Re-interpretation of the Philosophical Thought of Benjamin Constant

Re-interpretation of the Philosophical Thought of Benjamin Constant

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Re-interpretation of the Philosophical Thought of Benjamin Constant

ABSTRACT: The liberal French thinker Benjamin Constant develops a conception of human nature which shows the triplicity of being human. Such triplicity manifests itself in the close connection between emotion, rationality, and animality. He also develops an idea of liberty which treats it only as a real, historically conditioned minimalization of external limitations. Liberty thus understood enjoys metaphysical rootedness in human nature.

1. Introductory remarks

Benjamin Constant (1767-1830), the French aristocrat, politician, one of the fathers of the French liberalism and, at the same time, the then well-known man of letters is also the author of a voluminous and almost unknown work about religion. It appeared in the years 1824-1833 in Paris in seven volumes, five of which are entitled "De la religion consideree dans sa source, ses formes et ses developpements", and two "Du Polytheisme romain considere dans ses rapports avec la philosphie grecque et la religion chretienne. Constant wrote this work through all his life, changing the fundamental theses and supplementing them as his theoretical knowledge about religion increased and as a result of his personal experiences connected with religion. Although the huge volume of the work is rather perceived as unattractive today and most of the historical material is out of date, it contains interesting philosophical theses which are the crowning achievement of the whole intellectual life of the author. These theses allow us to understand and interpret better the philosophical foundations of Constant's liberalism which are created, among others, by a certain understanding of the human nature i.e. a certain philosophical anthropology, whereas the latter induces an understanding of liberty, peculiar for the Constantian liberalism.

2. The human nature.

Constantian theses contained in the work on religion and refering to the human nature can be formulated as follows: 1. A man is not entirely the product of society in which he lives and its culture, but he is a being that can be defined by his stable and unchangeable nature. 2. What the human nature is like can be judged by examining the behaviours common to all people and their creations, for example religion. 3. The human nature is unchangeable . However, the forms change, through which it manifests it self in various periods of the development of humanity. In people's religious behaviour, for example, there is manifested something which is the permanent source of every religion and is inherent in human nature.

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Constant calls it "le sentiment religieux" (a religious feeling). The religious forms, beliefs, rites, institutions etc., in which it manifests itself, change but, itself, it remains the permanent element of the human soul. 4. Rationality constitutes the essence of humanity. There exist, however, such spheres of human behaviour which indicate that the human nature cannot be described only in the rational categories. Besides reason, the man is governed by at least two forces: the above - mentioned feeling and egoism. Constany frequently writes about it. I will cite two quotations here. The first one goes:

"Nous avons deja explique comment le sentiment religieux , source premiere de tous les cultes, n'est cependant point la seul faculte de l'homme qui contribue a leur ordonnance. Ici, comme partout, on apercoit la trace des diverses impulsions qui se partagent cet etre a la fois egoiste, raissoneur et moral. " (B. Constant, "De la religion..., t.I, Paris, 1824, s.307)

In the second, Constant emphasizes that these three impulses are the forces which govern the human behaviour: "L'homme ne se decide point par un pur caprice pour telle ou telle forme preferablement a d'autres. Il est determine dans son choix, et par les sentiments qui sont naturellement au fond de son ame, et par les notions que la reflexion suggere a son intelligence, et par l'exigeance que lui inspire son egoisme, qu'on a eu tort de considerer comme son mobile unique, mais dont l'action neanmois est d'autant plus puissant qu'elle est habituelle et indestructible." (Ibidem, s.220) According to Constant, "le sentiment religieux" is an inner force which embodies itself in particular external forms. These forms are not only stricte religious ones. A trace of the activity of "le sentiment religiex" can be found everywhere there appears feelings which Max Scheler called "purely spiritual metaphysical feelings". Constant primarily looks for the traces of the activity of "the religious feeling". He analyses the mutual relationships between the feelings, reason and egoism, however, unfortunately, he does not use these analyses to create a precise and consistent conception of the human nature. Constant's considerations, remarks and intuitions enabled me to reconstruct or rather to create some vision of human nature which, as I think, supplements the author's thoughts about religion. I will formulate it very briefly here, whereas the detailed cinsiderations are contained in the article entitled "Considerations sur la nature humaine - une fondation anthropologique de la pensee liberal de Benjamin Constant" (Annnales Benjamin Constant, Lausanne , 1998, nr 20 ) I propose to perceive rationality, emotionality and egoism as manifestations of a dynamic inner structure, a component of which "le sentiment religiex" is. I also propose to call the dynamic factor, which is the source of any forms of rationality ang which, just like "le sentiment religieux", is a hypothetical component of the human nature, by the name "l'esprit". "L'esprit" similarly to "le sentimant religiex" is grasped only indirectly in its numerous manifestations (in the philosophical thought, in the common reason, in the theoretical and practical reason and all their products) which are homomorphic as they are characterized by rationality. Analogously to religious forms, we call all these manifestations of reason the forms of rationality. The history of "l'esprit" must be read from the history of its various forms, similarly as the history of "le sentiment religieux" which was read by Constant from the history of the religious forms. "L'esprit" is a metaphisical notion, it grasps the rationality of the human nature, the basis of thinking, of intellectual life, of all cognition. Understood in this way, similarly to Constantian "le sentiment religieux", it is not (like for instance reason) an ability but power, force or energy. I finally propose to call the third element of the structure, i.e. the force generating egoistic behaviours, the force being the source of human animalism and vitality, by the name "vis vitalis". "Vis vitalis" is not here, as J.B. von Helmont wanted, a supernatural force, but a purely biological force. "Vis vitalis" denotes a specific human animalism, which makes people fight for survival, generates egoistic behaviours and is a source of all forms of vitality. It points to biological roots of a man. The human nature characterized by the three above-mentioned components, enables to treat the man as, using the formulation of Roman Ingarden ("The Lectures On Ethics "), carnal-spiritual system, generated by the dynamic inner structure. "Le sentiment religieux", "l'esprit" and "vis vitalis" are the hypothetical components of this dynamic structure. The human behaviours are generated by its (structure's ) functioning and they reveal its specific triplexity. Such would just be the genetic heritage of every human being.

