Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter four: On the Duties of Enlightened Men during Revolutions - Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments
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chapter four: On the Duties of Enlightened Men during Revolutions - 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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On the Duties of Enlightened Men during Revolutions
Shall we conclude from the fact that individual wills have little influence on the causes of revolutions that in the midst of these social convulsions, each person battered by the storm can surrender himself without resistance to the ungovernable waves, live from day to day, submitting to the  events whose rapid succession drags him along, taking counsel from chance? I do not think so. In the stormiest of circumstances there is always a direction pointed out by morality. Therefore there is always a duty to fulfill.
Two movements are natural to any nation overthrowing institutions it finds oppressive or vicious. The first is to wish to see everything destroyed and constructed anew, the second to display implacable severity to those who profited from the vices of the former institutions. These two movements are precisely what makes revolutions dire, what takes them beyond the people’s needs, prolongs their duration, and jeopardizes their success. Enlightened men must strive to stop or suspend them.
People say we should take advantage of periods when everything is shaken up in order to reshape it all. The Constituent Assembly is party to this indeed very specious sophism. He who would have qualms about overthrowing an edifice still in existence, and offering a tolerable shelter, finds it legitimate to bring about the ruin of a half-destroyed edifice, in order to raise in its place one more regular in its parts and overall. Yet from this there result all the greatest evils of revolutions. Not only are all the abuses related, but they result from all the ideas. The agitation is communicated from one end to the other of the immense chain. One abuse destroyed, a second of them is attacked, and a third, and people get excited during the struggle. Soon they see everything as an abuse. On this basis they appeal from the present majority to the future majority which they flatter themselves they will either dominate or convince. They run through the whole circle of human ideas. They run ahead of opinion, always hoping to drag it behind them.
Ordinarily there are two stages in revolutions, a first when unanimous feeling overthrows what everybody finds intolerable, a second when by means of an artificial prolongation of a movement no longer nationwide, there is an attempt to destroy everything contrary to the viewpoint of a few. If the enlightened men can stop the revolution at the first stage, the chances of success are good. The revolutions where this principle has been observed have been the shortest, happiest, and least bloody. The Tarquins oppressed Roman freedom. They were driven out. Otherwise, however, the whole organization of Rome stayed intact. The agitation stopped, calm was reestablished, the Republic rose and steadied itself. Doubtless in conserving constitutionally everything which was not royalty, Rome conserved very numerous abuses. These abuses, however, were proportionate  to the state of opinion. If the kings, the priesthood, and the patricians of Rome had all been overthrown simultaneously, the revolution would never have finished, and Rome would have been annihilated.
In England in 1688 the Stuarts were driven out, but nothing new was built. The Commons remained, the Peers remained, the Magna Carta and the constitutional monarchy remained. All the elements of the established order were reassembled and brought together and combined. The result was a constitution which has already given England more than a century of good fortune.
It is the same with the Americans. They have retained almost all the institutions which thrived among them before their independence. By contrast, in the case of nations which reject all their memories and think everything must be changed, reformed, and built from scratch, revolutions never end. Interminable divisions tear these peoples apart. With everyone judging according to his own lights the best that is possible, or practical, or ideal, there are as many revolutions, at least attempted, as there are diverse opinions on this inexhaustible subject. Each hidden interest adopts one approach as its standard, and the nation succumbs sooner or later to lassitude, its resources depleted.
An improvement, a reform, the abolition of an abusive practice, all these things are useful only when they follow what the nation wants. They become fatal when they precede it, because then they are no longer improvements but tyrannical acts of force. The important thing is not that they take effect quickly but that the public outlook moves in this direction and that the institutions are at one with the ideas.
Individuals have the same duties to society as society to individuals. It has no right to stop the development of their intellectual faculties nor to put limits on their progress. They, however, have no right to stand in judgment on the progress society should make and drag it violently toward a purpose going beyond its present wishes. By what right might a minority meditate on changes of which the majority disapproved? Might this be in terms of a greater enlightenment or wisdom than the rest of the citizens have, or a greater capacity for sound judgment as to what is useful? But by what signs will you recognize these quite exceptional qualities in a minority? Who will be judge of these characteristic signs? The minority themselves probably, since the majority cannot be consulted. Thus it is from its private eminence that this minority derives its mission; I am about as fond of kings who derive their power from God or their swords.
 All these rushed reforms have as devices for freedom, improvement, and enlightenment all the drawbacks with which we have reproached government; they put force in place of reason. Would it not be absurd to forgive the supporters of revolution for what we detest in the agents of government?
