Roots of Freedom: A Primer on Modern Liberty, by John W. Danford
Political theorist John Danford, a scholar of David Hume and Ludwig Wiggenstein, perceptively examines the roots of modern political freedom—and what threatens them—in his new book. Danford wrote the early drafts of much of this book during the late 1980s in the form of short articles for Radio Free Europe. But readers will find that this series has a use beyond fighting Communism. His primer surveys Greek philosophy, Christianity, feudalism, the Protestant Reformation, and an array of modern thinkers from Machiavelli through Tocqueville and Marx. Danford shows that the fundamental modern principles are individualism, the rule of law, property rights, and moral restraint; their major theorists are John Locke and Adam Smith. Danford emphasizes free societies' need to protect property and the qualities of character that the concern for acquisition creates. But his ultimate concern is liberal education. He concludes his book: "Perhaps, after all, the ancients can be said to have something to contribute to the principles of free societies. If there are to be free societies, there is no substitute for liberal education."
While approving enthusiastically Danford's purposes and this book's adoption as an elementary text, one might quarrel with his portrayal of the division between the ancients and the moderns. As he explains it, the division leads to a practical problem, namely, how to defend what he calls "liberal commercial societies." "The ills of equality or egalitarianism are probably inevitable in free societies," he writes. But don't these ills reflect the radical assault on the mixture of the pre-modern and modern roots of our freedom by those who have redefined freedom?
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This article appeared in the Fall 2001 issue of the Claremont Review of Books