Benjamin Constant and Post-Revolutionary Mind

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For John

Copyright © 1991 by Biancamaria Fontana All rights reserved. This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part, in any form (beyond that copying permitted by Sections 107 and 108 of the U.S. Copyright Law and except by reviewers for the public press), without written permission from the publishers. Set in Baskerville by SX Composing Ltd Printed and bound in Great Britain by Billing & Sons Ltd, Worcester Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Fontana, Biancamaria. Benjamin Constant and the post-revolutionary mind / Biancamaria Fontana. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-300-04995-1 1. Constant, Benjamin, 1767-1830. 2. Novelists, Swiss — 19th century - Biography. 3. France - History - Revolution, 1789-1799-Influence. 4. Europe — Intellectual life — 19th century. 5. Intellectuals - France — Biography. I. Title. PQ2211.C24F66 1991 848'.609 - dc20 [B] 90-22999 CIP


Acknowledgements Notice to the Reader Introduction

vi vii ix


An Independent Traveller


The Restoration of Political Theory


3 4 5 6

The Limits of Progress The Modern Republic Equality The Government of Opinion

29 48


The Rewards of Doubt: From Polytheism to Pluralism


Adolphe or the Experience of Liberty


Nous Sommes des Morts . . .


68 81 98 118 134



Bibliography of Works Cited





I wish to thank Beatrice Fink for inviting me in October 1989 to the University of Maryland to a conference on ‘Benjamin Constant, Philosopher, Historian, Novelist, Statesman’: Chapter 6 of this book owes much to discussions held on that occasion. Similarly, I am grate¬ ful to the participants in the seminar ‘The Theory of Modern Repub¬ licanism’ organised in Cambridge by the King’s College Research Centre and the Institut Raymond Aron in the Fall of 1989; again, ex¬ changes during the seminar have helped me to clarify the content of Chapters 4 and 5. I am indebted to Alessandro Pizzorno for sharing with me his knowledge of Constant while I was a Jean Monnet Fellow at the Euro¬ pean University Institute in Florence in 1986-7; to Jimmy Burns and John Burrow for the kind of encouragement they have given to my work and to Pasquale Pasquino for his unfailing intellectual enthu¬ siasm. Graham McCann, Anthony Pagden and Sylvana Tomaselli have helped me on different occasions to give a better shape to my ideas and to my prose. I wish to thank them as well as Geoffrey Haw¬ thorn, Bernard Manin and Michael Sonenscher for their comments on the text. Robert Baldock has been an efficient and supportive editor, and 1 am grateful to him for adopting the script. As ever the heaviest burden of care and assistance has fallen upon John Dunn: my debt to him is recorded elsewhere. Finally, 1 am very grateful to my parents for their patience and appreciation. Cambridge, July 1990

Notice to the Reader

The translation of all passages from Constant’s manuscripts and published writings cited in the book is mine, with the exception of the quotations from Adolphe, which are from the English translation by Leonard Tancock (see Bibliography). Similarly, where no specific reference is made to an English edition, all quotations from French sources are translated by me.

Introduction In which the epoch is reflected / and modern man / rather correctly represented / with his immoral soul / selfish and dry / to dreaming measurelessly given / with his embittered mind / boiling in empty action. (A. Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, chapter 7, stanza XXII on Adolphe, trans. V. Nabokov.)

Two hundred years after the revolution of 1789, from which he emerged as one of the most brilliant minds of his age, Benjamin Con¬ stant remains, especially in the English-speaking world, a relatively unknown and much underestimated intellectual figure. His reputa¬ tion as a major political theorist and a grand romantic writer, an influential politician and successful and many-sided homme de lettres is well established; yet somehow these different dimensions of his achievement still fail to conjure up the picture of a man shamelessly described by a contemporary as le premier esprit du monde} Other think¬ ers have suffered from the misleading stereotypes imposed upon their work and character by the prejudices of the following generations; in Constant’s case the image that history has transmitted us is less deceptive than it is hazy: it simply fails to come properly into focus. This lack of recognition finds an immediate explanation in the rela¬ tive difficulty of access which characterises his oeuvre as well as his lifeexperience, discouraging rather than promoting the shaping of con¬ ventional pictures. In principle, few authors would seem better placed than Constant to illustrate the reformulation of political and con¬ stitutional theory after the revolution of 1789, and, more broadly, to exemplify the transition from ancien regime to nineteenth-century Euro¬ pean culture. It is sufficient to recall Constant’s background in several distinct national traditions (the Swiss, the French, the Anglo-Scottish, the German); the diverse character of his writings; his contacts within the ‘progressive’ international intelligentsia of his own time; his active, if intermittent, participation in French public life throughout the eventful years from 1795 to 1830, to anticipate a rich and privi¬ leged insight into the experience of the post-revolutionary generation. Moreover, the study of his life and work seems to offer a unique



opportunity to approach the political tradition with which his name is currently associated - modern liberalism - by looking beyond ideo¬ logical stereotypes to confront the new private and public sensibility of the age. Yet, on closer inspection, this wide range of alluring perspectives offered by Constant’s intellectual experience are matched by an equally powerful array of obstructions. The cosmopolitan influences which came together in the formation of Constant’s thought are as in¬ tricate as they are difficult to assess, and make it extremely hard to place his contribution in the context of the political and intellectual debate of his own time. His heterogeneous interests and broad erudi¬ tion face the literary critic, the political philosopher and the historian alike with unfamiliar idioms, placing the unity of his work beyond the reach of compartimentalised academic investigation. The alternation, in Constant’s own life, of periods of active political participation with long intervals of forced silence or voluntary efTacement make the style of his writings unusually elusive and uneven. Addressing in turn a small circle of learned friends, European public opinion at large, the French Assembly, the Emperor, the fashionable salon and the future generations, the author adjusted his tone from occasion to occasion to the varying expectations and prejudices of his imagined audience. Things are in no way easier or clearer if one turns from Constant’s political and literary works to his autobiographical writings: on the contrary, the complexity of his oeuvre is amplified rather than resolved by the uniquely vivid intervention of the personality of its author. The charm and guiles of the precocious child, of the brilliant conversa¬ tionalist and of the cunning seducer have lost none of their power for the modern reader. In the correspondence as in the journals, on page after page, the writer suggests motivations while hastily undermining them; confesses intentions only to disown them, ambitions only to mock them. He appeals in turn to our enthusiasm and to our scepti¬ cism, hiding behind the incongruous masks of the scholar, the worldly man, the moralist, the rake and the dedicated politician. He seeks in fact (and wins only too easily) the complicity of his readers in eluding precisely what they are attempting to grasp: a firm definition of his in¬ tellectual project as well as of his true self. This discontinuity in the style and intellectual content of Constant’s work is reflected in the manuscript evidence, which is as bulky as it is incomplete, repetitive and sometimes uncertain in its dating. Again, obscurities and lacunae are not merely due to accident, to the random



ravages of time. They are the product of the author’s relentless making and unmaking of the text, of the intermittent and circuitous progress of his reflections. The absence until today of a scholarly edition of Constant’s collected works and correspondence (an unusual neglect for an author who is after all a major French classic) reflects the lasting embarrassment on the part of scholars over the status as well as the shape and chronology of his oeuvre 2 The inadequate pre¬ sentation of Constant’s work is even more striking from the viewpoint of the English reader: several of Constant’s pamphlets, as well as his novel Adolphe, were translated into English in his own time’ - but only a few of his political writings are available in a modern English edition, and those only since 1988.4 The existing French secondary literature on his life and work, though impressive in bulk and by no means deficient in scholarly merit, is dispersed and uneven; the English one consists of a disconcertingly short list of titles.J The style and intellectual complexity of Constant’s contribution is however only a relatively superficial dimension of his failure to become a popular and charismatic thinker. There are more substan¬ tial reasons for this failure, which reflect the content rather than the form of his work. Some of these reasons are connected with the diffi¬ culty of placing Constant in relation to the political forces which emerged from the revolution of 1789, by identifying him with a specific party or ideology. This identification has always proved highly prob¬ lematic, and Constant’s reputation has generally suffered from the fact that he did not belong to one of the leading groupings which dominated the French political stage in his own time. Neither a Jaco¬ bin nor a Legitimist, he shared the uncertain fortunes of all ‘moderate’ or ‘middle’ forces within the revolutionary process and its aftermath: it is sufficient to recall the monarchical reformers, the Girondins and the ideologues, whose views, programme and indeed very identity as in¬ tellectual and political movements has been the subject of prolonged c

disputes among historians. Moreover, although Constant had close personal contacts with members of these circles and was sympathetic to some of their views and activities, he cannot be described as actually belonging to any of them. He shared some of the intellectual preoccupations of the ideo¬ logues but not their characteristic enthusiasm for methodology and the classification of sciences. His admiration for Condorcet - whose lec¬ tures at the Lycee Royal he attended in 1787 - was never without re¬ servations;’ his contacts with the Societe d’Auteil never other than



casual and external.8 In the frequenting of the Baronne de Stael’s salon constituted a political identity of a kind, Constant undoubtedly shared it. Yet his close intellectual collaboration with de Stael never completely suppressed the political differences between him and the monarchical reformers whom she patronised. He shared their admira¬ tion for the English constitution, but not their sympathy for the monarchical cause, nor their belief that liberty was, above all, an aris¬ tocratic virtue. Again, Constant was the author of what can be described as the most vivid and passionate denunciation of Jacobin violence and terror. But after 1815 his commitment to the heritage of the revolution was still strong enough to place him on the extreme left, and consequently at the margin, of mainstream French parliamentary life. Thus if he was undoubtedly a prominent member of French poli¬ tical opposition during the empire and the restoration he was so on very private and idiosyncratic terms, and his position was, in the end, entirely his own. Although he often found himself very close to the people who played a decisive role in French politics - from the former minister of Louis XVI, Jacques Necker, to the great theorist of the Convention Joseph Emmanuel Sieyes,9 from the future King of Sweden General Bernadotte to Bonaparte — his ambition to become an influential politician himself was nevery fully realised. As a mem¬ ber of the Tribunate under the Consulate and of Louis XVIII’s and Charles X’s parliaments during the restoration his role was only mar*

ginal. His membership of the Conseil d’Etat during the Hundred Days and his drafting of a model constitution which was never en¬ forced is as close as he ever came to the centre of power. It is easy to see why Constant could not find an adequate place within a historiography which carried well into our century the ide¬ ological conflicts and divisions of the revolution of 1789.10 Today one is mildly surprised to realise what a large bulk of scholarly literature has been taken up by disputes over his supposed political betrayals and changing of sides: as if the evolution from vague sympathiser of thejacobins in the early 1790s to Thermidorian and tractable political opponent under the empire and the restoration were such an unusal or unintelligible course. One is less surprised to find that Constant should have been the object of puzzlement, incomprehension or mere lack of interest. His political enemies who, during his lifetime, re¬ peatedly contested his right to meddle with French politics at all, by disputing his entitlement to French citizenship," were at least guided by a correct intuition: that in the highly ideological struggle for the



monopoly over French national identity the cosmopolitan Swiss in¬ tellectual had no stake worth speaking of. If Constant was doomed to occupy an uneasy or at best marginal place within the French political tradition, the means chosen by his advocates to improve his standing seem nonetheless equally dubious and problematic. Their answer was to promote him to the member¬ ship of an ideal and, so to speak, meta-historical liberal party, grant¬ ing him immortality in a kind of political afterlife represented by the everlasting values of freedom and individualism.12 In fact when Con¬ stant, in the 1790s as in the 1820s, used the words ‘liberal’, ‘liberaux’, ‘amis de la liberte’ to describe himself and his political friends, he was by no means referring to an organised political party in the modern sense of the term, or even in the sense in which it is possible to talk of parties in relation to eighteenth-century British politics. What he had in mind was not a political grouping or movement, but a vague identi¬ fication with enlightened and progressive public opinion.13 Indeed one of the central problems that Constant confronted in his career as member of the political opposition was precisely the absence in France of organised political parties, the fact that the country was governed, after the revolution as much as before it, by an undis¬ ciplined elite of opinionated notables,14 Thus the image of Constant as militant in some ideal liberal army is devoid of specific historical content. It has a purely symbolic signifi¬ cance, illustrated in the nineteenth century by his appearance, in 1822, among the ‘saints’ of a ‘Calendrier liberal’, and today by his pre¬ sence in some political philosophy textbooks which stress the con¬ tinuity of the liberal message and his militance in the anti-totalitarian camp. Historically it is a harmless, if unilluminating, anachronism. Politically, it has often cast him in a company he would hardly have chosen himself. More recently, and the celebrations for the bicenten¬ ary of the revolution of 1789 have made this attitude quite explicit, the tide of historical interpretation has turned, and, in France at least, Constant and the moderate reformers are at the centre of a redis¬ covery which identifies them as the truly lasting and constructive ex¬ pression of the revolutionary process. Constant himself is now seen as the most articulate representative of those forces which promoted the democratic transformation of French society without making any con¬ cession to the authoritarian and arbitrary vocation of the revolution.15 In this context the nature of his ‘liberalism’ has also been more sharply delineated, and it is now possible to see it as a structured



theory of limited government - of the limits of political authority rather than as a generic commitment to the values of progress and in¬ dividual autonomy. Constant’s affiliation to what appears now as the most inspiring component of the revolutionary tradition is of course relevant to the actuality of his thought, if only because we continue to talk in a politi¬ cal idiom which was first articulated by his generation, and still live in a

political space which was






Naturally, many of the issues which were prominent in Constant’s writings concerned the functioning of a political system which has almost entirely vanished from our memory and survives only in the re¬ construction of professional historians. Today we need to be speci¬ fically reminded that the members of the Estates General availed themselves of the imperative mandate, or that the Tribunate, under the Consulate, was an assembly whose functions were purely con¬ sultative. We have to resort to the assistance of social historians and demographers to be able to tell that the kind of electoral franchise which Constant advocated in 1815 would correspond to an extended rather than restricted suffrage. We would be unable to understand why in his Principles of Politics he referred extensively to William of Orange and the creation of new monarchies through parliamentary election if a providential footnote were not there to tell us that he wrote to support the candidature of Bernadotte in his quality of pre¬ tender to the throne of France. But behind the wheels of this obsolete machinery it is already possible to recognise the great questions which have dominated the experience of modern democratic states to our day: how to give practical reality to the notion that the people are only subjected to their own will; how to make the representatives of the people responsible towards the people themselves; how to keep to¬ gether a political community whose members are only bound prima facie by mutual interest and utility; or, in other words, how to build a political order which has liberty - the liberty of free agents in a market society - as its premise. Yet, if today Constant is increasingly identified as a thinker able to speak to contemporary imagination, the reasons are deeper than his association with a seminal historical past, with the archaeology of modern democratic constitutions or the rise of advanced capitalistic relations in post-revolutionary European society. Constant’s most serious contribution to the understanding of our own world lies pre¬ cisely in those features of his work which have always made it in-



