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chapter one: Why Religion Was So Often Attacked by the Men of the Enlightenment - Benjamin Constant, Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments 
Principles of Politics Applicable to a all Governments, trans. Dennis O’Keeffe, ed. Etienne Hofmann, Introduction by Nicholas Capaldi (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).
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Why Religion Was So Often Attacked by the Men of the Enlightenment
In examining the proper role of the government with regard to religion, we are not at all questioning the benefits deriving from religious ideas. The more one loves freedom, the more one cherishes moral ideas, the more high-mindedness, courage, and independence are needed, the more it is necessary to have some respite from men, to take refuge in belief in a God.
If religion had always been perfectly free, it would never, in my view, have been other than an object of respect and love. One could hardly conceive the bizarre fanaticism rendering religion in itself an object of hatred or animosity. This recourse of an unhappy being to a just one, of a weak to a good one, should excite, it seems to me, even among those who consider it chimerical, only interest and sympathy. He who regards all religious hopes as erroneous ought to be more profoundly moved than anyone else by this universal chorus of suffering humanity, these requests of the grieving, cast from all corners of the earth at a stony heaven, to wait unanswered, or by the soothing illusion which takes for an answer the confused sound of so many repeated prayers far away on the wind.
The causes of our pains are numerous. Government can  banish us and lies calumniate us. We can be wounded by the bonds of a totally false society. A merciless nature punishes us in what we most cherish. The somber and solemn period of old age moves toward us, when things grow dark and seem to retreat, and a kind of coldness and lifelessness spreads on everything around us.
Faced with so much sorrow, we search everywhere for consolations and all our lasting ones are religious. When the world abandons us, we form some kind of alliance beyond it. When men persecute us, we create for ourselves some refuge beyond them. When we see our most cherished chimeras—justice, freedom, and native land—vanish, we flatter ourselves that there exists somewhere a being who will be grateful that we were true, despite our times, to justice, freedom, and fatherland. When we grieve something we love, we throw a bridge across the abyss, and in our thoughts we cross it. Finally, when life escapes us, we wing our way toward another one. Thus, it is the very essence of religion to be a faithful companion, the ingenious and tireless friend of unhappy souls.
Nor is this all. The consoler of those in misfortune, religion is at the same time the most natural of all our emotions. All our physical sensations, all our moral feelings, make it live again in our hearts, without our knowing. Everything which seems boundless to us, which produces in us the idea of immensity, the sight of the sky, the silence of the night, the vast stretches of ocean, everything which leads us to pity or enthusiasm, awareness of a virtuous action, a generous sacrifice, a danger bravely faced, the grief of another given succor and relief, everything which raises in the depths of our souls the primal elements of our nature, the contempt for vice, the hatred of tyranny, nourishes our religious sentiment.
This feeling relates closely to all noble, delicate, and profound passions. Like all of them it has something mysterious about it. For common reasoning cannot explain any of these passions in a satisfactory manner. Love, that exclusive preference for an object we had been able to manage without for a long time and which so many others resemble, the need for glory, that thirst for a fame which must outlast us, the enjoyment  we find in devotion, an enjoyment contrary to the habitual instinct of our egotism, melancholy, that sadness without cause, in the depths of which there is a pleasure we could not begin to analyze, a thousand other sensations we cannot describe, which fill us with vague impressions and confused emotions: these are inexplicable in terms of rigorous reasoning. They all have some affinity with religious feeling. All these things aid the development of morality. They make man break out of the narrow circle of his interests, they give the soul that flexibility, that delicacy, that exaltation smothered by habituation to life in the community and the calculations it necessitates.
Love is the most mixed of these intense emotions, because its purpose is a specific pleasure, this purpose being close to us, and ending up in egoism. Religious feeling, for the opposite reason, is the purest of all emotions. It does not flee with youth. It strengthens sometimes in old age, as if heaven had given it to us to console us in the most deprived period of our lives.
A man of genius said that the sight of the Apollo Belvedere or a picture by Raphael uplifted him.1 Indeed, there is in the contemplation of beauty of all kinds something which detaches us from ourselves by making us feel that perfection is of greater worth than we, and which by means of this belief, inspiring in us a brief selflessness, awakens within us the power of sacrifice, which power is the mother of all virtue. Whatever the cause of the emotion, it bears within it something which quickens the blood, arouses a kind of well-being, and heightens in us the sense of our existence and strengths. We become open to a generosity, a courage, and a sympathy above our everyday disposition. Even the corrupted man is better, when he is moved and as long as he stays moved.
I do not at all wish to say that absence of religious feeling proves that any individual lacks morals. There are men  in whom the mind is the dominant thing and can give way only to something absolutely clear. These men are routinely given to deep meditation and preserved from most corrupting temptations by the enjoyment of study and the habit of thought. As a result they are capable of scrupulous moral behavior. In the mass of common folk, however, the absence of religious feeling, not deriving from such causes, most commonly indicates, I believe, aridity and frivolity of outlook, a mind absorbed in petty and ignoble interests, a marked sterility in imagination. I make an exception of the case in which these men have been plagued by persecution, which has the effect of causing revolt against its commands. Then it can happen that sensitive but proud men, indignant against a religion imposed on them, blindly reject everything connected to religion. This circumstantial objection, however, in no way affects the general thesis.
