“Ama-ar-gi,” a Sumerian word, has the distinction of being the oldest written instance of the concept of freedom or liberty, appearing on a clay tablet from about 2300 B.C. The word itself has something to say about the vexed question of the relationship between Mormonism and liberty or freedom. Most Mormons insist that there really is no vexed question here. They invoke the idea of free agency, and insist that by affirming some sort of under theorized notion of metaphysical freedom of the will and the importance of choice for moral development they have exhausted the issue.
Liberty, however, turns out to be a devilishly difficult concept. How do we understand the interaction between choice and pressure? As Robert Nozick famously observed, the man confronted with the threat of “your money or your life,” nevertheless has a choice to make. Once we leave the largely barren question of metaphysical free will, we are forced to think about freedom in the messy context of social realities that rarely match up perfectly with the idealized choice of a wholly unconstrained agent faced with nothing but preferences and a list of possible actions.
Our two words — liberty and freedom — have quite different origins. Not surprisingly, both find their beginnings in the language used anciently to discuss human slavery. While we tend to think that the opposite of “slavery” is “freedom,” linguistically this is a relatively late development. For millennia the most natural antonym for “slave” was “master.” Roman slavery developed along fairly complicated lines, however, and their language needed a word to denote the peculiar legal status of not being enslaved. Hence, the word “libertas” from which our word “liberty” is descended. “Libertas” ultimately had its origin in the word for “unbinding” or “untying.â€? It had a purely negative meaning of the absence of constraint.
â€œFreedomâ€? in contrast has a Germanic rather than a Latin root being related to modern German words like â€œfrei.â€? It is also descended from words used to discuss slavery. Interestingly, however, its origin lies in an ancient Indo-European word meaning something like â€œbeloved.â€? Thus, for example, the English word â€œfreedomâ€? and the English word â€œfriendâ€? trace themselves back to the same root. â€œAma-ar-gi” does not belong to an Indo-European language but has a similar root. As a legal matter, â€œama-ar-giâ€? referred to the free status of a family or tribe into which one leaving slavery was adopted, and literally meant something like “returning to mother.”
In his famous essay, â€œTwo Concepts of Liberty,â€? Isaiah Berlin made much of the distinction between negative freedom — the absence of constraint — and positive freedom — the power to accomplish oneâ€™s ends. Both concepts are essentially individualistic. The contrast between freedom and liberty, however, suggests a distinction more useful for Mormons. Rather than looking at freedom in terms of an absence of constraint, we can see it as becoming a beloved part of a community. Paul wrote of becoming fellow citizens with the saints and a member of the household of God. This is slavery imagery (which is to say that it is also freedom imagery), but it is not the merely negative freedom of â€œlibertas.â€? Rather, it is a reference to the slave and foreigner who is adopted into a free nation and a free household. Nearly two millennia later, Joseph Smith unwittingly played on the similar language surrounding slavery when he insisted that â€œthe grand and fundamental principle of Mormonism is friendship.â€? On this view, to be free is much more than the absence of constraint or metaphysical freedom of the will. It is more than agency or the testing quality of decision making. To be free is to be among friends and loved ones, something which at its best Mormonism offers in abundance.
[Edited to correct linguistic errors pointed out by Ronan Head, a cool guy who ought to be hired by someone to teach dead Near-Eastern languages.]