December 27, 2020

ROGER KIMBALL: Constant’s Liberty, Ancient and Modern.

This is just scratching the surface of Constant’s essay. What he elaborates is a melancholy dialectic of liberty in which nostalgic efforts to resuscitate ancient forms of liberty on the stage of modern life yield tyranny. And yet distinctively modern forms of liberty depend in the end on a ground of genuine political liberty if they are to thrive. Hence the paradox:

Individual liberty, I repeat, is the true modern liberty. Political liberty is its guarantee, consequently political liberty is indispensable. But to ask the peoples of our day to sacrifice, like those of the past, the whole of their individual liberty to political liberty, is the surest means of detaching them from the former and, once this result has been achieved, it would be only too easy to deprive them of the latter.

Modern totalitarians, those of a soft as well as those of a harder disposition, have understood and exploited this paradox. Hence Constant’s prescient warning. Some people, he says, noting that we moderns cannot resurrect ancient forms of liberty without abolishing our quotidian freedoms, “conclude that we are destined to be slaves. They would like to reconstitute the new social state with a small number of elements which, they say, are alone appropriate to the situation of the world today.”

And what are these elements? Constant might have been writing in the opening decades of the 21st century rather than the opening decades of the 19th. Consider: “These elements are prejudices to frighten men, egoism to corrupt them, frivolity to stupefy them, gross pleasures to degrade them, despotism to lead them; and, indispensably, constructive knowledge and exact sciences to serve despotism the more adroitly.” 

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