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Leonard Liggio Reviews Ralph Raico's book on Liberalism

  • The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton by Ralph Raico

From the Atlas Foundation:


The Ludwig von Mises Institute of Auburn, Alabama has provided another service to the friends of liberty in publishing the Ph. D. dissertation of Professor Ralph Raico. The dissertation, The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton, was approved by the Committee on Social Thought of the Social Science Division of the University of Chicago, chaired by Professor F. A. Hayek. The dissertation culminated Raico’s period of research at the Sorbonne in Paris. The book contains an introduction by Professor Jorg Guido Hulsmann of the historic University of Angers, France.

How could one not be happy to once again encounter references to writers in the classical liberal tradition? One notes Edouard Laboulaye, L’etat et ses limites (Paris, 1865), Emile Faguet. Politiques et moralists de XIXe siècle (Paris, 1891), and Henri Michel, L’idee de l’etat (Paris, 1896). In May, 1947 F. A. Hayek, in organizing the sessions of the first meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, gave pride of place to the topic: Christianity and Liberalism. Coming out of the world crisis of the second world war and the continuing crisis of the Western intellectuals’ acceptance of Marxist ideas Hayek recognized that the decline of classical liberalism was related to the presumed conflicts between Christianity and Liberalism. When Liberal intellectuals considered it important to ally with authoritarian or socialist governments against religion, the growth of the state was inevitable. Ralph Raico has described the support given to German Chancellor Prince Otto von Bismarck’s Kulturkampf against the Catholic Church in Germany in Die Partei der Freiheit (Stuttgart, 1999) translated by Guido Hulsmann.

The book studies three of the most complex thinkers of the nineteenth century. Each had major political and intellectual crises. Benjamin Constant (1767-1830) was a Swiss born Protestant who became active in French politics from the time of the French Revolution and passed an exile in German university circles. Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) was the son of a Norman family of noble officials who suffered in the Terror; his education was in Jansenist Catholicism and he tended not to follow ordinary religious practices. John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton (1834-1902) was the grand-son of the prime minister of the Two Sicilies and his uncle was Cardinal Acton; through his mother he was related to the noble houses of South Germany and through his step-father, Lord Grey, to the Whig aristocracy.

Raico presents the phases in the thought of Benjamin Constant. Constant was viewed as the example of the 19th century classical liberal. He was first a student of the Enlightenment, including study at the University of Edinburgh. He emerged in Paris after 1794 in the era of the Ideologues, the disciples of Condorcet, such as Destutt de Tracy, which earned him exile from Paris by the First Consul Bonaparte. His growing appreciation of the Romantic movement occurred as he pursued research into the history of religion in the University of Gottingen (Benjamin Constant, De la religion consideree dans sa source, ses forms et ses development (5 volumes).
During the Bourbon Restoration (1814-1830) Constant successfully led the Liberal opposition to electoral victories and lectured on constitutional liberalism. Reading Constant’s work, along with the economics of J. B. Say and French history by the Comte Montlosier, led to a new level of Liberalism by Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer after the 1st Restoration and Bonaparte’s Hundred Days of 1815.

Early, Constant rejected utilitarianism for Kantian ethics. Constant drew on the ethics of John Locke and Montesquieu. Constant challenged utilitarianism with a philosophy of natural law. Constant thought, according to Raico, that “There is thus a tendency within utilitarianism to undermine its own foundation. This operates both on the level of private morality and of political morality. On the level of private morality, it may be pointed out that, human nature being what it is, it is likely that unless morality is established as deducible from an objective code, people are apt to decide moral questions in favor of their momentary desires. … Utilitarianism runs the constant danger of seeing its moral code founder on the reef of human susceptibility to temptation. Moreover, it promotes this danger, for the term “utility” itself appeals to desire rather than to duty. The English utilitarians, Constant suggests, were not as perceptive as Helvetius in this regard; they overestimated the power of reason, even reason devoted to the calculation of one’s own self-interest, to inhibit present passions from recklessly seeking their satisfaction. … The same tendency for utilitarian ethics to degenerate into moral chaos operated on the political level. Here Constant doubtless had in mind above all the Terror, which he had condemned even in his republican and rationalist period.”

