On the Intellectual Sources of Laicite: Rousseau, Constant, and the Debates about a National Religion

By Rosenblatt, Helena | French Politics, Culture and Society, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview
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On the Intellectual Sources of Laicite: Rousseau, Constant, and the Debates about a National Religion


Rosenblatt, Helena, French Politics, Culture and Society


Recent scholarship has uncovered laicite's Protestant sources by focusing attention on its late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century advocates. This article argues that the intellectual sources of laicite stretch further back than this, namely to the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and Benjamin Constant (1767-1830). These two thinkers are rarely seen as allies. However, an examination of their views on religion reveals a surprising complicity, attributable in large part to their liberal Protestant sympathies. Benjamin Constant was well placed to understand and appreciate Rousseau's "Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar" and his chapter "On Civil Religion" in the Social Contract. Moreover, Constant had observed firsthand the distortion of Rousseau's views by the French revolutionaries. This essay shows that Constant's writings on religion were those of a disciple of Rousseau, who wished to clarify and disseminate ideas that would prove foundational for the modern notion of laicite.

Keywords: Benjamin Constant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, laicite, civil religion, Protestantism

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That French Protestants gave strong support to laicite is by now well established. (1) Whether this support was due to ideological dispositions within Protestantism or to Protestantism's practical relationship to history can be debated; what cannot be debated is the disproportionate role Protestants played within the Third Republic and among the early proponents of laicite. (2) In recent work, Patrick Cabanel has even made a compelling case for the Protestant sources of laicite, placing particular emphasis on the Protestant entourage of Jules Ferry (1832-1893) and stressing the inspiration provided by the pro-Protestant intellectual, Edgar Quinet (1803-1875). (3)

This article suggests that we look even earlier in time for the intellectual sources of laicite. Seminal ideas can be found in the writings of two liberal Protestants, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and Benjamin Constant (1767-1830). This claire might surprise people. After all, in the Social Contract, Rousseau stated categorically that "no state has ever been founded without religion serving as its base," (4) and he ended his famous treaty with a chapter advocating a "civil religion." Not surprisingly, therefore, Rousseau is usually counted among the opponents, and not the advocates, of laicite. On the other hand, Benjamin Constant's copious writings on religion and church-state relations tend to be ignored altogether. (5) In histories of laicite, he is rarely more than briefly mentioned. (6) This helps to explain why it is sometimes incorrectly suggested that Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) was the first French liberal of note to believe in the separation of church and state, and that he was obliged to go to the United States to acquire this idea. (7) As this article will show, before the Third Republic, and even before both Tocqueville and Quinet, there was Benjamin Constant, who certainly deserves a place among the founding fathers of laicite. Moreover, while existing scholarship tends to describe Constant's relationship to Rousseau as adversarial, the perspective adopted here will show that their views converged and reinforced each other in interesting ways. Indeed, it is where their thoughts converge that one can identify a certain Protestant vein of thinking that went on to inform more modern notions of laicite.

Constant's Liberalism as a Response to Rousseau

If Benjamin Constant is today considered one of the founding fathers of modern liberalism--perhaps the most important thinker in that tradition between Montesquieu and Rousseau on the one hand, and Tocqueville on the other-it is in large part due to his Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments. Written in 1806, but then revised and only published in 1815, this important text is widely regarded as marking the emergence of Constant as a truly "liberal" thinker.

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