a variety of social roles; and
his rights and duties in them, as a husband or father,
as an employer or hired worker, as a man with a
particular trade or profession, are defined not only—
nor even principally—by custom but also by statute
and by contract. He sees himself, and is seen by others,
as a bearer of rights and obligations that are or ought
to be definite and yet liable to change since he belongs
to a changing society and his roles in it also change.
Apart from the rights and duties attaching to some
particular occupation or role, he has others that he
shares with all citizens, or with all of his sex or age;
or he has rights and obligations merely because he
resides within the jurisdiction of the state.

He is ordinarily more mobile socially and geo-
graphically than his ancestors were: he is more likely
to enter a profession or trade different from his father's,
more likely also to change it, and more likely to move
from one place to another. Some of his rights and
obligations change with his occupation or place of
residence, while others remain the same. His right to
choose his occupation and to change it, and his right
to move from place to place, are not tied to any
particular status or role; they are rights he shares with
everyone, or at least with many, in his state.

Thus, even in the most authoritarian or “illiberal”
of modern states, men and women have a variety of
rights and duties that they share with everyone, or with
most people. These rights and duties are not justified,
as are other narrower ones, by appeals to custom or
to needs peculiar to an occupation, social role, or

Increased mobility, social and geographical, is asso-
ciated historically with two developments: with the
rise of the modern state, a highly centralized structure
of authority which is both “remote” from and “close”
to the persons subject to it, and with the emergence
of an elaborate legal system in which the rights and
obligations of the mere citizen, or of the mere human
being, are distinguished as never before from rights and
obligations attaching to particular occupations and

The authority of the modern state is “impersonal”
in the sense that the persons who exercise it are not
concerned with the persons subject to it as unique
individuals but rather as belonging to some category
or other. This authority differs, therefore, not only from
that of parents over their children, but also from that
of elders or chiefs in small custom-bound communities.
Moreover, where it exists, it affects the exercise of
authority in the smaller communities within the larger
one, even though in them personal ties are still close.
It does so partly, but only partly, because the individual
is freer to move out of whatever small communities
he belongs to. For example, he is freer to leave the
parental home.

Though the authority of the state can be the more
oppressive for being “impersonal,” this “impersonality”
is also, as we shall see, a condition of freedom as the
liberal understands it, a necessary but by no means
sufficient condition. The individual is treated as some-
one to whom a certain description applies; he is “cate-
gorized.” Therefore, all he need do to make good his
claims is to show that a certain description does indeed
apply to him. The quality of intercourse between the
possessor of authority and whoever is subject to it is
not what it is in intimate and custom-bound communi-
ties; it allows both of new kinds of freedom and new
kinds of oppression.

It used to be claimed for the modern state—whether
it was liberal (as in Britain in Gladstone's time) or
authoritarian (as in Bismarck's Germany)—that it is
essentially a Rechtstaat; a political community in
which the powers of everyone having public authority
are carefully defined and the citizen has a legal remedy
against abuses of power. This claim is no longer made
since the emergence of communist and fascist states,
whose “modernity” can hardly be denied. Nazi Ger-
many was not, Communist Russia is not, a Rechtstaat.

And yet in the modern state, if we compare it with
older systems, there are always elaborate rules defining
the rights and obligations, not merely of private per-
sons, but of holders of public authority. Though the
private citizen often lacks a remedy against official
abuses of power, lesser officials are more strictly re-
sponsible to greater ones. There is also a sharper dis-
tinction made between rights and duties attached to
particular occupations or social roles and more general
ones. The citizen is at least encouraged to look upon
himself as a citizen. Even though he has little remedy
against abuses of public authority, this is not officially
admitted. The official claim is that his rights are well
defined and adequately protected. The modern state
claims to be constitutional; to be so organized that
public authority is exercised according to definite rules,
and the citizen has effective remedies against abuses


of authority. It is part of the myth of the modern state
that it is “constitutional,” just as it is part of its myth
that it is “democratic.”

