The Liberty of Ancient compares to that of Moderns.pdf

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University of Toronto St. George
Political Science
Jeffrey Kopstein

The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns Benjamin Constant Copyright '2010–2015 All rights reserved. Jonathan Bennett [Brackets]enclose editorial explanations. Small •dots •enclose material that has been added, but can be read as though it were part of the original text. Occasional bullets, and also indenting of passages that are not quotations, are meant as aids to grasping the structure of a sentence or a thought. —This text began life as a lecture to the AthØnØe Royal of Paris in 1819. First launched: April 2010 Benjamin Constant Ancient and modern liberty I’m going to call your attention to some distinctions—still i.e. in the executive power. Thus their power, far from being rather new ones—between two kinds of liberty: the differ- simply a barrier against tyranny, sometimes itself became an ences between the two haven’t been noticed, or at least intolerable tyranny. This was true of all the magistrates in haven’t been properly attended to, until now. One is the the ancient republics, including ones selected by the people. liberty that the ancient peoples valued so much; the other is The regime of the Gauls quite resembled one that a certain the liberty that is especially precious to the modern nations. party would like to restore to us! It was at once theocratic I think that this investigation matters to us, for two different and warlike. The priests enjoyed unlimited power. The mili- reasons. tary class—the nobility—had very arrogant and oppressive (1)The failure to distinguish these two kinds of liberty was privileges. The people had no rights and no safeguards. the cause of many evils during the famous—all too famous!— The mission of the tribunes in Rome was a representative days of our revolution. France found itself exhausted by one, up to a point. They acted on behalf of the plebeians who had been reduced to a harsh slavery by the oligarchy useless experiments; and the authors of these, angered by their failures, tried to force France to enjoy the benefits that when it overthrew the kings. (Oligarchies are the same in all it didn’t want, and denied it the ones it did want. (2) We ages!) But the people exercised considerable political rights are called by our happy revolution to enjoy the benefits of directly. They met to vote on the laws and to judge nobles representative government, 1 and we couldn’t find freedom who had been accused of wrong-doing. So Rome had only feeble traces of the representative system. and peace today except under the shelter of that form of government; yet it was totally unknown to the free nations Representative government is a modern discovery, and of antiquity, and it would be interesting and useful to look you will see that the condition of the human race in an- into why that is so. tiquity made it impossible then for such an institution to be introduced or established. The ancient peoples couldn’t I know that some writers have claimed to detect traces of it among some ancient peoples, in the republic of Sparta, feel the need for it, or appreciate its advantages. Their social organization led them to want a kind of freedom totally for example, or among our ancestors the Gauls; but this is different from what representative government grants to us. wrong. What Sparta had was in no way a representative government—it was a •monastic aristocracy. The power of Tonight’s lecture will be devoted to demonstrating this truth to you. the kings was indeed limited, but it was limited by the magistrates, not by men whose assigned task was like that First ask yourselves what an Englishman, a Frenchman, and a citizen of the United States of America understand of today’s elected defenders of our liberties. No doubt the magistrates, once the institution had been created by the today by the word ‘liberty’. For each of them it is kings, were nominated by the people. But there were only five the right to be subjected only to the laws, and not to of them. Their authority was as much religious as political; be arrested, imprisoned, put to death or maltreated they took part in the actual administration of government, in any way by decision of one or more individuals; 1 I call it happy, despite its excesses, because I’m focussing on its results. 