triguing and unsettling, disqualifying him through the centuries from the role of maitre a penser. It consists of a number of intuitions con¬ cerning the nature of the modern experience,16 the scope of which stretched beyond the immediate historical landscape surrounding him. One of these intuitions was that, to the growing complexity of the socio-economic fabric of modern states would correspond an in¬ creased complexity of the practice of government; that the progress of economic prosperity and social equality would make the task of the political authority more difficult, and the political order far more vul¬ nerable than ever before. In other words, Constant did not share the illusion, common to many of his contemporaries, that the establish¬ ment of the simple and universal principles of popular sovereignty, liberty and equality would spirit away, as if by magic, the tangled conflicts which divided civil society and nation states. On the con¬ trary, the constraints represented by the socio-economic reality of the nation and those set forth by her political demands would compound one another, making the scope of governmental action increasingly narrow and obstructed. Even if they were living under perfect political institutions, men would still have to contend with the subterranean forces of their deeply ingrained prejudices and with the burden of their own moral disorientation. Thus for Constant the progress towards modern democracy was not an easy step into a world of tran¬ sparency and harmony, but a long march through a dark and in¬ sidious labyrinth, an unnerving bet against odds which would prove more and more adverse as the game went on. This point is connected with another important intuition which runs through Constant’s work, and which concerned the role of tradi¬ tional belief and morality in modern society. As the establishment of a democratic government could not remove the tensions within civil society, similarly the collapse of the religious and social values of the ancien regime would not automatically result in a new world ruled by reason and tolerance. Here again Constant felt that the optimism of some pre-revolutionary theorists had been misplaced. The unity and compactness (if not coherence) of traditional values had indeed been shattered, but only to make room for a pluralistic universe of com¬ peting prejudices and beliefs. The change was in some respects liber¬ ating, but would potentially intensify rather than settle all religious and ideological conflict. Moreover, the loss on the part of the in¬ dividual of the guidance of traditional religion and political authority would be more likely to prove a dismaying and tormenting experience



than an exhilarating and cathartic one. Probably the most fundamental intuition that Constant expressed on the nature of modern society was the impossibility of separating any public and political dimension from the existential experience of individuals. If the central feature of post-revolutionary culture was the tendency to see the individual self as the measure and filter of all understanding and all collective enterprise, his writings captured most vividly the emotional intensity and moral brittleness of this in¬ dividualism. Constant’s concern with the implications for the indivi¬ dual of political ideologies and public choices has been often mis¬ understood and interpreted as a solipsistic obsession with his own personal experience; while his tormenting doubts about his own exis¬ tential choices have become confused with his essentially pessimistic and potentially sceptical vision of the human condition. In his case more than in any other the personality of the author has been held re¬ sponsible for the shortcomings of his work, as if the open or unsolved questions in his reflection were the product of deliberate carelessness, bespoke some kind of individual moral failure or were the expression of some exquisitely eccentric sensibility. In fact, it was only in the ana¬ lysis of individual experience that Constant’s thought found a way out of the sociological relativism which otherwise dominated his political understanding. From the viewpoint of the organisation of collective life, in a culture which had lost its unanimous theological faith, no given belief and no set of principles had any intrinsic value beyond that of commanding consent. It was at the level of individual life that faith and principles could find a significance, in the basic need for humans to give a justification to their own existence. Constant did not entirely rely for his insights on the analytical re¬ sources of the political theorist, but owed them to some extent to the visionary qualities of the writer. Thus his political ideas cannot be fully understood in isolation from his literary and autobiographical work: without this latter, he may appear as the author of stimulating but somewhat disjointed reflections on political and constitutional matters; only in his novel does he achieve his full stature as a truly original thinker and a moralist. As a theorist, Constant felt a deep aversion for what in his own time went under the name of‘the spirit of system’, an aversion which was probably the most durable product of his early Scottish education. It was this idiosyncratic dislike for any exhaustive, close, over-detailed theoretical construction which made him feel at odds with the works of Condorcet, Mably and Bentham,



cooled his enthusiasm for German idealism and made the drafting of his monumental history of religion a methodological nightmare. As a writer, on the other hand, he was linear and rigorous, obsessively sparing of means, ready to discard anything that might break or simply disturb the unity of the narrative. His analytical powers and critical awareness made of him a natural sceptic; his literary vision bound him to a desperate search for coherence and purpose. This study is not intended as an exhaustive illustration of Con¬ stant’s life and work, but it does attempt to present his intellectual contribution as a unity, taking into account as far as possible its dif¬ ferent dimensions. The contribution itself is read here as an ambitious project of redefining a political and human agenda for the modern world, a world shattered beyond recognition by the loss of traditional identities even more than by the impact of revolution and violence. Constant was among the first survivors who found themselves wandering, with open eyes, in the shapeless landscape which has become our present: this is the story of how he learnt to see it, as we do, as both familiar and terrifying.

Chapter 1

An Independent Traveller tout depart est triste . . . (Journal intime, 28 November 1807)

Individual existential experience is never very far from the reader of Constant’s works: not only because as a writer, and a political theorist, Constant was deeply concerned with the position of indivi¬ dual men and women within society; but also because his oeuvre in¬ cludes a series of vivid and fascinating records of his own personal vicissitudes. Of this substantial body of biographical material only a small part was written with a view to publication. To the Memoires sur les Cent Jours of 1820,1 which dealt exclusively with an episode in Con¬ stant’s public career - the collaboration with Napoleon in 1815 - we can add the autobiographical fragment of 1811 known as the Cahier rouge? and perhaps the undated literary narrative ‘Cecile’, generally associated with the preparation of Adolphe? All the remaining texts consist of private journals, which Constant kept at different points in his life - between 1803 and 1807, and between 1812 and 1816 - and of a mass of letters, the most revealing of which were addressed to the various women closest to his heart: his maternal aunt Mme de Nas¬ sau; his pious cousin Rosalie de Constant; his second wife Charlotte von Hardenberg; and his friends and lovers Isabelle de Charriere, Germaine de Stael, Julie Talma, Anna Lindsay and Juliette Recamier.


On 18 December 1804, Constant noted in his journal that it was very difficult, even when writing for oneself, to suppress entirely the illusion of addressing an imaginary readership.'’ A few months later, on 2 April 1805, on learning that the papers of an acquaintance who had committed suicide had been seized, he wondered what would happen if his journals fell into the hands of the Napoleonic police: a consideration which may have prompted some self-imposed cen¬ sorship/’

Some of his

romantic correspondences,





addressed to Anna Lindsay and Juliette Recamier, are so compelling and reveal such literary skill that it is sometimes difficult to remember that they were not composed as narrative exercises or epistolary novels. Yet, though it may have been generally difficult for Constant to abandon the habit ofliterary artifice, what we know of his most in¬ timate thoughts and feelings (which is quite a lot) was not presented by him in some official, if revealing, self-portrait, anything akin for example to John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography.' It is true that Constant’s autobiographical writings are often re¬ miniscent of Rousseau’s Confessions,8 if only for the depth of psycho¬ logical analysis and the merciless picture they present of a tormented personality. But if Constant was vulnerable and intemperate in his outbursts of feeling, he indulged in them only in private, or at most used them in intimate games of seduction. He never assumed they would carry a universal message or deserve public attention. When¬ ever he wrote about himself for a public - as he did in the Cahier rouge he immediately reverted to the detached, witty, self-deprecating tone of elegant conversation. Unsurprisingly the function of these ‘private’ writings is seldom that of explaining, justifying or illuminating the de¬ velopment of the author’s intellectual and public career. In most cases their effect is rather the opposite: they distract us from it, confronting us with some unfamiliar side of his personality, belying his overt in¬ tentions, mocking them, betraying utterly incompatible ambitions. It is as if, dazzled by his charm - that unique blend of candid irony, fren¬ zied imagination and merciless self-awareness, of levity and despair we could no longer distinguish the shape of the intellectual ambition concealed behind it. Constant’s life was, by all standards, historical as well as human, an eccentric one.9 Its eccentricity however did not originate in one of those spectacular trajectories of upper social mobility which charac¬ terized the lives of some of his contemporaries, and of which Napoleon’s career was the most astonishing archetype. Although he lived in times of dramatic political change, Constant’s own existence was set within a framework of values and expectations which were not significantly altered in the transition from the ancien regime to post¬ revolutionary society. The Swiss aristocracy, to which he belonged, was neither grand nor glamorous, but its bigoted, provincial, solid self-confidence was hardly shaken by the revolutionary experience. Being possessed of an independent fortune - though one which proved consistently insufficient for his needs - Constant was never forced to



court favour and patronage. From the rich and powerful he did occa¬ sionally seek the luxury of worldly success and political office, but he was never dependent on them for his living, still less for his social dignity. If in politics he was a stern opponent of privilege, he shared neither the idealisation of aristocratic virtues promoted by his ‘parvenue’ friend the Baronne de Stael,10 nor the bitter resentment against the great which filled with hatred those members of the new political class who had directly experienced the humiliation of patron¬ age and social inferiority.11 Constant’s erratic adolescence, his precocious social graces and sex¬ ual experiences, his ruinous taste for gambling and duelling, were all distinctive marks of a traditional aristocratic education. Though they may strike the modern reader as adventurous and romantic, there was nothing especially odd or unusual about them. What was truly eccen¬ tric about Constant’s life was, in the first instance, the unsettling ex¬ tent of his cosmopolitanism. The feeling of belonging to an inter¬ national European elite as much as to a particular nation was of course common enough among the most enlightened sections of the eighteenth-century aristocracy. Yet this feeling was seldom carried to the extremity of being entirely at home within several national cul¬ tures - in Constant’s case the Swiss, the French, the Anglo-Scottish and the German - while remaining fundamentally estranged from all of them. The idiosyncratic pedagogic choices of Juste de Constant, combined with his son’s natural intellectual curiosity and existential restlessness, achieved this uncomfortable feat. If the Grand Tour was an obligatory stage in an eighteenth-century aristocratic education, Benjamin’s Grand Tour began at the age of seven, when his father first sent him to Brussels under the care of an unscrupulous tutor, and ended around the age of fifty, when his declining health and parliamentary engagements finally confined him to France. From the mid-1770s to 1817 he was constantly on the move, travelling between Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, France, Germany and Great Britain, though he never realised his final escapist dream of emigrating to North America.12 These endless journeys had some ap¬ parent external justification in the long periods of political troubles, which forced him at intervals into a kind of self-imposed exile; and in his long association with that other compulsive traveller Germaine de Stael. Yet throughout these decades there had been nothing to pre¬ vent him from living undisturbed in his native Lausanne. Similarly, it seems implausible that the rationale for his peregrinations was merely



a vivid artistic or ethnographical curiosity, unless we count as such a keen eye for the vagaries of human nature. Constant himself confessed quite candidly to be far too lazy to visit deliberately ‘a monument, a region or a famous man’.13 His journals and correspondence are full of descriptions of roads and country inns, weather conditions and coach accidents, the quality of the wine and bedsheets and the looks of chambermaids. Occasionally they inform the reader about the stock of books available in some foreign library; but they seldom allow them a glimpse of a town, a celebrated building or a landscape. They show the writer’s travels as taking place in a vacuum, a perennial road suspended in the middle of nowhere: at the end of the road no real geographical en¬ tities, but a series of inner spaces, the tassels of a scattered identity distributed across the map of Europe. He visited them in turn, as severed parts of himself: his domestic cares and affections in Switzer¬ land; his worldly ambitions in Paris; the ghosts of his youth in London and Scotland; his intellectual pursuits in the quiet of German libraries and in his own country house at Les Herbages. Each time he became aware of the drawbacks of his present location and of the pleasures of those he had left behind. Each place, each culture, belonged to him, and left its marks upon his thought; but he belonged to none, and it would be a sterile exercise on the part of the historian to attempt to disentangle and ‘measure’ their respective influences. ‘I don’t mind whether I am here or anywhere else’, explained the mysterious stranger at the beginning of Adolphe, when his companion complained of the slowness of their journey.11 This declaration of indifference is the only ‘direct’ appearance of the character of Adolphe in the story outside the narrative of which he is the author, the only occasion in which we shall actually ‘see’ him, waiting patiently by a flooded road. From a somewhat different angle the eccentricity in Constant’s life can be found in the ambiguity and detachment with which he in¬ habited not only his various cultural backgrounds, but also his own ambitions. In themselves these ambitions were quite straightforward and predictable, and can probably be reduced to two main aspira¬ tions: to make a lasting contribution to the culture of his own time; and to take an active part in politics, and be at the heart of great his¬ torical events. In times of rapid social mobility and political trans¬ formation, both expectations were far from implausible and fantastic. Constant’s precocious intelligence and rapidly acquired learning seemed to promise from the start a successful literary career. His bril-



liant wit, his charm and social adroitness soon gained him promotion from the ranks of a dull, if culturally self-conscious, provincial nobil¬ ity, to the vertiginous promises of post-revolutionary Parisian society. No doubt, contrary to the legend promoted by Saint-Beuve, which presented him as an ambitious turncoat,15 he lacked precisely the determined opportunism necessary for political advancement. His aristocratic pride impeded him in the activity of begging for office; his Protestant education was an obstacle in performing the role of cour¬ tier; his neglect of moral conventions offended the pious; his horror of bigotry and fanaticism could hardly assist him in a political world ruled by factions and partisans. On the whole, as it is shown by the last fifteen years of his life, Constant was more suited to the routine and relatively calm waters of regular parliamentary activity than to the atmosphere of unrest, conspiracy and violent partisan struggle which characterised French politics during most of his adult life. When in his writings he appealed to justice and guarantees, moder¬ ation and tolerance, he was not merely advocating abstract ideals, but describing the only kind of political world in which it was humanly possible for him to function. But the real problem throughout Constant’s public career was not what he could, or could not, achieve - though no doubt circumstances were generally against him - but rather his own capacity to find fulfil¬ ment in it, to identify with his public role. We are struck now by his familiarity with the great of his age, impressed to find that he dined with Goethe in Weimar, exchanged views with Napoleon at the Tuileries, and conversed, in the Baronne de Stael’s and Lady Holland’s salons with the people whose names are still for us most representative of post-revolutionary European politics and culture. Constant himself was, to some extent, dazzled by these experiences, yet not to the point of being entirely absorbed by them or finding in them any lasting satisfaction. His journals show him complaining incessantly of the drudgery of active political life, cursing the vanity which kept him up night after night until the early hours of the morning, through an ex¬ hausting round of social engagements, frittering away: the hours he should devote to his studies. He was flattered by the attention of the great, but occasionally found that the company of immortal German writers was no compensation for the loss of the privilege of solitude; nor did the discovery that the Emperor enjoyed his conversation con¬ sole him for the awareness that the beautiful Juliette, for her part, did not take in a single word of it.



