Give Me Liberty! 20 Quotes About Freedom

From Moses to MLK
Dan on May 28th 2023

Freedom is one of the core values of Western, and increasingly, global, society.  Ideas about freedom and liberation have upended societies around the world, from the Israelites in ancient Egypt to the American Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.  But the concept of freedom is slippery, and is in tension with other values that we also prize.

Here, in roughly chronological order, is a sample of 20 quotes that explore this concept from different perspectives.


Quote 1

To begin, here is the Hebrew leader Moses demanding that Pharaoh set the Israelites free after hundreds of years of servitude in Egypt.  This quote originally comes from the Book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible but here we're including the quote from the 1956 epic film The Ten Commandments.

Missing content item.


Quote 2

Pericles, in his famous Funeral Oration as recollected by the historian Thucydides, describes to the citizens of Athens the basis on which freedom rests.


Quote 3

Aristotle, in his treatise on Politics, asserts that shared political responsibility among citizens provides the firmest foundation for freedom and equality.


Quotes 4 and 5

For our next two quotes on freedom, we turn from the realm of politics to the realm and religion, specifically to the idea of freedom from the weight of sin, the freedom found in the knowledge that one is saved.

More information about this quote
Missing content item.


Quotes 6 and 7

Jumping from biblical times to the Enlightenment, we meet two men, David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with similar ideas about the nature of man and his unnatural predicament in 18th century Europe.

Missing content item.


Quote 8

For quote #8, the fulcrum, as it were, of our list, here are the most famous words in American political history, in which, building on two centuries of Enlightenment thought, Thomas Jefferson asserts that freedom is a God-given gift and the natural right of every human being.


Quotes 9 and 10

Interestingly, almost immediately after the establishment of independence from England and a newfound level freedom for the non-enslaved Americans, American thinkers began to worry about threats to freedom's long term survival as well as its excesses:

More information about this quote


Quote 11

In 1812 Lord Byron argues that that freedom is more of a project of personal liberation than a political one.


Quote 12

Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America muses on the challenge of how to handle one's freedom once it has been won:


Quote 13

Proto-existentialist Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard has an interesting take in 1844 on the phenomenon of anxiety in relationship to the expansion of political freedom in Europe:

Soren Kierkegaard

The Concept of Anxiety

More information about this quote


Quote 14

John Stuart Mill, in his 1859 treatise On Liberty, captures the paradox that one person's freedom can impinge on another's.  Resolving these tensions is the task of politics.


Quote 15

Speaking during the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln asserts that the preservation of freedom requires its expansion to those to whom it has been denied.

Missing content item.


Quote 16

Virginia Woolf provides a reminder that, no matter how constrained a person's choices may be due to political or personal circumstances, the mind remains free.

More information about this quote


Quote 17

Broadening Kierkegaard's comment on anxiety (Quote 13), the French philosopher (and full-on existentialist) Jean-Paul Sartre captures the sense that freedom can feel completely overwhelming. The more freedom we have, the more choices we have to make, and when those choices inevitably don't turn out the way we hoped, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

More information about this quote


Quote 18

George Orwell argues that the core of freedom lies in a culture of free and open exchange of ideas, including ideas some may find offensive or even harmful.

Missing content item.


Quote 19

Speaking in the context of the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s, James Baldwin echoes Lord Byron (Quote 11) from 150 years earlier.

Missing content item.


Quote 20

The process of liberation, both personal and political, is an ongoing one.  To close this list on an optimistic note, here are the final words from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech from 1963.