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Author: Erik Guignard


Freedom, a seemingly simple concept, is, in fact, very complex by the extension of its field and its variability according to eras, individuals, civilizations.

            The concept applies to individuals : “I do, I say, what I want” or “I decide for myself to do or not to do what I want “at all ages of  life”,  “I am free, or not, to live, or even to die, as I please” depending on my socio-economic, or health, or age ; to members of a Community that enacts its own rules and conventions, affectio societatis ;  to subjects of a state that enacts, within a legal or customary framework, rights or spaces of freedom more or less extended to its inhabitants, natives or aliens,  institutions and communities as recognized entities ….

Except in its spiritual conception and detachment from this material world, no freedom is conceived, de facto, without a relationship to limits or constraints or dependencies…

These limits are never fixed, always dependent of an environment rarely stable, apart from those that would be “natural” and therefore “universal” in time and space : the biological constitution of man (except artificialization or robotics…), terrestrial habitat (climate … natural resources…), life in society (man is therefore subject to rules, laws, customs, “freedom stops where that of others begins”  … or  “only for where it is forbidden by law”… ). Even if some dream of Robinson Crusoe, no one can live alone, not even the hermits of the desert… no one can live off the ground (except astronauts…, for a short while… !)

It remains therefore to examine the fields from which the concept of Liberty can be exercised and, thus, propose several glances that will allow, such as the crossings of lines in maritime navigation, to illuminate its contours.

A very old concept

A first look, that of E. Benveniste[1], proposes an analysis of the concept of freedom from its variation within the Indo-European languages which allows to have a look into the prehistory of the Indo-European puddle of the Indus and the Urals, from Gibraltar to the Hebridean Islands…

While these languages do not have a common designation for the concept of “freedom”, the “free-slave” opposition is common to all Indo-European peoples.

Thus, in Greek, the free Man “eleutheros” defines himself as opposition to the “doûlos” slave man. Rome distinguishes between the “liberi” and the “serui”, India between the “arya” and the “dasa” (slaves and foreigners). Latin also proposes an equivalence between “born of good strain” and “free” birth.

Finally, Benveniste emphasizes the proximity, which varies according to language, between the verbs “increase, grow” and a community “people, personae“, and then between the adjective “free” and a noun “liberi” children.

In Germanic, the kinship between “frei” being free, and “Freund” (friend) evokes, for its part, a freedom linked to belonging to a community of friends, a community alive since sacrificing, according to Roman sources, to “Liber”, god of fertility alongside his parèdre (partner)  “Libera”.[2]

 Benveniste thus demonstrates that the notion of freedom was first constructed from a social notion of the development of restricted communities of “free” men, even within a lineage continuity (former Iranian azata) indicating the presence of entities likely to be exogamic but still allying within a circle excluding slaves and foreigners[3] and he concludes that in the ancient society of the European puddle, seemingly the most personal concepts, such as freedom, are first and foremost part of social institutions, beyond a negative definition of a situation of non-servitude or, by extension, non-submission.

About the freedom of the individual

Going back in time, the concept of freedom is then inscribed in societies that build States under the guise of Royalties or Empires that war to assert their pre-eminence and consolidate their territories, while religious freedom becomes a major source of protest and conflicts of extreme violence. Attempts at peace are multiplying, of which here are two examples :

  • In the Germanic Holy Roman Empire, a tradition developed around international treaties (Augsburg Compromise in 1555, treaty of Westphalia in 1648 , …) to establish a freedom of religion, Catholic or Lutheran, in return for the right of princes to impose their religion on their subjects and the right of subjects to emigrate abroad “jus emigrandi” among co-religionists, the whole articulated around the principle “cujus regio , ejus religio”compromise between the affirmation of state unity and that of religious freedom.
  • In France, the “Charter of Nantes” recognized, in 1548,  the freedom of conscience and established a coexistence between the two religions, Catholic and Protestant under the authority of the same prince, an original but brief attempt since in 1625, Cardinal de Richelieu wrote “as long as the Huguenot party remains, the king will not be absolute.” The charter will be revoked in 1685, while however reserving in Article XII the freedom of conscience“provided they do not assemble or exercise …” and without consenting to the right of emigration – yet sealed by international treaties…- Religion must then remain a strictly private matter, “devotio privata”.

