Beyond binary discourses on liberty: constant's modern liberty, rightly understood

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It is fruitless to interpret Constant's modern liberty from the binary perspective of either the negative/positive freedom opposition or the liberal/republican freedom opposition. Both oppositional perspectives reduce the relationally complex nature of modern liberty to one or another component of the relation. Such reduction inevitably results in an incomplete and, therefore, inadequate interpretation of Constant's modern liberty. Consequently, either of these binary frames of interpretation obscures rather than illuminates the full nature of Constant's modern liberty. Boxed into their irreconcilably opposed alternatives, both binary perspectives fail to appreciate that Constant's conception of modern liberty is a complex achievement irreducible without loss to either liberal negative liberty as non-interference or republican freedom as non-domination. Nor does combining liberal negative freedom and positive freedom (in the sense of ancient liberty), as Holmes well establishes, adequately tells the whole story of Constant's modern liberty. As a complex achievement, Constant's conception of modern liberty, I shall argue, blends negative freedom as associated with neo-Roman republican freedom as non-subjection to arbitrary power, negative freedom as non-interference, associated with the liberal tradition, positive freedom in the sense of inner self-development, and positive freedom as collective self-government or civic republican freedom.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)196-213
Number of pages18
JournalHistory of European Ideas
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2022


  • J. S. Mill
  • MacCallum’s single triadic concept of freedom
  • Negative freedom as non-subjection to arbitrary power
  • negative freedom as non-interference
  • positive freedom as political participation
  • positive freedom as self-development (perfection of character)

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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