Free Speech and Thomas Hobbes

Is there such a thing as freedom of speech? I don’t mean as a right or a law, but as a logically valid concept. Does it make sense to speak of a freedom of speech? According to the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, it does and it does not. In his book, Leviathan, he presents a deceptively simple definition of freedom: a freeman, he argues, is someone who is not hindered by external obstacles, someone able to do ‘what he has a will to’. He adds that, ‘when the words free and liberty are applied to anything but bodies, they are abused; for that which is not subject to motion is not to subject to impediment’.

This view is referred to as ‘pure negative freedom’, and it excludes internal considerations that might limit action, such as fear or lack of willpower. According to this view, only someone who is physically gagged can be said to have no freedom of speech. However, as with any narrow definition, inconsistencies accrue. Hobbes contradicts himself elsewhere claiming, ‘when we speak freely, it is not the liberty of voice, or pronunciation, but of the man, whom no law hath obliged to speak other-wise’, implying that the law (or fear of the law) can indeed limit man’s liberty.

I bring this up not to discredit Hobbes. I bring it up to demonstrate how difficult it is to speak of freedom. True to form, it thwarts attempts to circumscribe it. Even a thinker like Hobbes cannot get a hold of it. He does, however, make a compelling case that what most people assume to be an issue of freedom is really an issue of power. (His critics argue that this sidesteps the issue of freedom rather than addresses it, but alas). For Hobbes, freedom is the absence of external obstacles. Anything else that might limit us is a reflection not of our lack of liberty but of our powerlessness.

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