Freedom in Philosophy: Quotes, Concepts, Authors

Liberty Leading the People
Liberty Leading the People, Eugene Delacroix

Freedom is a key concept in philosophy. It is defined, negatively, as the absence of constraint; positively like the state of the one who does what he wants.

Freedom is surprisingly a fairly modern concept, since the Greeks spoke little of it, considering that man should rather reflect the cosmos rather than obey his own aspirations. The Moderns, from Kierkegaard, then Heidegger and Sartre, who have made freedom a key piece of metaphysics, as evidenced by the famous quotes on freedom.


The main question is: what is exactly the freedom and to prove if we are or not, trying to justify the “strong and internal feeling” (Descartes) that we have of being free and which is found in every man.

To define freedom, it is sufficient to give an adequate description:

  • At the biological level, freedom is identified with a healthy body. The patient, on the contrary, feels prisoner of his own body
  • At a higher level, freedom is identified with the spontaneity of tendencies. Man is free when he can fulfill his desires (Epicurus). But some trends are harmful and we are naturally fighting against them. Spontaneity, therefore, can not consist in allowing oneself to be in love with one’s passions.
  • At the level of consciousness, freedom is defined by the possibility of choosing. For there to be choice, one needs several motives, several possibilities of action. The choice may be impossible when all the reasons are worth (buridan donkey). In this case, the action is freedom of indifference.

In the fullest sense, freedom is a voluntary realization, justified by the greatest number of motives. Because our action is then not only the expression of a personal choice, but of a choice capable of justifying itself rationally in the eyes of all. After Plato and Spinoza, Kant has given full scope to the rationalism of freedom: action is free when consciousness is determined “against” sensible desires, according to a rational principle.

Freedom is not really what we do, but how we do it. Freedom is an attitude, that of the man who recognizes himself in his life, who approves the history of the world and events. This is why freedom often consists in “changing one’s desires rather than the order of the world” (Descartes). It is to such a conception (that of the Stoics) that the moderns (Sartre, Kierkegaard) have returned; man becomes free when he substitutes an active attitude for a situation undergone, when he takes sides with the events of his time: in short, freedom is proved by realizing oneself, when man realizes his destiny by working instead of suffering it.

Lesson on freedom

“When we are self-sufficient, we come to possess the inestimable good of freedom” (Epicurus)

Faced with freedom, the idea of ​​destiny, of determinism, of fatality (fatum) is opposed as synonymous with an inexorable sequence of causes and effects that can not be extracted. The illustration of this fatum: Oedipus who does not escape the oracle of Delphi: he actually killed his father and married his mother.

Originally abandoned by its biological parents to remove the ominous omen, Oedipus is raised by adoptive parents. Adult, he leaves, quarrels with a man and kills him (he does not know that he has just killed his biological father). Then Oedipus will give the right answer to the sphinx, will be received triumphantly in the city he has just liberated from the domination of the sphinx: he then becomes king by marrying the queen (unaware that the queen is his biological mother): from their union will be born Antigone … Once he learns the truth, he blows his eyes and wanders begging.

Freedom: a wrenching away from fatality, a tearing away from the law of nature, a tearing away from determinism …

Freedom: the power to choose

Epictetus: “You are master of my carcass; take it, you have no power over me ”

Descartes: “The freedom of our will knows itself without proof, by the only experience we have”

Paul Valéry: “Freedom is one of those hateful words that are worth more than meaning”

Rousseau: “Freedom is less about doing one’s will than about being subjected to that of others; it still consists in not submitting the will of others to ours “.

The notion of freedom can be understood as synonymous with a total absence of constraints, obstacles to the desires of each and their realization. Freedom would then be synonymous with “license”. Now, to say yes to all that one may desire also the manifestation of a lack of freedom, of alienation, to be a slave of one’s passions.

Freedom presupposes constraints, limits, prohibitions because freedom is also that of others. But freedom presupposes limits, what are they?

It involves a difficult game between the singular and the individual. Does not freedom for all presuppose a limit for everyone’s freedom?

Is freedom an illusion?

Determinism: Is freedom only an illusion?

