Constant’s political reputation was sullied by his decision to cooperate with Napoleon during the “100 days” (after Napoleon’s return from Elba), when Constant was called upon to draft a constitution (“La Benjamine”) that registered Napoleon’s concessions to a constitutional regime. Only a short time before, Constant had risen to a high pitch of eloquence in denouncing Napoleon, especially in the work excerpted here, The Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation and Their Relation to European Civilization, first published as separate pamphlets in 1813.Constant drew a stark contrast between commerce and war, and believed that the system of war would be supplanted by the spirit of commerce. Though harshly condemnatory of the baleful effects of conquest, Constant did not include wars of self defense in his indictment. He was willing to acknowledge that war is not always an evil. This was true not only of wars of self-defense but of those wars that flowed, in ancient times, simply from “man’s nature," when war formed in him "that greatness of soul, skill, sang-froid, scorn for death, without which he could never be confident that there was any form of cowardice he might not display.” But if war taught heroic devotion in past ages, and if its virtues were still necessary in defensive wars, the spirit of conquest introduced by Napoleon had led to extremely grim results.
The choice Constant poses between war and commerce continues to be a critical factor in international affairs, and the logic that led Constant to favor commerce over war has been widely adopted by the nations. This is progress.
The following extracts from The Spirit of Conquest were beautifully translated by Biancamaria Fontana, of whom more below:
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The warrior peoples of antiquity owed their bellicose spirit mainly to the situation in which they found themselves. Divided into small tribes, they contended by force of arms for the possession of a narrow territory. Driven by necessity against one another, they fought or threatened each other incessantly. Even those who had no ambition to be conquerors, could still not lay down their sword lest they should themselves be conquered. For all of them the price of their security, their independence, their whole existence was war.
Our world is, in this respect, precisely the opposite of the ancient world. While in the past each nation formed an isolated family, the born enemy of other families, a great mass of human beings now exist that, despite the different names under which they live and their different forms of social organization, are essentially homogeneous in their nature. This mass is strong enough to have nothing to fear from hordes that arc still barbarous. It is sufficiently civilized to find war a burden. Its uniform tendency is towards peace. The warlike tradition, a heritage from distant ages, and above all the errors of governments, slow down the effects of this tendency, but every day it makes further progress. The leaders of nations pay tribute to it when they try to avoid an open confession of their ambition for conquest and their hopes for a glory won solely by force of arms. The son of Philip [Alexander the Great] would no longer dare to propose to his subjects the invasion of the universe; and the discourse of Pyrrhus to Cineas would appear today the height of insolence or folly.
A government that spoke of military glory as an aim would betray ignorance of, or contempt for, the spirit of nations and the age. It would be in error by a thousand years. Even if it should initially succeed, it would be interesting to see who in the end would win this odd wager, our own century or the offending government.
We have finally reached the age of commerce, an age which must necessarily replace that of war, as the age of war was bound to precede it. War and commerce are only two different means to achieve the same end, that of possessing what is desired. Commerce is simply a tribute paid to the strength of the possessor by the aspirant to possession. It is an attempt to obtain by mutual agreement what one can no longer hope to obtain through violence. A man who was always the stronger would never conceive the idea of commerce. It is experience, by proving to him that war, that is, the use of his strength against the strength of others, is open to a variety of obstacles and defeats, that leads him to resort to commerce, that is, to a milder and surer means of getting the interests of others to agree with his own.
War then comes before commerce. The former is all savage impulse, the latter civilized calculation. It is clear that the more the commercial tendency prevails, the weaker must the tendency to war become.
The sole aim of modern nations is repose, and with repose comfort, and, as source of comfort, industry. War becomes every day a more ineffective means of attaining this aim. Its hazards no longer offer either to individuals or to nations benefits that match the results of work and regular exchange. Among the ancients, a successful war increased both private and public wealth in the form of slaves, tributes and lands shared out. For the moderns, even a successful war always costs more than it brings in.
The Roman republic, with no commerce, no letters, no arts, no other domestic occupation than agriculture, restricted to a territory too small for its inhabitants, surrounded by barbarous tribes, always threatened or threatening, followed its natural destiny in pursuing uninterrupted military adventures. A government which in our day wished to imitate the Roman republic, would differ from it in that, acting in opposition to its own people, it would make the instruments of its policy at least as unhappy as its victims. A people thus governed would be the Roman republic without its liberty, without that national impulse that makes all sacrifices easy, without the hope that each individual enjoyed of a share in the conquered land, without, in short, all those circumstances which made that hazardous and troubled kind of life attractive to the Romans. . . .