Men who get ahead of opinion fall without knowing it into a very bizarre contradiction. In order to justify their dire initiatives, they say that they absolutely must not steal from the present generation the benefits of the system they are claiming to be establishing; then, to excuse the sacrifice of the present generation, they exclaim that only by narrow calculation is it not sacrificed without hesitation to the immense weight of future generations.
These men complain constantly of ill will: a new contradiction in terms. Are they not acting in the name of the people? Do they not rest everything they are doing on the general will? So what can ill will be? Can there be a mass will to which all individuals are opposed? To listen to them, you would think ill will is a magic power which by some miracle or other forces the people constantly to do the opposite of what they wish. They attribute the misfortunes their premature policies occasion to the opposition such policies encounter. This is no excuse at all; one should not make changes which provoke such opposition. The very difficulties these changes encounter are a condemnation of their authors.
There is a point of view from which the legitimacy of violent measures in the pursuit of improvement has not yet, to my knowledge, been envisaged. If there were a system of government perfect in all its parts, after the consolidation of which the human race had merely to relax, one might be excused for dashing, in sudden and violent effort, toward this system, at the risk of offending individual people or even whole generations. The sacrifices would be compensated for by the eternity of happiness assured to the long line of future generations. But no government is perfect. Improvement is gradual and indefinite. When you have once improved some of your institutions, many other desirable improvements will remain. The very improvement you have established and achieved will need further refinements. Thus you are not as you imagine doing uncertain and temporary harm to achieve positive and lasting good; you are doing certain and positive harm in exchange for uncertain, relative, and temporary advantage.
 “The National Assembly,” said Chamfort, “in 1789 gave the French people a constitution stronger than itself. It must hurry to lift the nation up to this height. . . . 12 Legislators must act like those skillful doctors who, treating an exhausted sick person, help the digestion of revigorating food by means of stomachic medicine.”13 The unfortunate thing in this comparison is that legislators are most of the time patients who call themselves doctors.
A nation cannot be sustained at a level to which its own disposition does not lift it. To sustain it there one would have to treat it violently, and the very fact that it was being treated violently would bring it back down and it would collapse.
For tyranny, Machiavelli says, everything must change;14 one could likewise say that to change everything one must resort to tyranny. That is what people do.
When a nation is shallow and imitative, it finds nothing more powerful than editorial slogans. They are short, they seem clear, they are inscribed easily in the memory. Cunning men throw them to fools who seize them, because they are thus spared the trouble of thinking. They repeat them, because this gives them the appearance of understanding. Hence it arises that propositions whose absurdity astonishes us when they are analyzed, slip into a thousand heads and are repeated by a thousand tongues, such that one is endlessly reduced to proving what is obvious. Among these dire slogans, there is one we have heard repeated a thousand times during our Revolution, one whose repetition all violent revolutions invite;  it is that despotism is necessary to establish freedom. This axiom justifies all oppressions along with their indefinite prolongation, since the duration of this despotism to which it is claimed that freedom will owe its birth cannot be specified.
Freedom is priceless, however, only because it gives our mind precision, our character strength, and our souls elevation. All these benefits of freedom depend on its existing in reality. If you use despotism to bring in freedom, you get only its worthless forms; the essence will always escape you. The victory you win is opposed in its very essence to the proper spirit of the institution. And just as its successes will not persuade the conquered, so they will not reassure the conquerors.
What must we say to the people in fact, so that they will get the advantages of freedom into their minds? You were subject to privileged castes; most people lived for the ambition of the few. Unequal laws protected the strong against the weak. You had only precarious enjoyments, that is, rights, of which despotism threatened to rob you at every moment. You took part neither in the making of your laws nor in the election of your public officials. All these abuses are going to disappear. All your rights will be rendered to you. The men who want to form between despotism and freedom some kind of insane alliance, however, what can they say? No privilege will separate the citizens, but at all times men who seem to us enemies will be smashed with no right to a hearing. Virtue will be the only distinction among men; but those most given to persecution and violence will create for themselves by means of tyranny a patriciate guaranteed by terror. The laws made by the will of the people will protect property; but at every moment the fate of individuals or groups under suspicion will be confiscation. The people will elect their magistrates, but if they do not do it according to requirements prescribed in advance, their choice will be nullified. Opinion will be free, but any opinion contrary not only to the general policy  but also to its slightest day-to-day enactments will be punished like a violation. So, following a revolution against despotism, against the enslavement of opinion, despotism is found reinforced a thousandfold, and opinions are a thousand times more enslaved. To each word, each gesture, each outpouring of friendship, each cry of unhappiness, a fearful influence is attributed. Discussion of the victorious opinion is banned. The outrages committed by the fallen government are recalled in exaggerated form in order to stifle thought. Thought control is the distinctive mark of the new government. That men be made free, they are hounded with the fear of torture. Tyrannical government being denounced, the most tyrannical of governments is constructed.
