Freedom: An ongoing endeavour

Freedom: An ongoing endeavour

The theme of the 440th anniversary of Leiden University is freedom. Good reason to reflect on how centuries of freedom struggles have enriched us. We should also dwell on the question of whether there are calls for freedom that still remain to be answered.

As an employee of the oldest university of the Netherlands, I couldn’t be more proud of our motto: Libertatis Praesidium, which best translates as: ‘bastion of liberty’. This motto has adorned Leiden University’s seal for almost a century now, but freedom has always been a core value of the university ever since it was founded 440 years ago. Employees have shown great bravery in protecting freedom for all, with the absolute highlight being the protest speech of the law faculty dean Professor Rudolph P. Cleveringa against the dismissal of his Jewish colleague Eduard Meijers in 1940. And as recently as January of this year, the current law faculty dean Rick Lawson stood up for the freedom of speech in response to the horrific slaughter of twelve persons at the headquarter of Charlie Hebdo. Protecting the freedom of the weak in tough times can be a risky business, but it is also the honourable task of a university that calls itself a bastion of liberty.

The ongoing endeavour for freedom

The struggle for freedom is, of course, much older than the 440 years Leiden University counts today. This, however, does not mean that pursuing freedom is outdated. What history teaches us, is that we need to be very, very careful if we think we have already liberated all those who are suppressed in society. We – especially the employees of this ‘bastion of liberty’ – should be keen to seek out societal injustice every day, so that we won’t fall into the trap of ignorantly condoning the highly immoral mistreatment of others. Were the Greeks satisfied with their society in which slavery was an important element? Aristotle put a lot of thought into this and still came to the conclusion that slaves were less rational beings and thus could be justly used as ‘living instruments’. Slavery was not only silently accepted, it was actively defended.

So what about the Romans? Did they learn from the Greeks? We know they didn’t. Emperor Nero soaked Christians in oil and set fire to them to serve as torches in his garden. One may have expected Christians to become true freedom fighters following their suppression during the Roman Era, but they actually did the opposite. Non-believers were actively hunted down by inquisitors and forced to convert to Christianity, or otherwise be killed. Those who refused to renounce their ‘heretical convictions’ were set on fire – ironically exactly what Nero did to Christians a couple of centuries earlier.

Enshrined human freedoms

Now you may think that we have learned a lot from our past experiences of humanity, and we have done to a certain extent. At least in the West we do not use other humans as slaves, nor do we set people on fire to illuminate our gardens, or prosecute people solely on the basis of their (non-)beliefs. Our freedoms have expanded massively and are solidly enshrined in the most important documents of our time. The European Convention on Human Rights grants all people the right to life, and everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all humans are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Both documents strongly reject the discrimination of humans, regardless of the grounds. These are the documents that we must cherish and which we can be very proud of.

Have we become modern Aristotles?

However, as demonstrated above, history teaches us that we must never rest on our laurels when it comes to the freedom of individuals. We must always bear in mind that we might be just as ignorant about social injustice as the Greeks, the Romans or the Christians were. We must keep on challenging ourselves by trying to look objectively at society and asking ourselves: what is the biggest injustice I see? Are there persons whose interests are not regarded as being equal and who have no freedom at all?

Three years ago I did exactly that, and I came to the shocking conclusion that there are still persons whose welfare is completely indifferent to us and who are often not even regarded as being part of society. These persons are non-human animals. We breed them and kill them for food (factory farming), we put them in cages and pay money to glare at them (zoos), we poison them when they dare to come into our heavily contaminated cities (rats, mice, seagulls), we break their necks or we gas them by thousands if they dare to come close to our airports (geese), we force them to have babies each year and keep mother and baby apart in order to steal the babies’ milk (dairy cattle), we trap them in nets and let them suffocate to death on land (fishing), we throw spears at their already broken bodies and then laugh at them (bullfighting), we chronically underfeed them so they will get anemia because we like ‘blanquette’ meat (calves), we breed them leading to breathing problems and chronical cephalic pain because we like small skulls (professional breeding), and we call it a sport to go out on Sundays to rip their little families apart by shooting the parents and leaving the offspring helplessly behind (hunting). And we enjoy all this. And we actively defend these activities as our rights, just like Aristotle did with regard to slavery. After all, we say, we are the ‘rational animals’ and so we are justified in using other animals to any goal imaginable. We are entitled to use them as our ‘living instruments’. This must sound horribly familiar.

Freedom fight yet to be fought

There’s no doubt that the current use of non-human animals is the biggest injustice of our time. After 440 years of Leiden University, freedom is still unimaginably unequally distributed among sections in our society. Humans have it all, other animals have none. Banning the use of animals in ways that hurt them should be a top priority in our everlasting struggle for freedom. I sincerely hope that Leiden University will loyally contribute to that fight in the upcoming 440 years.


Janneke Vink

I totally agree, Willem. Ethics and law should be about individuals, not about groups. There is no sense in either giving or denying someone something (e.g. rights) based on his or her group membership. A group is merely an abstract concept without interests; an individual, on the other hand, is a being with interests. It shouldn't be hard to understand that most animals are also individuals with certain interests. Unfortunately, a lot of people (including some judges of the New York Supreme Court) consider non-human animals to be primarily members of a group that, according to them, has no place whatsoever in ethics, nor in law: 'just beasts'.

Willem V.

"There’s no doubt that the current use of non-human animals is the biggest injustice of our time"

I agree. If you fight for true freedom, you fight for freedom of the individual and if you do that, you should fight for the freedom of all individuals. It is suffering that matters, not reason, like Aristotle thought. He said some are suited to be slaves, because they're stronger in body than in mind. Indeed, today a similar reasoning is applied to defend non-human animal slavery.

Next to this, I think freedom of groups is defended too much, e.g. the freedom of people to eat meat. This misinterpretation is also visible when it comes to tolerance towards parts of Islamic culture. Also in the Netherlands a lot of young women in Muslim families are not truly free. Just another blind spot.

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