Magi Mike's Blog

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Freedom and Social Order—Ancient and Modern

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For most of the dark ages, so called because of the absence of learning brought about by the victory of Christianity, people lived in misery largely because of their poverty, not because they had ideas beyond their station. Peasants knew their place in the social system, and even in the nineteenth century, the wife of the Bishop of Armagh was going to make sure the little scallywags at Sunday school knew it:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

All things bright and beautiful, Mrs C F Alexander

Most people were effectively slaves throughout the time of the Feudal system. They had a notional freedom, but in practice were tied to their lord and master and the bit of his land he allotted to the peasant to pay him for his otherwise corvée service to the manor. As Mrs Alexander wrote, God had “ordered their estate”, and few villeins entertained any idea of getting on in the world.

Some however, did, and especially after the millennium year (1000 AD) when the parousia did not happen and Christ failed to appear as the bishops had been promising for centuries. Thereafter, some people objected to their propaganda (Catholic lies—the original meaning of the word), many of them in the south of France, in Languedoc. They were Cathars and Vaudois, and preached spontaneously against Catholicism as being a Satanic plot. The Church organized a crusade against them, massacring and scattering them, then set up the Inquisition to pursue the scattered remains throughout Europe, calling them witches, and projecting on to them the accusation of being Satanic that the witches had originally pinned on the Catholic clergy. As the Church won, it is witches who are now remembered as Satanic.

The Cathars and Waldenses were the first Protestants and the first capitalists, for many had to travel around earning what living they could as craftsmen and tinkers. Their preaching against Catholicism inspired people like Wycliffe and Tyndall, and the Lollards. They also motivated the peasantry to think strange thoughts, thoughts that God had not ordered everyone’s place, and that human beings need not be tied to the land. In England in 1381, the peasants revolted. A Lollard preacher, John Ball, taught quite a different message from that which the serfs held habitually and unquestioningly until then:

When Adam delved, and Eve span, who was then a gentleman? From the beginning all men were created equal by nature, and servitude had been introduced by the unjust and evil oppression of men, against the will of God, who, if it had pleased Him to create serfs, surely in the beginning of the world would have appointed who should be a serf and who a lord.

These dissenting Christians were reading the bible for themselves, and Ball plainly meant that God had not made any such prescription in Genesis, so the presumed order of society had been arranged by the nobility and the clergy hand in hand for their own benefit, and contrary to God’s intention.

Primeval Human Groups

Adam and Eve in the bible had willingly chosen to disobey God, but the notion of God had sociologically come from the interpretation of their societies that early humans, just awakening into consciousness, found themselves living in. These small human groups were essentially classless. Leaders were treated with somewhat greater respect than ordinary members of the group, because they had to take decisions on the group’s behalf, but otherwise they barely differed from the others, living, sharing and caring equally with them.

A child was born into the group, and knew nothing else. When they were ill or hungry, it was the group that looked after them. The purpose of the leader was to keep them united when they were attacked by a predator or a rival group, so every member looked to others for defense and security too. And that was just how they saw it as they died. The group always provided for them and protected them from birth until death. It was, to them, as much part of Nature as the rising of the sun. It seemed eternal because it was in existence when they were born, it still was when they were dying, and so it had always been. The group was led by one member, the most competent of them to do it, and particularly good leaders were remembered, and became identified with the group first as a totem, then an ancestor or a father. In time the benefits of the tribe transferred to a mythical founding leader, who thereby became a god.

So the imagined benefits of the supernatural god or God were inherited from the benefits of the primitive tribe. God is a supernaturalized society, but the society he represents was the egalitarian society of early human beings, a society that made everyone feel secure and safe, and was ever present.

Freedom in Paradise

We can see now, that there was no way that this early simple society could have sustained a division into “haves” and “have nots”. Had it done so, the “have nots” would have upped and left—there could have been nothing in it for them, and the “haves” would have had to become “have nots” to survive. They would have had to do their own delving and spinning. This is the stage when the original hypothetical social contract that founded the original group could have been abandoned, had the social contract been violated.

Were the people in this early human group free? They were and they were not! They benefitted from the help offered by others in the group, and they in turn had to help the others. So they were not free to do as they liked. They had a social duty to perform in return for the social benefits they received. But all of them could rely on the others, for any rogue or antisocial member would have been disciplined by the rest, perhaps even being killed in extreme cases, as chimpanzees do, but also being driven out where they were likely to die unless a nearby group took them in. Members of the groups felt secure, and could participate in evicting a poor or old leader who was no longer effective, thereby participating in a rough and ready democracy—but they were obligated to the group by duty.

Here is the natural source of the ideas of positive and negative freedom. Negative freedom meant that none of the group members felt enslaved or confined. None could be made to do more than their fair share for the group, and could withdraw from the group if they felt some caucus in it was asking too much of them. But they were able to make their own contribution to the group, just the same as the others did, and also could help in replacing an ineffective leader. So, they had positive freedom. True freedom is the right balance of the two of them, and that is what the primitive human group had.


Overdoing negative freedom breaks down the cohesiveness of the group. People may be able to do a lot of things they could not do while they felt more obligated to the group, but they also feel that the help of others was waning, leading to their growing anxiety and insecurity.

For long periods in the dark and middle ages, though their lords could be oppressive, people could not imagine what freedom was. Equally, though poor, and liable to have hard times in bad seasons through cold, drought or flood, the normal working year was short, and people had a lot of free time waiting for crops to grow, and saints days for merriment. They also had the same strong feeling of community that the primitive group had. In short, the anxiety they felt was real, through poverty and providence, but was not generally social. Social anguish has grown steadily in the twentieth century along with the collapse of caring society into greed and exploitation.

People are feeling the absence of the kindness that close groups always had as a compensation for the random hardships of living—positive freedom. Instead they want more negative freedom—with its attendant failing cohesion of society.

Written by mikemagee

22 June, 2011 at 1:25 am

One Response

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  1. Very interesting… Good work Mike!


    14 July, 2011 at 11:13 am

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