Liberty, the West, and the Judeo-Christian heritage.
In 1877, the British historian Lord Acton wrote two essays on the history of liberty in ancient times and in Christianity. They were meant to be the germinal cell of a general History of Liberty that he never wrote. By Christianity, he meant the Christian area, which we would rather call Christendom, meaning mainly medieval Europe as it developed in the wake of the Emperor Constantine’s conversion. Lord Acton’s insights remain extremely valuable, so valuable, as a matter of fact, that, even if I possessed the necessary competence, I could hardly wish to replace them with a deeper or more accurate account. Instead I should like to supplement Acton’s insights by studying religion rather than culture, i.e., Christianity rather than Christendom. Moreover, I will focus on the common ground of Christianity and Judaism: on the books known to the Jews as the Tanakh (an acronym for “Torah, Prophets and Writings”) and to the Christians as the Old Testament. These books remain the core of what we call, rather clumsily and for want of any better term, the “Judeo-Christian” heritage. I will deal with the New Testament in a more summary way.
I WILL TAKE MY bearings from two basic assumptions. The first is that liberty is not a merely political fact. It strikes its roots in a deeper soil, in the very conception of man and of God that underlies a religion, and even in the way each religion conceives of the interplay of God and man in history. People who considered themselves Jews or Christians may not have been faithful to the claims and obligations of their religion. In examining the Judeo-Christian inheritance, therefore, it will not be enough to describe the concrete activities of Jews and Christians in giving institutional expression to the idea of liberty. We shall also need to understand the principles that governed their conduct, and the ideals to which they aspired.
Hence I will not discuss the passages from both Testaments that deal with social phenomena in which liberty and the lack thereof were involved, e.g., the laws on slavery. Slavery was in the ancient world a common practice; it was part and parcel of the economic system and few people ever thought of criticizing it, let alone abolishing it. In the city of rebellious slaves led by Spartacus, there were still slaves. Little wonder that the Bible does not say anything totally revolutionary about it, but contents itself with advocating a more humane treatment of slaves.
My second assumption is that the idea of liberty was not a sudden invention, springing into existence as part of the great intellectual revolution that we know as the Enlightenment. Although the call for liberty is regularly conceived as some kind of break with Christian ideas and ideals that allegedly held sway over the Middle Ages, this conception is far from the truth. Western liberty is a far older tradition, the sources of which are to be looked for first and foremost in the medieval period. Lord Acton already could point this out. More was done after him by students of the medieval legal tradition and of the conflict between the papacy and the empire, in which both sides, interestingly, chose as their catchword libertas, i.e., “freedom.”
I would like to go further back, to the very foundations of the medieval worldview, i.e., to the sacred books of the Bible. I will take them in chronological order. From time to time, I will compare their content with what matches it in the Koran, which draws upon some biblical stories, and underline the peculiarities of the two sets of texts.
The Old Testament
WE SHOULD NOT expect to find in the writings of the Old Testament anything resembling a philosophical concept of freedom. First, because there are no concepts in the Bible. Ideas appear there under the guise of narratives. Second, because, wherever liberty is mentioned, it means a social status, viz. the status of people who are not slaves. The same holds true of Greek philosophers, for whom freedom meant the condition of a selfgoverning city, and also that of their citizens who, unlike slaves, were owners of themselves. The metaphysical idea of free will is hardly older than the Fathers of the Church, and owes its first clear statement to St. Augustine. At the same time, an important idea of freedom is implicit in many Old Testament passages. We have only to make it explicit, in order to perceive its closeness to our thinking today.
Creating Free Beings
WHEN ANCIENT ISRAELITE sages reflected on the absolute beginning of all things, they put freedom at the center of the relationship between God and the world. The first narrative of the creation tells us that “on the seventh day God ended His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it He had rested from all His work which God created and made” (Genesis 2:2-3). This way of explaining the legitimacy of the weekly day of rest is grounded on the story according to which God, too, rested after His work: “It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He rested, and was refreshed” (Exodus 31:17). The Sabbath is free time, time for leisure, for activity, i.e., for the activities that become a free man. The ancient thinkers, who lived in societies of slaveholders, drew a line between what becomes a free man and what we are compelled to do in order to keep things going: tilling the soil, building houses, weaving garments, cooking meals, etc. They named the latter servile, i.e., slavish activities, whereas the former, which alone were worthy of free people, deserved the name of “liberal studies” or “liberal arts.”
Now, the biblical narrative of creation makes possible a leisure that encompasses everybody, not only slave-owners. The Bible stresses the fact that the servants, too, are to be granted a day of rest: “The seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates” (Exodus 20:8-11). This is the social dimension of the Sabbath, which became the thin wedge whereby ancient societies were opened to the pursuit of liberty.
Yet there is more to it. The Sabbath has another, deeper dimension, that we could call a metaphysical one. When the Bible describes God as withdrawing from His work in order to enjoy rest, God is described as free. But the world is, so to speak, free from God’s action, too, and is allowed to rest. God does not interfere any more with what He has created. On the contrary, He somehow sets His creatures on a free footing. His providence gives them whatever is required for them to be able to “shift for themselves” in the pursuit of what is good for them. The necessary outfit that enables a creature to reach its own good is what we call its nature. The biblical God does not create bundles of independent properties that He arbitrarily puts together or asunder; He creates things that are endowed with natures of their own. To be sure, God keeps whatever exists in being, for without His continuous will to maintain them, they would disappear. But He respects the nature of the things He has created.
By this token, something like freedom already exists at an elementary level, even before it becomes conscious of itself in man. Human freedom expresses in a human key a property that belongs to each creature: the property of existing and acting according to a nature of its own. Interestingly, the Koran, which repeatedly praises God’s creative activity, does not mention the rest of the seventh day. As a consequence, it does not contain any law on sabbatical rest. A verse even discreetly criticizes the idea that God could get tired (L, 38). Mainstream Islamic apologetics (Kalâm) later built a whole world–view in which things, and even time, consist of indivisible units or properties that stick together because God creates them afresh, out of nothing, in every instant. Such properties don’t belong together because they express the nature of a thing, but merely because God is accustomed to combining them. No created thing, not even a human being, has a nature of its own, from which it can, as it were, enter into free relations with its maker. All are forever subject to His will.
To be sure, the biblical worldview agrees in putting God above any fatigue (see Isaiah 40:28). Moreover, the New Testament insists that God does not stop “working” (John 5:17). But the world that God works to maintain is composed of things that are endowed with a stable nature and which spontaneously act in accordance with it.
God’s Activity as Liberation THE GOD OF THE BIBLE does not only leave freedom to His creatures. If those creatures lead a historical life, He sets them free by stepping into history. Liberty comes to the fore right at the beginning of Israel’s history, such as the Israelites understood it. Liberty is the very definition of the people of Israel as the people of the Exodus. Israel is not the only people that a divine being is supposed to have led from a former abode or state of nomadic wandering to its present place of permanent residence. On the contrary, this was considered to be a common phenomenon; migrations were seen as the work of God’s hand.
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