Ancient vs modern liberty

Benjamin Constant, Isaiah Berlin, and Charles Taylor have radically different notions of freedom, which are concentrated mostly around negative versus positive freedom, and even what qualifies as liberty. Constant, for instance, contrasts the liberty of the ancients with the liberty of the moderns and concludes that we shouldn’t emphasize one at the expense of the other. He argues that they’re both integral to a proper notion of liberty. Berlin, on the other hand, critiques the concept of positive liberty as almost self-contradictory, since the very idea of positive liberty as bringing man to a higher freedom by abrogating his freedom is strange and prima facie contradictory. Taylor concerns himself with the internal struggles that individuals face as distinct from being free from outside influence or coercion.

Constant’s definition of liberty contrasts the liberty of the ancients with the liberty of the moderns. He conceives of the liberty of the ancients as concerning an individual’s relation to the community and his ability to take part in political and social life. Here, Constant’s distinction is sound; while philosophers tend to all use the word liberty, they mean radically different things by it. So the liberty of the ancients consists of collective participation in affecting the direction of the community, specifically by debating and deliberating in the public square, voting on laws, holding public officials accountable, pronouncing judgments, examining accounts, and making alliances with other governments, etc. This was the collective liberty that the liberty of the ancients refers to. It was the sharing of social power. Constant laments the fractionalization that has occurred through the liberty of the moderns. He thinks that the emphasis on strict individualism has ignored the importance of collective influence on the community in favor of a negative freedom, that is, the freedom from coercion. But this is exactly what we should not forget, Constant says. Leaving governing decisions in the hands of governors without the checks and balances provided by the people through the liberty of the ancients, the modern conception of liberty as being free from coercion will be in name only. We should hold fast to the former, the liberty of the ancients, without forgetting the latter, the liberty of the moderns. These two in conjunction are essential. If the liberty of the ancients is pursued exclusively, then individual liberty will have little meaning. But if we pursue the liberty of the moderns, then those in authority will only be happy to let us do so, since they will be virtually unchecked and unaccountable in their decisions. In this way, Constant aims to present an important synthesis by acknowledging that both types of liberty are essential to the human person.

Isaiah Berlin begins with a critique of coercion as being defined as anything other than the absence of freedom as a result of the interference of other human beings. He thinks it nonsensical to hold that, for instance, the inability to comprehend Hegel or the inability to jump six feet in the air is an instance of coercion. The English political philosopher, he writes, meant that political liberty is the area in which men can act absent interference from others. This liberty must be limited in some way because of the conflicting desires and interests of men that cannot be reconciled, for there can otherwise be no civil society. However, this does not mean that this provides a license for coercion. Instead, it has been held that there is a certain domain of political liberty that must never be violated because it would frustrate the natural development of the faculties. So political liberty is essential, but implicit in that definition is room for some level of coercion, and so there must be some distinction drawn between public and private life. Berlin acknowledges the difficulty in holding to a private life that is completely autonomous from public life. Interdependence, not independence, is the obvious characterization of men in relation to one another. This, of course, leads to the difficulty in drawing a fine line between negative and positive liberty, since on a purely negative view of liberty, the liberty of a professor is vastly different than that of a peasant. And so some from the persuasion of positive liberty say that negative liberty alone does not allow the full development of the natural faculties, and that those who do gain superiority in wealth and social status have done so through exploitation. However, Berlin comments that that is not at all liberty per se—it may be economic well-being, or it may be equality and justice, but liberty is liberty and none of those alternate goods may be deemed liberty. This is precisely how Berlin deals with the difficulty in distinguishing between positive and negative liberty. The paradox, then, is that while negative liberty coerces no one, positive liberty, in striving for self-sufficiency, mastery, and autonomy, must abrogate freedoms, in order pursue higher freedoms. The positive school would distinguish between the autonomous self and the empirical self, where the autonomous self is one’s higher nature, while the empirical self is the self that is readily manifest in society as being one that is a slave to passion and desire and is unable to discern its highest good. So Berlin thinks that in the provision of certain goods by society, men must be coerced through the appeal to what their rational or autonomous self would clearly want if the empirical self was capable of discernment. But Berlin thinks that the appeal to this entity, the autonomous self, is spurious. We may be coerced for our benefit, even if we clearly will against it, but it cannot be claimed that we actually do will it in the face of one’s intense protests.

Taylor’s approach argues for positive freedom. If negative freedom is wholly sufficient, then countries ought to be ranked in terms of quantitative instances of coercion. But if we were to do this, all sorts of absurdities would arise. For instance, Albania, as Taylor points out, would be freer than Britain because Albania has only banned religion, which largely practiced in the private sphere and all that often, while Britain has innumerable traffic lights. In showing this reductio ad absurdum, Taylor hopes to convince his readers that since men are purposive beings, we differentiate on qualitative grounds, and not simply quantitative grounds. Taylor emphasizes the struggle that occurs in persons over desire fulfillment. We readily acknowledge that some desires are better than others, but too often we pursue the wrong desires. In effect, although we know what ought to be done, we are a slave to our passions and competing desires, and so cannot. S on this view, the naïve definition of negative freedom is not enough. Even if there are no outside obstacles, there may be internal ones. And even internally we may be mistaken about what our ultimate end is, and so negative freedom is insufficient. We ought to have positive freedom, as well.

The differences between these thinkers are largely relegated to Berlin and Taylor. Likely, both would recognize the distinction between ancient and modern liberty. Berlin and Taylor, however, clash on negative and positive liberty. Berlin thinks that liberty is liberty, not equality and justice. He also thinks that the positing of the autonomous self as willing (despite the protests of the empirical self) whatever society will is spurious.