What is most striking about Constant’s life was not his proximity to the great historical events of the age, but his intermittent detachment from them, his sudden disgust and loss of interest, his inexplicable re¬ lapsing into the closed world of some private obsession. It has been suggested that boredom was the dominant feeling, the acknowledged disease of French society under the old regime.

In this perspective,

Valmont’s cruel confession to the Presidente Tourvel in Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses ‘One is very soon bored with everything, my angel’,1' would acquire a much wider significance than a mere admis¬ sion of inconstancy in love. Boredom, ennui, became the manifesto of aristocratic culture on its deathbed, the mark of the corruption and decline of the idle, enfeebled civilisation, whose spoiled elite had no greater aspiration than that of being entertained. It is, on other hand, rather surprising to find Constant writing in his journal, on 6 January 1803, that escaping from boredom was the greatest concern and the dominant impulse of his life:18 a psychological feature which a few years later he would attribute to his literary alter ego Adolphe.1'* Surely, in the twenty-odd years which separated Benjamin’s confession from Valmont’s, history had supplied a sufficient variety of distractions, in the form of political upheavals, war and civil violence, to sweep away any suspicion of inertia and frivolity from contemporary imagination. In post-revolutionary society the notion of ennui acquired different overtones. It was no longer the mark of a parasitical and emasculated society, given to enjoyments which became increasingly capricious and insipid, whose only force of provocation was in the exasperation of pleasure. The feeling which survived the end of the douceur de vivre was more nuanced and subtly disruptive. Boredom now meant ano¬ nymity, disaffection, the withdrawing of the individual in a private sphere; the sense, as Constant phrased it, that whatever was done on the great stage of the world was not done for the sake of ordinary people and could not concern them. Those contemporaries who have left us some account of Constant’s appearance and manners describe him as a tall, stooping, well-dressed, tired-looking man, whose most distinctive attitude was his habit of permanent bantering, a weary and yet dazzling irony.19 What Constant felt was fundamentally missing from post-revo¬ lutionary society, and could no longer be appropriately recaptured, was the complacency, the sense of self-importance. Gone was the absurd solemnity of the old regime, which transformed the most trivial actions of a privileged caste into religious rituals. Gone were



also the leaders of the revolution, the men who had murdered one another, and exposed the people to all kinds of violence and suffering, for the sake of impersonating some unsavoury hero of antiquity. Gone were the philosophers who imagined that their after-dinner talk would change the world, and the journalists who mistook themselves for legislators and prophets. Their disappearance was, in some sense, a tragedy; in another, an immense relief and a liberation. A liberation because, whatever the pretensions of the new class of rulers, polit¬ icians, generals, writers, they had been unmasked in advance, and their public would no longer be the dupe of any ruinous and mis¬ guided ambition; not, at least, for very long. A tragedy, because the awareness of living in an ordinary, unheroic, commonsensical world placed upon the individual alone, upon his private choices, the measure and burden of his own self-realisation. Constant’s deep Calvinist instinct (even his assiduous frequentation of prostitutes he justified as being instrumental to his health and intellectual creativity)20 told him that the labour for immortal rewards must not be sacrificed to the ephemeral, to a universe of second bests. The ambition to shine in the world, and even the service of a re¬ spectable political cause, were at odds with the solitary labour indis¬ pensable for any lasting intellectual achievement; and both politics and study interfered with the pursuit of private happiness. In these circumstances the allocation of time became a tormenting problem, which admitted of no satisfactory solution. In the end social, political and intellectual exertions alike proved insufficient to channel and absorb a wild imaginative energy which seemed to be placated only by the compulsive practice of gambling and of renewed sexual pur¬ suit.21 If some aspects of Constant’s sensibility undeniably suggest what today would be described as a neurotic or obsessional person¬ ality, it would be as misleading to attribute the uneven trajectory of his life to a pathologically capricious or dissatisfied self as it would be inadequate to ascribe it entirely to the force of external circumstances. For the obsession which ruled his life so capriciously was after all the most common and widely shared of all modern myths: the pursuit of happiness through a series of conflicting strategies of individual grati¬ fication.22 As a writer and a political theorist Constant overtly opposed utili¬ tarianism, refuting the view that happiness as such might be a valid foundation



of either





Naturally all political authority should ultimately aim at the welfare



and satisfaction of its subjects. But any authority which in the pursuit of this object should act against the principles of justice and right, on the ground of instrumental considerations, was in his view illegitimate and potentially criminal. Similarly, in individual life, if happiness was a natural human aspiration, the pursuit of personal gratification freed from the guide of the moral law could only result in the selfish neglect of the needs and feelings of others, generating guilt and frustration.'3 We have no reason to doubt the sincerity of these anti-utilitarian per¬ suasions and of Constant’s passionate appeals to a morality of duty and sacrifice. His aspiration to overcome the ‘new’ instrumental and hedonistic approach to ethics emerging in post-revolutionary culture is hardly contradicted - if anything, it is illuminated - by the reality of his existential experience, by a life incessantly disrupted by the elusive promise of, from time to time, love or solitude, glory or obscurity, ex¬ citement or repose. It is possible to read the Journal intime almost as a parody of utilitar¬ ian calculation, in which the writer keeps adding and subtracting fac¬ tors without ever reaching the desired result, measuring the pros and cons of each possible choice, adopting every day a different option (in the abridged journal these are indicated by numbers according to a ‘secret’ code): experiencing in fact the sheer absurdity of such existen¬ tial arithmetic. In this deceptive algebra, in which not only each in¬ dividual, but each dimension of individual life was a separate uni¬ verse, obeying an incommensurable set of rules, happiness was a problem which admitted of no solution. Happiness was elusive in the general, traditional sense that humans were infinitely vulnerable to the odds of fortune; it was also elusive in the more specifically modern sense that its enjoyment evaporated in contact with the multiplicity of options available for reaching it.

Man, not some philosophical

abstraction but the writer himself, was paralysed and worn out by the complication and deviousness of his own hedonistic strategies. Yet, where the object of these impossible choices and calculations faded, the experience of choice, the experience of freedom, acquired a power¬ ful reality of its own. The myth of existential indeterminacy and of practical and emo¬ tional independence acted very powerfully upon Constant’s imag¬ ination. As a matter of fact, from the viewpoint of any modern ob¬ server, his life was remarkably free from constraints. Economic independence was only one aspect of this freedom. Constant spent most of his youth away from any direct parental control. Although he



was married twice, he was never obliged to live consistently a family life in the ordinary modern sense of the term, and neither his wives nor his lovers ever expected from him sexual fidelity. In his old age his father caused him some financial worries: but on the other hand there were no children to educate (Benjamin was seemingly the father of de Stael’s daughter Albertine, but he was never practically responsible for her). Yet, throughout his life, he felt the victim of intolerable im¬ positions: on the part of his family, of the women he loved and of the social and political world he inhabited. He realised of course that these ‘impositions’ were largely of his own fabrication: they reflected his way of relating emotionally to others, his social ambitions and sex¬ ual needs. But even so he resented them with extraordinary violence, lamenting his ‘burdens’, his ‘slavery’, his ‘chains’ in what seems to us a preposterously dramatic language. Of the ‘moderns’ he depicted (and defended) in his political writings he had all the impatience, the selfishness, the hasty and exacting expectations. He had also their capacity for self-reliance, their psychological adaptability, their talent for living in the ephem¬ eral. Thus the dream which more than any other ruled his imag¬ ination, the fantasy which alone mobilised his whole self, was one of solitude, self-sufficiency and escape. I had only one regret, that the day may come in which it would be impossible for me to travel like this, alone, on horseback.


This self-portrait presented in the Cahier rouge of the ‘independent traveller’ on his horse, a figure which can still be recognised in the pessimistic and moralising pages of Adolphe, is probably the most re¬ vealing and convincing image we have of Constant. It combines the eighteenth-century decor of his life with the modern passions which animated it: the alienation, the restlessness, the immense inner re¬ sources — all that makes him infinitely remote and extremely close to us. En route from an age of discouraging stability to one of frightening change, uncomfortably suspended between a world of aristocratic dis¬ play and one of bourgeois ordinariness, the traveller betrayed surpris¬ ingly little nostalgia for any historical past, and equally little en¬ thusiasm for any imagined future, to share our own precarious, oblivious present. Few political theorists have ever carried with them such a small baggage of prejudices and attachments, displayed so little arrogance, pursued fewer hopes. None perhaps has been readier to leave behind his inhibitions and disguises, revealing the real human



being behind the abstractions of theory. Some instinct from his erratic adolescence told the traveller that in the precarious, shapeless world he was going to cross it would be advisable to travel light.

Chapter 2 The Restoration of Political Theory

The main difficulty in approaching Constant’s work is that his oeuvre has so many points of entry. To assess it, or even simply to offer an outline, means to account for a large body of writings, produced over a period of almost fifty years (between the early 1780s and 1830), many left unfinished or unpublished at the author’s death; writings, moreover, which belong to different literary genres and to a variety of intellectual traditions (be it Scottish conjectural history, French romantic novel or German drama) and yet none of which is a priori irrelevant to the understanding of his political reflection. Thus looking at the chronological sequence in which the intellectual interests of the young Constant took shape involves finding one’s way through a laby¬ rinth of unaccomplished projects, which point confusingly, as Con¬ stant himself was uncomfortably aware, in far too many directions. It means, besides, following the author in his restless peregrinations through Europe, making sense of what looks like a guided tour of eighteenth-century literary ambitions. The list of Constant’s early works dates from the time of his en¬ rolment in the University of Edinburgh in 1783-4 with his contribu¬ tions to the Speculative Society on such classical topics as the legiti¬ macy of Charles I’s execution, the influence of pagan mythology upon the mores of the ancients, and the merits and demerits of the militia.1 In 1786-7, between Lausanne and Paris, he worked at his translation of the first volume of John Gillies’s Whiggish History of Greece (which he published anonymously in Paris in 1787"’ and drafted an unfinished essay on the military discipline of the Romans.3 During the years of the revolution, which he spent idly and unhappily in the service of the Margrave of Brunswick, Constant sketched several projects, some of which he probably never began, while of others very little is left.



Among these were a refutation of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France1 and a critique of the works of Antoine Ferrand, a French follower of Burke; ’ a biography of Jacob Mauvillon, a personal acquaintance of Constant and the author, together with the Comte de Mirabeau, of the monumental De la Monarchic prussienne sous Frederic le Grand',6 a translation of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall;7 a dialogue between Louis XVI, Brissot and Marat;8 a history of the revolution of Brabant of 1790, which was meant as a general outline of a theory of revo¬ lutions;9 and a dissertation on the effects of the religious reforms of 1788 in Prussia."1 After his arrival in Paris with Germaine de Stael in 1794, Constant published several pamphlets in support of the Directory:11 De la Force du gouvemement actuel de la France et de la necessite de s’y rallier in 1796 and Des Reactions politiques and De la Terreur in 1797. On the inspiration of his then political patron the Abbe Sieyes, he wrote the essay Des Suites de la contrerevolution de 1660 en Angleterrewhich stressed the dangers of impending counter-revolution and lent historical justification to the coup of Brumaire. Between 1799 and 1800, when Sieyes, after the suc¬ cess of the coup, obtained for him the nomination to the Tribunate, he worked on an annotated translation of Godwin’s Enquiry concerning Political Justice, though in the end he chose not to publish it on account of his growing disagreement with the English philosopher’s views. To the same period is attributed a sketchy outline of a 'History of per¬ fectibility and equality’, while Constant’s late work on the Italian jurist Filangieri suggests that he must have followed the dispute raised by the publication of Malthus’ Essay on Population in 1798.1 ^ It was at this stage, probably in or around 1799, that Constant’s re¬ flections crystallised around the project for a treatise on political theory, what he himself described, with a characteristic blend of pride and irony, as ‘mon grand traite de politique’. His expulsion from the Tribunate in 1802 together with other political opponents of the First Consul, and the years of voluntary exile which followed, offered him the opportunity to dedicate himself fully to the task. It is difficult to reconstruct the evolution of this project with any accuracy. In his journals and correspondence Constant talked frequently of the pro¬ gress of his work, but he often omitted to specify whether he was re¬ ferring to the treatise itself, to the history' of religion or to one or other of his literary writings. What we have are two long unpublished drafts: the ‘Fragments d une constitution republicaine dans un grand pays’,1’ written around 1800-1 and the Principes de politique of 1806,"’



neither of which, when he set them aside, had quite reached the form of a full-scale presentation of his political theory. After this effort Con¬ stant, deeply absorbed in his stormy break-up from de Stael and his entangled liaisons with Anna Lindsay and Charlotte von Hardenberg, seems to have abandoned the enterprise altogether. In the same year 1806 he found an outlet to his emotional crisis in the drafting of the novel Adolphe}1 His successful adaptation from Schiller, the tragedy Wallstein, was published in 180918 and in between he returned to his work on religion. However, as Etienne Hofmann’s research on the 1806 manuscript has convincingly shown, the works Constant published after 1814, though written to address the political issues of the day, were largely based upon material lifted from the draft and notes of the abandoned treatise. This is true of the Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation of 1814, of the Reflexions sur les constitutions published in the same year, of the Principles of Politics of 1815 and of the famous lecture of 1819 on the liberty of the ancients and of the moderns.1' In January 1814, when de Stael wrote to Constant from London to congratulate him on the draft of the Spirit of Conquest, she added to her otherwise enthusiastic remarks the following comment: ‘are you quite sure that this style a la Montesquieu is really suited to the circumstances and to the times?’20 To this degree the theoretical tone of the treatise was plainly still apparent enough through the sweeping anti-Bonapartist rhetoric of the pamphlet. The importance in Constant’s writings of this abandoned project for a treatise on politics goes beyond the desirability of philological accuracy and the need for a better ordering of the manuscript mat¬ erial. What makes the theoretical commitment in Constant’s work so crucial is the hermeneutic key which this commitment offers for an understanding of his work as a whole. Constant’s intellectual project can be seen in this perspective as an attempt at the ‘re-establishment’ of political principles and the ‘restoration’ of political theory in the aftermath of the revolutionary experience. The appeal for a return to political principles, in Constant’s own words, for the replacement, in politics, of what was ‘passionate, personal and transient by what was abstract, detached, immutable’, was a prominent theme in the Thermidorian debate. As the former member of the Constituent Assembly Jean-Joseph Mounier wrote in his pamphlet of 1795, Adolphe, ou principes elementaires de politique et les resultats de la plus cruelle des experiences: ‘The ignorance of the true principles of the social order has caused such cruel misfortunes, that one could hardly perform a greater ser-



vice to mankind than by attempting to promote their knowledge.’