The free will is only an illusion.
Text of Spinoza, P.401: “ethics

“Appetites”: tension towards something. Men think themselves free because they do not know the causes that determine them. They think they are free when their inclination for something remains slight. This lightness suggests that we can choose freely to follow or not to follow our impulses by counteracting them, if necessary, by another impulse. However, to observe our choices, it is clear that we sometimes do the test of remorse, regret … We understand then that sometimes, knowing the best, we make the choice of the worst. So, freedom is an illusion because if the subject is conscious about his actions he remains ignorant as to the reasons that push him to act as well: I know only the effect of the appetite but I do not know the origin of this appetite. These are body affections.

Man possesses self-consciousness: he is conscious of wanting and thinks that he desires freely. He thinks that the will is free and has power over the body. But this belief is a mistake.

At Spinoza, freedom does not go without saying, it is not impossible to acquire. To access freedom, man must determine himself to act and think. To do this, he must apply to his reason, decide what is good and useful. When his reason determines his action, then submission to the passions is reduced, diminished.

If freedom is not self-evident, the fact remains that determinism is not a biological fatality from which we can not escape. If it is not original, it is that freedom is something to acquire, a state to be realized.

Freedom: something that must be conquered by the spirit

Kant: the critique of pure reason (full summary)

All that is produced in the world has two origins

Nature as origin
Freedom as origin
Nature: the laws of nature: determinism: the causal relation: relation of cause and effect: the same causes produce the same effects. The animal is determined by its nature, it can not act otherwise than as its nature requires it.
Freedom: to create something by oneself and for oneself: to be at the origin and the consequence of what is produced: therefore not to be subjected to anything but oneself.
In the eighteenth century, atheism appears and develops, but if the idea of ​​a creator God disappears, the man remains read from a concept (as can be the paper cutter). It is defined by its essence.
Freedom: an idea produced by reason but to which no object exists in the experience. Freedom: it is practical, it is an action in the world. It can not be proved, it can only be proved. It implies the notions of moral responsibility, of ethics so that life in community is possible.
With Sartre’s thought and existentialism, we remove the idea of ​​God and that of the concept to define man. Therefore, there is 1) existence, 2) essence: man is not originally determined, there is no inevitability. He exists and exists means that he is the creator of his existence: man is and becomes what he does with him, that is to say, he becomes the acts he performs and that he he has chosen freely since he is not determined by any kind. He is absolutely free. But this freedom implies the following phenomenon: since he is free, his choices are too, so he is responsible for what he is facing himself and facing others.

Existentialism means that man is the creator of his own existence. But this freedom has a price: the responsibility: if the man is free, he is responsible for his actions, his choices. This therefore imposes the question of ethics, of duty, of the limit not to be crossed. So freedom and ethics go together: to be free is to be absolutely responsible for what we are from what we do.

Individual freedom and collective freedom. Freedom: a practical postulate that makes it possible to set up the moral idea. Freedom: the ability to self-determine.

Text of Kant P.405: “the critique of the practical reason” (summary)

“Autonomy”: that which depends only on oneself, by oneself. Which is subject to nothing but himself. The opposite of autonomy: heteronomy. Pure Reason, the will that determines the moral law is certainly a maxim that imposes itself on the subject but transcends the simple individuality of the self because valid for all subjects (so the law is universal).
“Heteronomy”: that which is imposed by an external will, an external constraint. The desire is changeable, it belongs to the contingent, it is of the order of volition and not of the will. The free will: the one by which reason determines itself. And the reason is the intellectual faculty which produces the categorical imperative which itself leads to duty and morality. To be free is to act in relation to a law which one has given oneself from the use of reason, imperatively and not according to the laws of nature and its small sensibility. Freedom: the autonomy of the will and this is the moral law.
If this definition of freedom as something to be conquered proceeds from an ability to be determined by the moral law, this freedom implies ethical and legal limits. Is not freedom political, civil? Civil liberty implies the loss of natural liberty by the introduction of laws, prohibitions that limit the expression of “selfish”, “egotistical” individuality in favour of a collective, civil freedom.

Political freedom: it implies the notion of “laws”, “duty”, “constraints” for everyone so that everyone can live with everyone.
Before being a metaphysical question, freedom is above all a political question: before being individual, freedom is collective. How can we be free together?

The opposition between natural freedom and civil liberty: the social contract as what allows the passage from one to the other.

Rousseau’s text: P.408: “From the social contract”

“Freedom consists not so much in doing one’s will as in not being subjected to that of others; it still consists in not submitting the will of others to ours “.

Rousseau explains the transition from natural freedom to civil liberty.

