Liberty Matters

Beyond Indifference and Doubt: Constant on the Indestructible Power of the Religious Sentiment


Benjamin Constant (1767-1830) is recognized today as one of the most original and important modern liberal thinkers in continental Europe. Yet the complexity of his political thought and the strategies he used to promote liberty defy any single interpretation. Many of his important works remain untranslated into English, above all Fragments d'un ouvrage abandonné sur la possibilité d'une constitution républicaine dans un grand pays (1802), in which he took up the long-debated issue of the compatibility between a large state and a republican regime. Cambridge University Press and Liberty Fund have published excellent English translations of the two versions (1806-1810 and 1815) of Constant's arguably most important political book, Principles of Politics. Nonetheless, neither of these works was seen by Constant as his most original contribution. Instead, toward the end of his life, he singled out his five-volume De la religion (1824-1831) as "the only consolation" of his life. Constant believed he was "destined by nature" to write it and devoted a considerable amount of time and energy to completing it.
We should be grateful, then, to Liberty Fund for having published the first complete English translation of Constant's On Religion, with a foreword by Pierre Manent[11] It is a true achievement that will undoubtedly make this important book better known to a wide audience in the English-speaking world. It comes in the footsteps of the publication of another important book by Constant, Commentary on Filangieri's Work, translated by our lead essayist here, Alan Kahan, a well-known and respected historian of political thought and specialist in French political thought.[12]
Kahan's present essay reminds us that anyone studying Constant's political thought must also address his religious ideas and should take seriously into account his Protestant outlook. Kahan is right to insist that "in 19th-century Europe, liberals generally regarded religion and freedom as both compatible and mutually reinforcing." This applies, inter alia, to thinkers as diverse as Jacques Necker, Alexis de Tocqueville, and, to a lesser degree, Germaine de Staël. If some may have embraced a form of civil religion sui generis, others defended a more robust view of religion. If we fail to do acknowledge this point, we get only a truncated view of their political liberalism.
In Constant's case, the scholarly consensus is that we need to start from his moral and religious vision if we want to better understand his conception of liberty as a means of self-development. That vision can be found in On Religion, but traces of it can also be detected toward the end of Constant's famous 1819 lecture on the liberty of the moderns compared to the liberty of the ancients.[13] As Helena Rosenblatt argued, it was a decidedly Protestant vision. Constant introduced the term "private judgment"—a key term with a long history in Protestant theology[14]— into his political writings around 1806, when he drafted the first version of his Principles of Politics. He believed that religion could serve as a means for creating an elevated form of morality, and he stressed the right and duty of individuals to improve themselves by using their reason.
Yet Constant was no conventional rationalist or believer. As Kahan reminds us, Constant criticized the concept of self-interest as an insufficient foundation of a free society. In his view the higher vocation of all human beings is to instruct and enlighten themselves, which could not happen if they relied only on their narrow self-interest. He believed that a higher morality can be achieved only through religion, but one that is not reducible to a simple form of civil religion such as the one recommended by Rousseau in Book IV of On the Social Contract.  Kahan draws a parallel with Kant here and argues that Constant was "a Kantian after all." This may be so, but Constant sought to chart a new way of studying religion that went well beyond Kant's rationalistic approach.
The relationship between morality and religion was a commonplace in the writings of that period. It loomed large in Necker's De l'importance des opinions religieuses (1788), an important book that Constant had certainly read, since Necker had been a close friend and mentor. (Necker also paid off Constant's massive gambling debts.) Yet Constant's approach had little in common with Necker's sober emphasis on the social utility of a religion and Supreme Being destined to serve justice on earth. Constant must also have been familiar with Chateaubriand's Romantic apology of Christianity in Génie du Christianisme (1802), a best-seller during that time. Yet, again, Constant's method departed from that of the famous writer, who gave to faith a memorable definition to include all the noble sentiments, including friendship, patriotism, and love. While Chateaubriand adopted a warm and enthusiastic tone that gave his book an undeniable religious sincerity, Constant's tone remained cold throughout the entire text of De la religion; his book may convince its readers but does not seduce them. What sort of religion did Constant embrace then?
It is impossible to know whether Constant was ever a true believer or not. He stopped short of embracing a specific religious doctrine, and his views on religion were unconventional. First, the name Jesus Christ was conspicuously absent from On Religion, a surprising absence for anyone interested in the history and doctrine of Christianity. Second, Constant's understanding of religion had a decidedly Romantic tone, free from the weight of priestcraft. He may have been an idiosyncratic mind, but he strongly believed that life would be empty without a genuine religious dimension. As a beautiful fragment from chapter 17 of the 1815 edition of Principles of Politics shows, Constant looked for—and found—"religion" in places where conventional believers might not have searched. For him, there was "religion" in the impression of a dark night and ancient forest as well as in the emotion caused by a great work of art or literature. In sum, "there is religion at the bottom of all things." Constant admitted that religion represents "the permanent tradition of everything that is beautiful, great and good across the degradation and iniquity of the ages."[15] What mattered above all for him were the sentiments of the sublime, the pure emotions and uplifting feelings that, Constant believed, could not (and should not) be confined by any doctrinal or institutional form.
