When the Ancient World Was Still a Living Memory

I often discuss the historical period beginning with the Enlightenment thinkers and ending with the early modern revolutions. There are many obvious reasons for this focus, as in many ways it is the origins of the world we live in. But for the same reason, it was also the end of the world that came before.

That is what makes it so fascinating to read the words of those who were alive then. They were well aware of what was being lost. It was still within living memory, such as the last remnants of feudalism still holding on even as revolutions were remaking society. The costs of change were clearly understood and many thought it necessary to compensate in some way for what was being lost (e.g., Paine’s citizen’s dividend) or at the very least to acknowledge its passing.

That is different today. We live in a world fully changed. There is little if any living memory of what came before, although isolated traces linger in some remote places. This relates to the disconnection I see among so many people today, across the political spectrum, but it stands out most for me among liberals I observe. Liberalism has embraced modernity and so forgotten its roots, the historical development and radical thought that made it possible. Blindness to the past makes for a lack of vision in the present.

All of this was brought to mind because of something I just read. It is a Jacobin article by Alex Gourevitch, in response to Mark Lilla’s review of Corey Robin’s 2011 book, The Reactionary Mind. Gourevitch writes that,

“[I]f liberalism were really committed to the view that the individual is “metaphysically” prior to society, that would almost single-handedly eliminate the French liberal tradition, from the proto-liberalism of Montesquieu, to the sociological liberalism of Benjamin Constant, to the holist liberalism of Emile Durkheim. Constant’s famous speech in 1819 distinguishing the liberty of the moderns from that of the ancients was explicitly based on an appreciation of the social origins of modern individualism. “Ancient peoples,” wrote Constant, “could neither feel the need for [modern liberty], nor appreciate its advantages. Their social organization led them to desire an entirely different freedom from the one which this system grants to us.” Social organization “leads” and systems “grant.” No “metaphysical” priority of the individual there.”

Benjamin Constant was of French ancestry. His family had fled religious persecution and so he was born in Switzerland, but he returned to France as an adult. He was one of the first people to identify as a liberal and he was involved in the revolutionary fervor of the times, although he sought moderation. What interests me here is that it was the French Revolution that led to the abolition of feudalism in that country. Feudalism was still a major force at the time, although it was on the wane across Europe. When Constant wrote of the ancient world, he surely was speaking from the firsthand experience of the persisting ancient social order in the world around him.

Many thinkers of that era wrote about the past, specifically of Western history. They were literally and experientially closer to the past than we are now. Feudalism, for example, had developed from the landholding tradition of the Roman Empire. The influence of the ancient world was much more apparent at the time and so they could speak of the ancient world with a familiarity that we cannot. For us, that earlier social order is simply gone and at best we could read about it in history books, not that many will ever bother to do so. It’s not a living reality to us and so doesn’t compel our interest, certainly not our moral imaginations.

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