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The Liberty of The Ancients Compared with that of The Moderns 

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Influence of Authority on Liberation
  3. Evolution From Antiquity Societies to Modern

Benjamin Constant de Rebecque, born on 25 October 1767, was a Swiss-French political activist and writer on politics and religion. Famously known for his french translated article The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns, Constant depicts the several augmentations nations have experienced in their mindset and structure, through evolution, with time being a major playing factor. Analyzing his various claims on how liberation has deviated from its preceding definition through deviations in nations’ political regimes and the implementation of practices such as trade, arguments arise on if linkage can be drawn between modern and antique societies. Questioning whether antique methods of dealings although oppressive were consistent as negative as described and interconnecting reasonings on why modern societies are where they are right now. By referring to various other philosophers and articles, a final analog is hoped to be drawn on what liberation means to the free man.

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Time is change, transformation, and evolution. Although this phrase can depict several meanings, one deviation could be that with time, the world observes the multitudinous amount of change which accelerates the rate of transformation and thus conclusively denotes evolution.

Touched upon in the lecture given by Benjamin Constant, in his article The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns, Constant describes the fundamental differences between the newly distinguished types of liberty, that of the ancient and modern societies. Adopting a rather casual yet objective tone, exhibiting both numerous viewpoints and opinions on several nations, Constant uses the famous quotes of Jean Jacques Rousseau and Abbé de Mably to further corroborate his data and thus attempt to bring forth his arguments.

Constant believed that there are two different types of ‘Liberty’, one of the ancient societies, collective social liberty, and one of the modern, private individualistic liberty. Using history as his primary reference through the addition of numerous ancient societal groups such as Rome, Athens, and various others, he further attempts to pertain to a conclusive stance that what liberty has evolved with time. His analysis of the works of Mably and Rousseau laced with french diction enables one to conclusively assimilate a factual technique in deciphering why exactly these concepts were misconceived for as long as they were.

Influence of Authority on Liberation

Authority, translating to having the legal and political power to influence and enforce the law, has perpetually always been interlaced with the concept of liberty. Holding the meaning of ‘the right to be subjected only to the laws, and not to be arrested, imprisoned, put to death or maltreated in any way by the decision of one or more individuals;’ liberty stagnates one’s ability to retain their self-independence.

Constant states that modern authoritative regimes revolve around the ideology that the commanding forces must make it feasible for the economy to withstand threats and progress at a rapid rate and thus the introduction of commerce and trade. This ideology foretells the story that through networking, one’s nation will prosper and dissuade the precedent threats. Foretelling the story that in antiquity it wasn’t uncommon for religious standpoints and political influences to be used when formulating a basic formula on how to survive, his critical viewpoint seems to be shaped by the perception that survival was merely always solely centered around one’s fundamental choices. His analysis although conceptually constant, that preceding societies were unable to sustain moderate levels of freedom due to the constraints customarily associated with collective liberty prohibits one from believing that self-chosen prospects such as religion were anything other than primary contributors to their oppression. Providing no consideration towards individualistic freedom, societies suffered due to their lack of privacy, and various references were made highlighting the slave-like atmosphere adopted in prehistoric days. Constant’s choice to include historical references aids in upholding a more stagnant base for her readers when drawing parallels between different nations of both preceding and present times. During his reference to the Gauls, he highlights that they survived on a rather theocratic and violence-fueled system one of which constituted the suppression of civilians and in turn deprived them of what would be known now as their fundamental rights. On the other hand, his choice to omit essential details such as more detailed comparisons between modern nations to those of antique days brings about doubt on whether preceding nations coherently were as unhappy as they seemed to be depicted. He also passes remarks on the Roman Republic who also followed the forum of ancient liberty through a more representative system that participated in regular voting to concoct customary laws and judgments and thus breaches the wall constituting that feudal and regulated control was of complete distaste.

The addition of a detailed review of the highly contrastive yet more modernly described Nations such as the Lacedaemonian Republic and The Athenians who followed monastic and ostracised positions respectively provide readers with a basis for comparison thus to obtain a self-regulated opinion of why oppression standards have deviated through time and evolution. These references although a quite informative aid in corroborating and broadening the mind in the values and aspects of how society failed due to their immoral and unsustainable methods and thus further influencing our perception of societal fallacies of both decades. Yet due to its inclusions, the plausibility to comprehend the distinctions of these times is made slightly less feasible due to its highly contrastive nature that grants confusion.