No doubt, respect for constitutional rules and for
“the rule of law” is dismissed in some modern states
as a “bourgeois” prejudice. But this dismissal is always
equivocal; for these states also claim to be consti-
tutional. Their rulers are revolutionaries who got
power illegally and who keep it by methods different
from those of the their predecessors, methods that
involve denying to their subjects rights previously en-
joyed or widely aspired to, or even proclaimed by their
own revolutionary creed. To give the appearance of
legitimacy to their power and to achieve their other
aims, they always set up a constitution and proclaim
rights that they often cannot afford to respect. Within
their own circles they take this constitution and these
rights for what they are—for pretences serving to cover
up the realities of power. Outside these circles, they
speak of them differently and more respectfully, deny-
ing that they are mere pretences. The respect is usually
to some extent genuine; for they would like things to
be as they say they are, and even deceive themselves
into believing that the reality is nearer the appearance
than in fact it is.

Yet behind the appearance, there emerges a structure
of power which—precisely because it is centralized,
extensive, and pervasive, and has to be adapted to
changing needs and purposes—cannot rest on custom
but must operate in accordance with definite and
deliberately-made rules. Unless it were so, it would not
be effective; it would not serve to control millions of
people in the many different ways that their rulers
want them controlled in order to achieve their diverse
and changing purposes. Nor could these people be
effectively controlled for these purposes unless many
of their rights and obligations were fairly well defined.
If the activities of millions of persons are to be directed
to the achievement of large and new aims, if society
is to be transformed, there must be an elaborate sys-
tem of rules for the guidance of both those who
govern and those who are governed, and there must
be procedures established for changing the rules. There
must be some kind of effective political and legal
order, even though there is alongside it an order that
is not effective and exists largely for show—whether
it expresses genuine aspirations or serves to keep up
appearances which those who profit by them do not
take seriously.

No doubt, revolutionaries who get control of a state
sometimes fail of their purposes; they do not transform
society the way they want to, and the reality behind
the façade is not an effective political and legal order.
Nevertheless, if they are really concerned to transform
society, they cannot achieve their aims unless they
establish such an order.

The idea of the modern state is the idea of an exten-
sive and elaborate structure of authority carefully de-
fined and organized, and deliberately changed to meet
changing needs; and there arises along with it the need
to define more precisely the rights and obligations of
the individual, distinguishing those that are his in some
particular capacity from those that are not. These ways
of thinking about public authority and private rights
are common to all societies in which the modern state
arises whether they are liberal or authoritarian. In all
of them the individual acquires precious rights he did
not have before, or had to a smaller extent, rights not
attached to any particular occupation, status, or role:
as, for example, the right to choose his occupation, or
to choose whom he shall marry, or to decide where
he shall live. Women acquire rights hitherto confined
to men; and the adult of either sex enjoys a greater
independence, taking for himself or herself decisions
that used to be taken by parents or by seniors in the
family or clan or local community. This severing of
old ties, this acquisition of new rights, is inevitable
in an economy calling for greater social mobility.
Wherever these rights are acquired, whether in a lib-
eral or an authoritarian society, the acquisition is apt
to be seen as a liberation.

The modern state also claims to be democratic. It
did not do so in the beginning, if we take that begin-
ning as far back as the sixteenth and seventeenth cen-
turies. The modern state was, in its early days, a mon-
archy or oligarchy. But in those days it was much less
centralized than it became later, and its authority much
less pervasive. As that authority increased, as local
autonomies lessened or survived only within limits
defined by the central power, as the individual found
himself more and more controlled by that power, his
desire to control it grew stronger. This desire arose
first among the wealthy but spread in time to other
classes. In Britain the powers of the king and of parlia-
ment increased together, long before parliament be-
came democratic. In France, when the French equiva-
lent of the British parliament was revived and reformed
at the revolution, the popularly elected legislature was
reduced to impotence by a group of extreme radicals.
And for generations afterwards, the only legislatures
that were not quickly rendered powerless were elected
on a narrow franchise. France had no democracy that
lasted more than two or three years before the Third
Republic. Yet democracy seemed inevitable long before
it came; and even to those who despaired of its coming,
or who argued that it could not be genuine, the desire
for it and belief in it seemed rooted in social conditions
that arise with the modern state. Modern society is


by nature democratic; it needs the illusion of democ-
racy even where it cannot have the reality.

