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A Few Thoughts about Freedom, with an Assist from Benjamin Constant

September 29th, 2013 - 12:16 pm

Out in beautiful Colorado Springs a few days ago, I was chatting with some friends about the philosophy of Michael Oakeshott. (If you don’t know his work, I recommend it, in particular the brilliant essay “Rationalism in Politics.”) One of our merry band mentioned an essay by the Swiss-born French writer Benjamin Constant,  “The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns.” I’m not sure how I had escaped this brilliant speech all these years, but I did. Available free and for nothing at Liberty Fund’s wonderful “Online Library of Liberty,” this 7800 word essay is as pertinent to our concerns today as it was in the immediate post-Napoleonic era in which Constant wrote.

One of the first things that struck me was Constant’s 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.  It 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 their 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 of both the NSA and Google.)

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? 

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Top Rated Comments   
I’m not sure how I had escaped this brilliant speech all these years...
Is that an invitation to guess that there's something solid behind Bertie Wooster's bow tie, or a mystery in the air in Colorado Springs that isn't the residue of smoke and ashes?
Tempting...but no.

More important:
If like me you prize quotes from relatively obscure dead thinkers, something to stick on the fridge and help you through the mean years ahead, better to start with Frédéric Bastiat, an upscale contemporary of M. Constant who was less 'nuanced' and a whole lot wittier (thank God!):

When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, [in] time they will create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that sanctifies it.

He said that more than 150 years ago, well before the Federal Register reached 70,000 pages, but it's hard to think of a better description of today's mess -- though we now have to deal with millions of troughers and cowardly lions who are rotten and everywhere..

Violence lies ahead if you truly want to restore our country. Waffling into the wind won't do it. Time to define your roles, gentlemen.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Sorry - can't resist the obvious comment. It's all typically Roger-very-lucid, but I'm confused as to which "ayatollahs and imams" you refer - the ones in Tehran, London, or the White House?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (22)
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1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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I cant imagine a better description of the crony capitolism that exists in this country than Bastiat's quote. He would have been appalled by the bailouts of the large banks and the antics of the Koch Brothers as they buy their legislators. It is a shame that we can't read his thoughts on the current situation.
1 year ago
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1 year ago
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1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
What would he say about the likes of Bloomberg and Corzine, directly buying public offices?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"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!"

Seems to be proceeding apace.

I quote George Will (for the umpteenth time, I think...)

"It has been well said that really up-to-date liberals don't care what people do as long as it is compulsory."

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
In the ancient world, Constant says, "All private actions were submitted to a severe surveillance".

We once had, not too long ago, a type of surveillance that worked to curtail egregious personal behavior - it was called morality. Through an unspoken understanding of what was acceptable personal behavior and what was not, society was able to discourage citizens from engaging in activities that were destructive to both the society as a whole and the individual. This sort of self-regulation worked until the unholy alliance of commercial culture and unbridled individuality in the '60s created the comfortable, gentle new kind of totalitarianism which prevails now. The culture of totalitarian individuality has homogenized us to a point where what is original and unique, particularly in the arts, is seen as a threat to commerce because those qualities can't be manufactured or mass-produced.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"...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...." We, in the US, have given up our 'right to share political power' piecemeal. The acceleration came when we bought into the Cold War. Suddenly the realization that we have lost our entire Constitution is upon us and this country is in a bad way. I hope we find out voices very soon. http://coldwarwarrior.com/
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The constitution aimed to split the hair between civic and individual liberty with the republican form of government, aided as it ought to have been, by Article V, the 9th and 10th amendments and lo, the power of the jury to nullify along with the power of the grand jury to corral. That is how we can retether the beast of civic liberty gone native.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
All true, and all almost entirely irrelevant in the political system now practiced in the US. The issue is, how, short of bloody constraint, do we get back to these principles?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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