Natural freedom: that which consists in doing all that one desires (without laws, without constraints …) it is without limit: the man answers only to his instincts. We then speak of a state of nature. The state of nature is a working hypothesis for thinking man below and prior to all life in society. In this state of nature, only force is the limit, only power is authoritative. Desire, instinct, appetites guide and push man to act according to his instinct. Men are by nature slaves of their passions. Special interests make them in an incessant struggle. The only law that reigns: the law of the strongest. All is violence and chaos.
Civil liberty: an ordered freedom, legislated by laws that make natural freedom that is only violence replaced by a freedom in which peace is possible between all because limited by laws. It is justice, law, and legality that define what can be done and prohibited in civil society. Man is no longer in instinct but in reason: the general interest outweighs the particular interest.
The passage from 1) to 2): a loss because men can not do all they want but also a gain because they developed their intellectual faculties and mainly the reason and the law on the moral plane and on the legal plan. This passage between natural and civil liberty is done by a contract, that is to say the acceptance by all men to get rid of their unlimited and violent natural freedom for the benefit of limited civil liberty. but pacified.
Only citizenship is not self-evident. In ancient Greece, women, non-Greeks, children and slaves were excluded from citizenship. By definition, the slave is one who is at the service of a master. His freedom is denied, he is only an instrument. One can therefore wonder if, in spite of everything, the fact of not being able to enjoy the civil liberty deprives of any form of freedom. Is there not a metaphysical freedom, an intellectual freedom that would allow the subject to be beyond irons, beyond the physical chaining, thus a freedom that would proceed from thought.

Aristotle: “Politics”

The slave: “the slave himself is a kind of animated property and any man in the service of others is therefore an instrument that acts as an instrument”.

By definition, the slave is one whose will is alienated at the will of another. It’s one thing, it’s not considered a subject, like one capable of self-determination. It is only an instrument whose will does not have to manifest itself.

However, Aristotle also affirms the following: If nature has produced slaves because their cops are robust, it has produced men who are physically weaker but intellectually capable of realizing their spirit as free men. that: “Yet the opposite frequently happens too; slaves have bodies of free men, and men free from the souls of slaves “.

Could not freedom be metaphysical?
To answer this, it is enough to think of Epictetus: former slave manhandled by his master. According to Epictetus, freedom is that of thought. And in front of her the tyrant is without power. But can metaphysical freedom do without expression, or atrophy if it can not be said? Can a freedom persist if it remains in silence?

Arendt: “the crisis in culture”

Arendt explains that metaphysical freedom is not first but second. Above all, freedom is political, as in ancient Greece, freedom was political, it was defined by citizenship. Without political freedom, no freedom can be manifested, it can not be worldly, that is to say, to assert oneself in the world, to become objective, to become objectified.
The objectification of freedom therefore appears necessary because what is a freedom that has no place to tell itself, no place to be realized? Does not the freedom to develop have to confront others? In contact with others, ideas clash, develop …

A freedom forced to remain silent, a freedom that can not act does it end up dying? Freedom in acting effectively implies the very meaning of freedom: the responsibility of e that one faces the freedom of others, the freedom that is the other.


Whether freedom is physical or metaphysical, it appears to be more of the ideal than of the definite idea. It remains an indeterminate concept but it is necessary to presuppose to maintain the idea of ​​responsibility. Without the concept of freedom: more to answer for oneself and determinism and fate can become excuses for what one is Rolland:

“Fatality is the excuse of souls without will”.

Strange thing that freedom as if its indeterminacy even made it the precious character, more than a word, freedom has become a value in itself: Paul Valéry: “freedom, it is one of those hateful words that have more value only meaning.

“We are doomed to be free”

Freedom is not a choice, it is a state of fact, a necessity: we can not not be free if any idea of ​​responsibility disappears …

Additional quotes on freedom

– I told you that the freedom of man consists in his power to act, not in the chimerical power of wanting to want (Voltaire)

– Freedom consists in determining oneself (Leibniz)

– Only the rational being, considered as such, is absolutely autonomous, the absolute foundation of oneself (Fichte)

Men are mistaken in their belief that they believe themselves free, and this opinion consists solely in their being conscious of their actions and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined; what constitutes their idea of freedom is that they know no cause of their actions (Spinoza)

– Freedom coincides with the nothingness that is in the heart of man (Sartre in Being and Nothingness)