For Constant the progress of Western civilization was reaching a danger point. Affluence materially was creating a political passivity which opened the way for political domination. The growth of civic passivity “tends to lead to an overestimation of the value of order and stability in society, for the individual will hesitate to risk the desirable position he has attained. … Secondly, undue emphasis on order necessarily implies acquiescence in the coming to power of the strongest faction, the one best able to preserve order. … For Constant, the modern frame of mind represented a grave peril indeed. From the perspective of his “state hatred” (or, at least deep distrust of the state), it must be assumed that the holders of political power by and large will always be engaged in at least a cold war against the rights of man.” Constant, in a debate with Charles Dunoyer in the 1820s, noted that it was the materially backward peasants of Spain and Russia which challenged the power of Napoleon, while civilized Europe accepted Napoleonic tyranny. It was guerilla warfare that destroyed the most powerful army seen in Europe. Constant saw the elevated religious sentiments of opponents of power and the popular religious feelings of the Spanish and Russian peasants as important to the preservation of liberty.

Raico investigates the influence of Constant’s “Liberty of the Ancients and of the Moderns.´ “It was by no means due to mere antiquarianism, then, that a number of important liberals in the course of the (19th) century turned to the analysis of the ancient republics. Edouard Laboulaye and Fustel de Coulanges in France, the German-American Francis Lieber, Jacob Burckhardt and Lord Acton, all emphasized the essentially illiberal character of the classical republics. The first writer to elaborate the theme in detail, however, is Constant.” Constant shows that Rousseau and the other totalitarian democrats drew on the ancient idea of liberty as participation in the public forum. Modern liberty has to do with the private rights of each individual. Constant sees the movement from ancient to modern in the evolution from the military culture to the commercial culture, as later developed by Herbert Spencer.

For Raico, David Hume anticipated Constant in understanding the relation of religion to political institutions, and Constant anticipated Alexis de Tocqueville on the role of religion in modern civilization. Raico concludes his thorough analysis of Constant’s investigation of religion: “Thus, for Constant, liberty had need of religion above all because the most morally elevated type of individual – the man who will resist tyranny generously when it is directed against others, with firmness and determination when it is directed against himself, and in spite of the moral weakness of the rest of his age – is best nurtured by a religiously-tinged ethic.”

Alexis de Tocqueville located the continuity of the growth of the French state starting with the reign of King Philip the Fair before 1300 (Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution (Garden City, N. Y., 1959)). Centralization of power was the constant goal of politicians. Tocqueville captured the process in a concluding part of volume two of Democracy in America: “In proportion as the functions of the central power are augmented, the number of public officers by whom that power is represented must increase also. They form a nation within each nation; and as they share the stability of the government, they more and more fill up the place of an aristocracy. In almost every part of Europe the government rules in two ways: it rules one portion of the citizens by the fear which they feel for its agents, and the other by the hope they have of becoming its agents.”

Raico explores Tocqueville’s focus on religious belief as a guardian of liberty. “That Tocqueville attributed very high priority to reuniting the religious and liberal attitudes, which had been, he thought, artificially and perniciously set at odds by the eighteenth-century writers, has often been noted. In 1836, in explaining the basic idea of Democracy (the first volume of which had just appeared), he wrote … “What most and always amazes me about my country, more especially these last few years, is to see ranged on the one side men who value morality, religion and order, and upon the other those who love liberty and the equality of men before the law.” Rather than being thus aligned against each other, in the true order of things they are united: “It seems to me, therefore,” he continues, “that one of the finest enterprises of our time would be to demonstrate that these things are not incompatible; that, on the contrary, they are bound together in such a fashion that each of the is weakened by separation from the rest. Such is my basic idea.” “

Tocqueville, on writing Democracy, frequently visited with English Liberals, such as John Stuart Mill and Nassau Senior; he entered the parliament and briefly served as foreign minister; but in his last decade due to the Second Empire of Louis Napoleon, Tocqueville devoted himself to historical research on the growth of the state.