War has lost its charm as well as its utility. Man is no longer driven to it either by interest or by passion.
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Constant draws attention, much like the American founders, to the dangers of standing military establishments. Not only do these pose the danger of a “state within a state” but they also draw young people away from education and enlightenment at an impressionable age, incurring incalculable costs for society.
An exclusive and hostile corporate spirit is bound to dominate those associations whose aim is different from that of other men. Notwithstanding the mildness and purity of Christianity, the confederations of its priests have frequently formed separate states within a state. Everywhere the men who compose an army set themselves apart from the rest of the nation. They develop a kind of respect for the use of that force of which they are the holders. Their customs and ideas become subversive of those principles of order and of peaceful and regular liberty that all governments have the interest, as well as the duty, to hold sacred. (60)
In certain periods of life, any interruption in the exercise of our intellectual faculties cannot be repaired. The hazardous, negligent and gross habits of the warrior state, the sudden rupture of all domestic relations, a mechanical dependence when the enemy is not present, total independence in morals at the age when passions are most active in their ferment: these can hardly be irrelevant for either morality or knowledge. The needless condemnation to life in camps or barracks of the youthful offspring of the enlightened class, in whom reside, as in a precious vessel, learning, delicacy, rightness of mind and that tradition of gentleness, nobility and elegance that alone distinguishes us from the barbarians, is to cause to the nation as a whole an evil that can never be compensated either by its vain successes, or by the terror it inspires, a terror that brings it no advantage whatsoever. (68)
Constant was especially aggravated by the lies and hypocrisy that so often attends the justification for war. Unlike earlier ages, when conquerors might plainly avow their intention, the very incompatibility of war with the desire of modern nations for peace meant that conquest had to rely on “sophism and imposture.” This result, he suggests, was as true for Napoleon as for his revolutionary predecessors.
Even whilst abandoning itself to its grandiose projects, the government would hardly dare to tell the nation: 'Let us march to conquer the world!' It would reply with one voice: 'We have no wish to conquer the world'. Instead it would talk of national independence, of national honour, of the rounding off of frontiers, of commercial interests, of precautions dictated by foresight, and what next? The vocabulary of hypocrisy and injustice is inexhaustible. It would talk of national independence, as if the independence of a nation were in jeopardy because other nations are independent. It would talk of national honour, as if a nation's honour were injured because other nations retain their own. (64)
The French revolution saw the invention of a pretext for war previously unknown, that of freeing peoples from the yoke of their governments, which were supposed to be illegitimate and tyrannical. On this pretext, death was brought among men, some of whom lived quietly under institutions softened be time and habit while others had enjoyed for several centuries all the benefits of liberty. Forever shameful age, when an infamous government inscribed sacred words on its guilty standards, troubled peace, violated independence, destroyed the prosperity of its innocent ncighhours, adding to the scandal of Europe by its lying protestations of respect for the rights of men and zeal for humanity! The worst of all conquests is the hypocritical one, says Machiavelli, as if he had foreseen our history. (65n)
[In attempting conquest in modern times,] Authority would have to work upon the intellectual faculties of the mass of its subjects in the same way as upon the moral qualities of the military component. It would have to strive to banish all logic from the spirit of the former, as it would have tried to suffocate all humanity in the hearts of the latter. All words would lose their meaning. 'Moderation' would presage violence; 'justice' would announce iniquity. The law of nations would become a code of expropriation and barbarism. All those notions that several centuries of enlightenment have introduced into the relations between societies as in those between individuals, would once again be thrust back. Mankind would regress to that time of devastation that seemed to us the disgrace of history. Hypocrisy alone will distinguish the two: and this hypocrisy will prove still more corrupting since no one will believe in it. It is not only when they confuse and deceive people that the lies of authority are harmful: they are no less so when they do not deceive them in the least. (65-66)
[I]t is one thing to defend one's fatherland, another to attack people who themselves have a fatherland to defend. The spirit of conquest seeks to confuse these two ideas. Some governments, when they send their armies from one pole to the other, still talk about the defence of their hearths; one would think they call all the places to which they have set fire their hearths. (69)
We are always hearing about the great empire, of the whole nation, abstract notions that have no reality. The great empire is nothing independently of its provinces. The whole nation is nothing separated from the parts that compose it. It is in defending the rights of these parts that one defends the rights of the whole nation; since the nation itself is divided into each of those parts. If they are successively stripped of what they hold clearest, if each of them, isolated so as to be made a victim, reverts, by a strange metamorphosis, to being a portion of the great whole, to serve as the pretext for the sacrifice of another portion, the real beings are sacrificed to the abstract one. The people as individuals are sacrificed for the sake of the people en masse. (77)
* * *In some of his most interesting passages, Constant develops the contrast between the objectives of ancient and modern conquerors. Whereas the ancients, when they did not destroy a people, would allow to it its traditional customs and ways of life, the way of modern conquerors was to insist upon uniformity. These passages remarkably prophecy the totalitarian tendency of the twentieth century:
Conquest among the ancients often destroyed entire nations. But when it did not destroy them, it left untouched all the objects of men's strongest attachments: their ways of life, their laws, their customs, their gods. Things are not the same in modern times. The vanity of civilization is more tormenting than the pride of barbarism. The latter sees only the mass; the former examines anxiously and in detail.
