Benjamin Constant on Liberty: Review of Article

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Benjamin Constant was a Swiss-French philosopher, one of the firsts to be called a liberal. This essay concerns with Constant’s classical text ‘The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns’, which he had addressed to the Athenee Royal de Paris in 1819. This essay-lecture, written in the wake of the French revolution, presents in an argumentative and a suggestive tone, comparison between the two kinds of liberties - one which was practiced by the ancients and the other which the moderns’ practiced or needed. For Ancients, liberty stood for collectively and directly carrying out affairs of the government. This collective political liberty obstructed and interposed the will of the individuals by regulating each area of their life. Whereas for the moderns, liberty centered on respect for individual rights, the rule of law and the right to engage in commerce. To bring about this difference, he gives the examples of the ancient groups and republicans such as Sparta, Rome, the Gauls and Athens with Athens being the only state where “subjection of individual existence to collective body was not as complete as in the others”. In this essay, Constant argues against eighteenth century revolutionaries’ vain and foolish obsession with importing ideas about public and private life from classical philosophy into the modern world. In this regard he critically analyzed the works of de Mably and Rousseau as examples of men whose confusion between the two liberties led to their students’ confusing the ancients’ liberty as their own, resulting in what he calls the ‘evil beginnings’ of the ‘happy revolution’. Constant claims that owing to the difference in the size, social organization, complexity and goals, ancient liberty can no longer be practiced in the modern world. Thus, stresses on the importance of the combination of the two liberties in order to attain a successful representative state which according to him, is the best suited for the moderns.

Historical Context

The message of the text was deeply political and was aimed at giving guidance to the citizens of Restoration France as they sought to recover from the double trauma of the French Revolution of 1789 and the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte, recently brought to an end by defeat for France at the Battle of Waterloo. Benjamin Constant wrote this text in two different phases. The first part of the text was written in collaboration with Mme. Germaine de Stael around 1798 (Gauchet 2009, 34; Vincent 2000, 619-620). The second part of the text was completed around 1819 when France was under Bourbon restoration. During this time the French monarchy was restored and ultra-loyalists (who dominated the legislature) wanted complete reinstallation of the absolute power of sovereign. Wary of such monarchical enthusiasm, Constant utilized his earlier understanding of ancient and modern liberty both to deplore the absolute sovereignty of the king and to demonstrate the dangers of individual emancipation from politics. Like all great thinkers, Constant spoke in terms that would transcend his immediate historical context. Deeply convinced that he was living in the dawn of a new age (era of commerce and industry), he deliberately addressed himself to the ‘modern’ men and ‘friends of liberty’ he hoped to sway, using a very general and universalizing language.

Ancient and Modern Liberty

The liberty for ancients consisted of public democratic control, the right to take part in shared political decision making which shaped collective life. They understood liberty in its narrow sense which was limited to the right to vote. “The ancients saw no inconsistency between collective freedom and complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the group”. There was strict surveillance by the government leading to every aspect of the citizen’s life being regulated by law. There was no space given for individual expression. The ancients functioned in a collective way. Thus, as Constant clearly remarked, “the ancient individual was nearly always sovereign in public affairs but a slave in all his private relations”. However, as societies progressed, needs of individuals changed. The states grew larger-limiting and reducing the importance of an individual’s vote due to the increasing population. The necessity of war eroded, giving way to the practice of commerce by the people. The tradition of slavery, which formed an important component of individuals in antiquity being able to directly exert influence in political affairs, was rejected by the moderns. Societies become more diverse and each person started valuing personal freedom-wishing to preserve their personal identity. They regarded liberty as guarantees of individual freedom encompassing some of the basic rights, subjects of a democracy have today. For example - freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom to associate with others, freedom to move freely and so on. Liberty for modern men meant the rule of law, right to privacy and personal safety. The moderns realized that they would be sacrificing more to gain less and that the costs of war were greater than its benefits. Thus, one can say that the shift in the idea of liberty from the ancient to the modern was a practical one. Modern individuals had to focus both on their domestic as well public lives. Unlike the ancient times where slaves, who were brought as prisoners from the defeated states in interstate wars, did most of the domestic and trade related work, the moderns were all by themselves - having to focus on both aspects of their lives-decreasing the leisure time on their hands. Moreover, the increasing size of both the state and the population, as stated earlier, made it nearly impossible for the state to micromanage the affairs of an individual and left very few ways to repress them. Commerce was now looked upon on as a more efficient way to maintain freedom and prosperity.

