Last year marked the 200th anniversary of the French-Swiss political writer Benjamin Constants essay, The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns. Though nineteenth- and twentieth-century liberals, from John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville to Isaiah Berlin, held Constant in high esteem, his work has lost prominence today. It deserves to better known. A witness to the best aspirations of the French Revolution and its worst crimes, Constant (1767-1830) emerged from the revolutionary era with a disgust for despotism. During the Hundred Days and the Bourbon Restoration, he became an advocate for liberal, constitutional monarchy. Delivered as a lecture to Frances Royal Athenaeum, The Liberty of the Ancients synthesized his reflections on the nature of libertyreflections that would exert an historic influence on liberalism and that remain relevant for the United States today.
To attain liberty and minimize its misuse, Constant argued, leaders and citizens must first see what makes us moderns different from the ancients. The ancient Greeks and Romans developed their understanding of liberty in socially unified communities small in territory and population. The fear of potentially hostile neighbors was ubiquitous, obliging even peaceful communities to transform themselves to be ready for unprovoked warfare. This social situation produced a fundamentally different idea of liberty than the modern conception.
For the ancients, liberty referred to the deliberations and actions of the politically enfranchised class, whose members were expected to maintain active and constant participation in politics, as a soldier on the battlefield, citizen in the assembly, or magistrate ruling over others. But this constant service to the community in war and peace entailed a dramatic subjection of the individual to the community. As Constant writes of the ancient city, there was hardly anything that the laws did not regulate. In Sparta, for example, the law determined when a newly married man could visit his wife because the city regarded him as a soldier first.
The modern state organizes itself differently. With larger populations and territories, states became less anxious about survival, and the resulting stability made possible mutually beneficial commercial ties among states. Commercial activity, in turn, allows people to satisfy needs and desires through trade, not conquest. Finding fulfillment through commerce drew many moderns away from politics and promoted a spirit of independence. State interventions became frustrating, Constant wrote, because every time governments attempt to do our own business, they do it more incompetently and expensively than we would.
For Constant, the expansion of commerce leads to a wholly different society. It promotes a conception of individual liberty that expects government to refrain from intervention in the private affairs of citizens. The overarching aim of modern liberty is the enjoyment of security in private pleasures. The goal is to sustain independence, overseen by the rule of law. And yet, the individual rarely exercises political power himself. Others govern on his behalf, through another modern discoverya system of representative government.
Constant praised the French Revolution for introducing representative government to France. On behalf of the people, the legislative body passed laws that protected the individual from the arbitrary rules of the Old Regime. Yet the Jacobins savaged this success by trying to force the concept of ancient liberty onto modern society. The Jacobins made the legislative assembly into an instrument of tyranny, passing laws not just against actions but against fleeting thoughts and impressions, while regulating all manner of virtue and vice. The law pursued relentlessly those who mis-stepped or misspoke. The Terror showed that applying ancient liberty wholesale in modern times results in tyranny.
Constant did not renounce or repudiate the ancients notion of liberty, however, and his lecture should not be read as a categorical argument for modern liberty and against ancient liberty. He warned moderns about their own defects. By focusing unduly on private pleasures, moderns become complacent about the quality of their political representatives, which, in turn, makes them vulnerable to despotism. Resisting such indifference, Constant challenges us to keep a close watch on our representatives, recasting the participatory aspirations of ancient liberty to modern circumstances.
Liberals such as Tocqueville and Mill accepted Constants challenge to combine the two notions of liberty. Tocqueville promoted participatory associations in civil society that encouraged self-development and discouraged reliance on the state. Mill connected individual rights, such as freedom of speech, to the pursuit of individual self-development and excellence. Both favored a vibrant, participatory political community that would serve as an antidote to social mediocrity and conformity.
Roughly a century later, during the Cold War, Isaiah Berlin updated Constants argument in Two Concepts of Liberty. He contrasted modern liberty, or what he called negative freedom, with Communism, which failed to acknowledge limits on government. Berlin also affirmed the value of representative institutions and political participation, recognizing them as essential to the preservation of modern liberty.
Contemporary American liberalism, however, has largely ignored the good counsel of Constant and his followers. It has elevated the liberty of moderns while forcefully denouncing the liberty of the ancients. For decades, American liberalism has regarded local communities and state governments not as places to train an active citizenry but as sites of oppression. American liberals sound the alarm about how local-citizen participation could threaten various rightsthus the modern liberals preference for transferring power from legislatures to administrative bureaucracies or the judiciary.
This view implies a different approach to politics, one that enfeebles the citizenry and privileges a legal elite. If you want to change the law, dont try to elect new representatives, because they have little real power. Instead, litigate, and hope that an appellate court strikes down laws that you dislike. This approach favors the amicus brief over the canvassing candidate and leaves most citizens out of the political process. Consider the massive role that judges and administrative agencies have played since 1965 in setting policy on birth control, abortion, affirmative action, capital and noncapital punishment, higher-education admissions, same-sex marriage, and transgender rightsoften with weak constitutional justification.
