Principles of Politics was first published in 1815. It is by one of the great political thinkers of all time, a pioneer of classical liberalism. Thanks to the work of historian Ralph Raico, he is being discovered anew today.
"He loved liberty as other men love power," was the judgment passed on Benjamin Constant by a contemporary. His lifelong concern, both as a writer and politician, was the attainment in France and in other nations of a free society; and at the time when classical liberalism was the specter haunting Europe — in the second and third decades of the last century — he shared with Jeremy Bentham the honor of being the chief intellectual protagonist for the new ideology.
But it is not only for his elevated and disinterested love of freedom, nor for his historical importance that Constant merits being remembered: there is something to be gained in the study of his works by individualists aiming at the development of a political philosophy that will avoid the errors both of certain 18th-century liberals and of 19th-century conservatism.
Although in his day he was the most famous liberal spokesman on the Continent, Constant was never as well-known in the English-speaking world; especially today, when he shares the neglect into which his party has fallen, something will have to be said of his career."
Benjamin Constant (1767–1830) was born in Switzerland and became one of France’s leading writers, as well as a journalist, philosopher, and politician. His colorful life included a formative stay at the University of Edinburgh; service at the court of Brunswick, Germany; election to the French Tribunate; and initial opposition and subsequent support for Napoleon, even the drafting of a constitution for the Hundred Days.
This translation of his masterwork on government is based on Etienne Hofmann’s critical edition of Principes de politique (1980), complete with Constant’s additions to the original work.
For example, Constant writes: "Whenever there is no absolute necessity, whenever legislation may fail to intervene without society being overthrown, whenever, finally, it is a question merely of some hypothetical improvement, the law must abstain, leave things alone, and keep quiet."
Dennis O’Keeffe is Professor of Social Science at the University of Buckingham and Senior Research Fellow in Education at the Institute of Economic Affairs. He has published widely in the area of education and the social sciences. His books include The Wayward Elite (1990) and Political Correctness and Public Finance (1999). His previous translations include Alain Finkielkraut’s The Undoing of Thought (La Défaite de la Pensée) (1988).
Etienne Hofmann is Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Social and Political Science at the University of Lausanne and also teaches in the Faculty of Arts where he directs L’Institut Benjamin Constant. He specializes in critical editions of texts and correspondence and is working on the edition of Constant’s complete works.
Nicholas Capaldi is the Legendre-Soule Distinguished Chair in Business Ethics at Loyola University, New Orleans, and was Professor at the University of Tulsa and Queens College, City University of New York. Among his books are Out of Order: Affirmative Action and the Crisis of Doctrinaire Liberalism; Affirmative Action: Social Justice or Unfair Preference?; and Immigration: Debating the Issues.
Apart from a few essays little was known in English of Constant, but now, thanks to the magnificent translation of his major work by Dennis O’Keeffe (Principles of Politics, Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, 2003) we have a clear idea of what Constant stood for and its value for the contemporary world. Constant produced, in over 550 densely argued pages, the most coherent normative theory of liberalism (in its traditional sense) in the nineteenth century. It is intellectually complex but Constant’s own lyrical style is rendered into elegant English in O’Keeffe’s fine translation. . . .There is an informative introduction by Nicholas Capaldi, and our understanding is made easier by Dennis O’Keeffe’s thorough and lucid translation. He even politely corrects the odd mistake Constant made. It is a monument to scholarship and unlikely to be matched.
The Salisbury Review
By 1810 Constant had completed his Principles of Politics, which Dennis O’Keeffe has now translated into an elegant English that matches Constant’s French. O’Keefe is the editor of the Salisbury Review in London, and his is the first full translation of this French classic. It also has an authoritative Introduction by Nicholas Capaldi, who sees Constant as a crucial link in the French liberal tradition between Montesquieu and Tocqueville. The book itself is a handsome product.
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