"First ask yourselves, Gentlemen, what an Englishman, a Frenchman, and a citizen of the United States of America understand today by the word 'liberty'. For each of them it is the right to be subjected only to the laws, and to be neither arrested, detained, put to death nor maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals. It is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings. It is everyone's right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they or their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is more compatible with their inclinations or whims. Finally, it is everyone's right to exercise some influence on the administration of the government, either by electing all or particular officials, or through representations, petitions, demands to which the authorities are more or less compelled to pay heed. Now compare this liberty with that of the ancients. The latter 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."
Benjamin Constant
[Henri-Benjamin Constant de Rebecque] (1767-1830) Swiss-born thinker, writer and French politician.
"De la liberté des anciens comparée à celle des modernes" (1819), in De la liberté chez les Modernes (Paris: Librairie Générale Française, 1980), pp. 494-495; English translation: "The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns" (1819), in Benjamin Constant, Political Writings, Edited by Biancamaria Fontana (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 310-311.
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Reader comments about this quote:
What a revelatory exhortation of what we assume to be liberty to be its exact opposite. Awesome!
 -- EGL, LA     
    Excellent - one is performed in the West with some in the East and the other in the East with some in the West
     -- Robert, Sarasota     
    It sounds like being subject to laws but not be arrested for breaking them therefore not being accountable or subject to them at all. Might be a bad or rough translation, but it's a bit of conflict sort of the anarchist's delmna. Or collectivist anarchist, which spells out delmna or paradox.
     -- G■l■k Zolt■n Leenderdt Franco Buday, Vancouver, GVRD(Paine Cnty), Coastal Lwr Mainland BC(State of Neo Sumer), U.S. of Eh!     
    It is no paradox to defend the definition of 'inalienable rights' against the will of the mob.
     -- E Archer, NYC     
  • 2
    This is a very complete listing of what makes up liberty. It is pretty obvious when one goes through this checklist that liberty is under attack from the so-called left and so-called right. In fact it is hard to tell the difference between left and right. They simply concentrate on destroying different liberties. We all become so caught up in our disdain for those currently in power that we forget the evils of the opposition, when we should be saying, "Hang them all!"
     -- Ken, Allyn, WA     
  • 1
    Golok assumes people will break the law, yet most people try to obey the law. Perhaps he is projecting his desire to commit crime on others. When each person may do as he/she pleases, society is better off. I read South Carolina, Georgia, Texas and other states have laws which ban sex toys. Apparently people have no right to pursue happiness? pandagon.net/2006/04/23/south-carolina-ready-to-ban-sex-toys
     -- Joe, Rochester, MI     
  • 1
    I'd like to ditto EGL, Archer and Allyn. Joe, I think you're right for reasons other than that to which you elude. Constitutional happiness didn't necessarily cover erotic pleasures but rather, property, and the pursuit thereof.
     -- Mike, Norwalk     
  • 1
    One of the best quotes we've ever had.
     -- Logan, Memphis, TN     
    The essence of the quote (more like an essay or a dissertation than a simple quote) seems to be a comparison of the understanding of liberty to a Frenchman, an Englishman and an American of the day (200 years ago) with that of the ancients. I■m not sure if these ancients, whoever they are, considered their liberty collectively, thereby giving up their individuality or not. If he wants to make that distinction, so be it, but in any case, and it may have been the fault of the translator, the grammar is unworthy of a quotable novelist, such as the author. He uses plural pronouns (their, them, they) with singular antecedents (everyone, each of them) at least a half dozen times I don■t take his point of the statement, nor apptove the grammar he uses to express it.
     -- Jack, Green, OH     
  • 1
    Liberty is: “The power of acting as one thinks fit, without any restraint or control, except from the laws of nature.” (Bouvier’s Law Dictionary) “Liberty: exemption from extraneous control. The power of the will, in its moral freedom, to follow the dictates of its unrestricted choice, and to direct the external acts of the individual without restraint, coercion, or control from other persons. Liberty is the right which nature gives to all mankind of disposing of their persons and property after the manner they judge most consistent with their happiness, on condition of their acting within the limits of the law of nature, and so as not to interfere with an equal exercise of the same rights by other men.” (Blacks Law Dictionary 1st ed.) Liberty: "Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add within the limits of the law,' because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual." (Thomas Jefferson)

    The legal positivism spoken by the quote comes close to natural law's real thing. AND, for Jack, liberty is the same yesterday, today and forever.
     -- Mike, Norwalk     
  • 1
    The articulation of a Clear and Sober mind ! An Un-obscured overview of broadmindedness, encompassing our Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. As one set in a " Large Room ". Putting forth a Riyb debate on behalf of the God of Nature and Natural law ! First Homologoumenos, the right to speak Freely, based upon deep conviction of Fact, Secondly, Chophshiy Liberty, at ones pleasure, With Eleutheria, and Apeleutheros Liberties to follow. To speak openly in the Gate, assembled or otherwise. I find it befitting Mr. Constant is Swiss-born. He Speaks of and on the behalf of Brakah Liberality, blessed of God. Drowr Liberty, Pure. Shema, Something heard by design. Promoting peace as a good Ambassador, ascribing righteousness to the God of Nature. upbraiding, Peace among Sovereigns ! Very Sound words, clear in harmony.
    Semper Fi in Amen, Plumb and Square !
    As always, Semper Fi. Amen
     -- Ronw13, Yachats Or     
    Very circumspect ! Shamar, As a Watchman, to revere, retain and watch over, in the sense of fulfilling a Responsibility !
     -- Ronw13, Yachats Or     
    Bravo - The Unalienable Rights of the individual should always be sacrosanct over and above any collective "Mob Rule."
     -- Mary - MI     
    Liberty! Never to be seen again, unless there is another revolution.... and then the whole process repeats...
     -- Robert, Somewhere in Europe     
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