”Liberal” in the Roman sense

This is an excerpt from a manuscript on individualism.

The word “liberalism” stems from the Latin liber, which means both “free” and “generous,” and liberalis, which means “befitting a free-born person” (Rosenblatt 2018, p. 9). To the ancient Romans, the noun liberalitas, which corresponds to liber and liberalis, referred to “a noble and generous way of thinking and acting toward one’s fellow citizens,” as opposed to “selfishness” or “slavishness,” which was to think and act with regard only to oneself and one’s pleasures (ibid).

Liberalitas was a moral attitude that the Romans thought of as essential to a free society. The great Roman political thinker Cicero described it as “the bond of human society” (p. 10). Roman historian Jed W. Atkins writes that liberalitas, together with justice, promoted “social cohesion within a competitive political culture by preventing harm and promoting interdependence” (Atkins 2018, p. 77).

The meanings of the words liberal and liberality remained almost unchanged at least until the Enlightenment. During the Middle Ages, the word liberality was “overlaid with Christian values such as love, compassion, and especially charity” (Rosenblatt 2018, p. 12). French, German, and English dictionaries from this time defined “liberal” as “the quality of someone ‘who likes to give’,” and “liberality” as “the quality of giving or spending freely” (ibid).

During the Renaissance, liberality was treated as “a moral virtue that moderated men’s ‘desire and greed for money’” (p. 15). After the Reformation the word “liberal” appeared in King James’s Bible, then referring to “generous giving, especially to the poor” (p. 16). During the colonization of North America, some demanded liberality of the whole community, so that its people were obliged to “think of the public good before themselves” (pp. 18–9).


Atkins, J. W. (2018). Roman Political Thought. Cambridge University Press.

Rosenblatt, H. (2018). The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century. Princeton University Press.

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  1. […] the Romans’ emphasis on civic virtue, which guided their political practices. Liberty, i.e., liber, liberalis, or liberalitas, did not only designate a state of non-domination, as in contemporary republican political theory. […]

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