I would not have a poor opinion of an educated man, if he were presented to me as a stranger to religious feeling, but a whole people incapable of this feeling would seem to me deprived of a precious faculty and disinherited by nature.
If I were accused here of not defining religious sentiment in a sufficiently precise way, I would ask how one defines with precision that vague and profound part of our moral sensations which by its very nature defies all the efforts of language. How will you define the impression of a deep night, of an ancient forest, of the wind which moans across ruins or above tombs, of the sea which stretches away out of sight? How will you define the emotion caused in you by the songs of Ossian, the church of Saint Peter, the meditation of death, the harmony of sounds or forms? How will you define dreaming, that inner quivering of the soul, where all the powers of the senses and of thought come to gather as though to lose themselves in a mysterious confusion? There is religion at the bottom of all these things. Everything fine, intimate, and profound is religious.
Idea of God, the common center where, above the action of time and the reach of wickedness, there come together all the ideas of justice, love, freedom, and pity which in this brief world  constitute the dignity of the human race, permanent seat of everything beautiful, great, and good across the degradation and iniquity of the ages, eternal voice which replies to virtue in its own tongue, when the language of everything around it is low and criminal, call from the present to the future, from earth to heaven, solemn recourse of all the oppressed in all situations, last hope of weakness trampled underfoot, of innocence slain, thought both consoling and noble, no, whatever is done, the human race can never manage without you.
But how does it happen, therefore, that religion, this constant ally, this necessary support, this unique glimmer amid the shadows which surround us, has in all ages been exposed to frequent and bitter attacks? How comes it that the class which has declared itself its enemy has almost always been the most enlightened, the most independent, and the most educated? It is because religion has been distorted. Man has been pursued into this last refuge, this intimate sanctuary of his existence. In the hands of government, religion has been transformed into a menacing institution. Having created most—and the most harrowing—of our sorrows, government has laid claim to the control of man even in his means of consolation. Dogmatic religion, an aggressive and persecuting force, has wished to submit to its yoke both the imagination in its conjecturing and the heart in its needs. It has become a scourge more terrible than those it was intended to enable us to forget.
Hence, in all those eras when men have demanded their moral independence, there is this resistance to religion, seemingly directed against the sweetest of the feelings, and really against only the most oppressive of tyrannies. Intolerance, in putting force on the side of faith, put courage alongside doubt. The fury of the believers has heightened the vanity of the skeptics, and man has in this way managed to turn for himself into a merit what, left to himself, he would have regarded as a misfortune. Persecution provokes resistance. The government, menacing a point of view, whatever it may be, excites all minds of any worth to declare for it. There is in man that which revolts on principle against all intellectual constraint. This spirit  is even capable at times of being infuriated. It can cause many crimes. But it springs from everything noble deep in our being.
I have often felt myself struck with sadness and astonishment when reading the famous System of Nature.2 This long-lasting, desperate eagerness by an old man to close off any future lying before him, this inexplicable thirst for destruction, this blind, almost ferocious hatred of an idea so gentle and consoling, seemed to me a strange delirium. I understood it nevertheless when I remembered the perils with which the government surrounded that writer. In all ages atheists have been harassed in their thinking. They have never had the time or freedom to consider their own opinions at their leisure. For them freedom has always been a property that people wanted to rob them of. They have dreamed less about deepening it than justifying or protecting it. But just leave them in peace. They will soon cast a sad glance on the world they have stripped of its gods. They will themselves be astonished at their victory. The heat of the struggle, the thirst to regain the right to free enquiry, all these reasons for exaltation will no longer sustain them. Their imagination, so recently preoccupied with success, now having nothing to do, as it were deserted, will come back on itself. They will see man alone on an earth which must engulf him. The world is lifeless. Ephemeral generations appear there, to suffer and die, isolated creatures of chance. Certain ambitious men quarrel and fight over them, hurt and destroy them. They do not even have the consolation of hoping that one day these monsters will be judged, that they will finally see the day of reparation and vengeance shine. No tie exists between these generations whose portion here is servitude, with nothingness beyond. All communication is broken between the past,  the present, and the future. No voice from the races which are gone lives on among the living ones, and their voice too must one day fall away into the depths of the same eternal silence. All this simply makes one feel that if atheism had not been met with intolerance, the aspects of the belief which put people off would have constrained the outlook of its disciples in such a way as to keep them in apathy and silence, in a state of indifference to everything.
I repeat. As long as government leaves religion perfectly independent, no one will have an interest in attacking it. The very idea will not arise. But if government affects to defend it, if it wishes above all to make it an ally, free thinking will not hesitate to attack it.
[1. ]Hofmann has not identified this man of genius. The passage is repeated in Constant’s account of Mme. de Staël’s Corinne in the Publiciste of 12 May 1807. Ephraïm Harpaz in his edition of Constant suggests Fauriel or Charles de Villers. Benjamin Constant, Recueils d’articles, 1795–1871, with introduction, notes, and commentaries by Ephraïm Harpaz, Geneva, Droz, 1978, p. 88, n. 6 bis.
[2. ]Paul Henri Dietrich, baron d’Holbach, Système de la nature ou des lois du monde physique et du monde moral, M. Mirabaud, London, 1770.