Guizot on liberty and reason (1851)

François Guizot

The French historian and politician François Guizot (1787-1874) argues that the exercise of political power over others is only legitimate in so far as it conforms to reason:

Power proves its legitimacy, that is to say, its conformity to the eternal reason, by making itself recognized and accepted by the free reason of the men over whom it is exercised. This is the object of the representative system.

So far then from representation founding itself on a right, inherent in all individual wills, to concur in the exercise of power, it on the other hand rests on the principle that no will has in itself any right to power, and that whoever exercises, or claims to exercise power, is bound to prove that he exercises, or will exercise it, not according to his own will, but according to reason. If we examine the representative system in all its forms—for it admits of different forms according to the state of society to which it is applied—we shall see that such are everywhere the necessary results and the true foundations of that which we call representation.

In his lectures on “The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe” which he gave in the 1820s during the rule of the restored monarchy, Guizot argued that man was a creature which was capable of reasoning and thus “bound” to direct his or her own life by the dictates of reason (or personally suffer the con sequences). By extension, when it came to “the relations between man and man” this same principle of reason political power was only just when it conformed to reason, and that the individual had “the right to obey nothing that is not reason”, or to unravel the double negative of the French, had “the right to disobey anything that was unreasonable.” Furthermore he argued that the representative system of government was the best way to discover what reasonable laws were and to enact them. This was a provocative thing to argue during the very conservative and increasingly oppressive regime of the restored Bourbon monarchy in France. It was also a radical thing to say in 1851 (when the lectures were first published) as another Napoleon had come to power, first as President of the Second Republic in 1848 and then later as the self-declared Emperor in 1852. In Guizot’s terminology, both King Charles X and Napoleon III ruled by imposing their “wills” on others, rather than ruling according to “reason, justice, and truth.”