[W]e can no longer enjoy the liberty of the ancients, which consisted in an active and constant participation in collective power. Our freedom must consist of peaceful enjoyment and private independence.--B. Constant
The main point of Benjamin Constant's (1819) essay-lecture (recall pre-history), "The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns," is a criticism of the earlier "noble and generous" generation of French revolutionaries (of 1789); the criticism is not that they were violent, sacrilegious, or failed to obey tradition. Rather, his criticism is two-fold: the more obvious first criticism is that they did not understand the "spirit" of their own times and thereby misapplied the wrong political philosophy to their own situation. They thereby aimed at a form of freedom that is incompatible with the kind of society French was becoming in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. For, Constant is a certain kind of historicist about freedom. The less obvious obvious -- and largely ignored -- second criticism is that these revolutionaries, due to a faulty (but "necessary") education, relied on theories developed by philosophers (Rousseau and Mably) that failed to grasp properly the relationship between their own theories and the social world they inhabited. The two points are connected: because of such mismatch these disinterested and humane philosophers unintentionally made "fashionable" lapsed ideas and thereby "furnished deadly pretexts for more than one kind of tyranny." A better philosophy could have helped design beter social institutions: "Free institutions, resting upon the knowledge of the spirit of the age, could have survived."
The second point is notable because Constant is willing to criticize Rousseau for consequences of his theorizing that were not intended (see my musings on the "Socratic Problem"). It is as if Constant applies to Rousseau a rhetorical precautionary principle: do not promote ideas that can be a pretext for tyranny. That is to say, Constant takes seriously the possible influence of philosophy on society and views it as legitimate criterion for judging another philosopher. I think Constant is right about this. But, in this essay, Constant does not wrestle with the question if such a pretext is only a consequence of flawed theorizing or also a consequence of theorizing that tracks social reality; he also does not ask to what degree we ought to be held accountable for the social consequences of our philosophical activity even if we made no error.+
On the first point, it is worth asking, what is a "spirit of the age" and what would be knowledge of it? Constant thinks that security from attack (due to relative geographic proximity, population-size) is a key factor in a society's organization. According to Constant the (Greek and Roman) Ancients were focused on permanent warfare (due to lack of security). This focus on war entailed a fundamental division of labor: a free and leisurely warrior class and enslaved working class. (Constant allows that there are exceptions to the generalization.) If war defined the "spirit" of Greeks and Romans , then this "spirit" gives raise both to (i) a fundamental, spirit-relative human need (including a variety of liberty), and (ii) influences even the "customs, habits, [and] way of trading with others," that is "their commerce was itself impregnated by the spirit of the age, by the atmosphere of war and hostility which surrounded it." The two (i-ii) are connected as follows:
the liberty we need is different from that of the ancients, it needs a different organization from the one which would suit ancient liberty...in the kind of liberty of which we are capable, the more the exercise of political rights leaves us the time for our private interests, the more precious will liberty be to us.
Constant's analysis of a '"spirit of an age" is indebted to Montesquieu (and Smith), but he applies the theory more consistently than Montesquieu.* Even if we do not apply more precision to Constant's framework than he himself would do,** his essay has some not fully acknowledged tensions. It's not always clear if a 'spirit of an age' is just the fundamental focus (i.e., war or commerce) that structures social reality or, rather, the fuller complement of social institutions that instantiate it (ii). Constant finesses the issue a bit by suggesting that if institutions are out of sync with spirit-relative needs these institutions become at "once ineffective and intolerable." So, such out-of-sync institutions can be implemented (at great cost) from above and initially welcomed with great popular enthusiasm, but they draw natural resistance from the very same people that welcomed them.
But it also follows from Constant's analysis that some institutions, like education, can be out-of-sync with their times, and yet persist (to great harm) without some such resistance ("social organization led them to desire an entirely different freedom from the one which" the modern "spirit" generates). It also follows -- and Constant explicitly anticipates this point -- that even institutions that are in-sync with the "spirit" of their their age when instituted can malfunction without proper attention and ongoing political education (he foresees how representative government can degenerate due to influence of money and faction). So, even if an institute is not thought intolerable or ineffective, it can not follow from and be attuned to the spirit of the age. But if such mismatch between institution and spirit may not be obvious, then, how are we to evaluate 'fitting the spirit,' if not by social consequences?
Constant's position also entails that each generation's thinkers as well as would be revolutionaries and reformers has to confront the match and mismatches between ideals, institutions, and the spirit of the age. Sometimes the mismatches are due to lack of institutional maintenance, as it were, but at other times social organization has changed. In particular, it is possible that there is a spirit that moves beyond the age of commerce (and is compatible with "that noble disquiet which pursues and torments us.") If one were to live in such an age it is dangerous to recycle the moral and philosophical platitudes of an earlier age.
+In the paper, Constant recognizes that some philosophical activity that tracks metaphysical truth can also have bad social consequences for the philosopher: "Athenians, who killed Socrates for having under- mined polytheism,"
*Montesquieu is criticized by Constant for tracing the differences between Ancient & Modern freedoms to different constitutional arrangements rather than to deeper, underlying material and social causes (that are the 'spirit of the age').
**" In the present conditions of society, morals are formed by subtle, fluctuating, elusive nuances, which would be distorted in a thousand ways if one attempted to define them more precisely. Public opinion alone can reach them; public opinion alone can judge them, because it is of the same nature. It would rebel against any positive authority which wanted to give it greater precision."