(This text was written for the European Students for Liberty Regional Conference in Istanbul at Boğaziçi University. I did not deliver the paper, but used it to gather thoughts which I then presented in an improvised speech. As it was quite a long text, I am breaking it up for the purposes of blog presentation)
We can confirm Arendt’s sense that ancient Athenian democracy was not concerned with collective confiscation of private economic goods, by looking at the most famous political speech of ancient Greece. That is the funeral oration delivered by Pericles in the midst of the Peloponnesian War between democratic Athens and oligarchic-militaristic Sparta. Pericles states that in Athens there is no shame in poverty, only in not struggling with poverty (clearly referring to an individual struggle), and that poverty is no barrier to a place in political life. Pericles also refers to the greater tolerance of the different characteristics of other citizens in Athens compared with Sparta, and that bravery of the Athenian soldiers he mourns, so though the Athenian society does not put the military life as much at the centre as Sparta, it can show just as much courage in war.
As we can see, republicanism is the most historically situated form of political theory, aiming for continue a way of thinking about political community that goes back to Aristotle in fourth century BCE Athens. It was the tradition that runs through Aristotle, Polybius and Cicero in antiquity which informed the understanding of liberty in the classical liberals, in Locke, Hume, Smith, Montesquieu, Tocqueville, Constant, de Stael, J.S. Mill, and so on.
Their understanding also included the idea that there were differences between ancient and modern societies, particularly the greater emphasis on commerce in modern societies, which modified the understanding of liberty so that the liberty pursed by the moderns would be and should be different from the liberty pursued by the ancients, as summarised by Benjamin Constant in his speech ‘The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns’ (1816).
However, Constant did not argue for a complete opposition between the two. He noted the commercial life of ancient Athens and its greater cultural openness than many ancient states. So that though Athens still shared in the tendency of ancient states to impose conformity to officially defined religion and manners, it was less extreme than many. The republic of Carthage, defeated by Rome in the Punic Wars of the third and second centuries BCE, has also been mentioned by some as an ancient republic in which sea trade was at the centre of life, and since ships were the best means of trade in antiquity, that meant it was one of the commercial republics of antiquity. Montesquieu in particular noted that Carthage shared republican political forms with Rome, in which a citizen assembly governed the city in co-operation with an oligarchic-aristocratic council (the Senate in the case of Rome), but had a different attitude to trade and commercial life.
So though the classical liberals emphasised the differences between ancient and modern liberty, they did not simply reject ancient liberty, and did not reject the republican tradition. They found the centrality of war to ancient life, the relatively static political economy and commercial life, and the attempts of the state to enforce virtue to be different from what they hoped for from modern liberty. The classical liberals also saw liberty growing in ancient republics and thought there was some link between the conditions of liberty and a public culture of shared concerns between citizens.
The laws and institutions necessary to liberty require some support from a feeling of citizenship and joint political enterprise. The need to replicate the solidarity of ancient societies based on preparedness for war is one of the reasons that Smith gives for advocating some public role in promoting education, though with a preference for most education to be provided by private institutions rather than the state.
It is useful to look at the views of the apparent greatest classical liberal defender of monarchy, Montesquieu, to see the importance of the ancient republican tradition for modern liberalism. Montesquieu suggests that a monarchy of the kind that existed in France in the eighteenth century is good for commerce and liberty where it rests on institutions that have some independence of the monarchy such as law courts and a land owning aristocracy.
However, the legal tradition he though guaranteed such liberty in France, is something he traced back to the German invaders of ancient Gaul during the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west. They brought the customary laws of tribes in the German forests which where essentially republics as kings existed to lead in war and relied on popular support. Montesquieu is a bit more ambiguous than this in his description of the ancient Germans, as he is generally an ambiguous thinker with regard to his views on monarchies and republics, and which are the best for liberty.
He recognised both a law governed ‘moderate’ forms of government opposed to despotism. He recognises the commercial capacities of the Athenian and Carthaginian republics. For his own time, he recognises England as a disguised republic (in the eighteenth century, Great Britain was essentially an oligarchic-aristocratic republic with a very constrained monarchy) which has a leading role in the era with regard to liberty and commerce. Montesquieu’s main criticisms of England relate to missing some aspects of a culture or honour and aristocratic courtesy, rather than any criticism of substance.