A Passion for Democracy: Benjamin Constant by Tzvetan Todorov

By Tzvetan Todorov

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Sample text

They had arrived at a time when the collective body — be it the State, the corporation or the family — cannot dictate the behavior of the individual anymore.

In disagreement with Rousseau, here Constant discovers an insurmountable heterogeneity within the social body. The individual cannot be reduced to his society; the principles that one and the other proclaim do not form a continuum. Constant cannot accept what Rousseau calls “the total alienation to the whole communityof each associate with all his rights” (Le Contrat social I, 6, 360). That the source of power is legitimate by no means prevents abuse. The reason for Rousseau’s error is, according to Constant, in the abstraction of his system — he forgot that, in practice, the general will will be deposited in the hands of just a few individuals, and that this fact makes possible all forms of abuse.

Constant felt a great intellectual admiration for Mme. de Staël and, during these years, their thoughts influenced each other mutually; their emotional intimacy, on the other hand, faded quickly. In 1802, Constant was ejected from the Tribunat. More and more, Napoleon was concentrating power in his own hands. Mme. de Staël was banished from France; Constant followed her, even while thinking of breaking off the relationship — possibly by marrying someone else. He accompanied her to Germany in 1803-1804, where he became acquainted with Goethe, Schiller, Wieland and the Schlegel brothers.

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