The West’s Lust for Liberty

  • Themes: War

The love of liberty is not unique to the West but the lust for liberty is.

Leonidas at Thermopylae, by Jacques-Louis David, 1814.
Leonidas at Thermopylae, by Jacques-Louis David, 1814. Credit: Peter Horree / Alamy Stock Photo

One of the earliest surviving inscriptions on a monument to the fallen in battle was published in the summer of 2010. It commends the Athenians who fell in the battle of Marathon fighting the Persians, 2,500 years ago:


Fame, as it reaches the furthest limits of the

…sunlit earth

Shall learn the valour of these men: how

They died

In battle with the Medes, and how they

Garlanded Athens

The few who undertook the war of many






The survival of the casualty list is due entirely to the interests of an Athenian millionaire, Herodes Atticus, who lived in the second century AD and was tutor to the young Marcus Aurelius. He had the monument installed in his country house in the eastern Peloponnese.

What is striking about the monument is that it enumerates the death of ordinary men, not only aristocrats, who died fighting side-by-side for the right to live their own life. We have grown so used to such inscriptions from the commemoration of the fallen in two world wars that we might be forgiven for missing the novelty of this approach. The Athenians thought it was worth recording the names of the lowliest as well as the highest. They were celebrating the sacrifice by men who, being equal in the eyes of their enemies, the Persians, were equal in their own eyes in battle. Although unequal in status, wealth and class back at home, they were targeted indiscriminately by the enemy. In this case, the ‘few’ really did mean few. No one knows how many Persians died at Marathon, but we do know how many Athenians – only 192.

These days when we remember the Greco-Persian wars, we don’t think of Marathon so much as Thermopylae, the most famous battle to be fought during the second Persian invasion of the Greek mainland. The novelist William Golding, after visiting the battlefield, wrote that ‘a little of Leonidas lives in the fact that I can go where I like and write what I like. He contributed to set us free.’ Leonidas, of course, was the Spartan king who held the pass at Thermopylae against a vast army that he couldn’t hope to defeat. My students know it from Zack Snyder’s film 300, which was panned by the critics even though it was a great box office success. The Greek government formally complained that its homoerotic content might mislead audiences into thinking that Sparta was the gay superpower of the age. And the Iranian government lodged a formal complaint with UNESCO against the depiction of the Persian king as a sexually ambivalent, cross-dressing freak of nature. But Marathon continues to remain the touchstone of Western liberty in the narrative the Western world has crafted through the ages. Montaigne’s friend, Étienne de la Boétie, was the first European writer to see the Greco-Persian wars as a historically significant fight for liberty against tyranny. The English writer Edward Creasey chose it 300 years later as the first decisive battle in history. For liberty, both writers tell us, doesn’t come without sacrifice.

Thomas Hobbes, cynical as ever, would have none of it. In the Leviathan he expressed surprise that human beings would want to sacrifice their lives for a cause, or a country or a noble ideal. Sacrifice, he wrote, was ‘the privilege of absurdity to which no living creature is subject, but Man only’. So, it behoves us to ask whether the sacrifices we have made for liberty through the ages are to be found in our biological or cultural DNA?

The Greeks were the first to ask the question. Unlike Darwin, they were unable to grasp the ‘science’ of altruism. Darwin recognised that if natural selection works at the level of individuals genetically (we fight to survive), society works at the level of the collective. Society can turn selfish genes into selfless people. The Greeks, however, did recognise that culture is the key. As Pericles notes in his famous funeral oration – or at least in the speech that Thucydides gives him – the sacrifices made by the Spartans and Athenians differed significantly.

The Spartans’ willingness to die for one another was firmly rooted in family. Armies were organised by clan and kin; sometimes grandfathers, fathers and sons might all fight in sight of one another; the extended family was privileged over the nuclear family – boys were removed from their parents at the age of seven. In other words, Leonidas’s band of brothers was the product of a rare social experiment in the ancient world. For the Athenians, the situation was quite different. For them, citizenship was the key to the sacrifices they were willing to make for each other. They had translated philia (love) of country into something much greater – eros. Eros, writes Paul Ludwig, can be translated as lust, and lust can be applied to other abstract concepts, such as learning and knowledge. The love of liberty, as the Greeks knew perfectly well, was not unique to the West but the ‘lust’ for liberty probably was.

