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Liberty in Ancient and Modern Times

More than any other thinker in the 19th century Europe, Benjamin Constant sought to characterise the distinctive features of what it meant to be free in modern times. In doing this, he discovered the issues that modern liberty posed to representative democracy, and so became one of the best guides to understanding the difficulties that must be overcome for a representative government to not become despotic and tyrannical like those he had witnessed in France of his day.

Critical to our understanding of the challenges Constant believed modern liberty posed to representative government, is an understanding of what is actually meant by modern liberty. In his seminal lecture, The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns, delivered at the Athene Royal in Paris towards the end of his life, Constant outlined just this, comparing modern liberty with Ancient Liberty. At the beginning of his lecture, Constant declared to his audience at the Athenee Royale, “I want a liberty suited to modern times; and since we live under monarchies, I humbly beg these monarchies not to borrow from the ancient republics the means to oppress us.” The distinction between ancient and modern liberty is one of Constant’s most important insights, as he notes that we are wrong to appeal to the ancients for either our model of society or our understanding of freedom. Constant believed that doing so was both dangerous and inimical to the prospects of liberty. Simply put, modern liberty is based on the possession of all people of civil liberties, a strong rule of law, and an absence of any unnecessary state interference. Some modern scholars have identified Constants’ modern liberty as being distinctly libertarian. Within it, people would vote to elect representatives who would deliberate on behalf of the people, and so would save them the laborious task of daily political involvement. In contrast, the liberty of the ancients can be defined as a kind in which citizens are able to directly influence politics through debates and votes in the public assembly. However, to enable this amount of political participation in ancient societies, citizenship came at the cost of a number of personal liberties.

Constant saw that the citizens of ancient societies possessed several advantages that enabled them to engage in political participation much more easily than those in modern societies. Firstly, he noted that the size of states in modern and ancient times differed dramatically, and that this caused a corresponding decrease in the political importance of each individual. “The most obscure republican of Sparta or Rome had power, the same is not true of the simple citizen of Britain or the United States. Secondly, the prevalence of slaves in ancient societies enabled people to not have to be concerned with the labours of work, and enabled citizens to direct their efforts towards political discourse and engagement. “Without the slave population of Athens, 20,000 Athenians could never have spent every day in the public square in discussions”. I might add that as an advocate of liberty for all men, Constant abhorred slavery. Thirdly, Constant said that ancient societies did not have such prolific commerce as modern societies, and so were not distracted from political engagement by constant trade with one another. This all points to the fact that though the ancients may not have possessed much individual liberty, they had much more political liberty than the moderns did.

Constant said that whilst the exercise of political rights offers us a part of the pleasures that the ancients found in it, the “progress of civilisation, the commercial tendency of the age, the communication amongst peoples, have infinitely multiplied and varied the means of personal happiness”. By this he meant that the astounding progress of civilisation, had changed the nature of the political powers that were at the centre of the ancients’ spirit, thus leaving wealth as a power which is “more readily available in all circumstances, more readily applicable to all interests, and consequently more real and better obeyed”. We are therefore more attached to individual independence than political independence. “For the ancients when they sacrificed that independence to their political rights, sacrificed less to obtain more; while in making the same sacrifice, we would give more to obtain less”. What the ancients called liberty was the sharing of social power amongst them, what the moderns call liberty is “the enjoyment of security in private pleasures, and the guarantees accorded by institutions to these pleasures”. The danger of ancient liberty lay in the fact that men, too concerned with securing their own social power, might overlook the importance of individual liberty.

The distinction between these two types of liberty is not to be confused with the distinction between monarchy and republic. In his lecture, Constant mentions how Montesquieu was struck by the differences between the societies governed strictly by laws and those where the individual was not. Montesquieu said that these differences were down to the type of governance – monarchy or republic. Constant said that this was a mistake, as the French revolution proved that even republics could be despotic and authoritarian. Constant said that these differences ought to be attributed to “the opposed spirit of ancient and modern times”.

Constant made the point that in modern times, none of the institutions that existed in the ancient republics that hindered individual liberty, such as slavery, would be admissible today. Thus, in ancient times, social power impeded individual independence without destroying the need for individual independence. He said that individual independence was the first need of the moderns, and that as a result no government must ever force the moderns to sacrifice their individual liberty to establish political liberty.

