Constant and the Rise of Liberalism
Benjamin Constant (1767-1830)
Swiss born, French intellectual and politician
Context: French Revolution and aftermath. If you are not ruled by a hereditary King and are
rulers of one self, how should a free people govern themselves?
Constant believes that our idea of freedom is best characterized as freedom from tyranny.
Liberty of ancients:
The ancient‟s freedom was participatory: to participate in legislation, voting, etc.
It was direct: you were directly involved in it, no one was able to represent you.
Viewed liberty as „public‟ not „private.‟ It was a collective not an individual notion of freedom.
Freedom of the community-self government
Freedom is collective
Dependent upon a class of people who didn‟t engage in commerce or even work.
Ex. Ukraine today is it free? If it‟s controlled by Russia then it is not free, however if it is not the
captive of Russia – Ukraine collectively governs itself? Then Ukraine is free.
Ex. Canada is not free because we have a representative government; economically dominated by
the U.S. Technically according to the ancients we are not free.
Liberty of Moderns
“The fundamental sense of freedom is freedom from chains, from imprisonment, from
enslavement by others. The rest is extension of this sense, or else metaphor.” Isaiah Berlin, Two
Concepts of Liberty.
“…be very wary of any decree claiming to achieve the reconciliation of liberty and equality: it is
either a lie or a tyranny.” – Berlin, The hedgehog and The Fox
Not so much “freedom to” as “freedom from”( Isaiah Berlin)
Limited, representative government
Freedom is individual rather than communal: liberty is the liberty of the individual.
All driven by “commerce” and private property instead of war
Constant says that the freedom that we have chosen is a society based on markets, individual
freedom, limited government. Capitalism purports freedom?
Contradiction of Constant
Modern liberty is better bother than ancient liberty and pre-modern “despotism” (French Kings)
Moderns care more about “freedom from”
“The danger for modern liberty is that we, absorbed in the enjoyment of our private independence
and the pursuit of our particular interests, might surrender too easily our