Freedom, Reason, and Tradition

“Freedom, Reason, and Tradition.” Ethics 68 (1958).


“Though freedom is not a state of nature but an artifact of civilization, it did not arise as a result of design. The institutions of freedom, like all that freedom has created, were not established because people foresaw the benefits they would bring. But once its advantages were recognized, efforts commenced to perfect and extend the reign of freedom and, for that purpose, to learn how a free society worked. This development of a theory of liberty took place mainly in the eighteenth century and began in two countries — of which one knew liberty and the other did not — England and France.

As a result, we have to the present day two different traditions in the theory of liberty: one empirical and unsystematic, the other speculative and rationalist — the first based on an interpretation of traditions and institutions which had spontaneously grown up and were but imperfectly understood, the second aiming at the construction of a utopia which has often been tried but never worked. Nevertheless, it has been the rationalist, plausible, and apparently logical argument of the French tradition with its flattering assumptions about the unlimited powers of human reason, which has progressively gained influence; while the less articulate and less explicit tradition on which English freedom was based has been on the decline. As a result, the political conceptions of the French Age of Reason are today erroneously regarded as representative of the eighteenth century in general.”

Chicago Journals [pdf]