In the confused and unstable political atmosphere of Thermidorian society, haunted by the ghosts of revolution and counter-revolution, the appeal to stable principles seemed to the supporters of the new government of the Directory a necessary premise for the achievement of unity and peace.22 The republic could not survive, nor the wounds within civil society be healed, unless people could forget all personal animosity, break the paralysing chains of betrayal and revenge, set aside the tenacious hatred between factions; in other w'ords, unless it was possible to accept the political good will of individuals indepen¬ dently of their past allegiances and ideological commitments. As Con¬ stant stressed in his pamphlets of 1796-7, basic principles, true in all places and at all times, acceptable to all parties, must replace the rule no

of belligerent ideologies, the ‘implacable memory’ of past offences. No doubt this appeal to the supreme authority of truth and to the reconciliation of opposed ideologies was to some extent a mere com¬ monplace, the predictable cry of a society anxious to recover from the ravages of civil war and violence. But in so far as it did mean some¬ thing specific, it entailed some major problems concerning both the style and the content of current political language. There was first the question of the presentation and method of political reasoning. The notion of‘principles’ had in fact played a central role in the political idiom of 1789, and had become closely identified with the revolution¬ ary experience itself. The revolution appeared in retrospect, for better or for worse, as the uncontested triumph of ‘abstract’ principles, as the unbridled rule of theory. The belief that the revolutionary ex¬ perience could not be understood without acknowledging the leading role played in it by the philosophes, more generally by the influence of eighteenth-century European philosophical culture, was not merely a polemical suggestion of ultra-conservative pamphleteers like the Abbe Barruel.24 It could be found over and over again in the writings of ‘moderate’ observers such as Jean-Joseph Mounier, Jean-Frangois Laharpe, Pierre-Louis Roederer, de Stael and Constant himself. Philosophy, observed de Stael, was the ‘mot magique’ which made the revolution, and the revolutionary experience was in the end nothing but the project ‘for a government founded upon a philosophical basis’.

Writing in support of Bonaparte’s newly established

Consular government in 1802, Pierre-Louis Roederer was even more explicit in spelling out the political implications of the intimate con¬ nection between the revolution and the philosophical tradition of the



enlightenment. In his Observations morales et politiques sur les journaux detracteurs du 18eme siecle, de la Philosophie et de la revolution, a sweeping attack against the Journal des debats, the Gazette de France and the Mercure, he warned: The attacks against the eighteenth century and against philosophy fall upon the revolution, upon the men the revolution has brought to power, upon its principles and, ultimately, upon our govern¬ ment, which is its greatest and most important consequence. Those who attack the philosophy of eighteenth century are in fact attack¬ ing the government of the nineteenth.26 If this was the general feeling, the intellectuals of Thermidor and Brumaire confronted in this respect a difficult alternative. They must either reject in toto the tradition of the revolution and of the lumieres, the tradition, that is, to which they themselves belonged and to which they had felt committed at least at some point or other in their life; or, by defending it, they must open themselves to the accusation of sub¬ scribing once again to the chimera of‘philosophical government’, to a style of politics which seemed to favour abstractions and utopias. There was, moreover, a problem of content: if ‘principles’ had made the revolution and caused the ruins and horrors that went with it, it was impossible to subscribe to any new principles without making clear how they related to the old ones. Were the principles of the en¬ lightenment and of the Jacobin revolution simply false and indeed abominable - as was claimed by ultra-conservative writers like Louis de Bonald,2/ Joseph de Maistre28 and Antoine Ferrand29 - or had they been true but somehow disastrously misapplied or mishandled by the leaders of the revolution? The heterogeneous crowd of survivors who met in the newly opened salons after the fall of Robespierre, confronted, together with the in¬ numerable difficulties of the return to ‘normal’ political life, the prob¬ lem of the credibility of current political language. In order to estab¬ lish in France a new and viable political system it was first necessary to define a universally accepted political idiom, to restore the meaning and value of categories which the revolutionary rhetoric had so rapidly used up and emptied of their content. The revolution had gen¬ erated an unprecedented over-consumption of political rhetoric, tan¬ gibly






of journals


pamphlets, the flood of slogans, speeches and debates, and the promo¬ tion of the ‘literary cabal’ to political leadership. As Constant



observed, in the absence of constitutional guarantees, public opinion had been for centuries the moderating force behind French ancien regime monarchy, but had also become the major agent of its destruc..



Naturally the easiest way around this problem was to reject, to¬ gether with the Jacobin experience, the very idea of a political order derived from principles, restoring in its place a conception of politics founded upon tradition, practice and habit. In his pamphlet of 1796, De la Force du gouvemement, Constant denounced this approach as characteristic of the ‘partisans of arbitrary power’. Those who sub¬ scribed to it disputed the value of principles, claiming that the gap be¬ tween theory and practice was unbridgeable, and that axioms which were metaphysically true could nevertheless be practically and politi¬ cally false. To principles they preferred ‘prejudices, memories, foibles, all vague and indeterminate things which belonged to the domain of O1

the arbitrary’.

Principles, Constant claimed, need not be vain

abstractions, good only to occasion scholarly disputes. They could and must be coherent theories, liable of the most specific applications, and capable of reaching down to the smallest detail of social life, pro¬ vided one followed correctly their logical sequence. The politics of memory and prejudices, so forcefully set forth by Burke, must be re¬ jected as leading to the endorsement of arbitrary practices and in¬ stitutions, such as the defence of heredity as a principle for political re¬ presentation or the justification of religious discrimination. But, if it was right to maintain the revolutionary commitment to principles, how could one avoid a repetition of the fatal intellectual delusions of the Jacobin experience? It was necessary to decide which of the principles of 1789 were simply false and which had been wrongly applied, or enforced before French society was ready for them. Constant’s answer to these questions was that the revolution itself offered the most powerful test of the validity of all existing politi¬ cal knowledge. The revolution had revived errors and sophisms long believed to be dead and buried; it had cast aside truths which had pre¬ viously seemed beyond dispute. Recent historical experience was the criterion by which the validity of theories should be judged. As an ex¬ periment it was, no doubt, immensely costly and bewildering; but thanks to it one could now stand intellectually on safer ground. Un¬ surprisingly, people’s natural response to the years of trouble and violence was to succumb to fatigue and scepticism. The experience of changing five or six constitutions within a few yearshad cast dis-



credit upon constitutional reflection as such and had resulted in a general disinclination to become involved in politics. Yet this attitude, although only too easy to understand, must be overcome. To claim that, because false theories caused great dangers, one must give up all theories, means to deprive people of their safest defence against these dangers. It would be like saying that, because error is nefarious, one must abandon forever the pursuit of truth.33 Constant’s response to Burke’s work, a response which was marked by undeniable methodological affinities as well as by deep political disagreement, is far from easy to assess.34 Constant believed with Burke that history must be the source of all political understanding, and that politics must take the form of a positive reflection founded upon historical examples. In this respect there was no real difference in method between his approach and Burke’s; there was on the other hand marked dissent on the specific historical judgements which each of them was prepared to endorse. In particular, Constant was anxious to maintain, against Burke, the sense of a critical function of political theory with respect to past and present institutions and practices. Though derived from experience, political theory must retain its capa¬ city to project and to judge. The revolution had indeed ruled out many a philosophical illusion, exposed many a utopia. But it had also proved that there was a lot of room for change. Some at least of the dreams of philosophy had come true. Experience and history, in other words, could not be used as an excuse for immobility. Moreover, building upon experience, learning from history, was not always a straightforward task. The revolution had shown that an apparently predictable historical process - such as the reform movement of 1789 could rapidly develop into an uncontrollable machinery generating nameless horrors. It was only too easy, in such circumstances, to believe that it was necessary to build one’s political strategy according to the circumstances and opportunities of the moment; or simply to let oneself be carried away by events. Yet these temptations of Machia¬ vellianism and fatalism must be resisted. Should the individual swept off by the storm abandon himself to the impetuosity of the waves, live from day to day, following events the rapid succession of which forces him to take advice from hazard? I do not think so. In the most stormy circumstances there is always a road prescribed by morals, there is always a duty to fulfil.35



When history ceased to be magistra vitae and became a blind, des¬ tructive force, it was essential that political theory should preserve its independence and clarity of vision and set up the standards which must guide the choices of governments and individuals. As Constant began to write his treatise around 1799 he confronted two rather dif¬ ferent tasks. The first one was to define more precisely for himself the true principles of politics and their relation to the principles of the revolution. The second was to reconsider, in the light of the revo¬ lutionary experience, the practical applicability of these principles by looking at the history of the development of civil society and political institutions and by engineering viable practical solutions. In general it has to be said that Constant’s contribution to political theory was more substantial in this second domain than in the first. Most of what he wrote throughout his life remained closer to the historical and soci¬ ological approach of Montesquieu and Adam Smith - the two writers he most admired and most often cited in his work — than to any form of more abstract analysis. Yet in his abandoned treatise he explicitly addressed both sides of the question, the stress being in fact on the theory rather than on its practical consequences and on the mechan¬ isms of political and historical causality. In undertaking the study of politicial principles in the late 1790s, Constant was well aware of addressing a field of investigation which, despite its high prestige before the revolution, had rapidly become dis¬ credited in the eyes of public opinion. In the introductory chapter of the unpublished Principes de politique of 1806, he admitted that the study of the constitutional organisation of governments, which had been in France since the Social Contract and the Spirit of the Laws a favourite subject for the most brilliant writers, had generally fallen into disgrace. Yet, he observed, although it was clear that all study of constitutions, after the troubles of which the French had been victims, must appear to some sheer folly and to others a matter of indifference, there remained nevertheless political principles, independent of every constitution, which were still worth developing.A similar point had been emphasised a few years before by Simonde de Sismondi in his Recherches sur les constitutions des peuples litres, a manuscript written be¬ tween 1796 and 1801, with which Constant was certainly familiar since he had assisted its author in his unsuccessful attempts to find a publisher for it. The f rench, amidst revolutions which have taught them to mis-



trust political theories, have become weary of an important study to which their duties now recall them. I shall try here to persuade them, though perhaps unavailingly, that the subject has by no means been exhausted by those writings to which they were re¬ lentlessly exposed; that we have advanced only a few steps ahead of the great masters who preceeded the revolution; that many an im¬ portant question still remains to be discussed, many a discovery to be tested, many a new idea to be illustrated.37 Like Sismondi, Constant was inclined to stress the continuity of his reconsideration of political principles with the works of the ‘great masters’ who lived before the revolution, to insist upon tradition rather than upon novelty. Some commentators have drawn attention to the ‘evangelical’ tone in Constant’s appeals to truth, illustrated by his frequent references to himself and to those who shared his views as ‘missionaires de la verite’.

Whether or not this style of approach is to

be attributed to Constant’s Protestant background, his ‘evangelicanism’ manifested itself as an acute need for clarity, but implied no necessary novelty in the message, or promise of fresh discoveries and revelations. He wished on the contrary to persuade the reader that the ideas he advanced had been in circulation for a long time and could be found in the works of the best authorities and the most ‘moderate’ writers on the subject.39 In spite of these modest intentions, Constant did claim originality for the idea which he saw as central to his work, the principle which defined all political authority and every form of legitimate social power as essentially limited. This principle has been neglected by the writers of all parties. Mon¬ tesquieu paid no attention to it. Rousseau in the Social Contract has founded his eloquent and absurd theory upon the subversion of this principle. All the misfortunes of the French revolution have come from this subversion. All the crimes, which our demagogues com¬ mitted to the horror of the world, were sanctioned by this theory. The re-establishment of this principle, its implications, its con¬ sequences, its applications to all forms of government, both monar¬ chical and republican, such is the subject of this work.3" In order to clarify his views on the limitation of political authority, Constant used as his polemical targets two authors whom he took to represent respectively the theory behind the Jacobin experience and the doctrine which had legitimated the ‘despotic’ governments of the ancien regime: Rousseau and Hobbes. In presenting Rousseau’s doc-



trine, Constant argued that the theory of the Social Contract rested upon two basic principles. The first principle was that any authority which governed a nation must emanate from the general will of the nation itself. Constant was in entire agreement with Rousseau on this point. Short of reviving the doctrine of divine right, the laws of a country could only be the expression either of the general will or of the will of some members of the community. But where would the authority of these few come from? If it derived from force, then it could hardly be described as legitimate authority. If it derived from consent then it was in fact the general will. In other words, there were only two possible forms of power: one, illegitimate, was force; the other, legitimate, was the general will.41 If he agreed entirely with what he described as the first principle in Rousseau’s doctrine, Constant rejected firmly the second: the princi¬ ple of the total alienation of each member of a political society and all his other rights to the society itself, the belief that the general will (whatever its form) must exercise unlimited authority upon the in¬ dividual members of the community. Constant felt that, with very few exceptions (he mentioned Condorcet and the Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria), far too little had been said within Western political theory to dispute this principle of the unlimited character of legitimate power.12 Interestingly, Constant judged Montesquieu’s attempts to restrict this doctrine - by stating, for example, that the principles of justice must come before the laws - much too feeble and confused.44 In particular he felt that Montesquieu had overlooked the question of the limits of social authority in his definition of liberty. Liberty, according to Montesquieu, consisted in doing all that the laws permit¬ ted:44 no doubt, Constant commented, the citizens would not be free if they could not do whatever was not forbidden by the laws; but it was still possible for the laws to impose restrictions which rendered liberty nugatory. The axiom of popular sovereignty had been considered a principle of liberty, while it was instead a principle of guarantee. It was intended to prevent a single individual from appropriating a power which belonged to the community as a whole, but it could not decide anything about the nature of that power. In turning to the discussion of Hobbes’s position, Constant was anxious to show that the failure to limit social authority resulted in a similar form of despotism and violation of individual liberty whether the social authority resided in a single individual or in a collective body representing the general will. Just as Rousseau claimed that the



individual could not resist society because he had alienated to it, with¬ out reservations, all his rights, Hobbes too had claimed that the authority of the depository of power was absolute because no member of the association could fight against the association as a whole.40 Thus Rousseau’s position mirrored Hobbes’s, just as the writings of ‘revolutionary’ writers like Mably46 and d’Holbach47 presented a notion of absolute authority similar to that proclaimed by counter¬ revolutionary pamphleteers like Antoine Ferrand and Louis-Mathieu Mole.48 The practical implications of this convergence between monarchi¬ cal despotism on the one side and the tyranny of the general will em¬ bodied in a legislative assembly on the other were spelt out by Sieyes in a speech at the Convention of 20 July 1795 (2 Thermidor an III), which Constant cited at length in one of the notes to his treatise: Unlimited powers are a political monster and the greatest error committed





