CONSTANT, BENJAMIN (1767–1830), French politician, writer, and theorist.
Benjamin Constant de Rebecque was best known in his lifetime as a politician and political journalist and later as a novelist. With the resurgence of interest in liberal ideas in France in the 1980s, however, his importance as a political theorist has come to be appreciated. Previously he was dismissed as a political adventurer, but since the late twentieth century scholars have found a deeper theoretical consistency in Constant's writings, and he is increasingly regarded as one of the outstanding theorists of nineteenth-century liberalism.
Constant was born in Lausanne in 1767. His mother, who died shortly after giving birth, came from an old French Protestant family; his father was a colonel in a Swiss regiment in the service of Holland. Constant was educated at the Universities of Erlangen (Bavaria) and Ed in burgh, where he came in to contact with the central ideas of Scottish political economy, which would have a profound impact on his political thought. From 1788 to 1794 he served at the court of Brunswick, where in 1789 he married the Baroness Wilhelmina von Cramm. The failure of that marriage led him to return to Switzerland where he met and fell in love with Germaine de Staël, whom he accompanied to Paris in May 1795. His relationship with the brilliant but manipulative Staël was to endure, intermittently, for a decade and a half.
In France, Constant was elected to the Tribunate in January 1800, but his advocacy of freedom of speech antagonized Napoleon Bonaparte (r. 1804–1814/15), who dismissed him in 1802. He spent the years from 1802 to 1814 in exile with Staël, whom Bonaparte had expelled from France. In 1808 he married Charlotte von Hardenberg, with whom he had had a prolonged if irregular relationship since their first meeting in 1793. From 1814 he lived predominantly in France, where he served as a deputy from 1819 to 1822 and from 1824 to 1830, and championed such causes as the freedom of the press, the abolition of the slave trade, and Greek independence. He died in December 1830.
Constant was the author of a short novel, Adolphe (1816), which has come to be recognized as something of a classic, not least for its innovative introspective narrative style. Along with a posthumous novel, Cécile (1951), and his autobiographical works also published posthumously from manuscripts, Adolphe articulates a powerful sense of the importance of personal independence. He also engaged in a lifelong study of the history of religion. This remained incomplete at his death, although at the end of his life he published a five-volume study, De la religion (1826–1831). It was initially intended as a sophisticated defense of the radical Enlightenment proposition that ancient polytheism had been more conducive to religious toleration than had Christianity. But the final work reversed this position, for Constant came to see ancient toleration as a consequence of indifference. Modern toleration, by contrast, rested on a sense of the radical importance of religious belief to personal identity, and hence on a profound respect for individual belief.
As a political writer Constant is often viewed as a thinker of the Restoration, since it was during this last period that he published most; but in fact his political views had taken a more or less definitive form by 1806. However, they remained in manuscript form at his death: notably his Principes de politique, which was completed in draft in 1806, and Fragmens d'un ouvrage abandonne sur la possibilitéd'une constitution républicaine dans un grand pays, which was composed between 1795 and 1807. Constant drew on these manuscripts for a number of shorter pieces, including his celebrated speech on ancient and modern liberty.
Constant was criticized, in his lifetime and after, for his political inconsistency: a republican under the Directory, he rallied to Napoleon during his Hundred Days and then, during the Restoration, defended the superiority of constitutional monarchy. But Constant always believed that the contest between hereditary monarchy and republic meant little in comparison with the need to establish constitutional guarantees for individual freedom. He was among the first to articulate the postrevolutionary liberal critique of the French Revolution: he saw that the transfer of a formally unlimited sovereignty from king to people offered little guarantee of individual freedom. The principle that all legitimate power must belong to the body of citizens does not imply that they may use that power however they wish, for oppression is not made legitimate by the size of the majority that commits it. Here Constant anticipated nineteenth-century liberalism's quest to limit the scope of the public authority.
Constant's most enduring contribution to political theory was his distinction between the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns. This was expounded in a speech of 1819, but he and Staël had first formulated the essential distinction as early as 1798. Constant argued that ancient liberty consisted in active participation in the public affairs of the state, whereas the distinctive characteristic of the modern concept of liberty was its emphasis on negative rights against the state. However, he was no straightforward advocate of a negative concept of liberty. His central point was the historical one that it was impossible for the moderns to recapture the ancient concept of liberty in its integrity, for the growth in the size of modern states, the growth of commerce, and the demise of slavery had combined to undermine the social foundations of ancient liberty. Even so, Constant did not give up on political participation. When he first formulated his ideas on liberty in 1798, he was preoccupied with the dangers of the pursuit of civic virtue untrammelled by any regard for privacy. But by 1819 the Napoleonic experience had demonstrated the converse dangers of a retreat to the private sphere, and the threat from the intransigent Ultras on the right revived Constant's older republican enthusiasm. He now felt profoundly that there was something noble about active citizenship, and self-development mattered as much as the maximization of happiness.
Constant, Benjamin. Political Writings. Edited and translated by Biancamaria Fontana. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1988.
Holmes, Stephen. Benjamin Constant and the Making of Modern Liberalism. New Haven, Conn., 1984.
Pitt, Alan. "The Religion of the Moderns: Freedom and
Authenticity in Constant's De la Religion." History of Political Thought 21 (2000): 67–87.
Wood, Dennis. Benjamin Constant: A Biography. London and New York, 1993.
H. S. Jones