22 Philosophical Quotes on Freedom (With References)

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This page contains a collection of philosophical quotes on freedom, arranged in roughly chronological order. These quotes are all genuine and details about the author, book, chapter number, and translation are included where applicable. Quotes that begin with a section of bold text are my personal favourites. Without further ado, here are 22 philosophical quotes on freedom:

The excessive increase of anything often causes a reaction in the opposite direction; and this is the case not only in the seasons and in vegetable and animal life, but above all in forms of government. . . . The excess of liberty, whether in States or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery.

– Plato, The Republic, VIII, 563B, trans. Benjamin Jowett

Every man should be responsible to others, nor should any one be allowed to do just as he pleases; for where absolute freedom is allowed, there is nothing to restrain the evil which is inherent in every man.

– Aristotle, Politics, 1318b39, trans. B. Jowett

Is it worth the name of freedom to be at liberty to play the fool, and draw shame and misery upon a man’s self? If to break loose from the conduct of reason, and to want that restraint of examination and judgment which keeps us from choosing or doing the worse, be liberty, true liberty, madmen and fools are the only freemen: but yet, I think, nobody would choose to be mad for the sake of such liberty, but he that is mad already.

– John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Bk. II, II, XXI, 51

The liberty of man, in society, is to be under no other legislative power, but that established, by consent, in the commonwealth; nor under the dominion of any will, or restraint of any law, but what that legislative shall enact, according to the trust put in it.

– John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, XIV

All ran headlong to their chains, in hopes of securing their liberty; for they had just wit enough to perceive the advantages of political institutions, without experience enough to enable them to foresee the dangers. . . . Such was, or may well have been, the origin of society and law, which bound new fetters on the poor, and gave new powers to the rich; which irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, eternally fixed the law of property and inequality, converted clever usurpation into unalterable right, and, for the advantage of a few ambitious individuals, subjected all mankind to perpetual labour, slavery and wretchedness

– Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, I, trans. G. D. H. Cole

Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.

– Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, I, I, trans. G. D. H. Cole

To renounce liberty is to renounce being a man, to surrender the rights of humanity and even its duties. For him who renounces everything no indemnity is possible. Such a renunciation is incompatible with man’s nature; to remove all liberty from his will is to remove all morality from his acts.

– Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, I, 4, trans. G. D. H. Cole

We are all agreed as to our own liberty; we would have as much of it as we can get; but we are not agreed as to the liberty of others: for in proportion as we take, others must lose.

– Samuel Johnson as quoted in Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (Apr, 1779)

The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations, which may be soon turned into complaints.

– Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

Nothing is more disgusting than the crowing about liberty by slaves, as most men are, and the flippant mistaking for freedom of some paper preamble like a “Declaration of Independence,” or the statute right to vote, by those who have never dared to think or to act.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Fate

The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatable things, called by the same name—liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatable names—liberty and tyranny.

– Abraham Lincoln, Address at Sanitary Fair (Apr 18, 1864)

What the proletarian needs, he can obtain only from this bourgeoisie, which is protected in its monopoly by the power of the State. The proletarian is, therefore, in law and in fact, the slave of the bourgeoisie, which can decree his life or death. It offers him the means of living, but only for an “equivalent” for his work. It even lets him have the appearance of acting from a free choice, of making a contract with free, unconstrained consent, as a responsible agent who has attained his majority.

Fine freedom, where the proletarian has no other choice than that of either accepting the conditions which the bourgeoisie offers him, or of starving, of freezing to death, of sleeping naked among the beasts of the forests! A fine “equivalent” valued at pleasure by the bourgeoisie! And if one proletarian is such a fool as to starve rather than agree to the equitable propositions of the bourgeoisie, his “natural superiors,” another is easily found in his place; there are proletarians enough in the world, and not all so insane as to prefer dying to living.

– Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1944, III, trans. Florence Kelley Wischnewetzky

The proletariat seizes the public power, and by means of this transforms the socialized means of production, slipping from the hands of the bourgeoisie, into public property. . . . Man, at last the master of his own form of social organization, becomes at the same time the lord over Nature, his own master — free.

– Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, III, trans. E. Aveling

The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. . . . The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

– John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, I

As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so is it that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when any one thinks fit to try them. It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself.

– John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, III

As soon as any part of a person’s conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it, and the question whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it, becomes open to discussion. But there is no room for entertaining any such question when a person’s conduct affects the interests of no persons besides himself, or needs not affect them unless they like (all the persons concerned being of full age, and the ordinary amount of understanding). In all such cases there should be perfect freedom, legal and social, to do the action and stand the consequences.

– John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, V

Freedom means that the manly instincts which delight in war and victory dominate over other instincts, for example, over those of “pleasure.” The human being who has become free — and how much more the spirit who has become free — spits on the contemptible type of well-being dreamed of by shopkeepers, Christians, cows, females, Englishmen, and other democrats. The free man is a warrior.

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols: Skirmishes of an Untimely Man, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale

Liberty mean responsibility. That is why most men dread it.

– George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman, Maxims for Revolutionists

“Freedom” in its most abstract sense means the absence of external obstacles to the realization of desires. Taken in this abstract sense, freedom may be increased either by maximizing power or by minimizing wants. An insect which lives for a few days and then dies of cold may have perfect freedom according to the definition, since the cold may alter its desires, so that there is no moment when it wishes to achieve the impossible. Among human beings, also, this way of reaching freedom is possible. . . . It is obvious that a community who all wish to murder each other cannot be so free as a community with more peaceable desires. Modification of desire may, therefore, involve just as great a gain to freedom as increase of power.

– Bertrand Russell, Sceptical Essays, XIII

The first of these political senses of freedom or liberty (I shall use both words to mean the same), which (following much precedent) I shall call the ‘negative’ sense, is involved in the answer to the question ‘What is the area within which the subject–a person or group of persons–is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?’ The second, which I shall call the positive sense, is involved in the answer to the question ‘What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?’

– Isiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty

If choosing freely for oneself is the highest value, the free choice to wear red socks is as valuable as the free choice to murder one’s father or sacrifice oneself for one’s friend. Such a belief is ridiculous.

– Mary Warnock, Existentialist Ethics

Imagine a world, produced by utopian adjusters, which took account of the desirability of autonomy and variety. In one place is Sisyphus, contentedly, and of his own choice, rolling stones. Nearby is someone else, hopping about in complicated patterns. There are thousands of such people. They are spending their lives building towers out of marzipan, writing articles about meaning, knitting huge maps of the moon. They are all autonomous, contented and different. Call this world the Human Zoo. Those of us doubtful about the quality of life there have an objection which is not reducible to questions of autonomy and variety.

– Jonathan Glover, What Sort of People Should There Be?, pg. 163

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