The History of European Liberalism

The History of European Liberalism

The History of European Liberalism

The History of European Liberalism

Excerpt

'In France, liberty is ancient; despotism is modern.' These words of Madame de Staël are not without historical truth. Liberty is an older thing than the absolutism of modern monarchy, because it has its roots in feudal society. Here it appears broken up and (so to speak) atomized into a myriad of particular liberties, each enclosed in an envelope which conceals but at the same time protects it: as such, we know it under the name of privilege. Where the force of the State is reduced to a mere appearance, this is the only form in which liberty can exist. In the absence of a superior and common safeguarding power, individual forces try to preserve themselves by their own strength, uniting with each other according to their closest affinities, and thus provide that minimum of security which is indispensable to the development of their activity. Feudal aristocracy, urban and rural communities, trade guilds, are privileged groups; that is to say, free each within its own sphere.

From this it follows that in the feudal world liberty arises from a certain equality and from a certain security. Without a relative equality of conditions inside each class or group, it would be impossible to speak of liberty or right, but only of conflict and force. Liberty or right, to have a meaning, must imply recognition; and this again implies a certain reciprocity. And we see that, in the development of medieval society, the number of privileged individuals and groups increases as the circulation of life intensifies and creates wider relations between man and man. A mere extension of privilege ultimately makes it possible to see the original source of all privilege in the personality or nature of man.

The peculiar character of this privileged liberty is due to the legal outlook which creates and maintains it. The Middle . . .

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