Liberty Matters

Religious, Yes, But What Kind?

First of all, I would like to thank Aurelian Craiutu, Bryan Garsten, and Jacob Levy for taking the time to respond to my essay and the many interesting questions they raise, not all of which I can address here.
I would like to begin by discussing some of the issues about the history of liberalism and Constant's place in it raised by Prof. Levy. I confess to a certain discomfort relating my discussion of Constant and Kant to the questions I discussed in Aristocratic Liberalism in relation to Burckhardt, Mill, and Tocqueville, but Levy is right that the question of periodization is important, although I think he is wrong about where he draws the lines.
Liberals always worried about the masses. Adam Smith examined how commercial society affected them. For Smith, they benefited by it materially but not necessarily morally, hence Smith's famous discussion of the deleterious effects of industrialized pin-making on those who no longer made pins but only small parts of them.[23] Kant did not focus on the historical sociology of commercial societies, but in What Is Enlightenment? he lamented that the mass of humanity, out of laziness and cowardice, was not interested in thinking for itself and was perfectly content to do without the critical thinking he equated with maturity and self-development. Constant historicized and generalized the problem of the hoi polloi by attributing particular moral tendencies to commercial society, regardless of social position, including a preoccupation with purely private pleasures, both material and nonmaterial (the tenderness of the modern family vs. that of the ancients). These tendencies extended to all social strata – and here Constant's criticism of the moral failings of commercial society is perhaps closer to Kant's criticism of human immaturity than to Smith since it applies to everyone, not just pin-makers.
What separates Kant and Constant from the next generation of liberals, including Tocqueville and other aristocratic liberals, is that the middle classes are not a concern for them, hardly even a phrase. This is particularly striking in Constant's case. The famous speech on ancient and modern liberty talks a great deal about "commerce." There is not a single reference to the middle classes.[24] The Principles of Politics contains one reference to the middle classes – in a quotation from Smith! And no, "bourgeois/bourgeoisie" is no more common. The two references to them in Principles are simply to the inhabitants of Zurich. The dislike/distrust of the middle classes which makes the aristocratic liberals aristocratic is simply impossible for Constant. It is beyond his linguistic/intellectual horizon. It is only among younger liberals, the generation of Guizot and the Doctrinaires who get going in the 1820s, that the middle classes as such become a focus, for better or worse, of liberal thought.
This is true just as much in England or Germany as in France. The transition from a focus on "commercial society" to a focus on middle-class or bourgeois society is significant in the history of liberalism, as I will show in the history of liberalism I am currently writing. In the mid-19th century (call it post-1820), the middle classes take on a significance in liberal thought that superficially resembles that which the "middling orders" held in older republican thought, but which is quite other in its historical, social, and economic context. However, whether liberals praise the middle classes, like Guizot or Macaulay, or critique them, like J. S. Mill or Tocqueville, they build on the acceptance of commercial society that Prof. Levy rightly emphasizes as distinguishing Constant from his republican predecessors.[25]
Whether we are dealing with middle-class Philistines or merely the masses devoted to vulgar material pleasures, the need for some kind of spiritual uplift, most likely from a religious source, was clear to Constant as to just about every other liberal of his time, with rare exceptions such as Jeremy Bentham -- frequently the target of Constant's ire.
This brings us to the question of what kind of religious foundation for liberalism Constant had in mind.
The importance of religion and morality for Constant has been emphasized by recent scholarship. Religion is a key element, although not necessarily the only element, in the self-development of the individual character dear to his heart. This gives rise to two sorts of questions by the commentators: 1) what kind of religion did Constant espouse? and 2) what were the political consequences of his views on religion?
Prof. Garsten thinks Constant is not sufficiently clear about the work religion is supposed to do, or why: "Constant never fully explained precisely why he thought the ability to distance ourselves from our sensations and inclinations was so closely linked with the 'religious'…. I suspect that the 'religious' for Constant simply was the shadowy, not rationally explicable, sense that egoism was not enough." I think this is unfair to Constant. He was quite clear about many aspects of why egoism was not enough. In particular, egoism cannot, according to Constant, motivate self-sacrifice. Religion can, as Constant says in a number of passages with which Prof. Garsten is familiar: "Liberty nourishes itself on sacrifices…. Liberty always wants citizens, and often heroes. Do not let fade the convictions that ground the virtues of citizens and that create heroes, giving them the strength to be martyrs." The need for religious conviction is both political and personal. As the liberal state needs religion, so does the liberal individual: "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 a belief in a God." This is why "among all peoples, religious institutions always have intimate ties with political liberty, and whenever religion itself has the liberty that it deserves, the liberty of nations is firmly in place."
It is true that Constant was disposed to describe anything that raised human beings above egoism and materialism as "religion." He states that "[a]ll that is beautiful, all that is intimate, all that is noble, partakes of the nature of religion." To be without religion, therefore, would be to be without beauty and nobility. But secular sources of beauty and nobility can also be sufficient for Constant. In the ancient world politics played this role, and in the modern world it is possible that it still can, albeit differently.[26]
Be that as it may, it is clear that Constant stresses religion as a source of moral elevation. "It is for the creation of a more elevated morality that religion seems desirable to me. I do not invoke it to repress gross crimes but to ennoble all the virtues." Religion raises people above the "habits of common life" and the "petty material interests that go with it." This leads to the questions raised by Levy and Craiutu as to what kind of religion can fulfill this purpose and whether it is a precondition for the establishment of a free society. As Levy points out, Constant "never, across many political moments in his long career, suggested that France was not ready for liberty at that moment," even though France never had the kind of religion Constant approved. The short answer is that good religion is not needed to found a republic, but it is necessary to keep it, something France has never managed well.[27]
What kind of religion? Pace Craiutu, there is a lot of Chateaubriand in Constant's Protestantism, right down to the common impressions caused by ancient forests. Surely Craiutu is right that Constant is also responding to Lamennais, reassuring his contemporaries (and ours) about the fate of religion. The "believing without belonging," so common in Europe and increasingly in America today, goes far to proving him right, although it seems to be not so easy to disembarrass humanity of priestcraft, whether of gurus or Popes -- something which would not surprise Kant. Whether that vague spirituality will be enough to preserve our sense of the beautiful and the noble is another question.
[23.] Smith was on the whole positive about the moral effects, but recognized drawbacks as well.
[24.] Perhaps an indirect reason for Marx's contempt for Constant, by contrast with his recognition of Guizot's brilliance?
[25.] Kant is at least not hostile to commercial society, as his admiration for Smith and occasional quotation from The Wealth of Nations indicates.
[26.] Constant, cited in Garsten, "Religion and the Case Against Ancient Liberty: Benjamin Constant's Other Lectures," Political Theory, 38:1 (2010), 21, Principles, 131; Constant, cited in Garsten, "Religion and the Case Against Ancient Liberty," 4; Constant, cited in Garsten, "Constant on the Religious Spirit of Liberalism," in Helena Rosenblatt, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Constant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 298.
[27.] Constant, cited in Garsten, "Religion and the Case Against Ancient Liberty," 21; Constant, Principles, 131, cited in Garsten, "Religion and the Case Against Ancient Liberty," 4.