Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter iv.: ancient and modern liberty.—ancient, medieval, and modern states. - On Civil Liberty and Self-Government
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chapter iv.: ancient and modern liberty.—ancient, medieval, and modern states. - Francis Lieber, On Civil Liberty and Self-Government 
On Civil Liberty and Self-Government, 3rd revised edition, ed. Theodore D. Woolsey (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1883).
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ancient and modern liberty.—ancient, medieval, and modern states.
That which the ancients understood by liberty differed essentially from what we moderns call civil liberty. Man appeared to the ancients in his highest and noblest character when they considered him as a member of the state or as a political being. Man could rise no higher in their view. Citizenship was in their eyes the highest phase of humanity. Aristotle says in this sense, the state is before the individual. With us the state, and consequently the citizenship, remain means—all-important ones, indeed, but still means—to obtain still higher objects, the fullest possible development of humanity in this world and for the world to come. There was no sacrifice of individuality to the state too great for the ancients. The greatest political philosophers of antiquity unite in holding up Sparta as the best regulated commonwealth—a communism in which the individual was sacrificed in such a degree, that to the most brilliant pages of all history she has contributed little more than deeds of bravery and salient anecdotes of stoic heroism. Greece has rekindled modern civilization, in the restoration of letters. The degenerate keepers of Greek literature and art, who fled from Constantinople when it was conquered by the Turks, and settled in Western Europe, were nevertheless the harbingers of a new era. So great was Grecian knowledge and civilization even in this weakened and crippled state!Yet in all that intellectuality of Greece which lighted our torch in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, there is hardly a single Lacedaemonian element.
Plato, when he endeavors to depict a model republic, ends with giving us a communism, in which even individual marriage is destroyed for his higher classes.1
We, on the other hand, acknowledge individual and primordial rights, and seek one of the highest aims of civil liberty in the most efficient protection of individual action, endeavor, and rights. I have dwelt upon this striking and instructive difference at length in my work on Political Ethics,2 where I have endeavored to support the opinion here stated by historical facts and passages of the ancients. I must refer the reader, therefore, to that part of the work; but there is a passage which seems to me so important for the present inquiry, as well as for another which will soon occupy our attention, that, unable to express myself better than I have done in the mentioned work, I must beg leave to insert it here. It is this:—
“We consider the protection of the individual as one of the chief subjects of the whole science of politics. The πολιτιχῆἐπιστήμη or political science of the ancients, does not occupy itself with the rights of the individual. The ancient science of politics is what we would term the art of government, that is, ‘the art of regulating the state, and the means of pre serving and directing it.’ The ancients set out from the idea of the state, and deduce every relation of the individual to it from this first position. The moderns acknowledge that the state, however important and indispensable to mankind, how ever natural, and though of absolute necessity, still is but a means to obtain certain objects, both for the individual and for society collectively, in which the individual is bound to live by his nature. The ancients had not that which the moderns understand by jus naturale, or the law which flows from the individual rights of man as man, and serves to ascertain how, by means of the state, those objects are obtained which justice demands for every one. On what supreme power rests, what the extent and limitation of supreme power ought to be, according to the fundamental idea of the state,—these questions have never occupied the ancient votaries of political science.
“Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, do not begin with this question. Their works are mainly occupied with the discussion of the question, Who shall govern? The safety of the state is their principal problem; the safety of the individual is one of our greatest. No ancient, therefore, doubted the extent of supreme power. If the people possessed it, no one ever hesitated in allowing to them absolute power over every one and everything. If it passed from the people to a few, or was usurped by one, they considered, in many cases, the acquisition of power unlawful, but never doubted its unlimited extent. Hence in Greece and Rome the apparently inconsistent, yet in reality natural, sudden transitions from entirely or partially popular governments to absolute monarchies; while in modern states, even in the absolute monarchies, there exists a certain acknowledgment of a public law of individual rights, of the idea that the state, after all, is for the protection of the individual, however ill conceived the means to obtain this object may be.
