Shakespeare enchants us in The Tempest with magical powers and aerial spirits. But Shakespeare himself predicts the future of political philosophy and its concern with natural liberty not by magic but by insight into energies already at work in the early 1600s since their release during the Protestant Reformation.


Recall that for twelve years Prospero and his daughter Miranda have been the only human beings living on the unnamed island. Prospero had been Duke of Milan, but was overthrown by his own brother, Antonio, with the help of the King of Naples, Alonso. Prospero is a scholar and a magician. He has induced into his service Ariel, a spirit of the air, and Caliban, a beast of the earth. At the beginning of the play, Prospero with Ariel’s assistance raises a storm, a tempest, which causes the wreck of a ship carrying the men who have wronged him: his brother Antonio and Alonso, King of Naples, together with the King’s son, Ferdinand, his brother, Sebastian, and his adviser, Gonzalo (a loyal friend to Prospero).

Caliban, Miranda and Prospero

The island represents what philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries call “the state of nature”—the hypothetical condition of human beings removed from the allegedly artificial constraints of government and religious authority—that is, more generally, from both law and custom. The portraits of the state of nature that various philosophers provide are hypothetical first of all in the obvious sense that they are not constructed from empirical evidence discovered in the present such as skeletons or fragments of pottery. They are constructed from a critique of the contemporary social and political environment. Rousseau for example felt that couples should join together based on their personal affinities. Customs that dictate that a young lady must marry a man equal or superior to herself in socio-economic rank he found to be unjust and oppressive. So in his state of nature, everyone is more or less equal, and each individual is free to make decisions of this sort according to his or her own best lights.

Ideal state of nature

Prospero’s friend Gonzalo portrays the island in a way that matches Rousseau’s state of nature quite closely (Act 2, Scene 1, 144-151):

[If I were king of this island], no kind of traffic           {traffic = trade}

Would I admit: no name of magistrate;

And use of service, none; contract, succession,       {no masters or servants}

Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;      {property boundaries, tilling, cultivating the land}

No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;

No occupation, all men idle, all;

And women too, but innocent and pure;

No sovereignty—


Gonzalo’s fantasy of a peaceful primitive existence is broken off by cynical remarks:

Sebastian: Yet he would be king on’t.

Antonio: The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning.

They notice that Gonzalo has imagined governing a land of natural liberty without a governor. The question then arises: How could such a commonwealth be created and maintained? If we tried to create such an existence now, we should have to pry people away from all the conveniences they are accustomed to. And if we came across such a place, we would have to constrain them from making any further developments. For example, we would have to make it illegal for anyone to put up a fence and claim the enclosed property as his own. We, the governors, should have to use force in order to keep the inhabitants simple and peaceful. The only other way would be to give the inhabitants a nature that is not recognizably human—where no one is inclined to make innovations or strive for supremacy over others. That’s what Rousseau does and calls this our true nature, still lying hidden there underneath heaps of corrupting rubbish produced by our “civilization.”

If we as the magical governors of Shakespeare’s island should decide to allow private property and economic activity, we shall obtain that picture of society which is common to all forms of liberal democracy—including both the Republican and the Democratic party in the United States. The key feature is what makes this picture “liberal”: it is the notion that society goes on quite well according to its own intrinsic laws, much as the society of bees goes on without requiring external regulation. Thus if and when government and politics come to this island, they will be perceived as intruders whose power should be strictly limited. The society that is naturally free to follow its own intrinsic laws suffers the intrusion of government as our primitive islanders would suffer the domination of an invading foreign power. The notion of natural liberty or freedom prior to the establishment of government is what renders liberal democracy “liberal.”

In contrast to the peaceful, free and independent society which Gonzalo envisions, we have the portrait Shakespeare himself paints of what really happens on the island. While King Alonso and Gonzalo are napping, Antonio encourages Sebastian to follow his example: just as Antonio overthrew Prospero twelve years ago and seized control of Milan, he proposes that he and Sebastian murder the pair of sleepers so that Sebastian may seize control of Naples. Both are cases of fratricide—brothers killing brothers. Thus we witness the demise of one member of the triumvirate: the island enjoyed natural liberty, still has some form of equality…but no more fraternity.

