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Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

Benjamin Constant is concerned here that “mediocre men” when they get elected to power, often do dangerous or foolish things. Viscount Bryce later in the century had similar concerns about the kind of men who were elected to the office of president in the United States. Friedrich Hayek just dismissed the lot when he wrote a chapter in The Road to Serfdom (1944) entitled “Why the Worst get on Top.”

Other quotes about Presidents, Kings, Tyrants, & Despots:

23 January, 2006

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Benjamin Constant argued that mediocre men, when they acquired power, became “more envious, more obstinate, more immoderate, and more convulsive” than men with talent (1815)

Read the full quote in context here.

In a lengthy discussion of the composition and behavior of representative assemblies Constant has this to say about mediocrity (pp. 329-30):

The choice of the people belongs to men who command attention, who attract respect, who have acquired the right to esteem, confidence, and popular recognition. And these more energetic men will also be be moderate. People always take mediocrity as peaceful. It is peaceful only when it is locked up. When chance invests it with power, it is a thousand times more incalculable in its motion, more envious, more obstinate, more immoderate, and more convulsive than talent, even when emotions lead the latter astray.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

When the election depends on an electoral college, another route is mapped out. It is certainly not toward the countryman’s dwelling but toward the palace of the electoral college that the candidates direct their steps. They are dependent not on the people but on the government, and if dependence on inferiors makes citizens, dependence on superiors makes slaves. It is a sad education for the people’s mandatories which imposes on them an apprenticeship in dissimulation and hypocrisy, condemning them to humiliating supplication, to obsequious salutation, to adroitness, genuflection, and flattery, doubtless to prepare them for the unbending courage which has to check despotism and plead the cause of the weak against the strong. There are eras when anyhting at all resembling energy is feared, when gentleness, flexibility, and hidden gifts and private virtues are vaunted. Then are dreamed up modes of election best suited to reward these precious gifts. These, however, are eras of degradation. Let sweetness and flexibility find favor with courts, and let hidden talents declare themselves; let private virtues find their reward in domestic happiness. The choice of the people belongs to men who command attention, who attract respect, who have acquired the right to esteem, confidence, and popular recognition. And these more energetic men will also be be moderate. People always take mediocrity as peaceful. It is peaceful only when it is locked up. When chance invests it with power, it is a thousand times more incalculable in its motion, more envious, more obstinate, more immoderate, and more convulsive than talent, even when emotions lead the latter astray. Education calms the emotions, softens egotism, and soothes vanity.

[More works by Benjamin Constant (1767 – 1830)]