“The idea that the Roman people gave to themselves, or had a right to give to themselves, their emperors, was never entirely abandoned, though the soldiery arrogated to themselves the power of electing the masters. * * * Yet the moment that the emperor was established on his throne, no one doubted his right to the absolute supreme power, with whatever violence it was used.1
“Liberty, with the ancients, consisted materially in the degree of participation in government, ‘where all are in turn the ruled and the rulers.’ Liberty, with the moderns, consists less in the forms of authority, which are with them but means to obtain the protection of the individual and the undisturbed action of society in its minor and larger circles. Ἐλευθερια, indeed, frequently signifies, with the Greek political writers, equality; that is, absolute equality; and ὶσότης, equality, as well as ἐλευθερία, are terms actually used for democracy,1 by which was understood what we term democratic absolutism, or unlimited despotic power in the demos, which, practically, can only mean the majority, without any guarantee of any rights. It was, therefore, perfectly consistent that the Greeks aimed at perfect liberty in perfect equality, as Aristotle states, not even allowing a difference on account of talent and virtue; so that they give the πάλος, the lot, as the true characteristic of democracy. They were consistently led to the lot; in seeking for liberty, that is, the highest enjoyment and manifestation of reason and will, or self-determination, they were led to its very negation and annihilation—to the lot, that is, to chance. Not only were magistrates, but even generals and orators determined by lot.”2
Had the ancients possessed other free states than city-states, they would have been forced out of this position; but there were no states in antiquity, if we take the term in the adaptation in which we use it when we mean sovereign political societies spreading over extensive territories and forming an organic legal whole. Even the vast monarchies of ancient Asia were conglomerated conquests with much of what has just been called a city-state. Nineveh, Babylon, were mighty cities that swayed over vast dominions as mistresses, but did not form part of a common state in the modern term.
In the middle ages liberty appears in a different phase. The Teutonic spirit of individual independence was one of the causes which led to the feudal system, and frequently prospered under it in rank disorder. There was no state proper in the middle ages; the feudal system is justly called a mere system. It was no state; and medieval liberty appears in the shape of liberties, of franchises, singly chartered, separately conquered, individually arrogated—each society, party, or person obtaining as much as possible, unmindful of others, and each denying to others as much as might be conveniently done. The term freedom, therefore, came distinctly to signify, in the middle ages, not exactly the amount of free action allowed to the citizen or guaranteed to the person who enjoyed it, but the exemption from burdens and duties imposed upon others or exacted in former times. Liberty had not yet acquired a substantive meaning, although it need not be mentioned that then, as well as in ancient times, the principle which made noble hearts throb for liberty and independence was the same that has made the modern martyrs of liberty mount the scaffold with confidence and reliance on the truth of their cause.
I am here again obliged to refer to the Political Ethics, where I have treated of this peculiarity of the middle ages in the chapter on the duties of the modern representative, contradistinguished from the medieval deputy.
The nearer we approach to modern times the more clearly we perceive two movements, which, at first glance, would appear to be destructive the one to the other. On the one hand states, in the present sense of the term, are formed. There is a distinct period in the history of our race, which may be aptly called the period of nationalization. Tribes, fragments, separate political societies, are united into nations, and politically they appear more and more as states. It is one of the many fortunate occurrences which have fallen to England in the course of her history, that she became nationalized at a comparatively very early period. The feudal system was introduced at a late period, and as a royal measure. The king made the Norman-English nobility. The nobility did not make the king. The English nobility, therefore, could not resist the national movement and consolidation of the people into a nation, as it did on the continent, and the crown thus not being obliged to gather all possible strength, in order to be able to subdue the baronial power, had not the opportunity to pass over into the concentrated principate, which was one of the political phases in every other part of Europe.1
On the other hand we observe that the priceless individual worth and value which Christianity gives to each human being, by making him an individually responsible being, with the highest duties and the highest privileges, together with advancing civilization, in a great measure produced by itself—the Teutonic spirit of personal independence, connected not a little with the less impressionable, and therefore more tenacious, and sometimes dogged character of the Teutonic—all these combinedly, developed more and more the idea of individual rights, and the desire of protecting them.