Depicted to be closer in nature to our modern states, Lacedemonians were described as a tyranny to its monarchical power by their king, yet the adoption of regulation through five separate individuals, who held authority in both political and religious aspects, aided in regulating his prepositions yet still stagnated in fully obliterating oppression. The inclusion of the Athenian history of how they were well versed with the practice of a trade, through the employment of money which provided their citizens with fundamental rights provides the perception of a positively evolving state. Yet further made clear that the practice of ostracism, slavery, and oppression was yet not relinquished revokes the claim that evolution through time does essentially ever lead to complete progress. Constant further comments on how these practices were unethical as it’s assumed that society had complete authority over its members’, further broaden the argument that liberation was and still is merely a socially constructed concept, one of which mankind still fails to comprehend even after years of trial and ever.

Through the introduction of the post-modern methods of survival within these nations Constant succeeds in highlighting subtle aspects which aides in formulating his argument that although a man is born free, he is impulsively forced to surrender his liberty by the jurisdiction of those who control his nation.

War, for many centuries, has held supremacy when considering how individuals obtained their rights to liberty. Constant’s argument that this impulsive nature was a practice that constituted the weak being forced to relinquish their independence and thus was unwillingly probed into slavery highlights the importance of why the slave trade was, in fact, a time of suppression and where liberty was undoubtedly merely an imaginative term.

He also states that modern societies, unlike their predecessors, adopted the means of commerce to attempt to achieve their conclusive goal of obtaining what they desire, through means which wouldn’t expect them to bow out their individualistic freedom and hopefully not lose more than they invested. This brings forth a rather non-comprehensible confusion as to its evidence from his analysis of how for the ancients, they were incapable of correlating a link between collective freedom and enforcement of authority from one party to another until now. It seems evident that the practice of commerce was essentially a calculative procedure, and thus the argument formulates that modern liberty has succeeded when considering corroboration and due to that the conception of evolution is seen in a positive light again.

Commerce is another vital keyword in the article and it translates to ‘the offering to buy a substance off an individual through a peaceful bargain rather than force, institutes a tribute to one’s strength,’. Describing it as a business-like atmosphere, Constant formulates the conception that due to this peace and tranquillity adopted, individuals made it possible for slavery to slowly be abolished and through the implementation of laws, several economic undertakings were now penalized and prohibited. This is not an uncommon practice that has slowly been adopted in several other countries, such as India, with such as The Indian Slavery Act. This practice as it was clearly contradictory to ancient methods, provided societies with a new forum to anticipate newer social norms and attempt to further grow in economic and political fortitude and due to that is brought forth the universally accepted ideology that through industrialization and commercialization, nations grow and thus now even ‘The most populous, most powerful, most substantial among them weren’t equal in size to the smallest of modern states’.

Commerce is a concept that has been commented on by several influential parties of several nations. French philosopher, Montesquieu, in his book, The Spirit Of Laws, brings forth an argument contradictory to Constant’s, that commerce although denoting a sense of liberty in the mind of an individual still has severe restrictions. Through the implementation of trade restrictions, it’s still made plausible for political parties to administer the civilians and businesses, and to dominate their plans and choices and thus our nations are still reasonably administered. In opposition, these restrictions seem to only have been in pertinence to protect individuals from losing sight of their goals and thus monitoring their eventual success, providing that it in fact if done adequately.

It seems as though without these restrictions, antiquities would have suffered if not for the constant communication passed forward through collective power, which seems debatable considering the restriction already associated with this technique. The intervention denoted by the government, although formally present, no longer permits leniency to meddle with all forms of private and public affairs, thus essentially liberating the free man from these decrees.

Evolution From Antiquity Societies to Modern

Trade, provided through commerce, brought forth several hopeful prospects for the antique societies. Athens is the most regular in this practice, successfully eliminating numerous differences between their antique and modern society. Through the circulation of money, it was evident that citizens were now more acquiesced to obtaining their benefits or ‘moeurs’ by opening their homes to the idea of marriage and friendships, a seemingly deviated meaning of trade of a person through non-enslavement related means.

Constant mentions how during time interval warfare, men were constantly forfeiting their rights to land, individuals, and public property while stagnating their chances of progress. Modern men contrastively, share social power through non-combative means, trade, and this understanding is what institutes that no maltreatment occurs within or across nations, an ideology which he highlights through a brief on the French Revolution.

