Constant, Benjamin

Ghislain Waterlot


1Montesquieu is very present in the political work of Benjamin Constant (1767-1830). This affirmation will surprise no one, since Montesquieu’s work occupies, for various reasons, every mind of the time that is concerned by the res politica. After the American revolution and the foundation of the United States of America, L’Esprit des lois nourished the French Revolution. But we should add that Constant was a good reader of Montesquieu, one of those readers who regularly renew and deepen their understanding. A quick look allows us to acknowledge the proximity of the two authors, which permits us to classify them under the as it happens convenient, label of “liberal”. And this look is not entirely false. If Constant relates himself willingly to Rousseau as to his foil, since “the subtle metaphysics of the Contrat social is good […] only for giving arms and pretexts to every kind of tyranny” (De l’esprit de conquête et de l’usurpation, 1814, in Écrits politiques, 1997, p. 211), he gives the highest consideration to Montesquieu, and regularly utters his praise, in public or for himself. Thus we can read in his Journal on 28 January 1804 that “everything [Montesquieu] said, even the small things, is verified daily” (Œuvres, p. 227). In the 1806 unpublished version of his great political treatise, he declares that Montesquieu “in his admirable work had perceived almost everything” (Principes de politique, t. II, p. 385).

2Must we be content, purely and simply, to register this admiration and recognize the filiation? That isn’t certain. To be sure, the reading of the famous discourse of 1819, De la liberté des anciens comparée à celle des modernes, clearly manifests a real proximity. The Constantian conception of citizenship deliberately turns its back on the participatory citizenship promoted by the Greeks, to valorize a citizenship of control, in other words a restricted one, thanks to which most of the time can be kept in view of fruitful industrial activity of the delights of attention to oneself. The private sphere blossoms and becomes the bourgeois’s supreme demand, as he passes most of the political burden onto the “intendants” (Écrits politiques, 1997, p. 615), whose vocation is, under surveillance, to see to the ungrateful task of administering the state. This continual surveillance of representatives, intended to penalize incompetence, but above all to prevent the abuse of power and a return to despotism, becomes the crucial problem in politics. The danger indeed is that certain citizens threaten the freedom of others and become, by dint of the power that is in their hands, usurpers. In short, it is to be feared that the fearsome social authority, expressed in the concept of sovereignty, the object of the whole first chapter of Principes de politique, might destroy civil liberty, in other words private space. The political problem is then concentrated into the search for conditions by which each person may enjoy tranquillity and security, in his initiatives allowed by the law. Is that not, after all, how Montesquieu defines political freedom? Did he not write (EL, XII, 1) that, far from residing in the participation of the citizen in the deliberations of political society, political freedom is entirely in “security, or in the opinion one has of his security”? Did he not also say (EL, XI, 6) that “in order to have this freedom, the government must be such that a citizen cannot fear another citizen”? We can go farther. When Constant proceeds to a radical, decisive distinction between the Ancients and the Moderns, underscoring that the exclusive attention to the res publica, which characterized the Ancients and constituted freedom in their eyes, would be experienced by the Moderns as an unbearable slavery, is he not fully expressing, or pushing to its limit, a thesis already maintained by Montesquieu, whose analysis of political virtue, the mainspring of republics, led ultimately to the observation (EL, IV, 6) that “those who want to create such institutions will establish the community of property of Plato’s republic” and that modern examples, which bring us closest to a republican politics, are to be sought in monasteries, with William Penn (“genuine Lycurgus”) or in the Jesuit institutions of Paraguay? Had Montesquieu not underscored, before Constant, that the politicians “of today speak only of factories, trade, finance, wealth and even luxury” (EL, III, 3)? One hypothesis naturally comes to mind : the difference between Constant and Montesquieu might be essentially the fact that Constant is delivered from the imperative of prudence, which forced Montesquieu to keep in mind what he calls the education of fathers (EL, IV, 4), in other words religion. Constant would therefore say nothing different from Montesquieu, but in saying it he would be more at ease.