These two facts have materially influenced the development of modern liberty, that liberty which we call our own. The progress we value so much was greatly retarded on the continent by an historical process which was universal among the nations of Europe, excepting those of Sclavonic origin, because they had not yet entered the lists of civilization.
The feudal system, of far greater power on the continent than in England, interfered with the process of nationalization and the formation of states proper. The people gradually rose to a higher position, a higher consciousness of rights, and the inhabitants of the cities generally found the baronial element hostile to them. The consequence was, that the crowns and the people united to break the power of the baron. But in the same degree as the struggle was tenacious, and the crown had used stronger power to subdue the feudal lord, it found itself unshackled when the struggle was over, and easily domineered over both the people and the lords. Then came the time of absorbing regal power, of centralization and monarchical absolutism, of government-states, as Niebuhr calls them. The liberties of the middle ages were gone; the principles of self-government were allowed to exist nowhere; and we find, at the present period only, the whole of the European continent, with the exception of Russia, as a matter of course, engaged in an arduous struggle to regain liberty, or rather to establish modern freedom. Everywhere the first ideas of the new liberty were taken from England, and, later, from the United States. The desire of possessing a well-guaranteed political liberty and enjoyment of free action was kindled on the European continent by the example of England. The course which we observe in France, from Montesquieu, who, in his brilliant work on the Spirit of Laws, has chiefly England in view as a model, to the question at the beginning of the first French Revolution, whether the principles of British liberty should be adopted, was virtually repeated everywhere. The representative principle, the trial by jury, the liberty of the press, taxation and appropriations by the people's representatives, the division of power, the habeas corpus principle, publicity, and whatever else was prominent in that liberty peculiar to the Anglican race, whether it had originated with it, or had been retained by it when elsewhere it had been lost in the general shipwreck of freedom, was longed for by the continental people, insisted on, or struggled for.
It is well, then, to ask ourselves, In what does this Anglican liberty consist? The answer is important, in a general point of view, as well as because it is the broad foundation and frame-work of our own American liberty.
[1.]It is a striking fact that nearly all political writers who have indulged in creating Utopias—I believe all without exception—have followed so closely the ancient writers, that they rose no higher than to communism. It may be owing in part to the fact that these writers composed their works soon after the restoration of letters, when the ancients naturally ruled the minds of men.
[2.]Chapter xiii. of the second book.
[1.]This was written in the year 1837. Since then, events have occurred in France which may well cause the reader to reflect whether, after all, the author was entirely correct in drawing this peculiar line between antiquity and modern times. All I can say in this place is, that the political movements in France resemble the dire imperial times of Rome just so far as the French, or rather the Napoleonists among them, step out of the broad path of modern political civilization, actually courting a comparison with imperial Rome, and that this renewed imperial period will be nothing but a phase in the long chain of political revulsions and ruptures of France. The phase will not be of long duration, and, after it will have passed, it will serve as an additional proof of our position.
[1.]Plato, Gorg., 71.
[2.]For the evidence and proof I must refer to the original. [Dr. Lieber is in an error in classing generals among the officers chosen at Athens by lot. Comp. K. F. Hermann, Gr. Staatsalterth.,i. § 149; Schömann, Gr. Alterth., i. 422; and Tittmann, Staatsverfass., who gives a list of appointments to office by lot and by cheirotonia, pp. 311-318.]
[1.]The history of no nation reminds the student so frequently of the fact that “His ways are not our ways,” as that of England. Many events which have brought rum elsewhere, served there, in the end, to obtain greater liberty and a higher nationality. The fact that the Norman nobility in England was the creature of the king—for this, doubtless, it was, although they came as Norman noblemen to the field of Hastings—is one of these remarkable circumstances. The English civil wars; the fact that most of England's monarchs have been indifferent persons, and that after Alfred the Great but one truly great man has been among her kings; the inhospitable climate, which was treated by the people like a gauntlet thrown down by nature; that they developed that whole world of domestic comfort and well-being, known nowhere else, and of such important influence upon all her political life; her limited territory; her repeated change of language; her early conquests,—these are some items of a list which might easily be extended.