Lord Acton was not admitted to Oxford or Cambridge because of his Catholic religion; he went to the University of Munich where he lived in the household and library of his mentor, Ignaz von Dollinger (1799-1890). Closely connected to the English Liberals, especially William Gladstone, Acton sought to focus on domestic and foreign politics from a Catholic perspective at a time of growing anti-clericalism among European Liberals. Well trained in church history, he was doubtful regarding some decrees from the first Vatican Council in 1870. In his historical writings he held churchmen to a higher standard of judgment. Acton was appointed Regis Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University and edited the famous Cambridge Modern History series.

Early Acton drew on Edmund Burke and 19th century German thinkers for a relativist or historicist viewpoint. But he developed a different perspective. Raico notes: “More and more Acton came to see the moral law as virtually an independent entity, transcending history and all institutions, including the Catholic Church. It thus became possible to suppose that at certain times and under certain favorable conditions, men acting in history would come to the same insight, act accordingly, and in this way accomplish a “historical leap,” which could not be fully accounted for by the historicist approach.”

Raico summarizes Acton’s conclusions regarding political power:

“What had been lacking was effectively limited governments; there was “no State the circumference of whose authority had been defined by a force external to its own.” In this pregnant passage, we can discern the fruit of Acton’s reflections on power. He had agreed with Montesquieu and Calhoun (among others) that the tendency to abuse power and to enlarge it at the expense of others is a constituent part of human nature. For this reason, the doctrine of checks and balances and the division of powers (particularly including federalism) is the foundation of the liberal theory of state organization. “Liberty,” Acton maintained, “depends on the division of power.” This doctrine attempts to divide up the powers at the disposal of the state among its various branches, in the expectation that in this way the will to power of one branch will be held in check by that of others, preventing total control from being exercised by one will. So far, however, nothing is achieved for the goal of limiting the whole collection of state powers. This cannot be done by anybody which is part of the state apparatus, and some force external to the stat would somehow have to be induced to assume the task.”

Acton believed that situation was radically changed by Christianity. The Christian religion did, and could, perform that external role in particular historical circumstances. This was a theme of Acton’s contrast of freedom in antiquity and freedom in Christianity. Acton expressed this theme in many places. In one Acton said: “All liberty consists in radice in the preservation of an inner sphere exempt from State power. That reverence for conscience is the germ of all civil freedom, and the way in which Christianity served it … liberty has grown out of the distinction (separation is a bad word) of Church and State.”

Raico concludes that “Acton emphasizes that it was certainly not the conscious intention of the Catholic Church to promote liberty.” Acton did not see the assistance given to liberty by the Catholic Church as supernatural, but ordinarily naturalistic. Acton declared: “To maintain the necessary immunity in one supreme sphere, to reduce all political authority within defined limits, ceased to be an aspiration of patient reasoners, and was made the perpetual charge and care of the most energetic and most universal association in the world.”

Raico concludes that Constant, Tocqueville and Acton were deeply influenced by the events of the French Revolution and all repudiated the 18th century thinkers who were said to give it inspiration. He quotes Acton’s Lectures on the French Revolution: “all these factions of opinion (in pre-Revolutionary France) were called Liberal: Montesquieu, because he was an intelligent Tory; Voltaire, because he attacked the clergy; Turgot, as a reformer; Rousseau, as a democrat; Diderot, as a freethinker. The one thing in common to them all is the disregard for liberty.”


Leonard P. Liggio

Leonard Liggio was a classical liberal author, research professor of law at George Mason University, and executive vice president of the Atlas Network in Fairfax, Virginia, US.

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