I stumbled upon this video earlier today. Here, starting at around 0:50, the Funky Academic claims that freedom used to be defined as having the ability to do your duty. Contrarily, again according to him, today it's defined as the ability to do whatever you want.

It's a tad unclears whether or not he's claiming that that's how the definition has evolved among liberals or in the whole of political philosophy. However, I am going to ask the more general question; I want to know how accurate his claim is, but it shouldn't be too broad to ask how the definition of freedom has evolved over the centuries.

  • I am a little confused about how the "duty" was defined, as it is usually imposed by others (government, family, social values) and something one "must" do. Why, and how someone is to restrict the other to perform "duty", by whom?
    – r13
    Jul 29, 2021 at 19:04
  • @r13 maybe "duty" can be defined as something your nature and conscious demands. For instance, your conscious tells you that you have to help poor people. And this is also a social norm or value in the society you live in. I don't believe you should look at it as something that is "imposed" (at least not in a negative sense). Jul 29, 2021 at 21:27
  • His definition of freedom should be rephrased from "having the ability to do one's duty" to "having the opportunity to act on one's ability to do one's duty". Jul 29, 2021 at 21:34
  • @AbdelAleem I don't disagree. But while some people say I "have" a duty to, the others might say I "carry" a duty for that I must to..., same coin two faces, it's all up to the individual to define.
    – r13
    Jul 29, 2021 at 21:48
  • Misquote/riff on “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” by JFK? Jul 30, 2021 at 2:51

1 Answer 1


Samuel Johnson, writing in 1755 defines it as

  1. Liberty; exemption from servitude; independence.
  2. Privileges; franchises; immunities or (eg the freedom of the city)
  3. The power to enjoy said privileges

And "Liberty" he defines as

  1. Freedom, as opposed to servitude
  2. Freedom, as opposed to necessity

"Neccesity" is the things we are compelled to do, so Freedom, or Liberty is either not being in servitude, or not being compelled to do things.

This matches with Locke's definition:

Liberty is the power in any agent to do, or forbear, any particular action, according to the determination, or thought of the mind, whereby either of them is preferred to the other.

In none of these definitions from over 300 years ago do we see "Freedom" as "Freedom to do one's duty". Locke seems to be completely clear on this. Liberty is the power to do whatever you choose to do, the power to follow your preference.

  • I have to protest against this answer. While, yes, freedom and liberty are used as synonyms today, were they really back then? A century later, John Stuart Mill did differentiate between liberty and freedom. So, why couldn't Locke or Johnson?
    – Avatrin
    Jul 30, 2021 at 6:42
  • 1
    I am using a 1755 dictionary to establish that Yes freedom and liberty were considered synonyms in 1755. Freedom is defined as "Liberty...." and Liberty is defined as "Freedom...."
    – James K
    Jul 30, 2021 at 6:45
  • Yeah, fair enough. I was more bugged about Locke's definition (but, well, yeah... that's more than a century before Mill).
    – Avatrin
    Jul 30, 2021 at 7:04

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