Freedom: The Philosophy of Liberation

Course No. 449
Professor Dennis Dalton, Ph.D.
Barnard College, Columbia University
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Course Overview

Professor Dennis Dalton explores the meaning of freedom, perhaps the most powerful of the ideas that have inspired mankind throughout the ages. Drawing on his work as a scholar of Gandhi and of Indian political thought, he examines the progress of both personal and political freedom. And though the idea of freedom is, for many people, embodied by the United States, the concept is far older than this country. It is by no means an exclusively American product.

Indeed, the concept of liberation has long been the subject of learned thought,stretching as far back as the time of Plato and as far away as ancient India.

Professor Dalton's lectures are a guided tour along the byways of the philosophy of liberation, beginning with its ancient roots and ending in 20th-century America.

Truths Linked By the Same Path

Throughout these lectures, Professor Dalton recounts the progress toward personal liberation and spiritual freedom found in the lives of those who were often consumed by fierce and difficult struggles for political freedom.

He argues that the results achieved along the way are not separate mysteries but truths linked by the same path.

Lecture 1 is devoted to the idea of freedom in the ancient world.

Professor Dalton points out that freedom is an idea cherished and defended by Americans as integral to our culture and as a principle of immense value to our national identity.

But you also learn that the philosophy of freedom was never intrinsically American and has its roots in diverse ancient cultures.

This lecture explores and compares three of those roots:

  • the ancient Hindu philosophy of dual freedom as described in the Bhagavad Gita
  • the Greek philosopher Plato's study of freedom in the republic of Athens
  • the major contributions Christian philosophy has made to the ideal of freedom.

Lecture 2's discussion of freedom's advent in the modern world begins with the foundations established by John Locke in 17th-century England and by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 18th-century France.

You learn that though each created an intricate system of thought, neither was removed from the political turmoil and radical change that swirled around them.

Professor Dalton compares Locke's and Rousseau's philosophies of freedom and relates both to the chain of thought already established.

By lecture's end, you see how the reality of American government today has been deeply influenced by the ideas each put forward:

  • Locke's idea of the government's legitimacy through social contract
  • Rousseau's blending of liberty and equality.
A Revolution in Thoughts About Freedom

Lecture 3 explores the work of G.W.F. Hegel, whose ideas came at a time when political thought in 19th-century Europe was sharply divided.

You learn how Hegel developed a philosophy that revolutionized thinking about man's freedom.

Hegel was the first philosopher to surmise that the will of God alone was determining the course of history, and that aiding a state's quest for power and greatness was the only way for an individual to achieve a higher freedom.

This philosophy had an enormous influence on nationalism, especially German nationalism, at a crucial period in that nation's history.

Lecture 4 turns to the work of John Stuart Mill, the 19th-century English philosopher who defined the meaning of freedom with extraordinary clarity and precision.

Mill's text On Liberty, published in 1806, may be one of the most influential texts in defining freedom as understood by most Americans.

Mill was a pioneer in the struggle to defend the rights of the individual and of women.

His sweeping defense of free expression and his distrust of the "tyranny of the majority" have helped to define our own political culture. They are reflected in numerous Supreme Court decisions.

An Articulation of Anarchy

Lecture 5 is devoted to the work and thoughts of Emma Goldman, the most articulate anarchist of the 20th century.

Professor Dalton introduces you to this extraordinary theorist who refined the principles of anarchism and used them to address the issue of liberation of women as well as men.

You learn how her brutal childhood instilled in her not only a hatred of authority and love of equality but the utmost belief in the power of early upbringing to bring out the best in human nature.

Although not regarded today as an American hero in most circles, Goldman was a passionate advocate for the freedom of humanity from oppressive authority and a prophet of the downfall of Soviet communism.

Lecture 6 gives Professor Dalton an opportunity to discuss the subject of one of his own books in the person of Mahatma Gandhi, the original thinker, activist, and political leader who led the Indian subcontinent out of British domination.

Gandhi's methods of nonviolent resistance combined with a philosophy of fearlessness have made him one of the most revered men of our century.

A Commitment to Ending the Cycle of Violence

You learn how Gandhi's philosophy emerged out of the violence of Indian uprising and effected a miraculous transformation of that nation into one of strength and resolve.

Gandhi taught that the world has become addicted to violence as a way of solving problems and that it is time to break the cycle.

Professor Dalton argues that Gandhi, perhaps more than any other leader of our time, showed the possibilities of peace as an effective force.

Lecture 7 offers an examination of the life of Malcolm X, one of the most influential fighters in the struggle for civil rights in America.

Though he is often associated with the violent separatist doctrines he preached as a young minister of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm underwent a conversion to inclusivism only a year before his assassination.

Dalton traces Malcolm X's life journey, finding many comparisons to that of Gandhi despite their very different circumstances.

Spiritual Freedom as a Step Towards Political Freedom

He concludes that they were both leaders who pursued freedom in more than just political terms. For Malcolm X, freedom was a quest to liberate oneself spiritually as a step to achieving that same freedom politically.

In Lecture 8, Professor Dalton completes the course with a look at the work of Martin Luther King, Jr.

You learn how King, in his struggle for civil rights in the United States, synthesized the teachings of Christ and Mahatma Gandhi to create a method of nonviolent resistance.

It was a synthesis that carried Americans toward justice during the turbulent years of the 1950s and 1960s, and Professor Dalton uses King's life and legacy to review how far the philosophy of freedom has come.

Once the province only of academics, he concludes, it now inspires activists and political leaders in nonviolent struggle.

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8 lectures
 |  Average 47 minutes each
  • 1
    Freedom in the Ancient World
    The idea of freedom as expounded by ancient Indian philosophy (the concept of swaraj); Greek political theory in the writings of Thucydides and Plato's Republic; and early Christianity. x
  • 2
    The Advent of Freedom in the Modern World
    The distinctively modern meanings of freedom in the political theories of 17th-century philosopher John Locke and 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. x
  • 3
    Hegel’s Philosophy of Freedom, God and the State
    The idea of freedom expounded by the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel and the 19th century and the theoretical relationship of this idea to his concepts of God and the State. x
  • 4
    John Stuart Mill’s Philosophy of Freedom
    An analysis of Mill's classic text, On Liberty, showing its contrasts with Hegel, its similarities with Locke, and its defense of freedom of expression against the "tyranny of the majority." x
  • 5
    Emma Goldman and the Anarchist Idea of Freedom
    Here Professor Dennis Dalton contrasts Goldman's anarchism with the liberalism of Mill and the nationalism of Hegel. x
  • 6
    Mahatma Gandhi—Personal and Political Freedom
    Gandhi's concept of freedom examined in the context of his life and leadership of the Indian independence movement. x
  • 7
    Malcolm X’s Quest for Liberation
    An analysis of the life of Malcolm X. His file is compared with Gandhi's in terms of their similar attempts to cope with racist oppression, both moving through stages of personal development that influenced their ideas about freedom and humanity. x
  • 8
    Martin Luther King, Jr.—Stride Toward Freedom
    This lecture will examine King's emphasis on the idea of freedom as seen in his speeches and writings, in the context of the Montgomery bus boycott, and the connection between his theories of freedom and non-violence as compared with Gandhi. x

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Dennis Dalton

About Your Professor

Dennis Dalton, Ph.D.
Barnard College, Columbia University
Dr. Dennis Dalton is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University. He earned his B.A. from Rutgers University, his M.A. in Political Science from the University of Chicago, and his Ph.D. in Political Theory from the University of London. Professor Dalton has edited and contributed to more than a dozen publications and has written numerous articles. He is the author of Indian Idea of...
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