However, a point needs to be made here. Constant claims that “modern states were sufficiently civilized to find war a burden”. This idea, central to his distinction between ancient and modern liberty, has been discredited by the fact that the new empires often used war as a means to expand their markets for commerce. For example, America’s pacific empire of the late 1800s.

Constant was very adamant that the state should not interfere with the expressions of ideas. To this effect he gives the examples of Athenian ostracism, where Athenians sent to exile, those they disagreed with, and roman censorship. According to him, ostracism “rested upon the assumption that society had complete authority over its members” and could be useful in a small state where individuals could have much power. However, in the modern Europe man is not subservient to the state but rather has “rights which society must respect”, exile “is an abuse” which “no one has the right” to do. Constant, then, is arguing for the primacy of the rights of an individual; and thus ostracism, in exiling one from his homeland on account of “alleged reasons of public safety”, impinges upon these rights. In contrast, Aristotle saw ostracism as a protective measure, allowing the demos to exile men who became too grand and hence, protect the city from potential tyrants. Thus, for Aristotle, ostracism meant keeping a check on the power of those who were ruling, whereas for Constant, it was an arbitrary process and a political abuse. In relation to Roman censorship, Constant claims that if it occurred in the modern times, all men would revolt. This can be said to be true as in the modern times freedom of expression is considered as the most important safeguard against arbitrary rule.

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Another element central to his distinction between moderns and ancients is religion. Ancients did not have the freedom of religion. There was no separation between the church and politics. As Constant describes, Socrates was put on trial for “not believing in the gods of the state”—an affront to our idea of religious liberty that didn't strike the Athenians strange at all. Constant believed that any intervention in the domain of religion by government caused harm and that the existence of numerous competing religious opinions and sects was good for society as a whole.

Constant also ponders that modern liberty promotes the right of the individual to “dispose of property and even to abuse it”. Though only brushed over, this marks an important break from ancient views such as Locke’s that “unused property is waste and an offence against nature”. His argument, therefore, gives stronger founding to private independence.

Constant recognized that no form of sovereignty – including popular sovereignty – was unlimited and that society did not have an unlimited authority over its members. In theoretical terms, this meant hostility to the ideas of Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Constant’s belief that individuals were the possessors of rights independent of any social and political authority meant that he also rejected Bentham’s utilitarian critique of the language of rights. The principle of utility, he believed, encouraged us to place considerations of personal advantage over those of public duty.

Representative Government

Benjamin Constant believed that the ideal way for the moderns to practice political liberty was through a representative government wherein the citizens elect their representatives who work on their behalf. The modern men unlike the ancients try to save more and more time to enjoy their personal freedoms, interests and commerce. Benjamin pleads to the readers to keep a check on the proceedings of its chosen representatives and not be fully submerged in their personal gains and freedoms. He points out to the fact that the dangers to modern liberty and ancient liberty aren’t the same. While in ancient liberty the danger was that “men exclusively concerned with securing their share of social power, might under value individual rights and benefits”, the danger in 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 right to share in political power”. Understanding the modern preference for economic affairs, he endeavors to grab modern reader’s attention by referring to a financial example. He warns the modern man to be vigilant and not take the liberties assured to him for granted as these can be politically undone. He reiterates that all our modern goods are vulnerable to bad politics, and they are only secure if we secure them with better politics, which requires that we engage with democratic life rather than retreating to the private economy. believes that we can’t attain satisfaction only through happiness alone. One must improve himself/herself. Self-improvement, a goal of all individuals, according to him is best realized through political liberty. Representative system plays a central role in balancing between political and civil liberties, particularly making laws and balancing the active powers of the judiciary and executive authorities. He also asks the institutions to carry out moral education of its citizens. By moral education, Benjamin refers to citizenship rights of the people, i.e., enlightened individuals who contribute to the state via voting and ensuring accountability of the institutions.


The elaboration of the background in which the two parts were written, demonstrates in fact that Constant’s 1819 text emerges from his concern for and reflection on French political conditions as he experienced them. For Constant, individual reigns supreme. Constant was able to frame his text in a way that it resonates with individuals even today. He stressed on the importance of combining both political and individual liberty and suggests that representative form of government is the most suitable for the modern people. He explained his philosophy in a really lucid manner making it easy for the reader to understand. This review was able to analyze the critical aspects of his essay-lecture and the motivations behind.

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Benjamin Constant on Liberty: Review of Article. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 17, 2024, from
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