In a separate development, the drunken butler Stephano and the jester Trinculo conspire with Caliban to overthrow Prospero. Stephano as master of the wine cellar and other inebriating spirits would rule as king and seize Miranda as his wife (or, more accurately, his sex slave). In this respect, Shakespeare’s vision is a wonderful premonition of the French Revolution. It is not difficult to see that without Prospero’s power to overawe them, the inhabitants of the island should be forced to divide their time between preparing forwar and conducting it.

In such a state, as Hobbes famously said, “the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” On this view, government is not something that interferes with natural human happiness. On the contrary, none of the things we hold dear would be possible without government. It is sometimes said that Hobbes politics is liberal because according to him the proper function of government is entirely negative—to prevent men from destroying each other. From this it apparently follows that, so long as you do nothing to limit the freedom of others, you should be free to follow your own inclinations. In other words, you should be free to do whatever you please, so long as you do no harm to others or their property.

This is indeed a liberal principle, and it was proposed as such by John Stuart Mill. However, to ensure that this principle remains liberal, an important clarification must be added: the condition must be understood as forbidding us to do any bodily harm to others. But according to Hobbes the sovereign must have power to determine what constitutes “harm.” This is because, properly understood, by publishing certain opinions, or spreading certain kinds of religious doctrine, a person may well do harm to the peace and security of the commonwealth. So Hobbes politics is not liberal.

In the pre-modern world, for politics to be liberal there had to be widespread consensus within the higher levels of society regarding what freedom, once obtained, ought to be used for. Where this consensus is lacking, people are prone to use the freedom they have obtained from one master simply in order to enslave themselves to another.

This is what Caliban does. Once he imagines he has obtained freedom from Prospero’s dominion, he pledges himself to Stephano because Stephano provides him with alcohol: “I’ll swear upon that bottle to be thy true subject, for the liquor is not earthly” (II, 2, 120). Then in a drunken rapture he sings his own little Marseillaise (Act 2, Scene 2, 176-182):

No more dams I’ll make for fish,                                        {He won’t catch fish}

Nor fetch in firing at requiring,                                            {He won’t gather in firewood when asked}

Nor scrape trencher, nor was dish!                     {trencher = wooden plate}

Ban, ban, Ca-caliban

Has a new master; get a new man!                   {Thumbing his nose at Prospero}

Freedom, high-day, high-day freedom!                               {High-day = holiday}                 

Shakespeare saw the danger that newly enfranchised people might through their own lack of wisdom fall into a new form of slavery. This danger was also perceived clearly by great political thinkers such as Spinoza, Rousseau, and Burke. This is how Rousseau puts it:

Once Peoples are accustomed to Masters, they can no longer do without them. If they attempt to shake off the yoke, they move all the farther away from freedom because, as they mistake unbridled license for freedom, which is its very opposite, their revolutions almost always deliver them up to seducers who only increase their chains (Epistle Dedicatory to the Second Discourse).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

And the wise Edmund Burke refuses to praise freedom in the abstract: he insists he must know what kind of person has been freed and how they are going to use their freedom before he can praise it. He asks rhetorically:

Is it because liberty in the abstract may be classed amongst the blessings of mankind, that I am seriously to felicitate a madman, who has escaped from the protecting restraint of his cell, on his restoration to the enjoyment of light and liberty? Am I to congratulate and highwayman and murderer, who has broke prison, upon the recovery of his natural rights? (Reflections on the Revolution in France)

In settling on its Constitution, the United States brought into being a new, modern kind of liberal democracy. Here, there is no consensus regarding what freedom ought to be used for. So there is no generally shared source of wisdom to guide unbridled license towards genuine liberty. Instead, precisely because there is no consensus, we have the Bill of Rights, which protects the freedom of the individual to choose for him or herself.

As far as I can tell, this is supposed to work through the power of free speech and reasonable discussion. The fabulous idea is that through discussion reasonable people will arrive at the truth and agree upon it. For example, we give some people the license to espouse and advocate white supremacy. “Fine,” well-educated liberal people think; “this is good, because now through thoughtful public discussion we can arrive at general agreement about the evils of racism.”

Similarly, as understanding grows in the scientific community regarding the causes and effects of global climate change, thoughtful discussion should quickly yield plans for action to reverse destructive trends in the use of fossil fuels, the rise in greenhouse gasses, deforestation, over-fishing, suburban sprawl and the use of personal automobiles.

That’s how it’s supposed to work.

Only it doesn’t.

Uncivil society