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?