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The Idea of Europe

Catriona Seth
Rotraud von Kulessa

77. The Character of Modern Exchanges

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1Benjamin Constant, in The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns (1819), a speech delivered at the Royal Athenaeum in Paris, reflects on commercial trade as an expression of European relations which, in his opinion, has supplanted war.

2Thanks to advancements in our enlightenment, the very division of Europe into multiple States is more perceived than real. Whereas in the past each nation formed an isolated family, the natural born enemy of other families, a body of men now exists under different names, and with different means of social organisation, yet homogenous in nature. This body is strong enough that it has nothing to fear from barbarian hordes. It is enlightened enough that it sees war as a burden. It heads invariably towards peace.

3This difference brings yet another with it. War existed before trade, for war and trade are merely two different ways of reaching the same goal: possessing what we desire. Trade is merely a tribute paid to the power of the possessor by he who aspires to possess. It is an attempt to obtain by mutual consent that which we can no longer hope to win through violence. The idea of trade would never have occurred to any man who was always the strongest. It is experience which, by proving to him that war—namely, the use of his own strength against another’s—exposes him to resistance and failure in a variety of forms, leads him to resort to trade, which is a gentler and surer method of engaging another to agree to what serves his own interests. War is a matter of impulse, trade of calculation. But it follows that there must come a time when trade will replace war. That time has come.

4I do not mean to suggest that merchant peoples did not exist among the ancients. But these peoples were, in a sense, exceptions to the general rule. […] Where once trade was a happy accident, today it is the norm, the sole aim, the universal tendency, the very lifeblood of nations. They want peace, and with this peace prosperity, a prosperity with industry as its source. With each passing day war becomes a less effective way of fulfilling their desires. The fortunes it offers to individuals and nations can no longer equal the results achieved by peaceful work and regular exchange. In the time of the ancients, a successful war contributed to public and private wealth through slaves, tributes, and the sharing out of territory. In modern times, a successful war will invariably cost more than it is worth.

5In conclusion, thanks to trade, religion, and the moral and intellectual progress of mankind, there are no longer slaves in European nations. Free men must apply themselves to all types of profession to provide for all of society’s needs.

6Benjamin Constant,
The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns (1819).

Read the free text in the original language (1819 edition):​Europe/​Docs/​Constant_Benjamin_Liberte_anciens_modernes_1819.pdf


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