Front Page Titles (by Subject) Benjamin Constant & Liberty - Literature of Liberty, Spring 1982, vol. 5, No. 1
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Benjamin Constant & Liberty - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Spring 1982, vol. 5, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Benjamin Constant & Liberty
“Conquest, Dictatorship, and Ancient Liberty.” In Benjamin Constant's Philosophy of Liberty: A Study in Politics and Religion. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1980, Chapt. 2.
Benjamin Constant (1767 – 1830), French liberal journalist and orator, intimate friend of Mme. de Staël, and part of the Weimar Goethe-Schiller circle, was one of the first to grasp the nature of Bonapartism as the first truly modern dictatorship. Constant's most famous political work—De l'esprit de conquête et de l'usurpation (published 1814 but composed years earlier) — delineated Bonaparte's new kind of despotism which intoned a rhetoric of liberty, general will, and popular sovereignty. In this prophetic work, Constant seems to describe Hitler's Germany (or the mass man of Orwell's 1984), develops a complete philosophy of history, and renders a diagnosis of the ills of modern life under the terms, usurpation and the “spirit of conquest.”
“Usurpation” is Constant's term for the new Napoleonic dictatorship as distinguished from the older, less sophisticated monarchic despotism. Whereas despotism is an abstract institution softened by habit and the checks of a rival body of nobility, usurpation is unlimited with charismatically personal, direct, and centralized power. The despot forbids discussion and exacts only obedience; the modern usurper manipulates the illusion of consent through indoctrination.
Next, Constant's analysis of the new “spirit of conquest” revealed the absolute conformity demanded in the wake of the Jacobin phase of the French Revolution. The modern conqueror sought not merely outward submission but a spiritual, inner conformity that erased diversity and individuality. Constant's connection of variety, diversity, and liberty as opposed to totalitarian conformity may have been influenced by the German liberal Wilhelm von Humboldt's Limits of State Action.
Reversing Rousseau's criticism of industrial society, Constant praised the superior virtues of modern commercial society over ancient military society. Bourgeois society's cultivation of peace and comfort found Napoleon's war and conquest costly and anachronistic. In addition, modern commercial society invidiously compared the politicized citizen with the more admirable private social person. Modern or civil liberty repudiates the older civic virtue for personal rights. Ancient and modern liberty are two distinct historical experiences of liberty. Historical progress made modern liberty preferable, but one might still feel nostalgia for the shared sense of civic solidarity associated with the irretrievable past. Constant himself sought to combine the best elements of civil and political liberty.