It will take more than three centuries for all the marches of religious freedom to pass, one by one, not without episodes of extreme violence. Here is an example, that of the French sequence :

  • 1787, the King recognizes the civil status of Protestants… one hundred years after the revocation of the above mentioned Charter
  • 1789, Declaration of Human and Citizen Rights, affirmation of the free determination of peoples and men who are born “free” and “equal in rights”. Freedom is now asserting itself as a “right” alongside property, security rights and resistance to oppression[4] : “No one should be worried about his opinions, even religious ones, as long as their demonstrations do not disturb public order…” (Article X) “… except to answer for the abuse of this freedom in cases determined by law” (Article XI)
  • 1791, the Constituent Assembly recognizes freedom of worship : “Congress will not make any law giving preference to a religion or prohibiting free exercise, restricting freedom of expression, freedom of the press or the right of citizens to assemble peacefully…”
  • 1981, Printing and bookstore are free : any periodical or periodical can be published, without prior authorization and without a deposit of a bond (only on pre-declaration)
  • 1802, With the Concordat  (concert agreement), there is no longer a State religion, even if the Catholic religion, under the authority of the pope, remains as a large majority. Church life is regulated but without the recognition of a central authority (synod) for Protestants.
  • 1905, State neutrality: “The Republic guarantees freedom of conscience. It guarantees the free exercise of worship under the following restrictions only “in the interest of public order” (Article 1). “The Republic does not recognize, wage or subsidize any cult.” Religions must no longer interfere or interfere in the functioning of the state, nor the state in religions. The state respects all beliefs equally.

*      *      *

From this long conquest that has been that of all European countries, emanating from sometimes incredible crises and violence, we will remember the extension of the ancient concept of freedom as the negative of servitude, to individual freedoms defined positively, which confirms the consultation of the dictionaries of synonyms in French, German and English that emphasize, all, an individualistic approach to freedom , the latter being that of an autonomous individual acting freely according to an ethic, often shared, of personal responsibility and relationship to the Other before gradually depending on the construction of a “state of law” and “public liberties”. (see dictionary note of misunderstandings)

It’s the freedom to live according to one’s own values, “I think, so I am.” It is the courage of the critic, to say what one thinks, but also that of setting one’s own limits rather than having them imposed, “I like, so I am responsible” (freedom ends where the other people’s). It is also the refusal of non-legitimate authorities and authoritarian regimes or decisions[5].

This concept of freedom, with individualistic variations around the “self”, presents itself “naturally” as “universal” Thus, all the terminology of kinship collected around the world by anthropologists is expressed in primary terms derived from an Ego belonging to a conjugal family and there is, nowhere, difficulty in translating or ambiguous “self”: “self” in English , “sich” in German, etc.

  • In Chinese: 自由 freedom cad « because of oneself » :
    自主  autonomous ;自己  oneself
    由于 en raison de… ou grâce à
  • Or in Japanese じこ  yourself 
  • etc. 

*       *       *

In conjunction with this individualistic appropriation of freedoms, other developments have emerged :

  • First of all, the vision of the Royal or Princely Authority as being of divine and, therefore, indisputable source, has been challenged throughout Middle Ages Europe by its abuses and its inability to resolve conflicts, especially religious ones, while readers of the Bible now stressed that “it is better to obey God rather than to its representative … ».
    This challenge naturally resulted in the strengthening of the other pre-existing powers and, consequently, the limitation of the prince’s powers.   Thus, the separation of civil and religious powers because “we must give back to Caesar what is Caesar ‘ … and to God what is God’s” will now be the rule, while the royal institution will lose most of its “sovereigns functions”, including defence, security, teaching and justice,  in favour of new “democratic” institutions.
  • Secondly, the emergence or consolidation of more and more individual freedoms – freedoms of thought, association, displacement, property, privacy and speech – has also resulted in the need for a new collective vision, that of building a strong public power, so as to guarantee the sustainability and arbitration of these freedoms but also with other equally fundamental societal needs  or rights (property, security, resistance to oppression, equality… freedom of the press, etc… ) and, most often, necessary for their carrying out…

But how, then, to organize collective life and build state powers without falling back into the wanderings of a contested autocratic power? The West following the philosophers of the Enlightenment – and some revolutions – chose “democracy”, the construction of a Rule of Law, made of individual votes of equal citizens and free elections, a separation of state and sovereign powers and the independence of a normative judiciary.