1 Benjamin Constant Ancient and modern liberty the right of each person to express his opinion, choose [About the word jouissance: On a few occasions Constant speaks of a profession and practise it, dispose of his own prop- our jouissance of liberty, independence, or whatever; and there it means erty and even to misuse it; ‘enjoyment’—our jouissance of our independence is just ourhaving in- the right to come and go without permission, and dependence and finding it satisfactory to have it. But more often, as without explaining what one is doing or why; here, he speaks of jouissances with no of, and that creates a translation the right of each person to associate with other problem: ‘pleasures’ is too narrow: you can care about your jouissances individuals—whether to discuss their interests, or without being pleasure-driven. In a way, ‘enjoyments’ would be better, to join in worship, or simply to fill the time in any way but that wouldn’t generate good colloquial English. This version will use that suits his fancy; and ‘benefit(s)’ throughout, but remember: the items called ‘benefits’ include each person’s right to have some influence on the any things or events or states of affairs that could contribute to the administration of the government—by electing all satisfactoriness of the person’s ]ife. or some of the officials, or through representations, All private actions were strictly monitored. No room was petitions, or demands that the authorities are more allowed for individual independence of opinions, or of choice or less obliged to take into consideration. of work, or—especially—of religion. We moderns regard the Now compare this liberty with that of the ancients. right to choose one’s own religious affiliation as one of the The liberty of the ancients consisted in carrying out most precious, but to the ancients this would have seemed collectively but directly many parts of the over-all functions criminal and sacrilegious. In all the matters that seem to us of government, coming together in the public square to the most important, the authority of the collective interposed • itself and obstructed the will of individuals. The Spartan discuss and make decisions about war and peace; form alliances with foreign governments; Therpandrus can’t add a string to his lyre without offending vote on new laws; the magistrates. In the most domestic of relations the public pronounce judgments; authority again intervene: a young Spartan isn’t free to visit examine the accounts, acts, and stewardship of the his new bride whenever he wants to. In Rome, the searching magistrates; eye of the censors penetrate into family life. The laws regulate call the magistrates to appear in front of the assem- mœurs, and as mœurs touch on everything, there’s nothing bled people; that the laws don’t regulate. accuse the magistrates and then condemn or acquit [About the word mœurs: This is left untranslated, because it can mean them. ‘customs’, ‘habits’, ‘way of life’, ‘morality’, and the preparer of this version But while the ancients called thisliberty, they saw no incon- is not willing to make an unannounced choice amongst these for each sistency between this collective freedom and the complete occurrence of the word. As you read on, you’ll see why. Pronunciation: subjection of the •individual to the authority of the group. make it rhyme with ‘purr’] You find among them almost none of the benefits [jouissance] Among the ancients, therefore, the individual is nearly that I have just listed as parts of the liberty of the moderns. always sovereign in public affairs but a slave in all his private relations. As a citizen he decides on peace and war; as a 2 Benjamin Constant Ancient and modern liberty private individual he is constrained, watched and repressed incessantly attacked its neighbors or was attacked by them. in all his movements; as a member of the collective body Thus driven by necessity against one another, they fought he interrogates, dismisses, condemns, impoverishes, exiles or threatened each other constantly. Those who had no or sentences to death his magistrates and superiors; as a desire to be conquerors couldn’t lay down their weapons subject of the collective body he can himself be deprived of for fear of being conquered. War was the price the free his status, stripped of his privileges, banished, put to death, states of antiquity had to pay to purchase their security, by the free choice of the whole of which he is a part. Among their independence, their whole existence; it was a constant the moderns, on the other hand, even in the freest states concern of theirs, and an almost constant occupation. And, the individual is sovereign only in appearance, though he is as an equally necessary result of this mode of existence, independent in his private life. His sovereignty is restricted all these states had slaves. The manual labour and even and nearly always suspended; and if at fixed and rare (in some nations) the business activities were entrusted to intervals—surrounded by precautions and obstacles—he people in chains. exercises this sovereignty, all he ever does with it is to The modern world looks totally different from that. The renounce it. smallest states of our day are incomparably larger than I must pause for a moment here to anticipate a possi- Sparta was, or than Rome was through five of its centuries. ble objection. There is in antiquity a republic where the Even the division of Europe into distinct states is more subjection of individual existence to the collective body is apparent than real, thanks to the spread of enlightenment. not as complete as I have just described it. It is the most Back then, each people constituted an isolated family, the famous of all the republics—yes, I am speaking of Athens. born enemy of other families; whereas now there is a mass I’ll return to it later, and in agreeing that that is the fact I’ll of human beings that have the same