Many of our current political discussions have become reflections on liberal democracy—what it is, what it ought to be, even whether it has failed us. Our questions are complex, but too often our characterizations of liberalism are not. Liberals, we are told, believe in individual rights, private gain, material comfort, and personal autonomy, and espouse an ideology that begins and ends with self-interest. If we want anything more, we will have to look well beyond what a liberal worldview can offer.
It’s an important time, then, for the Liberty Fund’s publication of the first complete English translation of Benjamin Constant’s On Religion, a text that prompts us to ask what it takes to have and keep a liberal society. (It is also the subject of a symposium at the Online Library of Liberty.) During his life, Benjamin Constant (1767-1830) was a political figure known for his commitment to the cause of liberty. He opposed Napoleonic usurpation (he would eventually serve under Napoleon’s administration in the hope of guiding the regime away from tyranny) and defended constitutionalism in pursuit of stable liberty for post-revolutionary France.
As an old man, Constant wrote that “for forty years I have defended the same principle, liberty in all things.” At the same time, he regarded his religious writings as “the only interest, the only consolation” of his life, and wrote that “all that is beautiful, all that is intimate, all that is noble, partakes of the nature of religion.” His On Religion, which was published between 1824 and 1831, joined his lifelong defense of liberty with the nobility of religion. It is a critique of the ethic of self-interest and a call for religion to sustain human freedom.
In his translator’s note, Peter Paul Seaton Jr. writes that he wants the reader to feel as if she were “reading something from another time and place,” a book that “breathes the air of nineteenth-century romanticism.” Constant’s romanticism underlies and complements his central argument about the religious sentiment, and Seaton has done an admirable job of preserving it. This sentiment is “found deep within the human soul,” according to Constant; it is “a necessity that everyone feels . . . because it is not found outside us, it is within us, it is part of us.” It cannot be captured in purely rational terms, but as “thirst” and a “desire for something better than we know.”
The focus on sentiment allowed Constant to speak about religion universally. Though the form of religion—its institutions, dogmas, and practices—varies throughout history, its sentiment is grounded in the unchanging nature of human beings. It manifests itself differently depending on time and place, dimming in ages of intolerance but reemerging again with the progress of civilization. And in the modern age, when Constant claimed that religion was finally safe from persecution, it could be taken for what it truly is: a fact, born in the heart and inextinguishable by human hands. Because religion is natural to human beings, Constant rejected any “state of nature” theory that imagined the individual outside of society, without language or religion.
On Religion, then, is not the detailed history of world religions that one might expect. Constant did examine the “progress” of beliefs from barbaric fetishism to polytheism to theism, and distinguished between priestly religions and free ones. His overarching goal, though, was not to present the variations in religious form throughout history, but to emphasize what is unchanging: the sentiment of religion sustained in the human heart.
The discussion of sentiment reveals the purpose of religion as he saw it, and this is where his dedication to liberty resurfaces in the text. “By studying the epochs when the religious sentiment triumphed,” he concluded, “one sees that in every one liberty was its companion.” For Constant, the choice was between religious sentiment and self-interest, or to put it more strongly, between self-sacrifice and egoistic materialism. Absent the direction of religion, he worried that human beings would accept self-interest as the foundation of both individual morality and public life. In so doing, we would lose the beauty and nobility of religion, that which is definitively and uniquely human—and our political freedom as well. Constant regarded self-interest as a thin, unstable foundation for societies that would lead eventually to isolation and “the hunger for wealth.”
Portions of the text remind the reader of Constant’s well-known distinction between ancient and modern liberty, particularly his warning about the relentless pursuit of private pleasure and the need for something “ancient”—that is, something noble—in the modern world. But he went even further in On Religion, arguing that the private life governed by self-interest is less than human, fit only for “industrious beavers . . . or the well-regimented activities of bees,” not for human communities. He worried that a society so constituted was susceptible to tyranny, since it was simply a collection of isolated persons who cared little about protecting free institutions.
What exactly does religion do to counteract these tendencies? Constant offers many answers throughout the book. Religion tells us “what is evil and what is good”; “reveals to us an infinite being”; and creates “order.” It has two ultimate goals, one for the individual and a corresponding one for society. For the individual, religion sets the sights above material well-being to encourage the capacity for self-development. It gives us spiritual goals that extend beyond our immediate wants and needs. Most importantly, it encourages us to sacrifice for those goals, promoting a “certain abnegation of ourselves.” This, in turn, serves political institutions that can become “empty forms when no one will sacrifice for them.”
At the end of these 900-plus pages, one might still be asking what religion really is for Constant. Though he mentioned a divine eternal being and belief in God, he barely addressed either Christianity or Islam (“The Christian Messiah” appears once, Mohammed only a handful of times). These fall under the category of doctrinal forms, a topic he wished to avoid. He rejected priestly religions that operate according to their own artificial morality; these impede human progress by substituting a static moral code for spiritual pluralism. There are thus, for Constant, certain religious forms that stifle sentiment and development. Still, the religious sentiment is presented as all-encompassing. It includes “all that is beautiful and all that is noble,” defined more often in opposition to egoism than on its own terms.
In fact, it may even be said that Constant imported certain elements of the secular into the religious, particularly the spirit of civic participation characteristic of ancient republics. At several points in the text, civic virtue is juxtaposed with self-sacrifice, and martyrdom with citizenship. Constant had little interest in drawing a line between sacred and secular authority. He failed to deal with potential conflicts between the two spheres—even the possibility that religious sentiment can lead to a passive withdrawal from political life, when the believer renounces his role as a citizen of the earthly kingdom for membership in the divine one. Not all of our self-sacrifices, in other words, are beneficial for our political institutions. It’s unclear exactly what kind of religion, or how much of it, Constant had in mind to balance the oft-competing ends of institutional stability, personal freedom, and human development.
Despite these lingering questions, we are left with the valuable argument that a free society cannot endure on the basis of self-interest, and more strongly, that liberalism can and ought to have a stronger, more spiritual foundation than individual rights. Constant would certainly share in our continued anxieties about the loss of commonality, the retreat into egoism, and the pursuit of wealth. The issue is whether we ought to identify these features as intrinsic failures of liberalism or, like Constant, as inimical to the values of a liberal society that prioritizes freedom alongside self-development. His On Religion encourages us to rethink the sentiments and actions that can counter self-interest, to consider where those sentiments have their source, and finally to ask how they can be best fostered within a liberal order rather than apart from it.