Political theory in the West has had a “bias” towards
democracy from the time that the modern state arose
and long before it became democratic. It has held that
the legitimacy of government derives from the consent
of the governed, and has spoken of this consent as if
it consisted, not in mere acquiescence or acceptance
of custom, but in a specific act, a social contract. No
doubt, it began by relegating this contract to a mythi-
cal past; and yet contract implies deliberate agreement.
This is already clear in Locke's political philosophy,
when he says that every man must consent for himself,
since the consent of his ancestors cannot bind him.
Locke, of course, was no democrat, and qualified his
initial assertions so as to draw no democratic conclu-
sions from them. But he spoke of rights that all men
have, merely because they are men, and he argued that
governments are obliged to protect these rights, and
that subjects have the right to resist or remove govern-
ments when they fail in this duty. His argument has
democratic implications, though neither he nor his
contemporaries drew them.

Marxists and others, to explain how such a thinker
as Locke came to speak as he did, have said that a
rising class, though themselves a minority, when they
challenge the supremacy of another class, try to gain
popularity by using arguments that appeal to the peo-
ple generally. They try to make the interest of their
class look as if it were the interest of all. This is what
happened in the seventeenth century, when the rising
bourgeoisie challenged the supremacy of the old nobil-
ity, especially in England. Rights that could in fact,
given social conditions at that time, be exercised effec-
tively only by the wealthy and the educated were
claimed for the whole people, or for some part of them
supposed to be acting as their representatives.

This Marxist argument is akin to another, which has
perhaps more to be said for it. According to this second
argument, a new kind of economy and social order
required the assertion of rights to be shared by all, or
by all adult males, regardless of status, occupation, or
wealth. Though this economy and social order allow
of great inequalities of status, wealth, and education,
there are rights that all men must have if the economy
and social order are to function properly. These rights
are asserted in all societies where commerce and in-
dustry are growing fast, and there is increasing social
mobility; where the least educated are required to be
literate, and where the maintenance of social discipline
takes the form of the modern state.

2. Liberty of Conscience. In Europe in the Middle
Ages two ideas were widely accepted: that salvation,
or union with God in an afterlife, depends not just on
leading a good life, but on holding certain beliefs about
God and his relations to man; and that there is a
church, a community of the faithful, having sole au-
thority from God to teach the beliefs (and administer
the sacraments) necessary to salvation. To most people
in medieval Europe, these two ideas may have meant
very little, for most people were illiterate and in-
capable of understanding them. No doubt, to most
people everywhere, religion has been more a matter
of ritual than of doctrine. But these ideas were impor-
tant to persons in authority, both clerical and lay.

At the Reformation the first of these ideas—that
salvation depends on holding certain beliefs— was not
challenged, and the second was challenged only up to
a point. Luther rejected the authority of the pope and
of other ecclesiastical superiors who disagreed with
him; and he taught that every Christian must interpret
for himself the Holy Scriptures containing the truths
necessary to salvation. Yet he proved in the end unwill-
ing to admit that avowed Christians whose inter-
pretations of the Scriptures differed widely from his
own should be allowed to propagate their beliefs. It
is arguable that he wanted them silenced only because
he thought their doctrines dangerous to the social order
and not because they had misinterpreted Holy Scrip-
ture. But the Lutherans after him certainly wanted
some of their opponents silenced on the ground that
their doctrines were false and not merely dangerous.
So too did the Calvinists. What is more, the idea of
a true church with sole authority to teach a faith
necessary to salvation long remained widely attractive
to Protestants, even though their beliefs about how the
faithful should be organized were sometimes incompat-
ible with this idea. So there were soon, over large parts
of Western Europe, several organized bodies of Chris-
tians, each claiming, if not a monopoly of the truth,
a privileged status in declaring it and in deciding what
false beliefs were intolerable. Most of them were intol-
erant, though some less so than others; and the more
tolerant were so often from motives of prudence, being
more liable to persecution by others than able to per-
secute them.

