Freedom and politics

Freedom and politics

Goal of politics can be expressed in one sentence:
thanks to political freedom a man becomes himself.

K. Jaspers


In 2004 Fareed Zakaria published a book titled The Future of Freedom. Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (New York 2004), that has been translated into German and published under a changed title: Das Ende der Freiheit? Wieviel Demokratie verträgt der Mensch, what can be translated into Polish as „Czy koniec wolności? Ile demokracji zniesie człowiek?” („The end of freedom? How much democracy can a man endure?” See: Zakaria 2006). Neither this title nor the double question mark appeared by accident in the German version. The authors of the translation wanted to emphasize the relationship between democracy and freedom, but at the same time highlight that there are some limits to this understanding. The relationship between democracy and freedom is more distant than it seems. The great threat to the idea of freedom is that the political context often dictates the scope of this concept in contemporary culture: freedom is here inextricably linked to democracy, human rights, the possibility of manifesting one’s choices and nothing else. It is easy to see that this context allows to define it in such a way, that freedom is the ability to do what we want without restriction or interference. Man’s not free when he’s not allowed to do whatever he wants. Thus, freedom defined in political life usurps the right to define the idea of freedom. The political slogans of „liberation from all limitations”, „fight for freedom”, „political liberties”, „rebellion against limitations” are translated into the slogan „you can live and act in whatever way you like”. Of course, no serious political theory can afford to ignore the problem of freedom. However, it is something else to move the idea of freedom only to the political world and to try to understand it only from this area. It is often believed (e.g. H. Arendt) that the most appropriate area for considering it is the world of politics, and transfering this problem to another area must always be associated with some flaws or falsifications. This is what happened, for example, when freedom was moved from the sphere of politics and interpersonal matters to the sphere of spirituality, human interior and free will. It not only left its original area of occurrence and characteristics, but also began to appear as a „place of refuge” for ourselves from the dangerous world.

Such thoughts appear not only in Hannah Arendt's philosophy of politics. We are dealing here clearly not only with the limitations resulting from considering freedom only in the political and social spheres. Something more appears to us: the whole – so important in Europe’s culture – area of considerations on „free will” and „religious freedom” becomes only a secondary and substitute topic in comparison to „political freedom”. These specific sociopolitical limitations also seem to close the problem of the freedom to show the effort of liberation (or liberating) from something coercing, which is rooted precisely in this sociopolitical sphere. So we encounter here many options, in which one cares about some liberation, gaining (expanding) the scope of freedom, breaking shackles, releasing, etc., often forgetting about answering questions „what’s all this for?”, „what is the purpose of liberating freedom thus revealed?”. These ideas and fundamental problems are lost in the political expansion of freedom of choice, and freedom comes down to the absence of tyranny or oppression. To be free is to be liberated. Or: freedom is liberating. The biblical tempter (serpent), as the first rebel against prohibitions, becomes a friend of freedom, a liberator. The idea of freedom considered in this way is not able to reveal the entire „human” context and it seems in it that it’s enough to abandon restrictions in order to gain freedom. It’s not enough – wrote Alexander Herzen – to take Bastille to bits stone by stone, to turn prisoners into free people (Herzen 1965, p. 538).

The political, institutional idea of freedom always needs to be completed with an existential idea in which a person will find an answer to the question „what for?”. And not only from liberation, but from this answer, the meaning of freedom should arise, because even when one gains such freedom from something, someone, tyranny, etc., one learns easily that it becomes the raison d'être of politics, and not always raison d'être of man. However, it must be clearly stated that freedom does not belong to man as a „political being”, but belongs to him as „to man” and, what’s more, a spiritual man. Therefore, the structure of freedom is not (and can’t be) political or social, but is always anthropological, moral and metaphysical. Hence, any attempt to limit it to the sociopolitical sphere is an attempt to falsify human existence, with great harm to man and his world. But also with harm to politics itself. Isaiah Berlin has counted about two hundred (!) different definitions of freedom in the history of human thought. So in this context we are dealing with freedoms, and therefore not with one idea of freedom. Freedom, limited to the sociopolitical sphere, becomes associated only with an unhampered possibility of choice and means only guaranteeing some independence from the state, other people, cultural ideas, etc. It becomes an end in itself and only a right to use. Such freedom is also easy to lose. And not only through violence, re-restriction by the state, political systems, etc. It’s easy to lose not necessarily by coercion. Sometimes it is so burdensome for citizens that they are willing to give it up themselves.

Looking at contemporary culture, however, it must be stated that it's precisely ths "sociopolitically" marked idea of freedom that defines the basic feature of the contemporary apporach. Freedom today does not emerge from moral sensibility or from metaphysical ideas, but from resistance (rebellion) against all oppressions: the less someone interferes with us, the more free we are. This conviction, arising from the political sphere, defines contemporary freedom and from here contemporary man adopts its characteristics. We can say that if in modern culture the problem of freedom was dominated by the context of natural sciences, then in contemporary culture such a context is but the world of politics. And if the first of them entangled the phenomenon of freedom in the problem of determinism, the second does so by entangling it in the problem of lawlessness. Misunderstood freedom, whose characteristics stem from the political sphere, leads, in a way, to the erosion of the political sphere itself, in which the idea of the common good is lost, and the goal of social life is only to expand the possibilities of choice, fight for independence from anything and lawlessness. Thus, politics itself loses its most important area: interpersonal relations, community values, justice, responsibility.

Hannah Arendt knew perfectly well that political freedom is something other than philosophical and axiological freedom (see: Arendt 1996, p. 275). But contemporary culture is not really about nurturing such a distinction. The point is that the former, limited to „freedom from”, does not become a model for defining freedom itself. Freedom in the world of politics is a demand for liberation of man. It is measured by the extent to which "others" do not interfere with our world, the rejection of necessity and determinism. The essential feature of freedom, however, is not the „demand for liberation”, but man's duty and responsibility for himself and the world. Freedom is not a kingdom of lawlessness, it is a kingdom of man’s duties: to be free is to answer for one’s own actions. However, this duty is not visible from the field of politics. And therefore freedom cannot remain „in the shadow of politics”. A border should be drawn between freedom and political freedom. Because these areas do not overlap at all. The meaning of freedom is revealed not when we throw off the shackles, but only when we see what builds. I have the right to do anything, but not everything is constructive. (1 Cor 10:23). Therefore, one of the fundamental theoretical questions should also be how a person enters the world of freedom. Entering it through the world of politics does not seem to be the best fit. In this world, man is to be free „to choose”, therefore he is free before he chooses. Hence precisely the trouble with understanding freedom today comes from attempts to characterize it from the political side.


prof. dr hab. Marek Szulakiewicz

Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń



Arendt H., Wola, R. Piłat [transl.], Warszawa 1996.

Hercen A., Z tamtego brzegu, in: idem, Pisma filozoficzne, vol. I, J. Walicka [transl.], Warszawa 1965, p. 507–686.

Zakaria F., Das Ende der Freiheit? Wieviel Demokratie verträgt der Mensch?, T. Waack [transl.], Frankfurt am Main 2006.

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Autor: Mateusz Ruta
Date: 8 June 2021
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