Benjamin Constant on the dangers to liberty posed by the military spirit (1815)

Benjamin Constant

The French political theorist and politician Benjamin Constant (1767-1830) worries that after long periods of war men become imbued with ideas about the use of force and a “military spirit” which undermines the very liberty they are supposed to defend:

This politics of war casts into society a mass of men whose outlook is different from that of the nation and whose habits form a dangerous contrast with the patterns of civil life, with the institutions of justice, with respect for the rights of all, with those principles of peaceful and ordered freedom which must be equally inviolable under all forms of government. …

In all centuries and countries, men associated together in the army for long periods have separated themselves from the nation. The very soldiers of freedom, in fighting for such, conceive a kind of respect for the use of force, regardless of its purpose. Without knowing it they contract thereby morals, ideas, and habits which are subversive of the cause they defend. The measures which ensure the triumph of war prepare the collapse of the law. The military spirit is haughty, swift, swaggering. Law must be calm, often slow, and always protective. The military spirit detests the thinking faculties as incipient indiscipline.

Constant wrote several versions of The Principles of Politics (in 1810, 1815) and it has never been given the attention it deserves. He was writing the second version when Napoleon returned from defeat and asked him to draw up a new constitution, so he was very concerned with the practical political problem of how to reform a society which had been dominated by the military for nearly two decades. One of the biggest problems lay in the minds of men who had experienced military discipline first hand, were accustomed to obeying orders without question, and who regarded independent thinking as “incipient indiscipline”. The respect for individual liberty had to be relearned by the citizen soldiers who had served Napoleon for so long that they had adopted “a mechanistic subordination” which made them “passive, unreflective, and docile agents” of power. Thus, part of Constant’s political agenda was to try to rekindle the love of liberty in the minds of Frenchmen both within the Chamber (in which he served until his death in 1830) and in a series of major books he published during the 1820s.