Freedom vs. the Collective

by David Gordon

In a famous lecture delivered in August 1819, the great classical liberal Benjamin Constant contrasts the ancient and modern conceptions of liberty. By the “ancient conception,” Constant means the liberty of the citizens of a state to rule themselves, as opposed to rule by despots, whether foreign or domestic. He has primarily in mind the ancient Greek city-states. He says that ancient liberty

consisted in exercising collectively, but directly, several parts of the complete sovereignty; in deliberating, in the public square, over war and peace; in forming alliances with foreign governments; in voting laws, in pronouncing judgments; in examining the accounts, the acts, the stewardship of the magistrates; in calling them to appear in front of the assembled people, in accusing, condemning or absolving them. But if this was what the ancients called liberty, they admitted as compatible with this collective freedom the complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the community….All private actions were submitted to a severe surveillance. No importance was given to individual independence, neither in relation to opinions, nor to labor, nor, above all, to religion. The right to choose one’s own religious affiliation, a right that we regard as one of the most precious, would have seemed to the ancients a crime and a sacrilege.

He contrasts this with the liberty of the moderns.

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