Nevertheless, with time, belief in toleration grew
stronger. In the wake of a growing belief that toleration
is expedient, there grew another—that it is just. Yet
toleration was mostly from motives of expediency until
quite recent times. Governments learned by experience
that they were more likely to provoke disorder by
trying to establish uniformity of religious belief by
force than by allowing diversity. Religious leaders
learned that the number of the faithful was as likely
to grow if they gave up being persecutors where they
were strong in return for not being persecuted where
they were weak.


The long period of religious conflict that started with
Luther's defiance of the papacy had two lasting effects.
It strengthened and spread more widely the belief that
“faith” is important, and it made people keener to
associate for the defense and propagation of beliefs
that they cared deeply about. These beliefs were at
first mostly religious, but they came in time to be much
more than merely religious, or ceased altogether to be
so. Beliefs about how men should live and society be
organized had long been associated with beliefs about
God and his purposes for man. As the association be-
tween these two kinds of belief weakened and for many
people (agnostics and atheists) was quite severed, be-
liefs about man, morals, and society still kept something
of the “sacred” character of religious beliefs. The idea
survived that nothing matters more about a man than
his faith, than the beliefs he cares deeply about because
they form or justify his aspirations or his way of life.

The idea that faith is important can be used to justify
either persecution and indoctrination or toleration and
freedom of speech. It was used at first much more for
the first purpose than the second, and in our day is
still used widely for both purposes. In the West it is
now more often used for the second purpose. And yet,
though it was used for this second, this “liberal,” pur-
pose later than for the first, there has been no steady
movement away from the first use to the second.

Tolerance and freedom of speech are not, of course,
peculiarly modern any more than are persecution and
indoctrination. There was a great deal of tolerance and
of this freedom, in some places at some times, in the
ancient world. But it is in the modern age and in the
West, in a part of the world where persecution and
indoctrination were for a long time peculiarly fierce
and thorough, with bitter conflicts between rival faiths,
that tolerance and freedom of speech are most highly
prized. This is not to suggest that periods of persecu-
tion and indoctrination are always followed by periods
of toleration and freedom of speech; but to suggest
only that, in a part of the world where peculiar impor-
tance was attached to faith, after a long period of
conflict between persecuting and proselytizing
churches and sects, none of which gained complete
ascendency, tolerance and freedom of speech came to
be more highly valued than they had ever been any-
where before. They were not merely practiced, as they
had been in other places and other times; they were
put forward as principles that ought to be practiced
as far as possible.

In the West until the eighteenth century, persecutors
and advocates of toleration were concerned mostly
with religious beliefs, and have since that time turned
their attention more to social and moral doctrines. Or,
rather, the beliefs that now concern them are less often
religious, as well as social and moral, than they used
to be; for religious beliefs that have attracted persecu-
tion have nearly always been closely connected with
social and moral doctrines.

So, too, since the eighteenth century, the impulse
to form associations to maintain and propagate reli-
gious beliefs and practices has broadened into a readi-
ness to form them to promote and protect any beliefs
and practices important to those who share them. The
right to associate for such purposes has been widely
asserted and recognized as one of the most precious
of all.

In the West in the Middle Ages it was the church
rather than the state that was responsible for defending
as well as teaching the true faith, the temporal magis-
trate acting rather as an auxiliary to punish persons
condemned by priests. Hence an idea more widely
accepted in the West than in other parts of Christen-
dom, that matters of faith are beyond the jurisdiction
of the state, that its business is to prevent people from
acting harmfully rather than to ensure that they hold
true beliefs. Defense of the church against the state,
even when it has not been defense of religious freedom,
has nevertheless been, or appeared to be, a defense
of faith against the state or the Temporal Power,
against organized force. For the organ of coercion has
been the state or the Temporal Power and not the
church, even when that Power has acted in defense
of the church or to promote its aims. Hence in the
West two important social functions, organized coer-
cion and organized indoctrination, have long been
separate or more nearly separate than elsewhere.