Positive Freedom and the Citizen in Athens

In: Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek and Roman Political Thought
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  • 1 Oberlin College, Department of Classics, 10 North Professor Street, King 105, Oberlin, oh 44074, USA

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Freedom in democratic Athens is often understood as consisting of positive freedom in the public sphere in the form of political participation and negative freedom in the private sphere in the form of citizens doing ‘whatever they wish’. The original meaning of positive freedom, though, is more akin to self-mastery than political participation. By looking at phrases describing Athenians’ ability to do ‘whatever they wish’ from Herodotus to Aristotle, this article argues that the phrases instead express individual positive freedom in both private and public spheres. The democratic citizen is free because he is the author of his own actions. Individual autonomy stands in contrast to Spartan and Persian definitions of freedom, which focus on the external, negative freedom of the state. In addition to an ideological distinction, positive freedom also gives rise to the principle of voluntarism.

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