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Constant and the Rise of Liberalism

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Political Science

POL 101 September 20 , 2010 Constant and the Rise of Liberalism Ancient Greeceand 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 with? (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) “Public” not “private 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) 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 “freedom 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 “commerce” and private property instead of war All of this is driven by commerce (Constant believes commerce drives everything) Contradictions of Constant: (every thinker worth reading is contradictory) Modern liberty is both better than ancient liberty and pre-modern “despotism” (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 Individually we have liberty; collectively it creates a wealthy society; however we have no political authority; (i.e. doesn’t matter if individuals don’t vote) Individually; it’s so easy if we don’t matter politically; but society still functions/we don’t need virtuous citizens Moderns care more about “freedom from” We prefer “representative” to “direct government” that just leaves us alone to be happy and get rich BUT he hedges his bets at end of the lecture - Danger of modern liberty: “we are so absorbed in the enjoyment of our private independence and the pursuit of our particular interests, that we might surrender too easily our right to share in political power” pg. 13 Political theory: society gets by fine with minimal government if it sets conditions for commerce; however if we don’t become politically involved the entire thing can come crashing down For most of the reading Constant appears to be tellin
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