To sustain what is thought to be freedom by despotic means requires the invention of far more persecution and deception than straightforward governmental control does. It is not enough to destroy an innocent man; he must be calumniated in the eyes of all. It is not enough to give power to those the people reject; the people must be forced to choose them. Forbidding press freedom is not enough; newspapers must parody it. It is not enough to impose silence on representative assemblies; a worthless simulation of opposition must be set up, tolerated as long as it is puerile, and dissolved when it gives offense. It is not enough to dispense with the nation’s will; the addresses of a minority calling itself the majority must be put forward. All the time things are dragged far off course by increasing difficulties. There is absolutely no end to a tyranny seeking to extract from people by force the appearances of consent.
The war against public attitudes is less evil when the despotism is blatant, since it is not of the essence of despotism to depend on them. Usually despotism secures at least domestic calm, because it can rule more easily in silence. Institutions claiming to be free ones, however, when they employ despotic means, bring together all the ills of a monarchy under an oppressive tyrant with all those of a republic rent by factions. Quiet men are persecuted for being apathetic, ardent men because they are dangerous.  Servitude guarantees no rest; human activity lacks all purpose and joy. Freedom is adjourned until factions are destroyed. As long as freedom is postponed, however, factions are never destroyed. Despotism weighs on all the factions in turn; in the gaps between, there is nothing free. The coercive measures adopted by dictatorship, pending public approval, militate against this approval being realized. Such dictatorship flails around in a vicious circle, signaling an historic era it is destined never to achieve, since the means adopted on the pretext of achieving it prevent its ever happening. Force makes itself more and more necessary, growing anger feeds on itself, laws are hammered out like weapons, certain branches of law become declarations of war,15 and the blind friends of freedom, who thought they could impose it by way of despotism, turn all free spirits against them, their only support the vilest toadies of power.
More: unjust laws directed against freedom’s enemies inevitably fall on its true friends. To invest governments with arbitrary power is to given them an interest distinct from that of the governed. This interest becomes then their sole concern, and it is only to make it prevail that they employ the wider means with which they were entrusted for the public good. It should not be thought that one can take the side of wickedness in one branch of the law, and stay true to justice in the rest. One single barbarous law will set the character of all legislation. Heated feelings or calculation produce the first law and fear or necessity the second. No just law can coexist with a single despotic measure. One cannot deny freedom to some people and accord it to others. Let us imagine a single harsh measure against people not legally convicted. You can no longer tolerate freedom of the press. It will be used to stir up the people in favor of victims who may be innocent. You can no longer respect individual freedom. Those you wanted to deprive of their rights will take advantage of this and merge with the rest of the citizens. You can no longer leave industry to itself. It will supply those proscribed with resources. Your friends will suffer the consequences of your actions against your enemies. Your enemies will benefit from what you do for your friends. Men would like compromises with freedom, to leave its circle for a day, because of some obstacle or person or given purpose, before returning  to its order. They would like to have the security of the rules with the advantages of exceptions to them. Nature runs contrary to this. Freedom is a complete and ordered system. A single deviation destroys it, just as in arithmetical calculation a mistake of one digit or a thousand falsifies the result equally.
[12. ]Chamfort specifically states at this point, “by means of good public education.”
[13. ]Nicholas-Sébastien Roch, known as Chamfort, Maxims and Thoughts, Ch. 8 On Slavery and Freedom: France before and after the Revolution; in Oeuvres de Chamfort, collated and published by one of his friends, Paris, an III, t. IV, p. 206.
[14. ]We come across this quote from Machiavelli again in Mme. de Staël’s notes, Des circonstances actuelles, éd. cit., p. 382. The exact text runs: “But he who wants merely to establish that absolute power the ancients called tyranny must on the contrary leave in existence nothing of the established order.” Machiavelli, Discours sur la première décade de Tite-Live, Ch. XXV, in Oeuvres complètes, éd. cit., p. 441.
[15. ]The comparison of laws with weapons and of certain branches of law with declarations of war comes from Mme. de Staël, op. cit., p. 37.