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POL101Y1 Lecture Notes - Athenian Democracy, Classical Antiquity, Private Good

Political Science
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POL 101
September 20th, 2010
Constant and the Rise of Liberalism
Ancient Greece and the affects of modernity
Core idea - collective versus individual freedom
Benjamin Constant:
Swiss born, French intellectual and politician
Fervent liberal
Context: French revolution and its aftermath (took away power from
the nobility, made everyone politically equal, concept today comes out
of French Revolution)
Question: How should free people govern themselves?
One thing to throw over monarchy, however; what will it be substituted
(i.e. people who were not so enthusiastic about the revolution were
beheaded by those who were overly enthusiastic; very few wanted to go
back to the old monarchy)
Model Rejected
Never was a form of democracy – people gravitated towards the
classical antiquity of Greece – Athenian democracy; Constant rejects
this model citing it to be not appropriate to the circumstances under
which we are living
Model had not been in action for nearly 2000 years
Reasons he says its not applicable: differences in conception of freedom;
their conception was particular
Liberty of the Ancients:
1) Highly participatory: Greek politics not what you have to do, but what
you should want to do
2) Direct: Greek point of democracy was not elections, but rather you directly
partaking in decision-making
3) β€œPublic” not β€œprivate liberty:” (Greek concept of liberty did not include
private freedoms. Greek conception of liberty was that they themselves as a
community would make decisions for themselves)
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For ex. Going to war - one way of thinking about liberty is thinking
that we are equal and elect representatives that declare whether or not
we want war. For the Greeks liberty encompassed society as a whole to
make a war
They think of public rights; NOT private rights. (This was appealing to
the French after the revolution; no more king)
Freedom is the freedom of community, of self-government
In Greece citizens would voice opinions in regards to war; the freedom
was collective NOT individual
Dependent upon a class of people who didn’t engage in commerce or
even work (excl. women; the institution of slavery)
1789 no slavery in France; this is the model that is rejected
4) Big decisions were decisions on war:
Going to war were the biggest decisions that polities made
The most important thing that moderns do is engage in commerce –
most important thing a polity can do is create conditions for trade
Ancients went to war to become rich; obtained things by taking them
rather than through commerce such as the moderns
Idea that Constant argues is not so much the freedom to make war; its
more freedom from – as long as I don’t do anything to disturb the
private peace – no state should tell me what to do
Not so much β€œfreedom to” as freedom from” (Isaiah Berlin)
Legal protections- personhood is protected from instrusions of the state
Limited government – if freedom was the freedom of the ancients –
then shouldn’t the government be really intrusive on people’s lives?
Government should be limited – modern conception of freedom (We are
all liberal in Constant’s sense)
Modern concept of freedom: freedom is individual rather than
communal (i.e. when we say a country isn’t free – we mean that the
people aren’t free)
For ex. In North Korea individuals do not have individual rights
All driven by β€œcommerce” and private property instead of war
All of this is driven by commerce (Constant believes commerce drives
Contradictions of Constant: (every thinker worth reading is contradictory)
Modern liberty is both better than ancient liberty and pre-modern
β€œdespotism” (don’t go back to kingship; French went through the Greek
concept of liberty which lead to the terror in France) had to understand
public interests; too many pursuing private good
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