Etymology is fascinating.
The Declaration of Independence uses the word liberty. Not freedom. The pledge of allegiance speaks about liberty and justice for all.
Today we think of freedom and liberty as states of being unconstrained by others. But their origin stories indicate roots in interdependence and belonging.
The two words are not the same but they have some interesting commonalities in their etymology.
Freedom: Beloved Friend
The etymology of ‘free’ goes back to the old-Indian word ‘*priya*’, which means dear, or beloved.
It’s the same origin as the word “friend.”
The German frei means, “to love.”
According to Frank van Dun at the University of Ghent, priya implies “a personal, even intimate relation of identity, kinship or friendship, or property — in short, a person’s ‘own sphere of life.’”
Priya gave us these Latin forms:
- Privus = exceptional, standing apart, own
- Privare = to set free
- Privatus = belonging to an individual person, not belonging to a public office or institution
As Professor van Dun explains:
Here the meaning is “closed, not accessible to others”, “not burdened with externally imposed obligations, not subject to external interferences” — in particular, “not public”, i.e., “not subject to regulation or interference by the state”. In his private sphere, a person is free.
This comports with the most common definition of free in modern English, meaning unburdened.
Liberty: Belonging to the People
Liberty is defined as the right and the power to believe, act and express oneself as one chooses, of being free from restriction, and having the freedom of choice. The condition of having the power to act and speak without restraints.
It comes from the Latin libertas which literally means “the status of descendant.”
According to Professor van Dun:
‘Libertas’ literally means “the status of a descendant” (from the Latin, liber, liberi, children, descendants). The descendants eventually accede to the social position of their parents and predecessors, with full rights and obligations of membership in their particular group, tribe or society. Thus, ‘libertas’ refers not to the human person as such, but to membership and status in an organized group. The members of the group enjoy its ‘libertas’, while others, servants (slaves) and visitors do not. In former times, even the wives of members were often denied the status of libertas.
The Roman goddess Libertas was the model for the Statue of Liberty and other symbols of liberty around the world.
According to Wikepedia, the name of the Roman Goddess Libertas is a derivation of the Latin Liber which stems from a Proto-Indo-European word which meant “belonging to the people” – hence, “free”.
This comports with van Dun’s explanation that libertas refers to membership and status in an organized group.
Liberty and Justice for All
The origins of freedom and liberty lend support to the concept that none of us is “free” unless we are all free.
Although freedom and liberty are not interchangeable, both are about belonging.
It’s only when we feel a sense of belonging to a tribe, to a community, that we feel free.
And without justice for all, none of us is truly free because the community is fractured.
liberty is gained
only through fidelity
to justice for all