. . .




sovereignty] seemed so colossal to the imagination that the French, their mind still full of royal superstitions, felt obliged to confer on it all the heritage of pompous attributions and absolute powers which adorned the usurped sovereignties. We have seen the public spirit, in its immense generosity, irritated by its inability to surrender even more. People seem to tell themselves with a kind of patriotic pride that, if the sovereignty of great kings is powerful, than the sovereignty of a great people must be even more powerful.49 The failure to limit social authority had placed Rousseau in an especially difficult position. Rousseau declared that sovereignty could neither be alienated nor delegated or represented; in other words, it could not be exercised. Many believed that this was a contradiction in terms. On the contrary, Constant argued, Rousseau’s reasoning was only too cogent. The social power he had created was so immense that there were no hands to which it could safely be entrusted. Rousseau should not be accused of incoherence: his mistake was to have started from false premises and then have lost himself in superfluous subtle¬ ties. Constant was anxious to avoid being confused with the crowd of what he saw as vulgar and opportunistic critics of Rousseau, and he attached some qualifications to his sweeping attack against the Social Contract by expressing his respect for the political integrity of its author. In Rousseau he recognised the merit of having been the first ‘to make popular the feeling of our rights’.30 His limitation was simply



that what he had felt so strongly and passionately, he had nevertheless failed to define with a sufficient accuracy. His originality had lain in his vision of the myth and spirit of modern democratic government. But he had in no sense shown how this government could be realised in practice: an understandable reticence which the revolution had made unacceptable. If legitimate social authority, whatever form it took, must be limited, what in fact were its limits? What constituted the area that must be protected from undue interference from political power? Con¬ stant’s answer was that the limit to social authority was the protection of individual human rights. The right of each member of the com¬ munity to act freely within the limits of the laws, to express his opinions, to profess his religious beliefs, to exercise his industry with¬ out arbitrary interference,



borderline at which


authority had to stop. The concept of individual rights, so central to his political doctrine, was never defined by Constant with any great rigour. It is possible to argue that what he had in mind when he talked of ‘individual rights’ were natural human rights, the natural entitle¬ ment of all human beings to self-preservation and to a sphere of prac¬ tical and spiritual autonomy. But Constant himself disliked the notion of‘natural rights’, which reminded him of the fanciful speculations on the origins of society in natural jurisprudence and conjectural history. He preferred to look at individual rights in a sociological perspectived, not as a natural attribute or entitlement, but as the outcome of given socio-historical processes. He believed, with David Hume, that in any given society people had those rights that society could afford to confer on them.51 He also thought that in general, in past as in re¬ cent historical experience, the power of society over individuals had been, and still was, much too large, but that the progress of advanced European societies was at last reversing this tendency, and that arbi¬ trariness and abuses were on the whole diminishing. One example of this diminution was the fact that modern states had lost the power to put people to death without trial, and that to do so would be regarded nowadays as a monstrous abuse and a crime. Naturally the guarantee that individual rights would be respected more in the future than they had in the past could only come from the implementation of more en¬ lightened political institutions. But there was another important ele¬ ment which acted in favour of the defence of rights, and that was public opinion, the fact that people had become accustomed to higher levels of collective protection and independence. In other words, what



defined individual rights in Constant’s account were the expectations that the members of a given society had developed in relation to their own entitlement to such rights. Following his dissatisfaction with the notion of‘natural right’, Con¬ stant devoted a long section of the 1806 draft of the treatise to the dis¬ cussion of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian doctrine. Constant con¬ sidered Bentham’s notion of utility as a possible alternative to the idea of rights, and in particular of inalienable natural rights. But he con¬ cluded, despite the obvious attractions of Bentham’s model, that the concept of utility, when put to the test, proved even more ambiguous than that of the right. Bentham was the only living political theorist whose work Constant discussed explicitly and at length in his trea¬ tise.

His critique of utilitarianism was accompanied by an ample re¬

cognition of the novelty and importance of Bentham’s work, and espe¬ cially of his contributions to the reform of legislation and of the penal code and to political economy. Constant’s criticism of Bentham fol¬ lowed the lines of that developed by the writers of the Scottish school.He saw utilitarianism as an illuminating characterisation of human behaviour in advanced European societies, one which dis¬ posed effectively of the old ideology of republican virtue, and acknow¬ ledged the growing modern need for material satisfaction and in¬ dividual gratification. It hardly matters to us that the word ‘civilisation’ should come from the word ‘civitas’; what is certain is that its meaning has changed en route. Civilisation is no longer, in the mind of its parti¬ sans as in that of its enemies, simply what makes men more suited to society, but what grants the members of society a greater level of enjoyment.04 He also appreciated the neat, ‘unideological’ model of human nature and human behaviour which utilitarianism offered, a model which he contrasted favourably with the ambiguities of the disputes over natural rights. But he could not see the doctrine of utility, either psychologically or sociologically, as a realistic or exhaustive desciption of human agency: still less a normative value and a moral princi¬ ple. The ambition to stretch the notion of utility to serve a multiplicity of purposes had led Bentham into endless obscurities, making his ter¬ minology impossibly confusing and intricate. Bentham had claimed that it was impossible to reason with fanatics armed with natural rights, which everyone interpreted as they wished and according to



their interests. Yet, by Bentham’s own admission, his principle of util¬ ity was susceptible of just as many contradictory interpretations and applications, and it could be twisted to justify any form of action and even of crime. Right alone, Constant stressed, was a principle; utility was merely a result. Right was a cause, utility only an effect. Tell a man: you have the right not to be put to death or despoiled. You give him an entirely different sense of security and guarantee than if you tell him: it is not useful that you should be arbitrarily put to death or despoiled. It can indeed be proved that it is never useful. But, in talking of right, you present a principle independent of all calculation, while in talking of utility you seem to invite to dis¬ pute this same entitlement by subjecting it to a new test.33 Predictably, in the light of the recent experience of terror, conspiracy and coups, Constant was very sensitive to the dangerous implications of an ‘instrumental’ approach to politics. He believed that, in ordin¬ ary circumstances, justice and utility tended to coincide, that it was in general ‘useful’ for governments to follow the rules of law and justice. But in any situation of crisis there could be a sudden and sharp diver¬ gence between the two: arbitrary measures, enforced in the name of the public good and public safety, could instantly jeopardise the liberty and the life of thousands of citizens. To prevent these risks the distinction between right and utility must be firmly maintained. Constant’s reassessment of the principles of politics showed how far he was prepared to subscribe to the ideals which had inspired the revolution of 1789. Central to these ideals was the persuasion, which he fully endorsed, that legitimate sovereignty could only reside in the general will, and was therefore, ultimately, popular sovereignty. In the manuscript of the ‘Fragments . . . sur la possibility d’une constitution republicaine’, written when he was under the political influence of Sieyes,Constant stressed his commitment to the republican ideal and rejected the view that aristocratic privilege and heredity could be a suitable basis for political representation. In his later works, without really renouncing his republicanism, he became more reconciled to the presence of an hereditary assembly and to that limited form of monarchical power for which he was to coin the name royaute (or monarchic) constitutionnelle.'1 But whatever form the government of a modern nation should take, popular sovereignty had become with the revolution its necessary precondition; historically, a point of no re¬ turn. Similarly, in discussing the issue of individual rights - freedom



of opinion, religious freedom, judicial guarantees and the protection of property and industry - he acknowledged that these rights had been fully proclaimed by the French Constituent Assembly in the Declara¬ tion of Rights.58 Thus the mistake of the revolutionary theorists and governments was not that of supporting the wrong principles. It was their failure to recognise the necessity to limit political authority which deprived them in practice of the capacity to promote and enforce principles which in themselves were eminently sound. In consequence of this failure, the sovereignty of the people had resulted in the tyranny of a faction of the National Assembly; while the rights proclaimed by the revolutionary constitutions had been trampled under foot. Constant attributed the errors of the revolutionary regime over the nature of authority to the basic poverty and inadequacy of their political modelling. Two models, in his analysis, had exercised a dominant in¬ fluence upon revolutionary politics. The first was the model of monar¬ chical absolutism which, as Sieyes observed in the speech cited above, ’' had been mirrored and eagerly imitated by the legislative assemblies of the revolution. The second was the model of ancient re¬ publicanism, with its ideal of the full subjection and dedication of the individual citizen to the community. In Constant’s view both models were bound to prove unsuited to the needs of a modern commercial nation and to a large territorial state. Unsurprisingly, their arbitrary enforcement had resulted in disastrous upheavals and violent con¬ flicts. This judgement on the anachronism of the political models which had inspired the revolution was not merely an inference from recent historical experience. It was predicated upon a rather elaborate con¬ ception of historical development and of the relation between civil society and its political institutions, developed at length in Constant’s historical writings, to which I shall return in Chapter 3 below. What is relevant here is the implications of this judgement for Constant’s interpretation of the prevalent currents in pre-revolutionary political theory. Why had the opposition to absolute monarchy, for all its bril¬ liant cohort ofphilosophes, ideologues and pamphleteers, drawn its aspi¬ ration from such obsolete ideals of political authority? Naturally there were a number of historical reasons which helped to explain this fact: the most important of all being precisely and crippling influence upon French society of monarchical despotism. The tradition of absolutism had decisively shaped French political imagination and had gener-



ated, as a natural reaction, the dream of a return to a mythical repub¬ lican past. Yet the peculiar circumstances which had operated within pre¬ revolutionary French culture could not alone account for deficiencies which surfaced in Western political reflection at large. In the mat¬ erials for the treatise, Constant identified a number of coupures which cut through the field of contemporary political theory, making its vision partial and one-sided and its presciptions ineffective. The study of civil society, of its progress and of the social forces acting within it had been separated from the analysis of constitutional models. Simi¬ larly, legislative reform had been planned and advocated without pay¬ ing sufficient attention (and sometimes without paying any attention at all) to those political mechanisms and institutions which alone could enforce it effectively. One of Constant’s main ambitions in writing the treatise was to bring together again those different levels of political investigation which seemed so disastrously to have fallen apart and lost touch with one another. This aim is clearly evident in his efforts to build bridges between the analysis of the principles of popular sovereignty and re¬ presentation associated with the revolution on the one hand, and the theories about the nature and development of commercial society on the other. If in the 1806 draft Rousseau, Hobbes and to some extent Condorcet occupy the centre of the stage, a glance through the index is sufficient to show that the work drew massively from the writings of the political economists: above all the Wealth of Nations, but also the contribution of the French ‘Smithian’ economists: in addition to Sismondi, Smith’s French translator Germain Gamier, Charles Ganilh and Jean-Baptiste Say. Throughout his life, Constant regarded Montesquieu as his master. ‘All he wrote’, he commented in his journal, ‘is proved true every day.’

