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The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns

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  • Benjamin Constant
Publication year 1819

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  1. Constant’s speech discusses the tradeoffs that are imposed by the modern idea of individual liberty. In most representative governments today, individuals are left to make choices about how involved in the political process they chose to be. If Jack thinks that dedicating his afternoons to discussing policy is more costly than going to his job, he essentially outsources his political power—he votes (or chooses not to vote) and expects that his representative will act with similar interests to his own. The price that is paid for not censoring the public and not requiring full political participation (as was the practice of the liberty of the ancients) means that some people will, by choice, decide that their own private pursuits are more profitable. The profit Jack receives could simply be more time to spend engaging in discourse that is not political, it is not necessarily a monetary profit.

    The problem with trading political power for more individual liberty is that as more power is giving to legislators, they can exert more control over Jack’s individual pursuits, through regulation, taxation and other governmental controls. As an individual, he will find it more difficult to engage society in reforming these actions. A presumption of liberty needs to be maintained in the political sphere and also needs to be protected by legal rights of the individual. Otherwise, direct government involvement in the market process will begin to offset the betterment that Jack was pursuing in the first place by choosing a smaller amount of political power over his individual liberty.

    posted 15 Apr 2011 by Ariel Nerbovig

  2. Constant provides an enlightening look at the concept of liberty in ancient western civilizations. For the ancients, liberty came through collective and direct participation in the polity. Life was affirmed through the polity: the alternative was to live as a barbarian. Freedom came collectively and was a privilege that could be taken away by the polity. Constant doesn’t mention that in some way such privileged liberty is similar to that of the towns and burghs that developed during the Medieval period, where citizens faced returning to manor life should they not temper themselves to the rules of the city (to be sure, the liberty that emerged in Medieval burghs resembled more closely individual modern liberty).

    Constant delivered his lecture in 1819, but his insistence on affirming that modern liberty is individual – as opposed to the collectivized liberty of the ancients – is as important today as it was then. He criticizes Rousseau , de Mably, and Montesquieu for conflating ancient and modern liberty in an attempt to assert the power of the state – and those at its helm. Still today – though perhaps without reference to ancient philosophy – illiberal thinkers assert that liberty comes through the state and is not held individually. In a very nice small section on commerce, Constant talks about ‘owning’ being merely a use-right to a piece of land; something we see today in the bundle theory of rights.

    He ends with a beautiful call for institutions to carry out the moral education of their citizens, not by forcing upon them some interpretation of morality, but by respecting their individual rights and creating proper incentives for moral behavior and civic participation. He mentions institutions in the context of the work of the legislature, but doesn’t say explicitly that all such institutions must come from the state, leaving one to think he refers not only to institutions of government but also those created by the culture and the market.

    posted 24 Apr 2011 by Brandon Holmes

  3. Constant’s speech flows effortlessly, enumerating the distinctions between ancient and modern conceptions of liberty. Ancient liberty “consisted in exercising collectively, but not directly, several parts of the sovereignty” and “with this collective freedom [came] the complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the community” (66). Under ancient liberty, “[a]ll private actions were submitted to a severe surveillance” and “[n]o importance was given to individual independence” (66). Modern liberty exists in a system of representative government, rather than direct participation. Modern liberty is “the right to be subjected only to the laws” (66). Constant summaries the key distinction nicely: “[A]mong the ancients the individual, almost always sovereign in public affairs, was a slave in all his private relations” (67). “Among the moderns, on the contrary, the individual, independent in his private life, is, even in the freest of states, sovereign only in appearance” (67). A paradox seems to emerge with respect to ancient and modern liberty. While we want modern liberty, it is still necessary to keep ancient liberty in the background. “The danger of modern liberty is that, absorbed in the enjoyment of our private independence, and in the pursuit of our particular interests, we should surrender our right to share in political power too easily” (70). Constant warns against putting too much faith in authority figures. He pleads that “we must not leave it to them. No matter how touching such a tender commitment may be, let us ask the authorities to keep within their limits. Let them confine themselves to being just. We shall assume the responsibility of being happy for ourselves” (70). It seems that the dangers of modern liberty are very real and present today. Individuals often look for the government to be more than just. The government is regulating personal happiness through various policies that go against liberty. It’s a slippery slope and Constant would call for us to take responsibility.

    posted 25 Apr 2011 by Echo Keif

  4. In an 1819 lecture, Constant calls on his listeners to realize that there is a fundamental difference between what people of antiquity considered liberty and what the concept means for the modern person. For the former, liberty consists of taking full advantage of collective political rights; liberty to the latter is the conducting of his private affairs without interference. He argues that the liberty of the moderns must be carefully guarded and not forgotten for the sake of political rights. In the course of his argument, Constant also defends the French Revolution as beginning with the right perspective on liberty but later confusing the liberty of ancients with that of moderns, which contributed to the disastrous results. Surprisingly, he praises Rousseau as a lover of liberty who was led into error by the confusion over ancient liberty as opposed to modern liberty.
    Constant offers a point-by-point comparison of the two concepts of liberty that is very illuminating. His main concern is that people would unwisely sacrifice modern liberty as the ancients often did, when in a modern nation, political rights are much less significant and valuable than in a small city-state. His contention that political rights used to be the more valuable of the two in ancient times because people were limited in their economic activity is one of his most striking points. It most clearly highlights the rationale behind people trying to acquire political power at the cost of personal and economic freedoms but also leads to a slightly conflicting message. Constant asserts that private activity is more important and valuable than public activity in modern society yet urges people not to ignore the political process. He anticipates the concept of the rationally ignorant voter by noting that many people will prefer to attend to matters that benefit them most and argues for citizens to be informed and watchful instead.
    It is worth noting that Constant often seems to be sanctioning the liberty of the ancients, where the society had the moral authority to control people’s private behavior, as morally acceptable for that time and the particular conditions. It weakens his argument, since his own concept of modern liberty could become dated in the same way unless it were justified by something other than the current political and economic systems being too large and complex for it to be otherwise.

    posted 06 May 2011 by Stephanie Myla Helmick

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