Constant, throughout his articles, is found to attempt to justify his persona by contradictory statements of other philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau who believed that ‘an individual should be enslaved for the people to be free’. Both Rousseau and de Mably held negativity fueled arguments on how the implementation of personal liberty, renounces the admiration that was held towards antique nations such as the Egyptians, Spartans, and Athenians, all of which are popular research fuels in this field of analysis. Holding perspectives that are unsupportive of personal liberty and freedom, there is a belief that it is merely an extension of power to unrequited settlements. Believing that ‘personal freedom needs to submit to the collective will in exchange for participation in social power’, Constant disagreed with these claims stating that modern men deserve to enjoy their rights without the necessity of war and violence.

Holding a strong belief that a modern man demands the moeurs of both individual and political liberty, he brings forth a new form of socio-political freedom, one where the relinquishing of personal individual liberty will not be required. Through the election of representatives for the nation’s protection and political effectiveness, citizens have denoted the chance to seek their forms of happiness and enjoyment, jouissance, without the watchful eyes of a highly restrictive power. Enabling them the chance to both elect and strip these representatives of their power, permits societies to no longer be forced to accept restrictive authority without fear of abuse or exile due to retaliation, a clear distinction between modern and antique liberation. Although this does seem like a push into a positive evolution, the conflicting argument stagnates from the claim that although the same level of authority is no longer adopted, these representatives are still denoted enough rights to overrule parties, especially when done with malicious intent.

The attempt to entirely abolish the feudal laws and practices of the country, The French Revolution was a time of extensive danger throughout Europe. In an attempt to withdraw from the jurisdiction of Louis XVI and undermine all political-religious influenza of the Catholic Church and in turn, developed society to its modern scenario.

With the Catholic Church and Louis XVI squeezing combined more than eight percent of the nation’s total private wealth, citizens were left in a state of poverty with the relinquishment of free trade agreements and catastrophic droughts. Constant highlights the importance to analyse and draw connections between modern and ancient liberty to obtain complete moeurs and every modern-day man’s version of individualistic privacy and thus security. His belief that modern liberty is of utmost importance and cannot be neglected is justified by his references to the works of Rousseau and de Mably. Arguing that supremacy must only be limited to relevancy, his belief that the state must clearly distinguish between civil and political rights, and thus move away from the conceptions of ancient and french absolutism regimes is not a flawed argument as through it, further, development may be accomplished, more of which can adhere to the nation’s notion for evolution in terms of economy and politics.

Contradicting Montesquieu’s theory of how ‘power must check, power by the arrangement of things,’ he believed that no single power should have a stronghold over the state. Regardless of the negative aspect constituted by liberation, Constant was ready to argue that neutral order should prevail by the relinquishment of absolutism and ancient regimes in France and thus diminishing the stringent lifestyles adopted throughout the years. By contradicting Rousseau’s claim which he correlated to intense dissatisfaction, lack of moeurs, with the implementation of despotism and usurpation, he rather has complimented counter arbitrary power. Commenting on the French system of politics based on modern forms of liberty, he willingly compliments their progress from communal solidarity to that of individualistic uniformity.

Promoting the monarchies measure, Constant explains how it’s most important for one to be enabled the choice to pick their religious affiliation. Condemning France’s Catholicism, he pushes that modern liberty enables one to both dispose and abuse his property, and thus this further helps his argument and aids in founding private interdependence and societal neutralization and progress. The apparent measure of ostracism in France, from 1802, provided a base for contradiction whilst reinforcing individual independence within modern liberty.

For Constant, individual liberty is the right in the modern state, and it is through the ancients’ political liberty that we are guaranteed it.


In conclusion, Constant’s french translated work, The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns, deciphers the difference between antiquity and modern liberty. Justifying his claims by bringing forth arguments and references such as how different prehistoric states have moved from a collective system to representation or analyzing various monarchal authorities. His attempts to also brief his readers on how wars and violence have diminished in commonality due to the introduction and practice of commerce and trade. The prevalence of modern liberty was made clear by the clear distinctions between civil and political rights alongside his stressing on the importance of safeguarding one’s rights to prevent loss proportionate to what had occurred during ancient times.

Accepting that modern-day men desire their liberty and are more appreciative of it when its obtained through peaceful means dissuades the requirement of sacrificing their sense of freedom. Advancing into their specialized versions of jouissances and moeurs while monitoring elected representatives, modern-day men are finally satisfied.

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Conclusively, Constant’s article also depicts how to bring forth tranquillity in the eyes and minds of their society, politicians were required to refrain from troubling citizens while still effectively exercising their power. If done successfully, as Constant states and attempts to analyze, then the term liberty would successfully interconnect both its modern and antique versions, and thus would prevail a successful representative state. Thus ‘Liberalism would unlock humanity’s creative potential, yielding the first-ever rise of widespread abundance through industrial mass production’.

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