Hardwired into our biological DNA, there does seem to be a need to value ourselves, our customs and our ancestral gods. Another English seventeenth-century philosopher, John Locke, told the story of a city of Tatars that had surrendered their persons, wives, children and wealth to the Chinese conquerors. But when ordered to cut off the plait of hair which, by custom, they wore on their heads, they took up arms and were slaughtered to a man. What Locke believed the story demonstrated was that we all prize liberty – the freedom to be ourselves. A lust for liberty, however, would suggest something more. And in the eighteenth century, the Western world began to see liberty, not in terms of human being, but human becoming. And that required something more: the ideational idea of liberty as a natural right.

We can, of course, question whether any values are in any sense ‘objectively’ true. Another Western philosopher, David Hume, didn’t believe any values were universally true, or even innately so. Our judgements of what is right and wrong are just matters of sentiment which we project
into the world and imagine constitute part of the fabric of reality. But those who take the opposite view (as most of us do) accept that values do exist and that they are real enough if they reflect our individual interests and concerns, even if they differ from culture to culture. What is undoubtedly universal is the idea of value itself. We all demand fair treatment and a measure of self-esteem. Both are pro-social values for we are social animals, which is why in every culture people dislike betrayal and disloyalty. As James Q Wilson argued in The Moral Sense (1993), just as children are equipped to learn language, so we come into the world equipped with a specific set of moral prejudices that make us social beings fit for society; sociopaths don’t have them. And we have those values for a reason; it is one of the central ways we coordinate our lives with those of others; we appeal to them whenever we are trying to get things done together. The key insight of modern philosophical reflection is that language has been hardwired into us – it provides an evaluative tool that helps us work with each other more effectively. It allows us to value someone for being ‘a hard worker’ or a ‘good mother’ and to devalue those we find to be anti-social. Unfortunately, most values, including liberty, are inherently judgemental. What one culture may value, another may not.

Western civilisation just happened to take a specific path. For Montesquieu, in The Spirit of the Laws, ‘the love of liberty is natural to mankind’. Several decades later, liberty had become a human ‘right’ rooted in social contract theory, one of the great just-so-stories of Western political philosophy. In his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Hegel spun another story: history as the story of freedom becoming conscious of itself. It begins with the freedom of one man – the pharaoh or emperor of China; then the freedom of a collective, such as the Greek city state. Later Christianity preached that all men would be free in the next life. In the final phase of history, Hegel wrote, freedom would be achieved through humanity’s own efforts. This vision was inspired by the French Revolution and its founding document: the Declaration of the Rights of Man. History would now be powered by liberation wars and revolutions. ‘Give me liberty or death’ was Patrick Henry’s famous cry at the beginning of the American revolutionary war. On the scaffold, the English revolutionary Henry Thistlewood, one of the Cato Street conspirators, declared that it was better to die a free man than live in servitude. ‘What did he mean by that?’ asked the Russian ambassador’s wife at the time. She was an intelligent woman, and her husband cosmopolitan, but culture usually trumps biology. A Russian’s DNA is different from an Englishman’s. We have far more cultural instincts, as it happens, than we do biological ones, as William James reminded us. The fact that human beings are willing to die for an abstraction such as ‘liberty’ (however they define the word or understand the concept – a fact which so mystified Hobbes, the great materialist) is what makes our species unique.

The Western idea of liberty is rooted in the idea that we cannot be truly human without it – either in the sense of ‘being’ (our individual self-worth), or in the sense of ‘becoming’ – we allow the quest for freedom to pull us towards a future in which we will become, hopefully, better people. Fast forward to 2003 and we find G W Bush claiming that in Afghanistan the West was fighting for the ‘non-negotiable demands of human dignity’. We have made liberty into a human right which we are willing to export, whether people want it or not. Liberty can demand nation-building and regime change, and cost a great deal in blood and treasure. A great many – among the three billion coming into the world between now and 2050 – may choose not to embrace our own idea of freedom. But that is no reason for abandoning our script. We don’t know how universal the wish for liberty is; we don’t stand at the end of history, from where we can look back and see the ‘inevitable triumph’ of freedom. It’s even impossible from a reading of history to prove that human beings have rights. But from a passing knowledge of the twentieth century, we know the appalling consequences of believing that they don’t.


Christopher Coker