Defenders of this system argue that we cant trust an active citizenry to elect the right legislators. Yet after World War II, Commonwealth and European democracies saw unprecedented levels of political engagement, with a resulting expansion of individual rights. These successes were driven by legislatures, not courts.
It is this kind of liberalism, one that broadly trusts the people and encourages an active citizenry, to which Constant aspired. In 2020, the question for American liberalism is whether it still broadly trusts the people and still believes in the liberty of the ancients.
Constant saw that political participation is a school for moral and civic development. Americans have needed little prodding to get involved in politics, but today, many citizens see their political participation threatened by unelected officials. As a result, some Americans have become indifferent to political institutions, while others flirt with radicalism. Were Constant with us today, he would lament this developmentand encourage Americans and their leaders to reaffirm the value of ancient liberty.
David L. Tubbs teaches politics at The Kings College in New York City. Nathan Pinkoski is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto.
See the article here:
- Ranking the top 50 Liberty football players of all time: 50-41 - A Sea of Red - June 22nd, 2020
- We Can Find Common Ground on Gay Rights and Religious Liberty - The New York Times - June 22nd, 2020
- Two Liberty football players cite racial insensitivity in decision to transfer - ESPN - June 22nd, 2020
- Police: Man scratched an expletive on the replica of Liberty Bell at the Idaho Statehouse - KTVB.com - June 22nd, 2020
- The True Extent of Religious Liberty in America, Explained - The Dispatch - June 22nd, 2020
- Tolsma reflects on legacy, accomplishments in lengthy career at Liberty - Lynchburg News and Advance - June 22nd, 2020
- I Suppressed So Much of My Humanity in Being Here - Slate - June 22nd, 2020
- Liberty Kitchen's virtual dinner brings questions of race, inclusion in New Orleans to the table - NOLA.com - June 22nd, 2020
- Liberty Leaf to Acquire Nova Mentis Biotech Corp. - Liberty Leaf Augments Portfolio with Entrance into the Emerging Psilocybin Therapy Market - Yahoo... - June 22nd, 2020
- Man charged in connection with Liberty kidnapping, robbery - KCTV Kansas City - June 22nd, 2020
- Liberty Oilfield Services Inc. (LBRT) the Stock that gain 10.25% this week! - The News Heater - June 22nd, 2020
- What Liberty Meant to the Pilgrims - National Review - June 22nd, 2020
- Time to give liberty and justice to all - Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel - June 22nd, 2020
- Independence opens newly constructed section of Liberty Playground - cleveland.com - June 22nd, 2020
- Liberty University Commit Jony Munoz Named 2019-20 Gatorade National Boys Soccer Player of the Year - SoccerNation.com - June 22nd, 2020
- Stewart: Amid protests and reform, we truly need 'liberty and justice for all' - Standard-Examiner - June 22nd, 2020
- This day in sports: Sparks fall to Liberty in WNBA's first game in 1997 - Yahoo News - June 22nd, 2020
- Heres Some Upbeat Coverage of the Philadelphia Parade That Became a Super-Spreader Event During the 1918 Flu Pandemic - Slate - June 22nd, 2020
- Liberty University President defends keeping the school open amid the coronavirus pandemic - - KUSI - May 22nd, 2020
- Liberty Media's John Malone still believes in the future of live events despite coronavirus - CNBC - May 22nd, 2020
- Liberty's Top 5 DBs of all-time - A Sea of Red - May 22nd, 2020
- Dryville Hotel being converted to Liberty at Dryville | Berks Regional News - 69News WFMZ-TV - May 22nd, 2020
- Liberty recruit Merritt 'going to come in and work hard' - Lynchburg News and Advance - May 22nd, 2020
- PHS' Kyle Moore headed to West Liberty | News, Sports, Jobs - Parkersburg News - May 22nd, 2020
- Liberty Arena targeted for early October completion - Lynchburg News and Advance - May 22nd, 2020
- UConn's Kelly (Schumacher) Raimon took a winding path to a WNBA coaching job with the Liberty - Minneapolis Star Tribune - May 22nd, 2020
- 17-year-old charged with burglary in Liberty - Bluebonnet News - May 22nd, 2020
- Liberty in the Time of Corona - publicseminar.org - May 22nd, 2020
- West Liberty to conduct its own ball season - Bellefontaine Examiner - May 22nd, 2020
- Liberty London | Designer Department Store | Luxury Brands ... - May 19th, 2020
- Best Banks in Connecticut | Liberty Bank - May 19th, 2020
- Mill Creek, Liberty rated as CLAS School of Distinction - The Madison Record - themadisonrecord.com - May 19th, 2020
- Liberty and Liberty North celebrate class of 2020 with two graduation parades through town - fox4kc.com - May 19th, 2020
- State Supreme Courts Stand Up for Economic Liberty While SCOTUS Falls Down on the Job - Reason - May 19th, 2020
- Department of Labor Strengthens Religious Liberty Protections for Faith-Based Organizations Partnering with Government - GlobeNewswire - May 19th, 2020