Individual freedom” then become “fundamental freedoms”, some considered  as “universal because some would be inscribed in the “nature” of man even at the expense of its cultural heritages and of his liberty to build its future,  others constrained by the same membership on the same planet, freedoms which will now be guaranteed by their inclusion in a broader and strictly legal concept, that of “civil liberties”, rights among  other “human rights” defended and refereed by independent judicial authorities.

So, the word freedom is now conjugated in the plural : it is no longer a question of what one can do or not do, but of claiming rights which only exist “if they are recognized by others and established in institutions of an economic, social or political nature”, alongside rights which are more and more numerous and often competing.

Evolution not without risk and contradiction: risk of a return to a new form of a legal and judiciary  autocracy, whether national or supranational ; contradiction insofar as it is now the rule of law that – under the initial aim of protecting and guaranteeing the freedoms of individuals against an autocratic power – sets, at the same time, the limits of all individual freedoms, limits that apply to all and everywhere in the same way , at the expense of being able to fix them locally by following social and relational values, respect, reciprocity, specific to fraternal communities or nations.

*      *     *

[1] Emile Benveniste Le vocabulaire des institutions indo- européennes, Les éditons de Minuit 1969

[2] Liber, an ancient italic rustic god, presided, with his paredra the goddess Libera, for the release of the male and female components of the new generation. The exact origin of its name is uncertain but could translate into abundance or fertility. Liber was later assimilated to the god Bacchus / Dionysus

[3] In Athens, only men with both “citizen” parents could be, which Aristotle could not avail himself of

[4] Article IV states: “Freedom consists in being able to do everything that does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits other than those which ensure the enjoyment of these same rights by the other members of society. These limits can only be determined by the Law…”.

[5] It is also, at times, the flip side of the coin, the claim of those, shamelessly, or as a matter of principle, refuse the constraints of living together.

This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified) French

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Nicolas Chapuis, Ambassador of the European Union to China

Mutual understanding is the foundation of international relations. If globalization leads us to use a common lexicon, we often tend to forget that meanings differ from one culture to the other. Lack of understanding or, sometimes, confusion in meaning, breaks communication.

When China speaks in a foreign language, it uses a lexicon that is more often than never not on par with its own history and culture. It uses words to which it may assign, consciously or unconsciously, different meanings. No dialogue can be effective if interlocutors disagree on the very meaning of what they say to each other.

More than 2000 years ago, Confucius noted the imperative “to assign proper meanings to concepts”, zheng ming 正名. That is precisely what this digital platform offers by attempting to bridge the gap of cultural differences, while respecting the essential value of cultural diversity without falling in the trap of cultural relativism. This initiative aims thus to confront key concepts between Europe and China by designing a methodical guide to handle and solve eventual misunderstandings.

Remarkably, the origin of this project stems back to the 1980’s when a number of dialogues contributed to create a trustworthy network of scholars in Europe and in China. With the renewed support of the European Union, the ‘EU-China Forum on Cultural Misunderstandings’ gathers a group of high level European and Chinese intellectuals who share the awareness that cultural misunderstandings impede mutual comprehension and positive interactions between the EU and China at all levels.

The digital platform ambitions to be a constant, accessible and tangible instrument for uploading contributions and conducting initial debates in preparation of the November 2021 Forum.

The contributions of all participating authors will be included in the EU-China Dictionary of Misunderstandings, published digitally and eventually also in a physical form. It intends to be a meaningful, scientific and literate instrument for the benefit of mutual understanding between Europe and China.

It is certainly my hope that this editorial project of a Europe-China Dictionary of Misunderstandings may constitute a reference tool for further research and exchanges.


Nicolas Chapuis
Ambassador of the European Union to the People’s Republic of China 
May 2021

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