His admiration was prompted partly by some significant affin¬

ities between Montesquieu’s constitutional theory and his own.1’1 But in his eyes the Spirit of the Laws was above all a methodological model: the perfect blend of historical investigation, sociological typology and constitutional engineering to which he himself aspired. That all these dimensions could still, in the early nineteenth century, be contained in a single work, he appeared, however, no longer to hope. The ambi¬ tious outline of the 1806 treatise showed that he did occasionally go beyond his original plan of a mere presentation of general principles to consider the intricate matter of their implementation. But all that



remains of his draft is often just the index or summary of the issues he meant to discuss. The ‘Fragments . . . sur la possibility d’une consitution republicaine’ and his later published works, when they did not address some particular political topic, focused clearly either upon historical or upon constitutional questions. Among them only the abortive De la Religion (originally entitled ‘De l’esprit de religions’) re¬ tained the large-scale, comprehensive design of an eighteenth-century histoire raisonnee. If he toyed without much conviction with the dream of writing a kind of post-revolutionary Spirit of the Laws, Constant was persuaded that political theory could only be rebuilt upon a complex and sophisticated understanding of the character of historical de¬ velopment; that it could hope to regain strength and credibility only by an unprejudiced (and somewhat eclectic) mobilisation of all the in¬ tellectual resources available to it. In the light of subsequent events, it is easy to recognise the quixotic character of the Thermidorian project for the reconstruction of politi¬ cal principles and the return to grand theory. The illusion that a re¬ newed political philosophy should guide France out of the storms of revolution and conspiracy appears retrospectively even more fragile and utopian than the hope that the country might finally enjoy the benefits of a free and stable representative government. It is indeed ironical, in retrospect, to find de Stael writing, just a few months before the coup of Brumaire which brought Bonaparte to power: The philosophers have made the revolution and they will end it. The generals - at least in their capacity as military men - will have much less influence upon the internal condition of France than what theorists will say from the tribune or write in their books. Like de Stael and many other liberal intellectuals, Constant sym¬ pathised with (if he did not actively support) the coup, in the belief that only a strong executive could offer protection against the threats of Jacobin and counter-revolutionary violence.63 Like them, he was haunted for years to come by the consequences and implications of his choice,64 by an awareness of having endorsed, quite against his own principles, the ‘Machiavellian’ and ‘utilitarian’ logic which advocated illegal measures for the sake of public safety, thus opening the way for arbitrariness and dictatorship. No doubt there are for political societies moments of danger which man’s prudence can hardly ward off. But it is not by means of violence, by bringing back into the social state the chaos of savage



life, that these dangers can be averted. It is, on the contrary, by obeying more scrupulously than ever the laws, their protective forms, their preserving guarantees. . . . To allow society, that is those who hold power, to violate forms, is to sacrifice the ends to the means employed to attain it. Significantly several of the works mentioned in this chapter were never published in their authors’ lifetime. This is true not only of Con¬ stant’s abortive drafts of the treatise, but also of Sismondi’s work on the history of constitutions and of de Stael’s pamphlet Des Circonslances actuelles qui peuvent terminer la revolution . . . cited above. They remained hidden away in drawers and cupboards through the years of the empire and the restoration, were subsequently forgotten and redis¬ covered only very recently by the curiosity of a distant posterity. Con¬ stant’s own treatise was written after the defeat of the political design which had originally inspired it: a circumstance which was undoubt¬ edly largely responsible for the author’s loss of enthusiasm for it. Despite this burden of defeat, Constant’s project betrayed an obdu¬ rate will to see through the fog of ideological commonplace and pre¬ judice, great confidence in the achievements of the revolution and strong faith in the resources of political theory to confront the new world which had emerged from it.

Chapter 3

The Limits of Progress

Constant’s project for the reconstruction of political theory can be seen as an attempt to bring together a number of different intellectual traditions directed to the study of human societies which he felt had regrettably either developed in isolation from one another or somehow fallen apart throughout the last decades of the eighteenth century. Among these different traditions of political, juridical and social thought, a prominent place was occupied by those doctrines which focused upon historical development and the progress of mankind. Constant’s redefinition of the principles of politics was closely asso¬ ciated with a set of assumptions on the nature of historical change. His views on the limits of public authority, individual liberty, sovereignty and representation were not offered as universal princi¬ ples but were embedded in a preliminary understanding of the type of historical society to which they applied to the exclusion of others. In particular his criticism of contemporary absolutist and revolutionary politicial doctrines moved from the assumption that they had proved ill-suited to the social, economic and moral conditions of a modern nation like France. He saw their theoretical fallacies as inseparable from their intrinsic anachronism. Constant’s views on the nature of historical change were as promi¬ nent in his work as they were diffuse and unsystematic. Although the question of the progress and decadence of human societies constituted his first genuine intellectual interest (since his early studies on ancient polytheism in the 1780s) and remained a central preoccupation throughout his life, his treatment of the issue is difficult to locate in his oeuvre and to summarise neatly. The main source on Constant’s ideas on progress remains his large-scale study on religion: this began as a discussion of the causes of the decline of Greek and Roman polyth-



eism, and developed into a comparative outline of the evolution of the forms of religious belief in Western and Eastern societies through the ages. Predictably, Constant found it very difficult to master the ambi¬ tious scale and systematic design of this work. For over forty years he rearranged endlessly the subject matter of his research without ever achieving what he thought was a satisfactory presentation. In the end the history of religion reflected, above all, the methodological insights and doubts of its author. It illustrated his lasting interest in the forma¬ tion and evolution of human institutions and beliefs, but also his re¬ luctance to settle for any systematic historical doctrine. Some of Con¬ stant’s early writings which focused upon the subject of progress - the various sketches on the notion of perfectibility,1 the outline of a ‘History of Equality’' and his commentary on William Godwin’s En¬ quiry Concerning Political Justice3 - were fragmentary, unfinished pro¬ ducts, and were substantially rewritten in the 1820s or embodied in later works. On the other hand his political pamphlets of 1795-8, the unpublished notes and drafts of the treatise on politics, the Spirit of Conquest of 1814, the published version of the Principles of Politics of 1815 and a number of later essays on various historical subjects all con¬ tained relevant, if scattered, insights on the question. Constant was obviously fascinated by the model of eighteenthcentury conjectural history, which surfaced over and over again in his works. He also found it unmanageable and unsuited to the style of modern political writing. Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, with its tightly packed mass of historical and sociological information, re¬ mained throughout his life his ideal model of a political treatise, but, as I suggested above, a model he never seriously attempted to re¬ produce, and it would be pointless here to make his historical views into anything more comprehensive and organised than he meant them to be himself. Until his arrival in Paris in 1794 Constant’s concern with the issue of historical change, with the decline and progress of human societies, can be regarded as a scholarly interest largely derived from a precocious classical education and from the reading of Gibbon, Montesquieu and the Scottish writers. It is only after his en¬ counter with Thermidorian politics that the issue acquired a more direct practical relevance. The central preoccupation in the Thermidorian debate was the achievement of political and social stability, the pacification of fac¬ tions, the need to bring the revolution to its natural conclusion with¬ out risking any further conflicts and upheavals. This widely shared



aspiration to stability called for some preliminary understanding of what had caused the revolution in the first place, of whether it had been a necessary or an accidental set of events, of what should be re¬ garded as the durable and what as the perishable part of its heritage. No appeal to national peace and unity, to the conciliation of parties, to the necessity of supporting a free and legitimate government against the violence of factions could make sense without some pre¬ liminary understanding of the historical constraints which operated in post-revolutionary society. In order to end the revolution it was first necessary to explain it. Short of regarding it as a mere accident, the random product of a conspiracy of malign forces, one must be able to see it as part of some rational historical process. After the coup of Brumaire, Bonaparte and Sieyes, presenting to the French people the constitution of the year VIII, subscribed to this ‘historicist’ perspective by stating that the revolution had come to an end because ‘it had finally achieved the realisation of its own princi¬ ples’.4 This often-cited formula needs to be interpreted.

In his

pamphlet of 1797, Des Reactionspolitiques, Constant defined the notions of‘revolution’ and counter-revolution’ by postulating the necessity of an accord between the institutions and ideas of a given society: In order to be stable, the institutions of a people must correspond to the level of its ideas. In that case, there are never revolutions pro¬ perly so called. There can be shocks, individual upheavals, men re¬ placed by other men, or parties upturned by other parties. But as long as ideas and institutions are at the same level, the institutions are maintained. When the accord between institutions and ideas is destroyed, revolutions are inevitable. They tend to re-establish this accord. It is not always the aim of revolutionaries, but it is always the tendency of revolutions.3 The purpose of a revolution was that of re-establishing a balance which had been upset by the development of civil society on the one hand and by the persistence of old-fashioned and inadequate institu¬ tions on the other. However, when a revolution went beyond this limit, when it established institutions which were too advanced for the ruling ideas of a society, or destroyed those which corresponded to them, it would inevitably produce reactions. Counter-revolution seemed to Constant potentially more cruel and damaging than revo¬ lution itself. A revolution was a very high price to pay — in terms of violence and human losses and sufferings - for necessary changes in



the institutions of a given country which had not been effected on time. Counter-revolution would prove equally violent and destructive, but with no other object than sheer revenge and the desire to re¬ establish some obsolete (and ultimately untenable) status quo. Although he was not personally compromised by association with the former Jacobin regime, Constant fully shared the generalised anxiety of republicans under the Directory about the possibility of a conspiracy which would bring back the Bourbons. His choice to sup¬ port, if only as a bystander, the coup of Brumaire- a political decision which was to haunt him ever afterwards — was largely determined by fear of the consequences of the restoration of the fallen monarchy. He thought that to maintain a ‘shameful neutrality’ in the face of royalist plots and intrigues would be a suicidal strategy for the Directory or for any other free representative government which aspired to rule over France. This belief alone led him to approve on this occasion of a poli¬ tical strategy - the coup d’etat - which he subsequently stigmatised as arbitrary and illegal. In Des Reactions politiques Constant cited America, Holland and Switzerland as examples of revolutions which had stopped, as it were, at the right time; England as the example of one which had been car¬ ried too far, thus generating a counter-revolution.6 This reference to the English case was by no means isolated in the Thermidorian debate: in the late 1790s the English restoration became in fact the object of a historiographical dispute (mainly based upon readings of David Hume’s History of the Stuarts) which had transparent political implications.7 The English example had been first advocated by Con¬ stant in his essay De la Force du gouvemement,8 provoking the polemical response of Joseph de Maistre, who published in 1797 his influential pamphlet Considerations sur la France. The last chapter of this work con¬ sisted of abstracts from Hume’s History, which aimed at presenting counter-revolution and the restoration of the Stuart monarchy as a peaceful and reassuring political prospect, to be confidently imitated by the French. If reasoning eludes our minds, let us at least believe history, which is experimental politics. England in the last century presents almost the same spectacle as France in ours. There the fanaticism of liberty, over-excited by that of religion, penetrated souls even more deeply than it has in France, where the cult of liberty has no basis at all . . . And nevertheless, despite the burning fanaticism of



the republicans, despite the deliberate steadfastness of the national character, despite the too understandable errors of numerous guilty persons and especially of the army, did the restoration of the mon¬ archy in England cause splits similar to those which had spawned a regicide revolution? . . . the return of the King was marked only by a cry of joy which included all England; enemies all embraced one another.9 In general, conservative and legitimist writers stressed the similarity between the English and the French case. The point was summarised by Rene de Chateaubriand, who in his Essai sur les revolutions of 1797 observed: ‘If Charles [I] had not been beheaded in London, Louis [XVI] would not have been guillotined in Paris.’10 But in the aftermath of the revolution the English experience was used as a reassur¬ ing proof of the imminent end of the shaky Directorial government and of the return of the Bourbons to the throne. Thus for example the Abbe Du Voisin, in his Defence de Vordre social contre les principes de la revolution frangaise of 1798, wrote: Similar in its origin to the English republic, the French republic would still resemble it in its ending. After Cromwell’s death, England, equally tired of parliamentary anarchy and protectorial tyranny, found its hope for peace in placing upon the throne the son of that king it had seen dying on the scaffold. The Directory, which had subjugated the legislative body, destroyed national representa¬ tion, despoiled the people of all its constitutional rights, the Direc¬ tory is the Cromwell of the French republic. It will fall, and with it will disappear all that remains of the republic . . ,u The insistence on the analogy between England and France became so identified with a pro-Bourbon position that, when in 1798 the re¬ publican Antoine Boulay de la Meurthe published an historical essay which suggested some parallels between the two revolutions, his work was attacked by Constant and Jean Baptiste Salaville as dangerously subservient to monarchical arguments. Boulay de la Meurthe, who had become president of the Assembly in 1797, was in fact no advo¬ cate of counter-revolution. In his Essai sur les causes qui, en 1649, amenerent en Angleterre a Vetablissement de la Republique; sur celles qui devaient Vy consolider; sur celles qui Vy firent perir of 1798 he used the historical anal¬ ogy merely to remind his readers that in England the republic - born from a just reaction against monarchical despotism - was lost because of the excessive rigour and extremism of the republican party; that the



art of revolution was a difficult one; and that French republicans must take care to stop in time: ‘The great art of revolutions is to arrive at the target while causing as little damage as possible.’12 Both Constant and Salaville rejected the idea of the existence of a strong similarity between the English and the French case. In particu¬ lar they agreed that it was a mistake to believe that the aim of the English revolution was the overthrow of the monarchy. The real character of the English revolution was that of a religious war. The re¬ publican experience was a transitory episode in a process which did not transform the government and constitution of the country, but simply reasserted its religious freedom. While appearing to deny the analogy, Constant consecrated most of his essay to listing all the in¬ stances of violence and revenge committed by Charles II and his par¬ tisans after the restoration of the monarchy which he could discover in the historical sources (in addition to Hume he referred to Clarendon, Ludlow and Burnet).12 In particular he insisted on the punishment of the regicides, warning his readers against the false promises of pardon granted by a king anxious to resume his throne - a vital issue this' for the Directorial political class, largely united precisely by their com¬ mon responsibility for the death of Louis XVI. He concluded by argu¬ ing that ‘to prevent counter-revolution [was] the common interest of all classes in France’.14 Constant’s views on political stability, revolution and counter-revo¬ lution, as he expressed them in the years of Thermidor, had broad if somewhat unfocused implications for his understanding of historical development. In his reconstruction the French revolution was the necessary product of complex historical forces, which included the pressure of parliaments for autonomy and power, the Reformation and the need for religious tolerance, the generalised hostility caused by aristocratic privileges among the middling ranks of the population, and the new ideas of the enlightenment with their aspirations to re¬ form. The transformations it had brought about answered genuine needs, slowly matured within French society. If these transformations had been effected through traumatic and violent means this was mostly because of the prejudices and shortsightedness of the absolute monarchy, the Catholic Church and the aristocracy, who had hind¬ ered the growth of civil society and public opinion, accumulating through the centuries mistakes and abuses. This counter-revolution must be prevented not only because it would generate fresh violence, but because it would represent a setback in the natural process of his-



torical evolution. In other words, in so far as the experience of 1789 could be generalised, revolutions, far from being mere random re¬ vulsions, served a precise historical function. They re-established, by extreme and often violent means, some homogeneity between the degree of development reached by civil society and the government and institutions which ruled over it. This interpretation of the nature of revolutions rested upon the belief that the development of human societies was generally progres¬ sive. It also suggested the existence of a disjunction between public opinion and government and the priority of the former as the engine of historical change.