- Sabrina Ionescu should have been dazzling loyal Liberty fans at Barclays this weekend - Yahoo Sports - May 19th, 2020
- Remember When: Liberty and Palace theaters compete with Tarzan films - Lancaster Eagle Gazette - May 19th, 2020
- NJ police do the right thing for liberty at gym that opened up (Opinion) - New Jersey 101.5 FM Radio - May 19th, 2020
- Still standing at 70: Here's the story behind Tulsa's Statue of Liberty - Tulsa World - May 19th, 2020
- Liberty athletics notebook: Maine pitcher DeLaite transferring to LU; Byron to honor duo at Coca-Cola 600 - Lynchburg News and Advance - May 19th, 2020
- Opinion: Five steps to protect public health, regain trust and ensure liberty - The Detroit News - May 19th, 2020
- C&I Live Tweet: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on INSP - Cowboys and Indians - May 19th, 2020
- Andy McCarthy: 'Burden of proof' is on government to show why 'liberty' must be taken - Fox News - April 27th, 2020
- Letter: Personal liberty doesnt give you the right to endanger others - Deseret News - April 27th, 2020
- Liberty versus the virus | Diana Barshaw - The Times of Israel - April 27th, 2020
- Liberty Center man to be released from Marion prison - Sentinel-Tribune - April 27th, 2020
- Group Conversion Therapy And Its Aftermath At Liberty University - rvamag.com - April 27th, 2020
- The real problem with the manufactured coronavirus liberty protests - Seattle Times - April 27th, 2020
- Liberty University's Board of Trustees should remove Jerry Falwell Jr as the school's president - LGBTQ Nation - April 27th, 2020
- Stephen Sings officially signs with Liberty - A Sea of Red - April 27th, 2020
- Beloved Liberty coach Jesse Woods remembered for life of giving - Chron - April 27th, 2020
- Letter to the editor: Destruction of life, liberty, happiness - TribLIVE - April 27th, 2020
- Coronavirus has led to the erosion of religious liberty - White Mountain Independent - April 27th, 2020
- Former Liberty WR Antonio Gandy-Golden ready to hear his name called in NFL Draft - Lynchburg News and Advance - April 27th, 2020
- Why the New York Liberty sent so many front office staff to watch Sabrina Ionescu, how they plan to use the f - OregonLive - April 27th, 2020
- 'Liberty and freedom' | Other counties say they will not require masks like Harris County, Houston - KHOU.com - April 27th, 2020
- A Second Amendment Challenge in the Green Mountain State - Cato Institute - April 27th, 2020
- 'Freedom and liberty to work' rally is canceled; or is it? - Martha's Vineyard Times - April 27th, 2020
- Liberty Health Sciences Announces Expansion of its Cannabis Brand Portfolio - Yahoo Finance - April 24th, 2020
- Deja Gaston and Alex Murphy: Coronavirus protesters demand 'liberty' at the expense of the rest of us - Salt Lake Tribune - April 24th, 2020
- $2.11 $2.37: is It Good Range to Buy Liberty TripAdvisor Holdings, Inc. (LTRPA)? - The News Heater - April 24th, 2020
- Lansdales Liberty Bell Trail Named Region Project Of The Year - Montgomeryville, PA Patch - April 24th, 2020
- The Debate Between Liberty-Minded and Common-Good Conservatives Is Nothing New - National Review - April 24th, 2020
- Connecting Liberty Lake ready to help: Citys volunteers wait for calls from those in need - The Spokesman-Review - April 24th, 2020
- Rallying for the 'freedom and liberty to work' - Martha's Vineyard Times - April 24th, 2020
- Is One Liberty Properties, Inc.'s (NYSE:OLP) ROE Of 6.4% Impressive? - Yahoo Finance - April 24th, 2020
- Liberty end up with 4 of top 12 picks after draft-night deals - ESPN - April 24th, 2020
- Yes, government can restrict your liberty to protect public health - Los Angeles Times - April 24th, 2020
- Carnival Liberty | Deck Plans, Activities & Sailings ... - March 31st, 2020
- Liberty AV Solutions - Your Best Source for Pro AV ... - March 31st, 2020
- Liberty University to offer $1,000 credit to students who leave dorms by Saturday because of coronavirus - Richmond.com - March 31st, 2020
- Falwell says concerns about students returning to Liberty University are overblown - CNN - March 31st, 2020
- Two COVID-19 cases confirmed aboard Liberty of the Seas - Galveston County Daily News - March 31st, 2020
- KHS grad Robinson had found a spot on NCAA Tournament-bound Liberty - Kearney Hub - March 31st, 2020
- Fire Oak Distillery in Liberty Hill has produced nearly 600 gallons of sanitizer for Williamson County first responders, community - Community Impact... - March 31st, 2020
- History's Headlines: The Liberty Bell stopped here - 69News WFMZ-TV - March 31st, 2020
- Liberty urged to help smaller F1 teams survive shutdown - RACER - March 31st, 2020
- Liberty - IMDb - March 26th, 2020
- Jerry Falwell, Liberty Universitys choice to stay open during coronavirus, explained - Vox.com - March 26th, 2020
- Thousands of Liberty students expected to return to campus amid coronavirus outbreak - Richmond.com - March 26th, 2020