basic nature, though show you its cause. We shall see why Athens is the ancient with different names and forms of social organization. This state that most resembles the modern ones. Everywhere else mass is strong enough to have nothing to fear from barbarian social jurisdiction was unlimited. Condorcet was right: the hordes. It is enlightened enough to find war a burden. Its ancients had no notion of individual rights. Men were, so to uniform tendency is towards peace. speak, nothing but machines whose gears and cog-wheels This difference brings another one with it. War precedes were regulated by the law. The same subjection was a feature commerce, because they are merely two different ways of of the great centuries of the Roman republic: the individual achieving the same end—namely, coming to own what one was in a way lost in the nation, the citizen lost in the city. Let wants to own. If I want something that you own, commerce— us now track this essential difference between the ancients i.e. my offer to buy it from you •—is simply my tribute to and ourselves back to its source. your strength, •i.e. my admission that I can’t just take the All the ancient republics were geographically small. The thing I want. Commerce is an attempt to get through mutual most populous, most powerful, most substantial among agreement something that one has given up hope of acquiring them weren’t equal in size to the smallest of modern states. through violence. A man who was always the strongest Their small size inevitably made them bellicose: each people wouldn’t ever conceive the idea of commerce. What leads us 3 Benjamin Constant Ancient and modern liberty to resort to commerce is our experience that war—i.e. the use speak impregnated by the spirit of the age, by the atmo- of our strength against the strength of others—exposes us sphere of war and hostility surrounding it. Commerce then various obstacles and defeats. When we turn to commerce we was a lucky accident, today it is the normal state of things, are using a milder and surer means of making it in someone the only aim, the universal tendency, the true life of nations. else’s interests to agree to what we want. War is impulse, They want repose, and with repose comfort, and as a source commerce is calculation; and for just that reason a time of comfort, business. War becomes, daily, a more ineffective must come when commerce replaces war. We have reached means of satisfying their wishes. Its risks no longer offer, to that time. individuals or to nations, benefits that match the results of I don’t mean that amongst the ancients there were no peaceful work and orderly exchanges. Among the ancients, a trading peoples. There were, but they were somehow an successful war increased public and private wealth inslaves, exception to the general rule. I can’t, in a lecture, list all the •tributes = money and goods that the losers are compelled to pay to obstacles that there were back then to the development of the victor]and lands shared out. Among the moderns a war—even a successful one—is certain to cost more than commerce; you know them as well as I do; I’ll mention just one. it is worth. Finally, thanks to commerce, religion, and the Because they didn’t have compasses, the sailors of antiq- moral and intellectual progress of the human species, there uity always had to keep within sight of the coast as much are no longer slaves among the European nations. All the as possible. To pass through the straits of Gibraltar—their professions, all provision for the needs of society, must be done by free men. ‘Pillars of Hercules’—was regarded as the most daring of enterprises. The Phoenicians and the Carthaginians, the It’s not hard to have some sense of what the inevitable ablest of navigators, didn’t risk it until very late, and for a result will be of these differences. long time no-one followed their example. In Athens, which (1)The bigger a country is, the smaller is the political I’ll come to shortly, importance allotted to each individual. The most obscure what Constant wrote next: l’intØrºt maritime Øtait d’environ republican of Sparta or Rome had power. The same is not true of the simple citizen of Britain or of the United States. soixante pour cent, pendant que l’intØrºt ordinaire n’Øtait His personal influence is an invisibly small part of the social que de douze, what he may have meant: insuring a maritime trading jour- will that gives the government its direction. (2)The abolition of slavery has deprived the free population of all the leisure ney cost about 60% of the value of the cargo, whereas other kinds of insurance of goods cost only 12%, they used to have when slaves did most of the work. Without the slave population of Athens, 20,000 Athenians couldn’t which shows how dangerous the idea of distant navigation have gathered in the public square for discussions, every day. seemed. (3) Commerce doesn’t leave intervals of inactivity in men’s If only I had time I would show you—through the details lives, as war does. The free people of antiquity would •often• of the ancient traders’ mœurs, habits, ways of going about have languished under the weight of miserable