3. Liberty.

In the volume of Constant's political writings entitled "Cours de la politique constitutionnelle" there was published the text of the lecture titled "De la liberte des ancienes comparee a celle des modernes" delivered in Athenee Royal in Paris in 1819. Constant presents in it his viewpoit on the matter of individual liberty and political liberty . He understands the former as the freedom to make decisions about himself, the latter as the freedom to take decisions in public matters. He was mainly interested in, how and in what proportions the liberty of citizens in a state is realized in the form of political liberty, i.e. through the wide participation in governing, and in the form of individual liberty, i.e. in retaining the sphere of privacy, independent of the interference of the authorities and society.

In Constant's considerations there dominates the conviction that for the man as a member of society, liberty can denote only one thing - the possibility of taking and realizing as independent as possible decisions in one's own matters and public matters . He also maintains that the areas of individual liberty and political liberty are relative, historically changeable and, through some complex links, dependent on each other. It means that in particular cultural conditions some forms of liberty are more than others socially desired. In antiquity, it was the political liberty that constituted the essence of liberty. In modern societies, Constant writes, the individual liberty is the most appreciated form of liberty. It is so because in the complicated , expanded and monstrual organization of a modern state, individual decisions, with the exception of the decisions of a small group of people having power , cease to have, despite the legal guarantees, the status of effective decisions. They are devoid of the functions of generating any essential changes in the social reality. According to Constant, individual liberty is, for the contemporaries, the only true liberty, whereas political liberty became only its political guarantee.

Constantian consideretion about liberty, supplemented by the conception of the human nature contained in "De la religion" and in "Du polytheisme" allow to formulate some theory of liberty, in which we can speak sensibly about liberty only when we separate liberty, realized in a particular community, from its metaphysical, anthropological roots.

Individual liberty and political liberty are, according to Constant, historically shaped states, in there were eliminated some external constraints and compulsions (external, for instance, to an individual). Liberty as such is the desirable state (in a given historical and social situation) of the freedom of thinking, taking decisions and acting. This is not an ideal liberty, but it is the freedom which can be called practical liberty. It denotes the forms of liberty realized in a given society. Practical liberty means such a state of matters, in which an individual can make and carry out decisions that agree with his wish or desire. To put it more simply, free in the sense of practical liberty is the one who can do, what he wants to, and the wish is shaped by nature and forms in which nature realizes itself. Practical liberty doesn't mean any general and permanent state of the matter - the state in which the subject is stuck permanently. This liberty, just like our "wanting" is situationally relativized. Usually, we are given simultanously a few "kinds" of practical liberty, whereas other kinds are, at this time, inaccessible. It seems that the situation in which there is no form of practical liberty is impossible. The term "practical liberty" can also applied to thinking and feeling. When there are no other practical freedoms, for example when all known forms of political and individual liberty are eliminated, there is still left the freedom of thinking and the freedom of feeling: two kinds of practical liberty, which can become the last asylum of the man escaping the external interference. Practical liberty, or more adequately, practical liberties, seem to be the only freedoms that the man experiences both in th individual and social dimension of life. The philosophical conceptions of liberty, in which external liberty is separated from internal liberty and in which internal liberty is identified with the relinquishment or voluntary subordination to definite restrictions, seem not to have roots in the common experiencing and reliving liberty . Liberty as an awareness of necessity, liberty as submission to the voluntarily accepted moral rigours (Kant), liberty as lack of obstacles to do what is the best (Leibniz), liberty realizing itself on the level of the structures of responsibility and eternal structures of consciousness (Jaspers), absolute liberty, which strikes only against the limitations, which it imposes on itself (Sartre- these and similar interpretations of the essence of liberty don't seem to refer to the typical way of experiencing liberty, relived as the opposition to the external enslavement and limitation. The notion of the internal liberty is close to moral perfection . Liberty is the effect of the earlier relinquishment, discipline and compulsion. Truly free (free internally because external liberty becomes some kind of false liberty) is only he who, at the expense of taming his own weaknesses and coducting, a heroic intellectual work, always wants the righs. The internal liberty, which becomes the only perfect liberty, is in result dependent on the subjective feelings and experiences of an individual and cannot have an objective dimension. Almost identical with the moral perfection, just like this moral perfection , it is inaccessible for an ordinary mortal. In Constant, there is no needs to separate external and internal liberty. Liberty for him is always a practical liberty. It is a concrete liberty accessible in a communal experience. It is characterized by the freedom of action, spontaneity, openness etc.

