How our definition of freedom has changed

Freedom and democracy are great, but our understanding of what those things are has changed a lot since we came up with them.

  • Philosopher Ben Constant explains how democracy today is nothing like what it used to be.
  • His arguments show us that debates around what freedom actually is can go in very strange directions.
  • Remember how busy the Athenian citizens were next time you think there are too many questions on the ballot.

When people talk about freedom and democracy, they often trace the lineage of both back 2,000 years to the rocky shores of Greece or to the Senate of Rome. However, the freedom they had in the ancient world was a bit different than what we have today, with significant benefits for us.

The ancient democrats wouldn’t think you live in a democracy

According to French philosopher Benjamin Constant's lecture The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns, the freedoms enjoyed by ancient peoples were fundamentally different than the ones we enjoy now.

He explains that Greek democracy:

...consisted in exercising collectively, but directly, several parts of the complete sovereignty; in deliberating, in the public square, over war and peace; in forming alliances with foreign governments; in voting laws, in pronouncing judgments; in examining the accounts, the acts, the stewardship of the magistrates; in calling them to appear in front of the assembled people, in accusing, condemning or absolving them.

That is to say, democracy and freedom meant popular participation in the political process. Any citizen might find themselves weighing the merits of war and peace, having to cast a vote on significant issues, or giving a speech on the need for more public spending to a crowd of hundreds. However, this increased democratic power came at a high personal cost. Constant explains:

...among the ancients the individual, almost always sovereign in public affairs, was a slave in all his private relations. As a citizen, he decided on peace and war; as a private individual, he was constrained, watched and repressed in all his movements; as a member of the collective body, he interrogated, dismissed, condemned, beggared, exiled, or sentenced to death his magistrates and superiors; as a subject of the collective body he could himself be deprived of his status, stripped of his privileges, banished, put to death, by the discretionary will of the whole to which he belonged.

For the citizen in ancient times who could say they were free, the freedom part was the act of voting. After that, little was assured. Socrates was put on trial for "not believing in the gods of the state"—an affront to our idea of religious liberty that didn't strike the Athenians as strange at all.

Constant holds that idea up against the notion of personal liberty and representative government that we have today; we have rights that the state can't violate and the state is to be managed by representatives working on our behalf. We have popular sovereignty, but not direct participation in the workings of the state. He calls this "modern liberty," and it is a far cry from the Athenian system where you could be randomly selected to facilitate a meeting of the assembly.

This is a pretty significant change for such an important concept. How did it happen?

More slaves... more democracy?

Constant argues that the change was a practical one.

He points out that "modern" states simply cannot operate in the same way as ancient Athens did. After all, if the city of Chicago were to have an assembly that only 20 percent of the adult population showed up to, like in ancient Athens, they would have to find room for 300,000 people to have a meeting. The physical size of modern states also exacerbates the problem.

Likewise, he reaches the same conclusion as historian Anthony Everitt: that the widespread participation in Athenian Democracy, and the golden age of Athens by extension, was made possible by the city having a vast number of slaves doing all the necessary work. This assured enough leisure time for the citizens to actually gather and discuss all the matters of state on a regular basis. While automation might bring back such leisure time, for now, we are stuck with the need for representatives that can carry out day to day work for us.

On the other hand, the increasing variety of options available to people at the dawn of the modern age and impossibility of micromanaging everybody's affairs lead to the idea of personal liberties that the state shouldn't infringe on. Constant also thought the state would have a hard time trying to infringe on these rights anyway since all of the familiar means of repression were originally designed for small city states. When he said that in 1819 he might have been right.

He also reminds us that we have it pretty good with these modern liberties, as it allows the individual much more freedom in their personal lives at the cost of making our political participation less direct. Given that being part of a large electorate would leave our personal impact on the political process minor at best, he argues this is a fair trade.

So, is voting is overrated?

Not at all, as Constant argues that exercising our political liberty is the only way to guarantee personal freedom. What he rejects is the idea that a modern society requires ancient liberties, like direct participation all the time, to be free. Indeed, he blames the worst excesses of the French Revolution on attempts to bring the wrong liberties to France. Colin Woodard suggests in his book, American Nations, that a similar thing happened in the early years of the United States when the democratically elected John Adams restricted free speech.

The democracies that we live in today are entirely different from the ones in the ancient world. While it isn't possible for everybody to serve as a magistrate or vote on every issue that affects society, it is possible for us to govern ourselves, choose representatives, and assure our freedoms through the democratic process. While we can't be free in the same way as the Greeks were, we might have it better now anyway.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.