In the Directorial pamphlets neither of these

assumptions was formulated very clearly or explicitly. As texts they were mainly concerned with the immediate conditions of political stability. Moreover, Constant’s doctrine of the necessary accord be¬ tween institutions and ideas was rather vague and he did not add much in that context to specify its content. Yet there is sufficient evi¬ dence elsewhere in his writings to illustrate the evolution of his views on progress and their theoretical implications. When Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France were published in 1790 and gained instant popularity all over Europe, Constant was among those who were anxious to challenge his approach. ‘There are as many absurdities as lines in this famous book,’ he wrote to Belle de Charriere from Brunswick in December 1790.lo It is from his cor¬ respondence with de Charriere that we know how they both enter¬ tained the project of writing a refutation. It seems pointless to wonder what Constant’s critical reply would have been like, and how embar¬ rassing it would have proved, politically, in the years to come. (One is inevitably reminded of Constant’s Edinburgh friend James Mackin¬ tosh and of his alleged ‘recantation’ of his pamphlet Vindiciae Gallicae.)]6 The chapters ‘On Stability’ and ‘On Premature Improvements’ in the 1806 draft of the Principes de politique and those ‘On Uniformity’ and ‘On Innovation, Reform and the Stability of Institutions’ in the Spirit of Conquest in which Constant stressed the importance of tradi¬ tion and historical continuity have an unmistakably Burkean flavour, a long way away from the flippant critical remarks of 1790.1' Yet, in his original ambition of refuting Burke, Constant was prompted by one dominant preoccupation: he wished to establish that, progress being a necessary feature of human societies, its effects could not be simply resented or rejected; that mankind was naturally inclined to



material and spiritual improvement; and that any commitment to the preservation of the past as such was an unrealistic political strategy, destined to fail. Constant’s anxiety to adopt a theoretical model which took the reality of social progress as a fundamental premise is illustrated by the development of his writings on religion. The original argument set forth in his studies on polytheism was that the latter was superior to monotheism, since it was compatible with a multiplicity of views and opinions. Subsequently, Constant altered his plan, and rallied instead to the standard Humean view according to which polytheism (or ido¬ latry) belonged to the primitive, monotheism to the advanced stages of human society.18 Thus any relapse from monotheism into polyth¬ eism, such as had occurred in the last centuries of the Roman empire, must be taken as an indication of spiritual as well as material and political decadence. Some philosophers seem inclined to believe that mankind goes through a cycle of opinions, and can therefore experience in succes¬ sion all forms of religious belief. This is a mistake. Man does not re¬ gress in any respect, and in religion, as in all that pertains to thought, it is impossible to impress upon him any impulse other than the progressive one.1' Constant subscribed to a similarly ‘progressive’ model when con¬ sidering the development of classical and modern Western literature. His contribution here was rather sketchy, and we can only refer to his late essay ‘De la Litterature dans ses rapports avec la liberte’, published in the Melanges de litterature et politique in 1829.


the position adopted by de Stael in her De la Litterature considered dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales of 1800,21 Constant took great pain to establish the intrinsic value and originality of Roman literature,'2 quite against the mainstream romantic interpretation, expressed for example by Herder, which regarded Greek literature as the only genuine product of ancient classical culture, and dismissed Roman literature as little better than a vulgar imitation.21 In his pursuit of models of perfectibility and historical progress, Constant began to work around 1798 on the French translation of the commentary upon William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Jus¬ tice. His original plan was to present this work to the French public as a manifesto for the most moderate and acceptable aspects of revo¬ lutionary ideology. Godwin was on the whole a more suitable candi-



date than, for example, Condorcet, who, though ideologically rehabil¬ itated by the Directorial government, had been somewhat discredited in the eyes of international public opinion by his direct political involvment in the revolution. I have already mentioned above how, as the work progressed. Constant became increasingly aware of his dis¬ agreement with Godwin’s views and finally resolved to abandon the enterprise and to leave unpublished those sections of the translation and commentary that he had already completed. Several aspects of Godwin’s anarchism were in fact bound to meet with Constant’s dis¬ approval: from his ‘false and common’ metaphysics to his excessively ‘abstract’ notion of justice and his eccentric, if harmless, views on private morality.24 For Constant the main attraction of the Enquiry was not Godwin’s philosophical system as such but his commitment to a theory of perfectibility, to the view that ‘human inventions and the modes of social existence [were] susceptible of perpetual improve¬ ment.’24 Yet it was precisely on the ground of the understanding of historical progress that Godwin’s contribution proved most disap¬ pointing and uncongenial. If he was eager to establish a general his¬ torical tendency or at least aspiration towards improvement, Con¬ stant found it impossible to subscribe to two basic assumptions in Godwin’s work: the expectation of an unlimited growth of natural re¬ sources and the belief that human character could be indefinitely per¬ fected through education. Unfortunately there is no direct evidence of Constant’s views on the controversy between Godwin and Malthus which gave rise to the latter’s Essay on Population in 17 98.26 It is possible to reconstruct some of his ideas on population from his criticism of the Marquis of Mirabeau’s Ami des hommes in the 1806 draft of the treatise on politics.2' But the only direct reference to Malthus’ essay can be found in his late work on Filangieri, which presented a retrospective critique of the re¬ forming utopias of the enlightenment.28 There is on the other hand sufficient evidence that Constant would have fully endorsed Malthus' objection to Godwin that ‘man cannot live in the midst of plenty and that ‘all cannot share alike the bounties of nature.’29 Constant believed, with the writers associated with the various traditions of political economy, that mankind could only improve its material and spiritual conditions within the ineliminable constraints represented by the scarcity of natural resources and by the division of labour. Those ‘utopian’ writers who, like Godwin, had taken such constraints very lightly, had:



not only . . . assumed a growth of knowledge which man will per¬ haps achieve, but upon which it would be absurd to found our pre¬ sent institutions. [They had also] taken for granted a decrease of the labour required to assure the subsistence of mankind which goes far beyond any remotely imagined invention. Certainly each of our mechanical discoveries which replaces man’s physical strength by instruments and machines is a conquest for mankind; and according to the laws of nature such conquests will follow one another with increasing speed since they become easier as they multiply. But what we have done thus far and what we can imagine doing is still very far from a total exemption from manual labour. In fact mankind could improve only within the limits set by scar¬ city; and indeed without scarcity there would be no progress in the first place. The improvement of mankind was not prompted by any intrinsic qualities of human beings as such, but by the pressure of ex¬ ternal circumstances. Constant maintained, against Rousseau, that men were not ‘depraved animals’, but that the trauma of their phys¬ ical vulnerability and exposure to needs had changed forever their nature: misery, he claimed, had been for them ‘Prometheus’ fire’.JI It was those peoples and races who had been pursued by famine and natural calamities, ‘devoured by need’, who had progressed towards civilisation. Sufferings and need had generated sympathy, solidarity, association, invention and the division of labour upon which civilised on

society was founded. It is easy to detect some ambiguity in the language that Constant employed in discussing the issue of progress and the improvement of mankind. Sometimes, as in the passages cited above, the stress of his argument was on the material conditions which shaped the develop¬ ment of civil society. On other occasions he was more inclined to talk in terms of the dominant ideas which ruled over a given historical age." The first approach suggested his proximity to Montesquieu and the writers of the Scottish tradition; the second was closer to the spirit of Voltaire’s Essai sur les moeurs u and Condorcet’s Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progres de V'esprit humain It is true that these approaches were neither mutually exclusive nor very clearly distinct from one another. For example, Constant fol¬ lowed Voltaire and Condorcet in considering public opinion as the central force in the shaping of modern Western states; but in his re¬ construction public opinion was as much the product of changing eco-



nomic conditions as it was in itself a superior manifestation of the human mind and an independent agent of historical transformation. Thus the focus of his argument was constantly shifting from a soci¬ ological understanding to a kind of history of the human mind and back again. In his sketch on perfectibility of 1810 Constant acknow¬ ledged this difficulty by expressing the view that no one had really produced a theoretically coherent, systematic account of the laws of human progress and of their application, and disclaiming the merit of having himself achieved this result. In spite of these methodological hesitations his criticism of Godwin and of the other advocates of per¬ fectibility marked neatly his distance from the most radical and uto¬ pian features of the literature of the enlightenment and placed him firmly in the camp of the political economists and advocates of gra¬ dual reform: Godwin, Priestly, Price, Condorcet, Turgot were carried away in their conjectures about the improvement of mankind by the need to describe accurately what they should have only vaguely perceived. They have tried to present in detail discoveries which had not yet been made; struck by various physical and moral evils, whose remedy is still unknown to us, they have anticipated the time in which such remedy will be revealed to us. They have given great advantage to the partisans of abuse who were only too glad to denounce as visionaries those who predicted their destruction. The revolutionary experience had reinforced the reasons for mis¬ trust towards over-optimistic, excessively innovative or far-reaching legislative intervention. In the draft of the treatise, as in his later published works, Constant exposed the ambitions of the enlightened monarchs of the ancien regime, who thought they could enforce ‘from above’ improvements and reforms for which their subjects were not ready.

He denounced the ‘Egyptian’ obsession of revolutionary

writers like Mably,37 who imagined that the perfect republic would be one in which the legislator would rule down to the smallest detail of the life of the citizens. He stressed the fragility of any political authority or measure which could not rely upon long-term habit or practice. Recent commentators38 have been intrigued by the fact that Con¬ stant’s criticism of premature improvements and of the unnecessary extension of the scope and number of the laws was strikingly re¬ miniscent of Burke, as Burkean was his insistence on tradition as the



only source of stable political power. They have found it difficult to re¬ concile Constant’s strong sense of historical continuity - and espe¬ cially his apology of legitimate monarchy in The Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation - with his republicanism and his commitment to the con¬ quests of the revolution. Yet these positions were far from being con¬ tradictory. Constant shared with Burke the belief that history must be the source of all political understanding. Like Burke he relied upon a theory of the development of society - largely derived from Adam Smith and the Scottish tradition39 - which placed commercial growth at the heart of the transformation of modern European states. T hese common points were sufficient to create large areas of agreement, despite the fact that their respective political judgements remained opposed and that Constant was in the end as critical of the Burkean nostalgia for the ancien regime as he was of the revolutionary utopia of a sudden leap into the future. I have stressed above how, in Constant’s reconstruction, the im¬ provement of mankind was prompted by the pressure of material need and limited by the scarcity of natural resources and the division of labour. But in so far as progress was a realistic prospect it resided in and emanated entirely from civil society.40 Civil society - the reality of socio-economic relations and current opinions - was the engine of his¬ torical change, the measure and scope of all institutional and legisla¬ tive improvement. Progress could not be induced from above either by the authority of more or less enlightened despotism, or by that of a militant republican state. No matter how heavy the pressures put upon it, civil society possessed a kind of inertia which would reject and render vain all transformations which did not emanate from it. ‘Being unshakeably attached to their own quiet and enjoyment, men will always react, individually and collectively, against all authority which chooses to trouble them.’41 The Spirit of Conquest — generally regarded as a relatively conserva¬ tive and ‘deferential’ pamphlet because of its references to legitimate monarchy - was in fact a striking tribute to the passive resistance that civil society could oppose to the most relentless and even brutal inter¬ ventions of authority, to its silent rejection of incompatible ideologies. This centrality of civil society - and of its distinctive instrument, public opinion - was seen by Constant as in itself an historical pro¬ duct. It was the outcome of the growth of commerce and religious liberty in post-Reformation Europe. The main feature of modern European culture was precisely the emergence of large, independent,



economically active sections of the community and their defence of their own comfort, material interests and opinions against the inter¬ ference of political and religious power. In an unfinished essay of uncertain date (probably drafted some time between 1799 and 1802)42 entitled Du Moment actuel et de la destinee de Vespece humaine, ou histoire abregee de Vegalite, Constant described more precisely the character of this historical transformation of civil society as a movement towards equality. He agreed with Rousseau in ack¬ nowledging that the transition from the savage to the civilised state would initially bring about an increase of inequality of conditions among the citizens of a community. But he also thought that this pro¬ cess would be subsequently reversed as mankind progressed under the pressure of natural adversities and social conflicts. Constant identified four stages or ‘revolutions’ in this progress towards equality: the decline of theocratic slavery, the suppression of civil slavery, the end of feudalism and finally (this was the outcome of the revolution of 1789) the elimination of aristocratic privilege. Each of these stages would diminish the differences between citizens by promoting more equitable







towards improvement, was nothing but the gradual realisation of what he described as the most powerful of human passions or senti¬ ments: the aspiration towards equality and justice. The presentation of these four stages of the march towards equality in this Histoire de Vegalite was sketchy, and Constant did not attempt seriously to develop this theory elsewhere in his writings; though one can recognise the influence of some similar scheme in the history of re¬ ligion. The basic idea behind it was that the march of civilisation was characterised by a double process: on the one hand the increase of natural inequality through the development of wealth and property and the division of labour; on the other the growth of civic and politi¬ cal equality, since the improvement of economic conditions and the greater distribution of wealth would result in a widespread demand for social recognition and political participation. This view was very close to the arguments of the Scottish political economists, in particu¬ lar Adam Smith and John Millar, who believed that advanced com¬ mercial society had precisely this double effect of increasing the differ¬ ences between the levels of wealth and welfare enjoyed by the members of a society, but also of increasing the numbers of those who enjoyed a sufficiently high living standard to have access to leisure and education and to qualify for an active political role.43 The differ-



ence is that Constant’s presentation, with its stress on the notion of equality, focused more directly on the political consequences of this process, and on the pressure that civil society could exercise upon the formation of political institutions. The issue of equality, and in particular the tension between differ¬ ences in wealth and property on the one hand and the aspiration to equal political rights on the other, was at the centre of Constant’s re¬ flection upon another important dimension of human perfectibility: the question of the impact of education and of its control by the politi¬ cal authority. Constant thought that modern society, with its newly acquired strength and self-awareness, could improve through educa¬ tion, but was not liable to be moulded and indoctrinated to the re¬ quirements of any public spirit. In his writings Constant virtually ignored Condorcet’s Esquisse of 1793 (which the Thermidorian govern¬ ment distributed in thousands of copies throughout the French in¬ stitutions of higher education in 1795)41 and briskly dismissed it as yet another wildly ambitious utopia. On the other hand he commented closely and favourably upon Condorcet’s influential educational manifesto Sur Vlnstruction publique, drafted as a report to the Con¬ vention in 1791-2.45 The suggestions contained in this report, which together with a joint text by Talleyrand4'1 sketched a proposal for the reform of public education, were never applied by the revolutionary government, but they were partly revived by the Directory in 1795.4' This revival departed appreciably from the original spirit of Con¬ dorcet’s proposal. The Directory in fact followed the revolutionary government in promoting an ‘interventionist’, centralised and statecontrolled


