Constant’s Liberty, Ancient and Modern

As this most peculiar year wends its petulant and morose way to the end, I find myself returning to some signal apostles of liberty. The unrelenting static of our time can make it difficult to appreciate what those sages of yore had to say. But as we continue to quiver obediently in place, bemasked, shunning our fellows almost as assiduously as we shun common sense, I think back to some anatomists of the totalitarian impulse—George Orwell, for example, who would have been surprised to discover that his searing portrayals of tyranny have been adopted as how-to manuals by the new lobotomized Left whose maliciousness is exceeded only by its ignorance. 

I think, too, of the Swiss-born French writer Benjamin Constant, whose famous essay “The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns” (1819) is as pertinent to our concerns today as it was in the immediate post-Napoleonic era in which Constant wrote.

I first encountered Constant’s work years ago at a conference about the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, another apostle of freedom who has much to teach a culture besotted by self-appointed “experts” and insatiable purveyors of “policy.” (I recommend in particular Oakeshott’s brilliant essay “Rationalism in Politics.”)

One of the first things that struck me about Constant’s essay was its optimism (“naïveté” would not be the right word for so nuanced a thinker). With the carnage of the Napoleonic wars still fresh in Europe’s memory, Constant nonetheless assured his readers that he discerned a “uniform tendency towards peace.” The imperatives of war, he thought, must at last give way to the subtler though ultimately more efficacious imperatives of commerce. “[A]n age must come,” he argued, “in which commerce replaces war. We have reached this age.”

Tell that to the Kaiser, to Hitler and Stalin, to Mao, Pol Pot, and Ho Chi Minh, not to mention all the ayatollahs, imams, and African butchers who succeeded them!

But Constant’s premature peace proclamation should not distract us from the great and troubling insights of his essay. He was no Francis Fukuyama avant la lettre. He begins by elaborating the distinction named in his title, between liberty as understood by the ancients and liberty as understood by us moderns. In brief, ancient liberty was freedom to superintend the political process. Ancient liberty, he said,

consisted in exercising collectively, but directly, several parts of the complete sovereignty; in deliberating, in the public square, over war and peace; in forming alliances with foreign governments; in voting laws, in pronouncing judgments; in examining the accounts, the acts, the stewardship of the magistrates; in calling them to appear in front of the assembled people, in accusing, condemning or absolving them. But if this was what the ancients called liberty, they admitted as compatible with this collective freedom the complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the community.

In contrast, modern liberty eschews, or at least abandons, direct involvement in the political process for the sake of a more or less inviolate sphere of individual discretion. For us moderns, Constant wrote,

It is the right of everyone to express his opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings. It is everyone’s right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations or whims.

That seems pretty clear, even uncontroversial. But Constant has more to say. 

Among the ancients, he writes, “almost none of the enjoyments which we have just seen form part of the liberty of the moderns.” For example, among the ancients, “All private actions were submitted to a severe surveillance.” We freedom-loving people would never submit to that today, would we? (“Here’s looking at you, kid,” the new motto not only of the NSA but also the media-industrial complex of Google, Twitter, and Facebook and other engines of social control masquerading as beneficent utilities.) 

This is just scratching the surface of Constant’s essay. What he elaborates is a melancholy dialectic of liberty in which nostalgic efforts to resuscitate ancient forms of liberty on the stage of modern life yield tyranny. And yet distinctively modern forms of liberty depend in the end on a ground of genuine political liberty if they are to thrive. Hence the paradox:

Individual liberty, I repeat, is the true modern liberty. Political liberty is its guarantee, consequently political liberty is indispensable. But to ask the peoples of our day to sacrifice, like those of the past, the whole of their individual liberty to political liberty, is the surest means of detaching them from the former and, once this result has been achieved, it would be only too easy to deprive them of the latter.

Modern totalitarians, those of a soft as well as those of a harder disposition, have understood and exploited this paradox. Hence Constant’s prescient warning. Some people, he says, noting that we moderns cannot resurrect ancient forms of liberty without abolishing our quotidian freedoms, “conclude that we are destined to be slaves. They would like to reconstitute the new social state with a small number of elements which, they say, are alone appropriate to the situation of the world today.”

And what are these elements? Constant might have been writing in the opening decades of the 21st century rather than the opening decades of the 19th. Consider: “These elements are prejudices to frighten men, egoism to corrupt them, frivolity to stupefy them, gross pleasures to degrade them, despotism to lead them; and, indispensably, constructive knowledge and exact sciences to serve despotism the more adroitly.” 

Sound familiar? Constant ends on an upbeat note:

It would be odd indeed if this were the outcome of forty centuries during which mankind has acquired greater moral and physical means: I cannot believe it. I derive from the differences which distinguish us from antiquity totally different conclusions. It is not security which we must weaken; it is enjoyment which we must extend. It is not political liberty which I wish to renounce; it is civil liberty which I claim, along with other forms of political liberty. Governments, no more than they did before, have the right to arrogate to themselves an illegitimate power.

I would like to share Constant’s incredulity and, hence, his optimism. On alternate Tuesdays, I almost do. Constant put a lot of store by the liberating power of what he called “commerce.” Surely, the extension of trade brings with it an equal extension of liberty. Well, yes. But also, not always.  Whether Constant is right in his prognostications, I do not know. I feel sure, however, that his diagnosis is correct:

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. The holders of authority are only too anxious to encourage us to do so. They are so ready to spare us all sort of troubles, except those of obeying and paying! They will say to us: what, in the end, is the aim of your efforts, the motive of your labors, the object of all your hopes? Is it not happiness? Well, leave this happiness to us and we shall give it to you.

That’s exactly what we have to worry about.