In this book, Luca Fezzi explores whether it is possible to apply the values and principles of ancient Rome to the modern state at the dawn of the new millennium. The author reviews a number of political theories based on the values of the classical world, using as his starting point and model Benjamin Constant’s speech entitled “de la liberté des Anciens comparée à celle des Modernes”, written in 1819. In this speech Constant defended a theory of liberty based on the possession and enjoyment of civil rights and freedom in a broad sense, and also the Empire of Law.
In the first part of the book, Fezzi considers Constant`s speech in the light of the theories of three modern authors1 to show the vitality of the Roman legacy for the modern state, as well as to defend his thesis that it is impossible to separate the public and the private spheres in politics. From Constant`s point of view, the main fact was that, while the ancients were willing to die to defend the free participation of the individual in the state, the modern citizen gives priority to his individual independence and freedom from the state. According to Constant, as the mass of citizens increased, the capacity of visible involvement in the community decreased. On the other hand, the extension of trade increasingly covered many of the individual’s needs, and so his dependence on the state diminished. As the citizen feels that his civil rights and consequently his influence in public life diminish, his interest and concern for politics diminishes.
Following the theories of Benjamin Constant, Fezzi argues that in Rome too the individual wasn’t considered and private life was governed by public institutions, and therefore there was confusion between individual and public freedom. Though many now find the idea of freedom in antiquity charming, in fact some collectives in Greece and Rome were free but not the individual himself. Thus while the modern state limits its power in search of guaranteeing freedom and caring for the individual, the Roman state sought to make law the same for all citizens and also to prevent the power of government relying on just one person. In short, the Roman citizen was more related to the state and the political activities.
The second part of the volume discusses Constant directly. Fezzi begins with a brief and useful overview of Constant’s life, work, family, social and emotional relations and shows a mutation in his thought, which was influenced by his admiration for Rome, revolutionary theorists of the time, the French Revolution, and above all, the ideas of his companion Madame de Staël.2 As Constant grew older, he started to realize that the Roman Republic was not the example of civic virtue he had thought and that there was a contrast between the concept of freedom in Greece and Rome in general and Rome`s concept of authority in particular. So, though the ancient principles of the Roman Republic could be a model, they also had deficiencies. After the speech “de la liberté des Anciens comparée à celle des Modernes”, Constant confronted the ancient with the current system, enumerating its advantages and also its concepts that could not be applied. Education and environment, among other factors, are totally different from what they were before.
Fezzi summarizes Constant’s fundamental reasons why Roman institutions aren’t applicable today. The first is the small size of the Roman Republic, which allowed the citizen genuine participation in public life; the second is the warlike character of the ancient citizens; then there is the lack of trade relations, the presence of slavery, and, finally, the ancient individual’s personality as reflected in classical literature. All these principles reveal the patriotic character of ancient citizens in contrast to modern ones, who in general have lost confidence in the actual state because of their absence of political involvement.
The last part of Fezzi’s study reveals how in his last writings, Constant returned to his initial admiration for Roman morality, which he used to consider superior to the Greek one. After many turns, his admiration for the principles of the Roman Republic came back again in his mature writings, because for him it was always the model to follow for shaping the State. That’s the path Fezzi has been arguing all along: the Roman principles are not perfect and are difficult (or impossible) to apply to the actual state, but they are useful for us to know since they were the beginning for our actual system.
There are some problems with the study. Fezzi has brought together an elaborate and extensive chronology and bibliography for Constant but little of this information is transmitted to the reader. Also, excepting the chapters on the speech itself, the discussion involves lots of quotations of other authors without giving the reader much guidance about the main idea of each chapter. Thankfully, the last part of the book gives the reader some conclusions.
Still, the book will delight fans of Benjamin Constant and his idea of freedom and its development from the Roman Republic, with its detailed discussion of his speech and the bibliography related to his work.
1. The works which the author points out are Millar, F. The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic (Michigan, 1998); Pettit, P. Il repubblicanesimo. Una teoria della libertà e del governo, a cura di M. Geuna (Milano, 2000); and Skinner, Q. Liberty before Liberalism (Cambridge, 1998). Fezzi quotes those authors to show the reader how the current writers are comparing the concept of freedom in the Roman Republic to the current political system, qualifying it as “neo-Roman liberty”.
2. About the relationship between Constant and Mme de Staël, and the influence of her on his thinking, vid. Lacretelle, P. Madame de Staël et les hommes (Paris, 1939), especially chapters 4 and 6, entitled “Benjamin Constant” and “le temps d`aimer”.