inaction if it trading with other peoples—that their commerce was so to hadn’t been for the constant exercise of political rights, the 4 Benjamin Constant Ancient and modern liberty daily discussion of the affairs of the state, the disagreements, satisfied when peace and decent friendship reigned in their the secret planning sessions, the whole procession and households, making allowances for the wife who is not strong movement of factions, necessary agitations, the compulsory enough to withstand nature’s tyranny, closing their eyes to remplissage meaning something like packing, gap-pluggi, so to the irresistible power of passions, forgiving the first weakness speak, of their lives. All of that would only cause trouble and and forgetting the second. In their relations with strangers, fatigue to modern nations, where each individual—occupied they can be seen extending the rights of citizenship to anyone with his speculations, his enterprises, the benefits he has or who would move in with his family and establish some trade hopes for—doesn’t want to be side-tracked from them other or workshop. Finally, we shall be struck by their excessive than momentarily, and as seldom as possible. (4)Commerce love of individual independence. inspires in men an intense love of individual independence. In Sparta, says a philosopher, the citizens quicken their It supplies their needs, satisfies their desires, without any step when they are called by a magistrate; but an Athenian intervention from the authorities. This intervention is almost would hate to be thought to be subordinate to a magis- always. . . I don’t know why I say ‘almost’. . . this intervention trate. However, because several of the other features that is always a trouble and an embarrassment. Every time fixed the character of ancient nations existed in Athens as collective power tries to meddle with private speculations, it well—there was a slave population and the territory was harms the speculators. Every time governments offer to do very restricted—we find in Athens too the remnants of the our business for us, they do it worse than we would and at specifically ancient form of liberty. The people make the greater cost. laws, examine the magistrates’ conduct, summon Pericles to report on his administration, sentence to death the generals I said that I would return to Athens: it might be cited as contradicting some of my assertions, but in fact it confirm who were in command at the battle of the Arginusae. At the them all. Athens, as I have already pointed out, engaged in same time, ostracism—a kind of decision that was legal, and the pride of all the legislators of trade far more than any other Greek republic; so it allowed to its citizens infinitely more individual liberty than did Sparta the age, but or Rome. If I could go into historical details, I would show that rightly seems to us to be disgustingly wicked— you that with the Athenians commerce had removed several shows that the individual was still much more subservient of the differences between ancient and modern peoples. The to the supremacy of the social body in Athens than he is in spirit of the Athenian merchants was like that of merchants any free state in Europe today. today. Xenophon tells us that during the Peloponnesian So you can see that we can’t any longer enjoy the liberty war the Athenians moved their treasures from mainland that the ancients had, consisting in constant active partici- Attica to the islands of the archipelago. Commerce had pation in collective power. Our liberty has to consist of the created the circulation of money for them. In the writings peaceful enjoyment of private independence. Each person’s of•Isocrates there are signs that money-orders were in use. share in the sovereignty of his country wasn’t an abstract bit See how much their mœurs are like ours. In their relations of theory, as it is•for us• today. The will of each individual with women you’ll see (I’m citing Xenophon again) husbands, had real influence, and the exercise of this will was a lively 5 Benjamin Constant Ancient and modern liberty pleasure each time it was employed; which is why the an- feel sad about the pastness of the time when man’s faculties cients were willing to make many sacrifices to preserve their were developing in a direction already marked out for them, political rights and their share in the administration of the but sweeping forward with such strong powers and with state. Each one of them, feeling with pride the great value of such a sense of energy and dignity; and if we give ourselves his vote, regarded this sense of personal importance as more over to such feelings we can’t help wanting to imitate the than making up for his sacrifices. Such compensation no things we feel sad about losing. This feeling was very strong, longer exists for us today. Lost in the crowd, the individual especially when we were living under vicious governments can hardly ever see the influence that he exerts. His will that were weren’t strong but were never impresses itself on the whole; nothing confirms in his harsh, eyes his own cooperation. So the exercise of political rights repressive in their