The conquerors of antiquity, satisfied with general obedience, did not investigate the domestic life or the local relations of their slaves. The subject populations rediscovered almost intact, in the depth of their remote provinces, all that constitutes the charm of life: the habits of their childhood, the consecrated practices, that cluster of memories that, in spite of political subjection, preserves the feeling of a fatherland in a country.
The conquerors of our days, whether peoples or princes, wish their empire to present an appearance of uniformity, upon which the proud eye of power may travel without meeting any unevenness that could offend or limit its view. (72-73)
The interests and memories that arise from local customs contain a germ of resistance that authority is reluctant to tolerate and that it is anxious to eradicate. It can deal more successfully with individuals; it rolls its heavy body effortlessly over them as if they were sand. (74)
* * *Madame de Staël, Constant’s intimate friend, once observed of Bonaparte that he “considers every kind of morality a formula which has no more significance than the complimentary close of a letter. After you have assured your correspondent that you are his humble servant, he has no right to require anything of you. In the same way, Bonaparte believes that anyone who says he loves liberty, or believes in God, or prefers a clear conscience to self-interest, is just a man following the forms of etiquette to explain his ambitious pretensions or selfish calculations.”(n2) It was with this trait of Bonaparte in mind that Constant wrote of the “inevitable end to the successes of a conquering nation,” holding that a conqueror reliant on the force and fraud characteristic of Machiavellianism would learn that he had “presumed too much upon the degradation of the world.”
He will learn that calculations based upon immorality and baseness, those calculations on which he prided himself so recently as a sublime discovery, are as uncertain as they are short-sighted, as deceptive as they are ignoble. He laughed at the stupidity of virtue, at that trust in a disinterestedness that seemed to him a chimera, at that appeal to an exaltation whose motives and duration he could not understand, and which he had been tempted to take as the passing access of a sudden disease. Now he discovers that egoism has its own brand of stupidity: that he is no less ignorant about what is good than honesty is about what is evil, and that, in order to know men, it is not sufficient to despise them. Mankind becomes an enigma to him. All around him people talk of generosity, of sacrifices, of devotion. This unfamiliar language comes as a surprise to his ears. He has no idea how to negotiate in that idiom. He remains paralysed, shocked by his failure to understand, a memorable example of Machiavellianism fallen victim to its own corruption. (80)
* * *Like Montesquieu, Constant was fertile of pithy expressions that summarized his over-arching philosophy. His lessons, persuasive as they are, are easily forgotten. Too bad that each generation gets to learn these lessons from its own experience, and does not have the wit to pick them up from books.
Commerce rests upon the good understanding of nations with each other, it can be sustained only by justice; it is founded upon equality; it thrives in peace. (65)
The commercial nations of modern Europe, industrious, civilized, placed on a territory large enough for their needs, linked to other peoples by relations the interruption of which would be a disaster, have nothing to hope for from conquest. A useless war is the greatest offence that a government today can commit. (81)
1. Harold Nicolson, Benjamin Constant (Greenwood Press, 1985 [first published in 1949]), x.
2. Major Writings of Germaine de Staël, Translated and with an Introduction by Vivian Folkenflik (Columbia University Press, 1987), p. 375.
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These selections are from Benjamin Constant, Political Writings, translated and edited by Biancamaria Fontana. Cambridge, 1988. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. Fontana's introduction to this volume is the best short introduction to Constant's life and thought. The portrait of Constant below is from the cover of Fontana's fine study, Benjamin Constant and the Post-Revolutionary Mind (Yale University Press, 1991).