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  • "None's Slave":Some Versions of Liberty in Donne's Satires 1 and 4
  • Joshua Scodel

Recent critics have emphasized the young John Donne's desire for worldly position and prestige.1 Without denying Donne's ambition, I wish to reassert (following William Empson) that a desire for freedom of thought and action is the central impulse in Donne's early poetry.2 His skeptical, exploratory temperament inspires not only a search for freedom but also, as its inseparable correlative, an inquiry into its meaning and worth. In his elegies and lyrics, Donne explores different ways to remain "free" in love and sexual relations. In Satires 1 and 4, the focus of this essay, Donne explores different modes of asserting his freedom against a corrupt court, an oppressive legal system, and potentially enslaving social bonds.3

Donne's poetic representations of freedom were galvanized by his engagement with influential but diverging treatments of freedom in ancient poetry and moral philosophy concerning liberty as "doing what one pleases" and the value and limits of free speech. Historians of early modern conceptions of liberty have tended to focus on explicitly political and religious texts in relation to constitutional and ecclesiological controversies.4 They have accordingly neglected the various ethical and poetic traditions out of which an early modern writer like Donne could articulate new visions of liberty.5

While the defense of a person's "freedom to do as he likes" (to quote John Stuart Mill) has often been associated with modern liberalism, the formulation is ancient.6 Justinian's Institutes defined libertas as the "natural faculty" of "doing what one wishes" [quod cuique facere libet] unless "prohibited by force or law," a definition adopted in Henry de Bracton's thirteenth-century treatise, De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae, which remained an authoritative textbook on English law in the early modern period.7 Yet early modern ethical discourse often followed ancient philosophers in denying that liberty was equivalent to simply doing as one pleases, which was rather an instance of immoral "license," that is, an excess or abuse of liberty.8 In Plato's Republic, Socrates identified doing just as one pleases as a form of license typical of democratic regimes, in which men confuse lawlessness with liberty. [End Page 363] Aristotle in his Politics similarly attacked a democratic identification of liberty with "doing whatever one wishes."9 Renaissance authors of various political views denied that liberty was simply doing what one wished (identified with vicious license) in order to argue instead that liberty consisted in voluntary obedience to just laws (diversely defined). In Baldassare Castiglione's Book of the Courtier, the most influential Renaissance book of manners and a text well-known to Donne, a courtier declares (in Thomas Hoby's Elizabethan rendering) that the "true liberty" of subjects is not "to live as a manne will" but to live under a monarchy "accordynge to good lawes."10

This dispute was further complicated by ambiguities in the formulation of doing what you please. The Stoics influentially reinterpreted its purport. For them, liberty was most fundamentally not a political but rather an ethical concept, focused not on the individual's relationship to a political community and its laws but rather on the realization of the individual's moral nature whatever the external circumstances. The obstacles to such "inner freedom" (Hannah Arendt's term) were primarily not external but internal. The Stoics distinguished between one's true desires (based on rational judgment) and false desires (based on blinding passion). One attained liberty by conquering the latter.11 The Stoics thereby transformed what Isaiah Berlin famously called a "negative" conception of liberty, the ability to do as you wish in the sense of having no external obstacles to your desired actions, into what Berlin called a "positive" conception, doing as you wish in the sense of being able to realize your true or "higher" nature, which for the Stoics meant living according to self-sufficient reason.12 In his Paradoxa Stoicorum, for example, Cicero calls libertas "the power of living as you wish" [potestas vivendi ut velis], which is only possible by conquering your passions. Epictetus's essay "Of Freedom" argues similarly.13

In Satires...


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pp. 363-385
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