Today In Fact, 6 June

Today seems a good day to reflect on liberty as an organising principle and as a threat.

The only female King of Sweden, Christina abdicated her throne today in 1654. A very butch lesbian and an active thinker, she is perhaps best known for inadvertently causing the death of Rene Descartes. Descartes was scheduled to teach her philosophy at 5AM every morning. One icy February, the poor man caught his death of cold while hurrying to his appointment with Christina. Christina worked hard as the king of Sweden but eventually found that her ideas and her life could not bear the strictures that her role demanded of her.

She yearned for liberty. She refused to marry and produce an heir, she was also drawn to Catholicism. This led her to abdicate her throne in order to avoid the demands of her role as monarch which insisted that she produce an heir and remain a Lutheran. After her abdication, Christina moved to Rome where she became a supporter of the arts and theatre and is the only woman to be buried at St. Peter’s.

Liberty can create enormous temptations and loneliness as George Williams a humble draper from Somerset found when he went to London to work in a draper’s shop. Williams found that there was no safe place for working men to live and sleep in London. Working men had to find digs in brothels and taverns, with all the temptations attendant to such places. A devout Christian, he gathered a group of his fellow drapers together to create a place that would not tempt young men into sin.

Today in 1844, Williams founded the first YMCA in London with the purpose of “the improving of the spiritual condition of young men engaged in the drapery, embroidery, and other trades.” By 1851, there were YMCAs in the United Kingdom, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United States.

Our meditation on liberty would not be complete without Isaiah Berlin. Today marks the birthday in Riga of Isaiah Berlin in 1909. Berlin was a very entertaining speaker and a great controversialist who died in 1997. He is perhaps best known for his essay “Two Concepts of
Liberty”, delivered in 1958 as his inaugural lecture as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford.

The two concepts of liberty Berlin describes are ‘negative freedom’, or freedom from interference, which Berlin derived from the British
tradition, and ‘positive freedom’, or freedom as self-mastery, which asks not what we are free from, but what we are free to do. Berlin
points out that these two different conceptions of liberty often clash with each other.

So on the one hand we have the life of Christina who sought freedom from interference and went to extent of abdicating her throne. On the other hand we have the life of George Williams who found that liberty offered little comfort and sought to create a space where young men could live without the temptations of too much freedom.

– Douglas Racionzer (see a full archive of TODAY IN FACT on