It is not difficult then to figure out why devout believers and radical atheists might not be pleased with Constant's ideas on religion. He may be accused of espousing a purely sentimental and individualist form of religion, if one remembers the broad definition of religion mentioned above. His seminal distinction between religious sentiment and religious forms, which looms large in the first books of On Religion and is discussed in Kahan's essay, might also raise more than a few eyebrows. Once religion is regarded purely as a sentiment and the principle of authority in religion is denied, can there really be any principle of authority left in the realm of politics? Or would anarchy be the inevitable outcome of this development?
This, I would like to argue, was the question that Constant took seriously. It was a particularly salient question in the context in which the first volume of On Religion appeared in 1824. The last decade and a half of Constant's life was an age of transition in which nothing was fixed or stable and everything was in flux and up for grabs. It is not a mere accident that the term individualisme gained wide currency in the 1820s in France.[16] Many of Constant's contemporaries saw themselves as engaged in an adventurous voyage at sea, without a firm compass or doctrine. The older ones were concerned about the growth of indifference in matters of religion and the gradual loss of faith in general. The younger ones were equally restless, for they were searching for a new doctrine to give meaning to their lives.
I would like to bring into our discussion two names that might be relevant to the issues discussed here. The first is Félicité Robert de Lamennais (1782–1854), who published an influential Essai sur l'indifférence en matière de religion in four volumes between 1817 and 1824. Lamennais's Essay provided a thorough critique of modern individualism, a sacred principle for Constant and other Protestant liberals, from a Catholic and conservative perspective. Itoutlined the profound transformation at work in modern society, the roots of which could be traced back to Descartes and the philosophes. As such, Lamennais's book offered a trenchant critique of the philosophical and individualistic foundations of modernity that, in his mind, paved the way for universal doubt and social anarchy. It is safe to assume that Constant was familiar with Lamennais's Essay, the last volume of which appeared the same year as the first volume of On Religion.
The second name is Théodore Jouffroy (1796-1842), who belonged to the generation of younger liberals who came of age in the 1820s and for whom Constant served as a mentor sui generis. They may not have felt the same anxiety as Lamennais, but they too were restless. For them the old dogmas and beliefs held little appeal. The whole future seemed wide open as there was deep uncertainty about the new beliefs that could replace the old ones. Jouffroy was the author of a famous essay entitled How Dogmas Come to an End (1823), which illustrates well the mixture of restlessness, hope, and anxiety that characterized his generation. In his view the young generation could no longer embrace the faith of their parents, which seemed an indifferent routine, observed ritualistically and with indolence. But that generation could not fall into apathy and indifference either.
The hypothesis that I take the liberty of advancing here is that Constant's book sought to offer an answer to Lamennais's argument about the dangers of atheism and the imminent dissolution of society into indifference. It also offered a valuable suggestion and inspiration to Jouffroy's concerns about the dissolution of old dogmas. In this regard, Constant's message was not much different from Tocqueville's a decade later: religious sentiment (or, to use Tocqueville's term, faith), not doubt, is the permanent state of mankind. As such, Constant's book on religion could have conveyed an important message to his anxious contemporaries. The danger was neither indifference nor excessive doubt as many of them feared. If old dogmas had no authority anymore and could no longer command allegiance, the answer was not the absence of religion; nor was despair the only other available solution. It was a new and better form of religion which alone could give the "presentiment of a new and better faith"[17] and could rekindle enthusiasm and genuine convictions among the younger generation. De la religion made this point brilliantly by reminding its readers of the power of the religious sentiment, that indestructible and universal sentiment" that "triumphs over all interests" and passions.[18]
[11.] Benjamin Constant, On Religion, trans. Paul Seaton Jr. (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2018).
[12.] Benjamin Constant, Commentary on Filangieri's Work, trans. Alan S. Kahan (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2015).
[13.] "Speech on Ancient and Modern Liberty," in Constant, Political Writings, ed. Biancamaria Fontana (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
[14.] See Helena Rosenblatt, Liberal Values: Benjamin Constant and the Politics of Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 128-14.
[15.] Constant, Political Writings, 279.
[16.] Konraad W. Swart, "'Individualism' in the Mid-nineteenth Century," Journal of the History of Ideas. Vol. 23, No. 1 (January-March 1962): 77-90.
[17.] Théodore Jouffroy, "How Dogmas Come to an End," in Philosophical Miscellanies of Cousin, Jouffroy, and B. Constant, trans. and ed. George Ripley, vol. II (Boston: Hilliard, Gray, and Company, 1838),  135.
[18.] Constant, On Religion, 24.