Ancient and modern

How to be ‘liberal’, according to the ancients

6 February 2021

9:00 AM

6 February 2021

9:00 AM

Certain parts of academia seem to wish to turn the study of classics away from a historical, language- and evidence-based discipline whose focus is understanding the ancient world on its own terms, in favour of preaching to students about the evils of ancient imperialism, slavery, racism, sexism, privilege, all keenly advocated by anyone who has ever taught it. There should be added to that list of shame the ancients’ hopelessly misguided views about what it meant to be ‘liberal’.

Latin lîber meant ‘free’, and lîberalismeant ‘relating to the free, worthy of the free’; also ‘gentlemanly, ladylike’, by extension ‘magnanimous, obliging’ and so ‘munificent, generous’. Another crucial mark of the lîberalis was education, especially the wide-ranging knowledge and understanding arising from the study of history and the rich examples it provided of admirable and disgraceful human behaviour. The associated noun was lîberalitas (‘liberality’), and in his dialogue On Duty the statesman Cicero linked lîberalitas with justice. His reasoning was that ‘we are not born for ourselves alone… but as humans we are born for the sake of humans, to contribute to the general good by common acts of kindness, and by our skill, industry and talents to cement human society more closely together’.


For this to work, Cicero continued, ‘truth and fidelity to promises and agreements’ were necessary, which he summarised in two words: ‘good faith’. An essential aspect of ‘good faith’ was its commitment to reciprocal obligations, and a certain style of behaviour ‘as far removed from the rest of animal creation as possible’. Here he identified lîberalitaswith giving (‘the greatest privilege of wealth is the opportunity it affords for doing good’), temperance, self-control and behaviour in business that was fair and reasonable, avoiding litigation. Not pushing one’s own ‘rights’ too far was the mark of the liberalis. Lîber also generated lîbertas, ‘freedom’ — a condition of sovereignty, personal independence and frankness, easily exploited for corrupt ends. A lîberalis would have nothing to do with that.

One can imagine the contempt with which some modern ‘liberals’ would treat this whole ancient synthesis. But the more intelligent student might find its ideals rather attractive.

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