Benjamin Constant: “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns”

In an old oil painting, Benjamin Constant looks toward the viewer

 

Benjamin Constant (1767-1830) was a Franco-Swiss political theorist, activist and writer who defended individual freedom during the turbulent era of the French Revolution, Napoleon’s reign, and the restoration of the French monarchy. His arguments for individual freedoms and representative government influenced both classical liberal thought and French politics. “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared to that of the Moderns” (1816), one of Constant’s most important essays, contrasts liberty in ancient times, which meant formal political liberties but no individual rights, with liberty in the modern age, which is centered on respect for individual rights, representative government, the rule of law and the right to engage in commerce. Constant argues that both types of freedom are the surest safeguard against the abuse of power. He also asserts that representative government is the institutional form best suited to ensure freedom and human development. At the dawn of the age of democratic government, Constant’s writing underscored the importance of placing limits on power and of recognizing the inviolable nature of civil and political rights.

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