Over the centuries, there have appeared two great conceptions of freedom. The first vision, which one can call “epic freedom,” is freedom as Hegel or Marx understood it, the freedom of messianists and of revolutionaries. The meaning of freedom, on this view, is the progressive emancipation of man: step by step, battle by battle, mankind is supposed to break with its alienations and become the creator and absolute master of its fate. Epic freedom is the assumption of a cosmic mastery, more and more aware of itself. Crises become mere historical stages on the way to the final achievement of human emancipation.
The other position, very different, regards crises as intrinsic to freedom. This more modest conception can be called “tragic freedom.” It is liberty understood in doubt and anxiety about the fate of man. Tragic freedom works in uncertainty, sailing toward no glorious destiny. Man is free, yes—free to learn from his mistakes. Or not. Socrates, who exemplifies this second view, ceaselessly puts freedom to the test; he questions it, explores it, experiments with it. His famous daimon, his interior voice or intimate conscience, is a negative spirit, one that offers only interdictions. Recall that the majority of the Socratic dialogues end in aporia, at an impasse; they do not lead anywhere. They must be perceived as exercises of free thought, not as stages on the way to a human epiphany.
So to write the history of the idea of freedom is to navigate between two shores, one tragic and critical, the other epic and euphoric. Each epoch cultivates its own relation to freedom. Each, moreover, imagines its own Greece, for it was ancient Athens that first enacted—in the public square, the agora—our relation to freedom, or rather our conflicting relations with freedom. Epic ages (the early Renaissance and the Enlightenment, for example) picture a Greece of original harmony. Times of chaos (such as sixteenth-century Europe, the twentieth century, and probably the dawn of the twenty-first) see Greece as the mother of all crises. This tragic vision—of freedom and of Athens—is surely the wiser of the two.