You may be thinking, reader, that I have extrapolated the power of books from some philosophical read and given them power over life and death. Certainly, freedom and liberty are a matter of life and death to many of us. Allow me to set your mind at ease by giving you the Latin of the noun, adjective, and noun I have just given you.
Liber, liber, libertas.
Indeed, the root in Latin is the very same. Well, I should not say that. Latin nouns can be expressed in twelve different spellings depending on their singularity, plurality, and case represented in a sentence. Our root comes from the Genitive, the second case singular, in which case the roots are ‘liber, libr, and libertat’; however, jump with me into this bandwagon of Nominatives cases, reader. I promise it will be a grand wild ride. If you are not familiar with Latin, either way, what I have just said is only confusing, might as well ignore it.
Consider this completely-made-up phrase:
Liber liber libertas est.
The free book is free.
El libro libre es libre.
It is interesting that the same thing happens in Spanish. Libre, like Liber, denotes a state in which something is free of attachment, such as payment. Thus, a book can be free in the sense that it does not cost us anything. Also, as in the Latin, book as ‘libro’ denotes a sense of liberty by the person who wrote. To write, one needs time. When time is not spent on anything else, it becomes free time; thus, when one uses free time to write something the result is a liberty, that is, a book. In English, we preserve this concept by saying ‘I took the liberty of…’. We Think of ‘taking the liberty’ as something we do when we are free. In reality, we take liberties because having the spare time, we choose to waste it doing something only we can do; whether it is writing a book, helping someone else, or promoting a cause not our own. In other words, free time is productive time spent on something we have the freedom to enjoy. Similarly, to read what was produced by someone else and their free time is a freedom only those with freedom from other responsibilities can enjoy.
Freedom is all that matters. Freedom is what grants possibility, opens up worlds, and gives time for leisure in Ancient Rome. However, ‘liber’ is something else entirely, to the Romans. ‘Liber’ is freedom in responsibility. I have written about responsibility at least in four of my posts in this blog, here, here, here, and here; yet, I am surprised at the fact I had not defined Liberty as of today. Let’s take a look at that before we continue – pick up a US quarter, if you have it, and take a look at its obverse side.
John Adams, first Vice President and second President of the United Sates once said “The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.” John Adams was more of a Classicist than myself. Here, he ties Liberty to duty. In other words, his duty was to enjoy his liberty in the pursuit of “the sciences of government” so that his children would have the liberty (duty) to learn to feed the country, and his children’s children the liberty to educate it. Duty, as law, must be respected, and our freedom spent within the studies of what is dutiful for us to pursue. John Adams was not thinking of freedom when he spoke of liberty, he was thinking of duty and responsibility within the law. The fascination of the Founding Fathers with Rome and Roman values should not be taken at my word, of course, simply look at that quarter again, this time at its reverse side.
“E pluribus unum” is what you will see in every coin. What is that mean? You may wonder. If American historians have done their job, any US citizen will know the Latin statement means ‘out from many, one.’ The statement is not only representative of the US melting pot, but also of the Roman Empire itself. Rome was quite renowned for bringing many cultures under its system of government through acculturation. Arguably, when Rome failed to assimilate one of the people they had conquered, the Empire crumbled. You may remember the northern Germans and Teutoburg forest in 9 AD. Of course, many other things brought about this collapse, but assimilation of foreign cultures was the main engine of an expansive empire, and it remains so today as well.
Thus, freedom in the Roman context, and the North American, is liberty, not freedom per se. Responsibility is part of the make up of Rome, indeed, it is ingrained into its culture ad nauseam. It is no wonder the Founding Fathers identified themselves with the Romans. You may see that Romans used the word ‘freedom’ to refer to a man, therefore they must have thought freedom was possible. Well, sure it was, but a free man, even when used to describe someone who had free time, meant that said man had said freedom because he had first and foremost fulfilled his duties. Liberty, thus, was what happened when all duties had been fulfilled – take a look at duty here. A man was held down my his duty as a slave was held down by his/her master. Only when the master decreed it, was one at liberty. The Romans saw themselves in this way.
Here we are, then; Books, Freedom, and Liberty. Responsibility, obedience to the laws, and duty, linked together for the purpose of granting men vision, hope, and potential. When you next hold a quarter, or virtually any other US coin for that matter, do not think only of the Founding Fathers, think also of the Romans; think of how books, freedom, and liberty are inextricably linked. Consider, reader, all the great men and women who have come before, the giants on whose shoulders we stand now. Fortunately, the metaphor does not only apply to men of history or science, it applies to all of us, together. It applies to our liberties. We all, wherever we are, come from a long line of imperfect human beings who sought to invest upon us the right to liberty, leisure, and duty.