French Founding Father of Liberty and Vice

You spread ideas by telling the best stories. It’s time for conservatives to support and subsidize their storytellers.
Image courtesy of Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

One of the central figures in the development of republican philosophy was a Franco-Swiss philosopher named Benjamin Constant. His ideas about political organization and post-reformation liberty continue to affect the way that we define and discuss liberty throughout the world. His most important contribution was his translation of ancient liberties into a slaveless mercantile society. Athenian and Roman concepts of freedom required a slave class to implement. Christianity unraveled slavery. Constant developed and proposed a form of republicanism for societies with universal citizenship. America’s constitutional convention implemented his model to positive effect.

He had another idea that has also been implemented, but it has been incredibly destructive. Constant wanted religion privatized. Constant “…favored a particular kind of religion, namely, a privatized, sentimental, and anticlerical religion….” (The Cambridge Companion to Constant). He thought religion was important, but private. It should have no affect on the public square. Notice the three adjectives. Privatized: absent from discussions within the public spheres of authority. Sentimental: kept in the realm of feelings rather than the realm of truth. Anticlerical: church pushed away from being a public institution with real world effect and an official cultural voice.

But here’s the point. Benjamin Constant was a STORYTELLER. That is where his influence came in. He wrote some essays of political theory, but his worldwide influence came through his stories. He wrote novels, retelling the story of liberty in the ancient world. And his most influecnial work was a ‘new story of the religion of mankind’ concerning the evolution of religion and religious feeling. It is a story about how religion has moved from its ancient cruel forms as public, external, coercive and political towards its final and perfected form as private, internal, subjective and individually satisfying. It was this storytelling that captured the imagination of the rest of the west.

It was this book that led people to change the definition of truth. Truth was no longer a simple question of alignment with reality. Now there was secular and scientific truth, and there was a new category of ‘religious truth’ that could be true for you internally, sentimentally, as a private individual. But it shouldn’t impact things like politics, because it was a different kind of truth.

His ideas weren’t voted into power. They were spread through storytelling. We have to learn to tell stories that fight back against this kind of odd nonsense. It doesn’t stand up to rational inquiry, but rational inquiry doesn’t spread ideas. Rational inquiry is defense. You spread ideas by telling the best stories. Benjamin Constant’s ideas, both the good and the bad, were spread through his storytelling. They will be sorted, established, defeated, and/or replaced with storytelling. It’s time for conservatives to support and subsidize their storytellers.

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