What I've Been Reading: Helena Rosenblatt, Liberal Values: Benjamin Constant and the Politics of Religion
Shorter post than usual on this one, as I read it to help with what I'm writing now, and I should just keep writing. It's a marvelous book in at least three ways.
One, it's astonishingly efficient, moving the reader rapidly but thoroughly across multiple parties and intellectual movements and some four decades. I've read a lot about liberal politics in Restoration France in general, and Constant in particular, and was still learning a tremendous amount in each chapter. It's a book in the "Ideas in Context" series from CUP, and it fits that label as well as any book bearing it, indeed better than most.
Two, it's really very well-written. It's a scholars' history through and through, addressing interpretive questions and suitably thickly footnoted, but it reads as easily as good popular history does.
Three, the book wears its sympathy for Constant on its sleeve yet presents his various antagonists' views with almost as much care as it presents his.
The book covers Constant's turn to a kind of Protestantism, and shows of what kind that was-- Kantian, Germanic, and Romantic in inspiration, close to being Deist or "natural religion" in content but interestingly (to my eye bizarrely) progressive in its ecclesiology. Constant believed that religion changed with the times and was no less true for that; God allowed us to gain knowledge over time, and offers us new times, new revelations, to match our intellectual maturity. Religion is perfectible or at least progressive, becoming ever-more attuned to authentic religious sentiments and moral goodness, ever-less superstitious and stultifying. And so Protestantism was progress, and it also facilitated progress by opening free inquiry into religious matters and diminishing the importance of external church forms. But progress continued.
With that religious worldview explained, the book's core purpose is to treat it as part of Constant's political thought, and in turn to show the political importance of his religious thought and writings, through a marvelous exposition of post-Revolutionary religious politics in France.
Two thoughts prompted by the book, but less about this book than about the Constant literature in general. One, we're now decades into the Constant "revival." His reputation as both a liberal political actor and a great political theorist now seem to me rescued. Of the people who know who Benjamin Constant is, most are basically well-disposed toward him (at least in the English-speaking world; it might be different in France). At what point does "rehabilitate Constant's reputation" cease to be an imperative in every new book about the man and his thought? It was less of a distraction in this book than in many, because Rosenblatt had something new to say-- viz. that the venom with which Constant was attacked and his name denigrated for a generation after his death was directly connected to usually-overlooked religious disputes.
Two, the contemporary admiration for Constant often goes with an embarrassment over his economic views, which were openly laissez-faire. Rosenblatt, unlike some Constant authors, doesn't hide this or deny it. She argues, rightly, that Constant was no egoist or materialist, and that he thought commerce and wealth were less important than the development of the individual mind and soul (though she misses the importance of some of his change in thought, from static property to dynamic commerce, that's suggested by passages she refers to). But she still talks about it as though that means that he doesn't really count as a laissez-faire liberal, that he's not like the rest of them. That Constant had a gambling problem, was a womanizer, and probably visited prostitutes-- these are presented matter-of-factly. That he believed in free trade and an open market-- this must be apoloigized for, minimized, and mitigated, rather than being understood or explored. That's OK; this is a book about Constant and religion, not about Constant and commerce (though, again, there are interesting connections between the two that get left unanalyzed). But after you read enough about Constant, the pattern becomes a little bit tiresome.
The book is well-blurbed at Amazon (in what I think is an excerpt from a Perpsectives on Politics review, despite what Amazon says) by Art Goldhammer, whose excellent blog on French politics I don't link to as often as I should.
I believe that Yale political theorist Bryan Garsten is working on a book on the same subject, which I now await even more eagerly than I did before.