Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter three: On Government in Support of Truth - Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
chapter three: On Government in Support of Truth - 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).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
On Government in Support of Truth
Very well, someone will say, since error is always fatal, government must keep men from it and lead them to truth. But what means has government for finding it? We demonstrated at the start of this work that those who govern are as prone to error as the governed.7 Moreover, the objections we have leveled against so-called useful errors, apply almost equally to the truths the government might wish to inculcate and have brought in on its authority. Government support, even for truth, turns into a source of error. Truth’s natural support is obvious rightness. The natural road to truth is via reasoning, comparison, analysis. To persuade man that the obviousness, or what seems such to him, is not the only reason which must determine his opinions, that reasoning is not the only road he must follow, is to pervert his intellectual faculties. It is to establish a false relationship between the opinion he is presented with and the instrument with which he must judge it. It is no longer according to the intrinsic worth of the opinion he must decide, but according to alien considerations, which pervert his intelligence as soon as it follows in that direction. Let us suppose the government infallible in arrogating to itself the right to say what truth is. In this matter it will still use diverse means, it will still disfigure both the truth it proclaims and the intelligence whose own abnegation it ordains. M. de Montesquieu rightly says8 that a man condemned to death by laws he has consented to is politically freer than he who lives peacefully under  laws instituted without the agreement of his will. It would be equally right to say that the adoption of an error on our own accord, because it seems true to us, is an operation more favorable to the perfectioning of the mind than the adoption of a truth on the say-so of any government whatever. In the former case, analysis is formative. If this analysis in the particular circumstance does not lead us to happy results, we are on the right track even so. Persevering in our scrupulous, independent investigation, we will get there sooner or later. Under the latter supposition we are reduced to a plaything of the government before which we have humbled our own judgment. Not only will this result in our adopting errors if the dominating government gets things wrong or finds it useful to deceive us, but we will not even know how to derive from such truths as this government has given us the consequences which must flow from them. The abnegation of our intelligence will have rendered us wretchedly passive creatures. Our mental resilience will be broken. Such vigor as we have left will serve only to mislead us. A writer gifted with remarkable insight9 observes on this subject that a miracle enacted to demonstrate a truth would entirely fail to convince the spectators. It would instead spoil their judgment, since between a truth and a miracle there is no natural link. A miracle is not proof of an assertion. A miracle is proof of power. To ask someone to accept an opinion on account of a miracle is to demand that people accord to power what should be accorded only to facts; it is to reverse the order of ideas and want an effect to be produced by something which could not be its cause.
We have pointed out elsewhere10 that morality is only a linked sequence of causes and effects. In the same way, knowledge of the truth is composed only of a linked sequence of principles and consequences. Anytime you interrupt this sequence, you destroy either morality or truth.
Everything imposed on opinion by government turns out to be not only useless but harmful, truth as much as error. In this case truth is not  harmful qua truth, but harmful for not having penetrated human intelligence by the natural route.
There is a class, however, whose opinions can be only prejudices, a class which, lacking time for reflection, can learn only what it is taught, a class which has to believe what it is told, a class which, lastly, not being able to devote itself to analysis, has no interest in intellectual independence. Perhaps people will want the government, leaving the educated part of the society completely free, to oversee the views of the ignorant part. But a government which arrogates itself this exclusive prerogative will necessarily demand it be upheld. It will not want any individuals, whoever they may be, acting in a sense different from its own. I agree that initially it will hide this will with sweet and tolerant formalities. From then on, however, some restrictions will appear. They will always keep on growing. A religion professed by government entails the persecution, more or less disguised, of all others. It is the same with opinions of any kind. From preferential treatment of an opinion to disfavor for the contrary opinion, there is a gap which it is impossible not to cross.
This first disadvantage is the cause of a second. Educated men do not delay in separating themselves from a government which hurts them. This is in the nature of the human spirit, above all when it is strengthened by meditation and cultivated by study. Government action, even the best intended, is in some ways rude and gross and ruffles a thousand delicate sensibilities which suffer and rebel.
It is to be feared therefore that if government is endowed with the prerogative of managing the opinion of the uneducated, even if this were toward truth, separating that management from any action taken with regard to the educated class, this latter class, which regards opinion as belonging to its domain, will put itself at odds with the government. A thousand ills then result. Hatred for a government which intervenes in what is not its province can grow so much that when it acts in favor of enlightenment, the friends of enlightenment line up on the side of prejudice. We saw this bizarre spectacle at several periods of our Revolution. A government founded on the clearest principles and professing the sanest opinions, but which, by the nature of the means it uses, alienates the educated class, becomes, infallibly, either the most degraded or the most oppressive of governments. Often it actually combines these two seemingly exlusive things.
 The French Revolution was directed against errors of any kind, that is to say that its purpose was to remove the support of government from these errors. The revolutionary leaders wanted to go further. They wanted to employ government itself in the destruction of these errors. Straightaway national movement came to a halt. Opinion was astonished at the weird impulsion some people desired to impress on it, and it recoiled before its new allies. A subtle and swift instinct warned it that the cause had changed although the banner was the same, and it abandoned the banner. What had they actually wanted, this mass of educated men, of honest mind, who during the last half of the eighteenth century had supported the philosophers against the court and the clergy? Independence of opinion, freedom of thought. As soon as the government put itself on the philosophers’ side, however, and exerted itself in supporting it, opinion was no longer independent, thought no longer free.
We must distinguish the influence of the enlightened class, insofar as it is enlightened, from that of a section of the enlightened class, insofar as it is vested in government. No one wants the influence of enlightenment more than I. But precisely because I want it, because I prefer it to any means of another kind, and because I do not want it distorted. It is to conserve in all its force the domain of the enlightened class that I feel repugnance at its subordination to a tiny fraction of itself, necessarily less impartial and probably less enlightened than the rest. The free, gradual, and peaceful action of all would be retarded and often even arrested by this privilege accorded to a few.
[7. ]In Book III, Ch. 3.
[10. ]For example, Book XII, Ch. 7.
It is in Ch. 2 of Book XII that Montesquieu writes: “A man who was tried and was to be hanged the next morning, would be freer than a Pasha is in Turkey.” Ed. cit., p. 509.
William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, London, 1793, vol. 1, p. 124. Constant translated this work. See Benjamin Constant, De la justice politique, unpublished translation of the work of William Godwin, edited by Burton R. Pollin, Quebec, University of Laval Press, 1972.