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Liberty in the Ancient World

Posterity's debt to the great civilizations of antiquity is enormous, but this legacy can hardly be regarded as consistently libertarian. Students of the centralized managerial autocracies of Egypt and Persia, for example, or of the rigid caste system of India will examine the records of these societies in vain for ideas and institutions specifically favorable to liberty. In the case of India, Buddhist criticism of violence and of caste distinctions never developed into a full-fledged critique of political power, perhaps because Buddhist teachings emphasized renouncing the world, rather than reforming it. Several ancient civilizations, however, did make substantial contributions to the libertarian tradition.

The first known use of a word meaning “liberty” (amagi) occurs on a 24th-century B.C. clay tablet from the Sumerian city-state of ...

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