policy of which

Constant greatly


proved,18 while Condorcet’s intentions had been precisely to favour a system where state interference was restricted, and greater autonomy left to family and private education. The use of the term instruction rather than education in the title was precisely to stress that the state should only intervene to ‘transmit’ existing knowledge to the new gen¬ erations, and it should refrain from attempting too actively to form their spirit. In the 1806 draft of the treatise, which included a book on education and ‘L’Action de l’autorite sur les lumieres’, Constant ex¬ plained this distinction in the following terms: Education can be considered under two different viewpoints. It can be regarded as a means to transmit to the newly born generation the knowledge of all kinds acquired by the past generations. In this



respect, it is entirely the competence of the government. The pre¬ servation and increase of all knowledge is a positive good. The government must grant us its enjoyment. But we can also see in education a means to appropriate the opinions of men and to shape it in accordance with particular religious, moral, philosophical or political ideas; and writers of all ages have praised it especially as conducive to this aim.49 According to Condorcet, who appealed explicitly to the authority of Adam Smith, public education must essentially perform the function of a corrective to the division of labour.50 Civilised society, he argued, diminished the natural inequalities between men, but was bound to create new inequalities due to the differences between the travaux and the fortunes of the individual citizens. These inequalities could not be altogether








property and the division of labour. But their effects should be cor¬ rected when they created forms of dependence which prevented the enjoyment of individual rights. ‘The laws state the equality of rights, the institutions for public instruction can alone make this equality real.’51 In Condorcet’s proposal the state was responsible for providing free universal elementary education (reading, writing, some arithmetic, some knowledge of the legislation and political system) which would enable the mass of the people to know, defend and exercise their rights, especially the political ones (Condorcet was thinking in terms of a nearly universal suffrage, with equal education and votes for women). In addition the report designed an elaborately hierarchical structure of public higher education. It was in fact this aspect of the project which caused the Jacobins to attack Condorcet violently for this alleged ‘elitism’; it was also this which made his proposal appeal¬ ing to the Directorial and Napoleonic governments and inspired the ideologues' design of the grandes ecoles. Appearances to the contrary not¬ withstanding, Condorcet saw this hierarchical structure as a correc¬ tive, rather than a reinforcement of specialisation and the division of labour. He believed that the only way to prevent the professions and public functions from becoming the monopoly of closed corporations and exclusive elites was to design a well-organised course of studies, cn

selective but open to all, which provided access to them. Condorcet’s plea for a limited interference of the state in the moral formation of the new generations was based upon a comparison,



which was to acquire paramount importance in Constant’s own writ¬ ings, between education in the ancient republics and in the modern world. For the ancients, he argued, the individual citizen had no views and feelings other than those transmitted to him by the legislator. This was unthinkable in modern states, where people were attached to their own independence and knew only too well that ‘opinions are not truth’. In the treatise Constant summarised this argument as fol¬ lows: Among the people who, as Condorcet argues, had no notion of personal liberty, and where men were only machines moved and directed by the law, the action of the authority could influence edu¬ cation more effectively, because this uniform and constant action did not contrast with any conflicting pressures. But today the whole society would rise against the pressure of authority and individual independence, which men have reconquered, would react strongly upon the education of children.j3 Like Condorcet, Constant favoured public over private education, with the belief that only the former could train the young to a sense of justice and equality and teach them to relate to people outside their own social class. He was convinced however that the state must re¬ spect the individual right to chose the kind of education, opinions and religious beliefs one wished to transmit to one’s children, quite against the (never realised) Jacobin fantasies of a ‘Spartan’ education which would entirely subtract children from the influence of their families. He also believed that public opinion would be sufficient in itself to dis¬ courage any private educational enterprise that went against current morality and socially accepted habits. If the model of historical development traced by Constant in his writings suffered altogether from a certain vagueness and was not worked out in great detail in all its implications, it did however in¬ dicate clearly enough the constraints which operated upon the natural improvement of mankind and limited the intervention of political authority in perfecting the institutions of a given country and in form¬ ing the spirit of its citizens. In Constant’s reconstruction, there were material constraints, represented by the scarcity of natural resources and the division of labour, which made it impossible to extend in¬ definitely the enjoyment of wealth and property and limited the degree of leisure and education open to the citizens. There were, strictly connected with these, moral constraints dictated by the nature



of people’s beliefs, culture and social identities: among these were a generalised aspiration to welfare and security, attachment to local habits and traditions, the need for independence of action and opinion and the commitment to religious liberty. Some of these constraints (like the scarcity of resources) were of a more universal kind. But mostly they emphasised the particular historical circumstances of the nations of post-Reformation Europe: commercially advanced societies and large territorial states from which slavery had disappeared and which experienced, even under despotism and absolute monarchy, a certain degree of freedom and a generalised aspiration to greater social and political equality. Constant’s attempt to bring or restore to political theory a sociolog¬ ical understanding of the nature of modern European nations went beyond the aspiration of adding some historical background to the activity of constitutional engineering. His political theory was the theory of a particular historical reality: large nation states with a de¬ veloped commercial economy within the European cultural tradition. This reality was not in any sense new, since it embodied the heritage of a number of centuries and several national contexts; nor were the political categories which had been devised to talk about it entirely new either. But the experience of the French revolution proved that its characteristics had either been insufficiently explored or had not been taken seriously enough by rulers any more than by political theorists, either from sheer prejudice and attachment to obsolete doctrines, or because of the absence of strong practical pressures and relevant his¬ torical experience. In this sense in confronting the issues of sovereignty, representation and constitutional design, Constant, although he relied largly upon traditional categories and pre-existing doctrines, was perfectly aware that both the historical reality he was considering and the forms of its government represented a fresh start. On the whole it is probably misleading to talk of a theory of pro¬ gress in Constant’s thought, not merely because he failed to produce a comprehensive model of historical development — anything akin to Condorcet’s visionary Esquisse or to the more ponderous evolutionary systems of the nineteenth century04 - but also because his own faith in progress faltered and wavered through the decades when confronted with the disconcerting twists and turns of contemporary events. Some of his historical judgements - like the belief underlying the Spirit of Conquest that the advent of commercial society would set to rest once for all in modern Europe the need for military undertakings — appear



surprisingly optimistic and naive, even from the limited perspective of his own historical experience (and indeed in this instance he corrected his view in the last years of his life).” Other of his beliefs - like the persuasion that mankind would always be ruled by the cunning and unscrupulous, or that the existing organisation of property and the division of labour could not be significantly shifted - remained throughout tenaciously pessimistic. Constant’s stress on historical progress was, to some extent, simply an insistence on realism, an appeal to historical experience as the final test of all political projects and doctrines. The point was not to build a theory which could predict or prescribe what would happen next, but to define the realm of the politically possible, to clear the field of the options that History - the collective awareness of a given society - had finally discarded. Because he belonged to a generation who had lost too much too fast, witnessing the sudden disappearance of apparently rock-solid, immutable institutions, Constant was acutely aware that the costs of nostalgia were, emotionally as well as practically, too high: far too high even for the loss of those things one had some genuine reason to regret, let alone for those that could not reasonably be missed. The revolution was a point of no return not because it re¬ presented a guaranteed improvement, an inevitable step forward in a universal design (the revolution could have been avoided in 1789, just as counter-revolution could be - and was - prevented in 1796), but simply because some of its achievements - such as political equality and economic independence - were the kind of benefits to which people, once they experienced them, would become unrelentingly and irreversibly attached. In a somewhat different dimension, Constant’s appeal to perfecti¬ bility was simply the expression of his faith in the resilience of the human spirit. In practice there was no guarantee that the world at large or any society in particular would actually progress, either mat¬ erially or spiritually; nor that human nature as such would signifi¬ cantly ‘improve’. Even those aspects of human experience which were capable of a relatively linear development, such as technological knowledge, might be suddenly lost through collective imprudence or folly. In spite of this obvious fragility and precariousness of all human achievements (and here Constant was as pessimistic as the most bitter and misanthropic of the sceptics), the efforts made by some indivi¬ duals in each generation to improve their condition - politically, aes¬ thetically, scientifically - would find some echo among the gener-



ations to come. The real continuity was not one of measureable achievements but one of feelings and hopes. It is in vain that we talk of enlightenment, liberty, philosophy: the abyss may open under our steps; savages may overpower us; im¬ postors may rise among us; and, far more easily, our governments may become tyrannical. Unless ideas live independently of men, we may as well close our books, give up our speculations, set aside sacrifices which are pointless and confine ourselves to the exercise CP

of the useful and agreeable arts . . . It is difficult for the modern reader to adjust to the varying tone of Constant’s writings on the subject of progress, to reconcile his cool, almost cynical sociological realism with his emotional appeals to faith and hope; such contrasting languages coexist more easily in the pages of a literary or perhaps historical work, than they do in those of a poli¬ tical treatise. Yet the substance at least of Constant’s message is clear enough: progress, improvement, was as elusive an historical reality as it was powerful as a moral ideal and an emotional need; utopia must be put back where the revolution had tragically shown it belonged: not among the truths of politics, but in the depths of the human heart.

Chapter 4

The Modern Republic Les mots ne sont done rien; occupons nous des choses. (‘De la Monarchic et de las Republique’, Le Temps, 26 March 1830)

Constant’s understanding of historical development highlighted some general features which characterised the economic and social life and the culture of modern, commercially advanced European nations. These features were compatible with a certain range of different politi¬ cal and constitutional arrangements, according to the circumstances and traditions of each country, but they combined to identify a more general model common to all. Constant usually referred to this model — the form of government compatible with commercially advanced societies and large territorial states — as systeme representatif, (repre¬ sentative government), a rather general term which remains however the most accurate desciption of his political ideal. Although Constant’s contribution to constitutional modelling has been extensively studied, there is a certain amount of confusion and misunderstanding in the accounts of his views typically offered by his commentators. The main source of difficulty in these accounts is the apparent contradiction between the republicanism of Constant’s early works - in particular the ‘Fragments . . . sur la possibility d’une con¬ stitution republicaine’ drafted around 1800 - and his later support of constitutional monarchy and of an hereditary chamber; between his early commitment to the ideal of political equality and the appeal to a property-restricted suffrage of the mature works. Some interpretations resolve this contrast by postulating a significant shift between the political views held by Constant in the years of the Directory and those he professed during the restoration1 (a shift which Constant himself firmly denied, professing the coherence of his political position through time).' Others maintain the continuity of his republicanism and of his commitment to the ideals of the revolution while acknow¬ ledging at the same time, somewhat awkwardly, the presence of‘tra-



ditional’ and ‘conservative’ (in fact ‘Burkean’) elements in his politi¬ cal design.'5 Quite apart from the dramatic change in the external historical cir¬ cumstances throughout his life, several factors make Constant’s posi¬ tion difficult to assess with great clarity. The texts in which he pre¬ sented his constitutional views varied considerably in character: the ‘Fragments . . . sur la possibility d’une constitution republicaine’ was intended as a theoretical work, though perhaps written with some political ambitions at a time when Constant was very close to Sieyes and the other protagonists of Brumaire;4 on the other hand the Princi¬ ples of Politics were designed as a commentary on a ‘real’ constitution, though one which was never enforced, the Acte additionnel of 22 April 1815 - Bonaparte’s extreme attempt, during the Hundred Days, to im¬ part a ‘liberal’ cast to his regime — of which Constant himself was the main author. Moreover, Constant’s terminology in discussing the forms of government suffered from some ambiguity and reflected the shift in political language in the aftermath of the revolution. When using the terms ‘republic’, ‘republicans’, he was sometimes merely subscribing to the current Thermidorian political jargon in which ‘republic’ stood for the French nation, and ‘republicans’ were those who identified with the heritage of the revolution. On other occasions he used the word ‘republic’ in the classical sense, as Rousseau did, to indicate any form of legitimate (as opposed to despotic and arbitrary) government. Finally, he sometimes employed these terms to refer specifically to a form of government in which the political authority rested in the hands of elective assemblies and magistrates.3 On the other hand, when he talked of ‘constitutional monarchy’ (monarchic or royaute constitutionnelle) Constant was not endorsing a current ideological view but was in fact coining a phrase which had no established meaning in contemporary French debate.6 Similarly, his discussion of the legisla¬ tive and executive functions and his theory of the pouvoir neutre bent the traditional terminology of the division of powers to the requirements of a relatively new political design. It is important, for the sake of clarity, to distinguish as neatly as possible Constant’s views on the desirable form of free representative government in a modern state from the question of its possible in¬ stitutional variants and adaptations to real historical contexts. Con¬ stant himself was well aware of this distinction, as he was aware of the relevance of tradition and the historical past to shaping the form of the



government of a given nation. Thus when he discussed in his writings the political institutions of countries like England or America, he in¬ sisted on the differences in the social, economic and cultural back¬ ground which made such institutions, though in themselves legitimate and successful, unsuited to the conditions of contemporary France. At the basis of Constant’s political model was his unconditional acknowledgement of popular sovereignty. The general will was in his view the only source of legitimate political authority. This point was stressed very clearly in the 1806 draft of the treatise on politics and re¬ produced almost literally in the 1815 Principles of Politics. Indeed this principle [popular sovereignty] cannot be contested. In our days many have attempted to obscure it; the evils which were caused and the crimes which were committed on the pretext of en¬ forcing the general will lend apparent strength to the reasonings of those who would like to assign a different source to the authority of governments. Nevertheless those reasonings cannot stand against the simple definition of the words which they use. The laws must be either the expression of the will of all, or that of the will of some. What would be the origin of exclusive privilege if you should grant it to that small number? If it is power, then power belongs to who¬ ever takes it. It does not constitute a right, and if you acknowledge it as legitimate, it will be equally legitimate whoever sets his hands on it, and everyone will want to conquer it in his turn. If you sup¬ pose that the power of a small number is sanctioned by the assent of all, then that power becomes the general will ... In short there are only two sorts of power in this world: one, illegitimate, is force; the other, legitimate, is the general will.7 The Acte additionnel of 22 April 1815 subscribed to the principle of popular sovereignty. In it the Emperor submitted his constitional pro¬ posal to the approval of the French people, who were the subject of the various propositions of the Acte (‘le peuple frangais declare . . .’).H 'This was not true of the Royal Charter of 4 June 1814 in which the words ‘accorde’ and ‘octroi’ appeared to state that the Constitution itself was a concession on the part of the King to the people.