effects, offers us only a part of the benefit that the ancients found absurd in their principles, in it, while at the same time the progress of civilization, the wretched in action; steady increase of commerce, the communication amongst with personal decision of the monarch • as their final peoples, have infinitely multiplied and varied the means of court of appeal; personal happiness. with belittling of mankind as their purpose It follows that we must be far more attached than the an- —governments that some individuals still dare to praise to cients to our individual independence. Whenthey sacrificed us today, as if we could ever forget having been witnesses that independence in order to keep their political rights, they and victims of their obstinacy, of their impotence and of were sacrificing less to obtain more; whereas for us it would their overthrow. The aim of our reformers •in the French be giving more to obtain less. The aim of the ancients was Revolution •was noble and generous. Who among us didn’t to share social power among the citizens of a single country; feel his heart beat with hope when he first set foot on the that’s what they called ‘liberty’. The aim of the moderns is to road that they seemed to open up? Admitting that our first be secure in their private benefits; and ‘liberty’ is their name guides committed some errors doesn’t mean fouling their for the guarantees accorded by institutions to these benefits. memory or disowning opinions that mankind’s friends have I said at the outset that men who were otherwise well- professed down through the centuries; and those who even intentioned caused countless harms during our long and today don’t accept this—shame on them! stormy revolution, because of their failure to see these But those men— •our first guides in the revolution •—had differences. God forbid that I should criticise them too extracted some of their theories from the works of two severely; their error itself was excusable. One can’t read philosophers who themselves hadn’t suspected the changes the beautiful pages of antiquity, one can’t follow the actions in the dispositions of mankind that two thousand years of its great men, without feeling. . . well, a special kind of had brought. The more illustrious of these philosophers, emotion that isn’t aroused by anything modern. The old Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was a sublime genius, animated by elements of a nature that we used to have, so to speak, seem the purest love of liberty; but by transposing into our modern to awaken in us in the face of these memories. It’s hard not to age an amount of social power, of collective sovereignty, that 6 Benjamin Constant Ancient and modern liberty belonged to other centuries, he provided deadly pretexts for some country or other, he thought he had made a discovery more than one kind of tyranny. (I’ll show this if and when I and proposed it as a model. He loathed •individual liberty examine Rousseau’s system •in detai•.) In pointing out what in the way one loathes a personal enemy; and whenever in I regard as a misunderstanding that it is important to un- history he came across a nation totally deprived of it, even cover, I shall be circumspect in my refutation, and respectful if it had no •political liberty, he couldn’t help admiring it. in my criticism. I certainly won’t join the detractors of a great He was ecstatic about the Egyptians because, he said, with man. Whenever I happen to find myself apparently agreeing them everything was governed by the law—right down to with those detractors on a single point, I lose confidence in relaxations, right down to needs: everything was constrained myself; and to console myself for appearing for a moment to by the dominance of the legislator; every moment of the agree with them on one limited point, I need to devote all my day was filled by some duty; even love was subject to this energies to disowning and denouncing these would-be allies. respected intervention, and it was the law that opened and But the interests of truth should have precedence over then closed the curtains of the nuptial bed. considerations that give so much power to the glory of a This philosopher was roused to an even more intense prodigious talent and the authority of an immense reputation. enthusiasm by Sparta’s combination of •republican forms And, anyway, we’ll see that it is not Rousseau who is chiefly and the same enslavement of individuals. That vast con- responsible for the error that I am going to argue against; vent [or, as a previous translator put it, ‘that vast monastic ]arracks’ the responsibility for it lies much more with one of his appeared to him to be the ideal of a perfect republic. He successors, less eloquent than Rousseau but no less austere deeply despised Athens, and would have been willing to say and a hundred times more extreme. I am talking about the of this nation, the first one of Greece, ‘What an appalling abbØ de Mably, who can be seen as the representative of the despotism! Everyone does what he likes there.’ (That’s what system which, following the maxims of ancient liberty,
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