POL101Y1: Democracy, Dictatorship, War and Peace
PART I: Democracy and Dictatorship
Lecture III – The Liberal Project
Based on the lecture by Benjamin Constant, “The Liberty of Ancients Compared with
that of Moderns.”
o Benjamin Constant (1767 – 1830) – Swiss born, French intellectual.
o Context: French Revolution and its aftermath – social revolution.
o He is considered today as a conservative but in his time he was considered a fervent
o Question: how should free people govern themselves?
o Most liberals argue freedom is characterized as freedom “from tyranny” – not designed to
give people freedom to do anything but to give freedom from a tyrant.
o In the U.S constitution there are multiple points – the Supreme Court can stop the
legislation from going through – to ensure the president is not tyrant.
o He considers himself a modern compared to the liberty of ancients – it is participatory;
freedom consisted in the act of governing and being governed; participating in life.
o It was direct – when questions of the day would come up everyone would participate;
they didn’t have a legislature or separate body.
o When the ancients spoke of liberty/freedom they spoke of “public” not “private liberty”.
o Public liberty is the freedom of the individual to do what they wish without out infringing
on the rights of other individuals.
o Ex. Freedom of the community – self-government – not ruled by foreigners or those that
are not of the community; not ruled by a hereditary monarch.
o Freedom is collective; dependent upon a class of people who didn’t engage in commerce
or even work.
o Household was the realm of women and slaves – divided.
o Big decisions were decisions on war; what they feared the most was foreign domination –
the biggest threat to their freedom as a community.
o Athenian democracy was all about the reasoning citizen.
o States did not exist until 1648.
o Public freedom is “irrelevant” to the modern world – by extension the West.
Liberty of Moderns:
o Not so much “freedom to” as “freedom from” – “The fundamental sense of freedom is
freedom from chains, from imprisonment, from enslavement by others.” – Isaiah Berlin.
o “…be wary of any decree claiming to achieve the reconciliation of liberty and equality: it
is either a lie or a tyranny.” – Isaiah Berlin. Toneguzzo 2
o Legal protections and limited government – only has a certain claim for its authority; it is
not all encompassing. Our citizenship rights do not exist in a hierarchy with our private
rights – they are all in peace.
o Freedom is individual rather than communal.
o All driven by “commerce” and private property instead of war; society should be based
on commerce and all conceptions of liberty should follow from this notion; the
fundamental distinction from the ancients.
o When we use the word constitution – essentially been a contract between government and
people that limits the power of the government.
o We cannot choose our own constitution but we can change out constitution.
o Libertarians argue over equality of opportunity.
Contradictions of Constant:
o Modern is better both than ancient liberty and pre-modern “despotism” (French Kings).
o Modern’s care more about “freedom from”; we prefer “representative” to “direct
government” that just leaves us alone to be content and attain wealth.
o BUT he hedges his bets at the end of the lecture – Constant believes that “freedom from”
o Liberty of the ancients creeps back in through modern notions of