Exercising liberty, as far as it exists does not require effort. It is perceived as natural, bringing satisfaction or joy. The existence of various culturally and historically changeable practical liberties finds its metaphisical justification in Constantian anthropology,

In "De la religion" Constant points to an essential property of those acts which are inspired by the strong activity of "le sentiment religieux". We can notice in them an aspiration to attain maximum independence, to reject all limitations. It is an aspiration to achieve the state which can never come into existence. In religion, however, (although not only in it), there is revealed a certain disposition of a human spirit, which cannot be grasped in the rational categories, namely the desire for absolute liberty, the desire to reject all the limitations, to liberate oneself from the necessities of human existence . Constant writes: "En considerant le sentiment religieux en lui-meme, et independamment de toutes les formes qu'il peut revetir, il evident qu'il ne contient nul principe, nul element d'esclavage" (B.Constant, "De la religion", op.cit. p.86) I think that the mysterious desire for the indefinite state of absolute freedom , qhich Constant noticed in the manifestations of "sentiment religieux" , appears with different intensity in various subjective and objective manifestations of the two other components of the human nature as well:

"l'esprit" and "vis vitalis". In consequence, the man seems to be equipped with a certain "unconditional reflex of liberty", which makes him multiply infinitely the kinds of practical liberties accessible for him, by tolerating and minimalizing the orders and compulsions restricting him. "The unconditional reflex of liberty" is anarchistic. It awakes the desire for absolute liberty. Perhaps this reflex is an externalization of the dynamic properties of the structure which the human nature is, its specific, energetic state of functioning. In the metaphysical perspective, "the unconditional reflex of liberty" can be considered as the necessary condition for any forms of practical liberty to appear.

4. Conclusion.

A subject experiences the situation of liberty through experiencing the feeling of spontaneity. This feeling is linked in the subject with the conviction that, using Aristotle's words the principle of acting is in himself and that, what he does in accordance with his will, through this accordance is, in certain sense, necessary. There are situations in which the experience of liberty is especially strong and the anarchistic nature of "the unconditional reflex of liberty" makes the man create such situations. An experience of liberty, intensive and exeeding any usual limits, appeares both when the man realizes himself in the spontaneous creation and when he delights in the power of destruction. The desire for the unlimited use of various forms of practical liberty, the desire which elates the man by the feeling of absolute liberty, enables the man to perform the unusual deeds, but these can be both the unusually good deeds or unusually evil ones. The desire for the unlimited use of the practical liberties thus reveals the existence of both the creative and the destructive force embedded into the human nature . Together with the widening of the areas and kinds of the practical liberty, and with the disappearance of the external and internalized limitations and norms, there increases the probability of practising "evil liberty". Evil can also come to the human world through the cracks, through which there also comes the desire for absolute liberty. The less clear the reasons are, that could make the man select and restrict the accessible practical liberties, the more these cracks widen.

Liberty and evil are inseparably linked with each other. Equally strong, as we know , is the connection between liberty and good. The latter is strongly exposed nowadays because the belief in the saving power of liberty, linked with the faith in natural goodness , has become a permanent component of the contemporary consciousness . Much less frequently there appears here the reflexion, which is in accordance with the facts, that liberty does not liberate us from evil and does not make us do good. It only gives us possibility of a choice between them. Not to be evil simply means to reject ill will and relinquishment and liberty have so little in common.

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