However, for Constant, this does not mean that political liberty is superfluous. On the contrary, it is very important in modern societies. Whilst he maintained that “individual liberty is the true modern liberty”, he also maintained that political liberty was its guarantee. Political liberty was of supreme importance for two reasons. He argued that the enjoyment of individual liberty required people to exercise their political liberty, though in a markedly different way to how the ancients exercised their political liberty. Constant said that modern societies exercising their political liberty were ones in which the citizens delegated political tasks to their representatives in a representative system, preferably a representative democracy. This representative system was “an organisation by means of which nation charges a few individuals to do what it cannot or does not wish to do herself”. So, individual liberty is enabled by the practice of political liberty for Constant. The representative system exercises the tasks that the people would do if they were involved in politics, giving the citizens who voted the ability to do other things that aren’t politics and so exercise their individual liberty. Thus, voting is a kind of delegation by the people. But Constant did not just see political liberty as essential for individual freedom and the prevention of despotism. It is more than a means to an end. The justification for maximising political freedom cannot be that it simply enabled us to maximise individual prosperity and happiness.

Constant said that self-development, and not happiness was the main aim of mankind. He rejected utilitarian moral teachings, claiming that if happiness were the main aim of mankind, then “our course would be narrow indeed and far from elevated”. He said that you could not have happiness as your only goal in life and still be satisfied. Because political liberty gives everyone responsibility for their collective interests, it “enlarges their spirit, ennobles their thoughts, and establishes among all a kind of intellectual equality which forms the glory and power of a people”. In other words, giving people political liberty is a crucial way in which they are enabled to improve as individuals. But the possession of political liberty is not only a way to help mankind with self-betterment, as Constant says once political liberty is given, even the smallest villages will see a pure, deep and sincere patriotism, as they are “learned in the evils they have suffered”.

The great threat that modern liberty posed to representative government was that in the enjoyment of their liberty, the citizens of modern states might not ascribe enough importance to their political power, and not recognise its importance. By doing this, the citizens of modern states put themselves at great risk of the state becoming oppressive and tyrannical, encroaching on the civil liberties of the people by overstepping its jurisdiction. The historical context in which Constant wrote showed to him that those who have political authority, are only too eager to encourage us to give up our political liberty. It is essential that this does not happen – as I outlined earlier – as individual liberty depends on political liberty. The governments will be inclined to tempt us, asking what the aim of the people is and then promising to deliver it. Constant believed this to be a significant risk, saying in his Principles of Representative Governments that “government runs after money like some gambler”, and that representative governments should be held back from behaving like this with a constitution, the specific details of which were outlined in Principles of Representative Governments. “Let them confine themselves to being just” Constant said of governments. “We shall assume the responsibility of being happy for ourselves”. Constant believed that governments could not produce anything remotely as good as freedom and commerce could bring to societies. Here we can see how crucially important it is that political liberty enables self-development as well as individual liberty. If political liberty only enabled individual liberty, then we would be at risk of the government encroaching on our rights. But the fact that it also confers on us the ability to improve ourselves by becoming educated about the systems and individuals that we vote for (self-betterment), political liberty prevents the government from encroaching on us by promoting political awareness. Hence in a modern representative democracy, one must never renounce ones right to participate in political power.

People must always be willing to question governments, and governments must always be able to give good reasons for their actions. In contrast, people do not have to explain their actions to governments, and have the right to come and go in and out of their country without giving reasons for doing so. This asymmetry has been described by academics as the “essential feature of modern freedom”. Likewise, governments must never be able to exile a citizen, unless he is subjected to a fair tribunal and charged of breaking a law, in the same way as everyone else must be. Constant talked of ancient ostracism, which is the antithesis of modern liberty. His attitude to such practices may be summed up in this passage within Principles of Politics Applicable to all Governments; “Governments have nothing to do save see that men do not hurt each other”.

Isiah Berlin placed Constant along John Stewart Mill, naming him one of the fathers of liberalism, and overall, though it is undeniable that he is one of the more overlooked political thinkers, it is hard to disagree. In highlighting that modern liberty has the possibility of leaving people vulnerable to government encroachment of civil liberties, he showed how essential it is for citizens to keep up political engagement and ensure the maintenance of their modern political freedom. Without doing this, France, and possibly the West, will be destined to repeat the mistakes of those that went before them, and confer too much power – a dangerous amount – to the government.

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