Ideas of Liberty in Early Modern Europe: From Machiavelli to Milton, by Hilary Gatti

This study of an era of violent abuses of power ignores half of humanity, finds Jacqueline Broad

August 6, 2015
Review: Ideas of Liberty in Early Modern Europe, by Hilary Gatti

Isaiah Berlin once observed that liberty is a “protean” word. In Homer’s Odyssey, Proteus is an ancient and powerful sea god who always tells the truth when compelled to do so. According to Homeric legend, in a desperate bid for enlightenment, Menelaus ambushes Proteus and holds him tightly in his arms. In response, Proteus tries every means of escape: he twists and writhes and turns, all the while taking the outward form of several terrifying predatory beasts. Undaunted, Menelaus hugs the god even tighter, clinging to him with steely resolve, until finally Proteus ceases his struggle and speaks the truth.

Well might Berlin have described liberty as protean, for it is a term that resists easy definition. But I’m pleased to say that Hilary Gatti’s book is not an attempt to hold down the meaning of liberty and get to the simple truth of the matter. Rather, her in-depth research reveals that, in early modern Europe, the call for liberty took many different forms: one moment it was expressed in terms of a republican freedom from arbitrary power, the next as a Protestant plea for liberty of conscience, and then later as freedom of thought in scientific enquiry. These manifold ideas do not fit neatly into Berlin’s categories of positive and negative liberty (roughly speaking, the freedom to achieve something or become someone, and freedom from external impediments and constraints). Rather, they provide “the foundational building blocks, of various shapes and sizes”, that paved the way towards those formative categories.

Gatti’s work does reveal one salient truth, however. This is the idea that, regardless of whether authors call for liberty of worship or liberty of the press, many call for the security that comes from having those liberties enshrined in law. Why? Because for them, legislation provides a crucial form of protection against arbitrary persecution by authorities. As Gatti so vividly shows, dark and unthinkable horrors were an everyday occurrence in the early modern era. The death of Giordano Bruno is a gruesome example: with his tongue clinched tightly in a brace so that he could not speak, he was cruelly burned to death, simply for holding unorthodox religious views. Against this tumultuous and violent background, we can see why thinkers called so urgently for robust legal reforms as a means of guaranteeing their freedoms.

It is puzzling, however, that when Gatti describes horrific abuses of power, she never mentions one all-pervasive instance in early modern society – the domination of women by men. This was not the persecution of a religious minority, or the abuse of a small underground political movement or a tiny subset of learned authors. It was the domination of one half of humankind. Yet women feature only in passing in Gatti’s book. They are the wives whom the Anabaptists propose to share among themselves; they are the daughters who will be defiled when Catholic rule is defeated; and they are the beloved objects who are torn to pieces by jealous lovers. There is no mention of the early feminists Moderata Fonte, Arcangela Tarabotti, Lucrezia Marinella and Marie le Jars de Gournay. They get no voice.

In an otherwise illuminating book, it is disappointing that the struggle for liberty is still being depicted, much like Homer’s myth, as a wrestling match between men.

Jacqueline Broad is senior research fellow in philosophy, Monash University, Australia.

Ideas of Liberty in Early Modern Europe: From Machiavelli to Milton
By Hilary Gatti
Princeton University Press, 232pp, £30.95
ISBN 9780691163833 and 9781400866304 (e-book)
Published 17 June 2015


Print headline: Laying down the law on freedom

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.