The Liberty of the Ancients and the Liberty of the Moderns

The people of ancient Greece had a very different idea of liberty than the people of the modern world. When we in the modern world think of liberty, we usually think of liberties that pertain to individuals. These individual liberties usually take the form of rights. Some of these rights protect an individual’s privacy, personal property, etc. from other individuals or from the government. Other rights allow people to do what they want, such as express their opinion, without being bothered by the government.

Ancient Greece was made up of  several sovereign city-states. Athens would be a good example. Athens was a democracy, and every man who was of age in Athens could meet as members of the assembly to vote on matters and pass new laws. Athens did not have an enormous population, which made it possible for all of its citizens to gather.

Liberty for the people of Athens was not as focused on the rights of individuals. Liberty meant mostly the collective rights of the citizens of Athens. These collective rights involved the political participation of the citizens of Athens, such as the right of the assembly to make decisions, or the right of the assembly to prosecute the magistrates. Political participation of the people was very important because the small size of Athens gave every citizen an important say on the matters concerning Athens.

The modern idea of liberty is very different from the ancient idea of liberty. This is partly due to the fact that commerce is much more developed now than in the ancient world. Commerce naturally incites animosity towards government intervention in private affairs. Athens had more commerce than the other city-states of Greece, because it was not able to produce enough food to sustain its population, so it relied heavily on foreign trade. This made Athens slightly more oriented towards individual rights than the other Greek city-states, but not much.

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