3However, in reading closely Constant’s article on the Ancients and the Moderns, we see that the relation to Montesquieu is not a relation of filiation, nor of enrichment, not in any case in Constant’s eyes. The only mention, indeed, that is made of Montesquieu is not exactly a form of praise: “Montesquieu, gifted with an observing mind […] did not completely fall into the same errors” as Rousseau and abbé Mably (Écrits politiques, 1997, p. 606). Not to fall completely into the same errors is all the same to fall, but less gravely, into the errors which one must avoid. Which are these errors? Those of admiring the ancient republics and wishing them back into existence. Why does Montesquieu fall less gravely into these errors? Because he has understood, despite his admiration for it, that political virtue is not long apposite. However he thinks it is the mainspring of republics, whereas trade and private initiative would be characteristic of monarchies only (Constant does not mention honor). The outdated character of political virtue appears related to the domination of monarchies and to depend only on this dominant presence. In contemporary terms, let us say that Constant reproaches Montesquieu for his structuralism, whereas he, Constant, places himself in the perspective of history: he has understood that, from the Ancients to the Moderns, history has swung on its hinges. Republics are no longer condemned to Spartan asceticism; monarchies are not destined to trade. In reality, declares Constant, it is history that surpasses definitively, and relegates forever to the past, the antique conception of citizenship, thanks precisely to the rise of commerce and to the creation of wealth that accompanies it. Republics and monarchies have nothing to do with it.

4But could we not precisely turn Constant’s critique against him? We said at the beginning that Constant was a good reader of Montesquieu. Let us stay by this judgment. Yet we must recognize that Constant manifestly did not understand the sense of Montesquieu’s analyses of England, decisive analyses but difficult to decipher, it must be said. It is in the chapters devoted to England (EL, XI, 6; XIX, 27) that one can grasp the fundamental structures, according to Montesquieu, of the political and social world that is beginning. In these chapters, especially the first, Montesquieu recognizes and reinforces the work of history (“the fine system” of political freedom “had been found in the woods” and inscribed in civilization by the Germans).

5The relation of Constant to Montesquieu is therefore not as simple as it appears. Especially we can ask ourselves (Benrekassa) whether Constant’s work, far from constituting an enrichment and progression with respect to the work of Montesquieu, does not rather situate itself as a regression. A regression based, no doubt, on the terrible, paralyzing experience of the bad turn taken by Revolutionary events, and their conclusion in the rational caesarism of the First Empire. Whatever be the reasons for the regression, it seems that Constant’s permanent concern was to reduce the power of law and not to consider as essential the question of the “separation” of powers. Constant did not allow that power had the virtue of arresting power, and he preferred to seek elsewhere, in opinion, the ability to limit the hold, tending ever to become more pronounced, of power over human freedom. According to this interpretation, it is a lack of confidence in the operation of complex modalities for the exercise of political power which separates Benjamin Constant the most from a respected elder, but one finally held at a good distance.


Primary Bibliography

Benjamin Constant, Principes de politique (1802-1806 version established by Étienne Hofmann, vol. 2, Geneva: Droz, 1980); Écrits politiques (ed. Marcel Gauchet, Hachette, 1980; Gallimard, Folio Essais, 1997); Œuvres (ed. Alfred Roulin, Paris: Gallimard, La Pléiade, 1957).

Critical Bibliography

Georges Benrekassa, “De Montesquieu à Benjamin Constant: la fin des Lumières?”, DHS 21 (1989), p. 117-133.

Ghislain Waterlot, “Désir d’acquérir et devenir citoyen, ou le libéralisme comme dissolution de la citoyenneté”, in Le Devenir citoyen, Association Diderot ed., Paris: Centre d’Études et de Prévision, 2001, p. 37-48.

Biancamaria Fontana, “Benjamin Constant, la méthodologie historique et L’Esprit des lois”, in Le Temps de Montesquieu, Michel Porret and C. Volpilhac-Auger ed., Geneva: Droz, 2002, p. 385-390.

Bibliographical reference

Waterlot Ghislain , « Constant, Benjamin », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :