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Unformatted text preview: The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns Benjamin Constant, 1816 Gentlemen, I wish to submit for your attention a few distinctions, still rather new, between two kinds of liberty: these differences have thus far remained unnoticed, or at least insufficiently remarked. The first is the liberty the exercise of which was so dear to the ancient peoples; the second the one the enjoyment of which is especially precious to the modern nations. If I am right, this investigation will prove interesting from two different angles. Firstly, the confusion of these two kinds of liberty has been amongst us, in the all too famous days of our revolution, the cause of many an evil. France was exhausted by useless experiments, the authors of which, irritated by their poor success, sought to force her to enjoy the good she did not want, and denied her the good which she did want. Secondly, called as we are by our happy revolution (I call it happy, despite its excesses, because I concentrate my attention on its results) to enjoy the benefits of representative government, it is curious and interesting to discover why this form of government, the only one in the shelter of which we could find some freedom and peace today, was totally unknown to the free nations of antiquity. I know that there are writers who have claimed to distinguish traces of it among some ancient peoples, in the Lacedaemonian republic for example, or amongst our ancestors the Gauls; but they are mistaken. The Lacedaemonian government was a monastic aristocracy, and in no way a representative government. The power of the kings was limited, but it was limited by the ephors, and not by men invested with a mission similar to that which election confers today on the defenders of our liberties. The ephors, no doubt, though originally created by the kings, were elected by the people. But there were only five of them. Their authority was as much religious as political; they even shared in the administration of government, that is, in the executive power. Thus their prerogative, like that of almost all popular magistrates in the ancient republics, far from being simply a barrier against tyranny became sometimes itself an insufferable tyranny. The regime of the Gauls, which quite resembled the one that a certain party would like to restore to us, was at the same time theocratic and warlike. The priests enjoyed unlimited power. The military class or nobility had markedly insolent and oppressive privileges; the people had no rights and no safeguards. In Rome the tribunes had, up to a point, a representative mission. They were the organs of those plebeians whom the oligarchy -- which is the same in all ages -- had submitted, in overthrowing the kings, to so harsh a slavery. The people, however, exercised a large part of the political rights directly. They met to vote on the laws and to judge the patricians against whom charges had been leveled: thus there were, in Rome, only feeble traces of a representative system. leveled: thus there were, in Rome, only feeble traces of a representative system....
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This note was uploaded on 01/29/2012 for the course PLS 212 taught by Professor Sheridan during the Spring '08 term at University of North Carolina Wilmington.
- Spring '08