Benjamin Constant on Man’s Inability to Define Religion

From Constant’s Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments, Book VIII (Of Religious Freedom)

Faced with so much sorrow, we search everywhere for consolations and all our lasting ones are religious. When the world abandons us, we form some kind of alliance beyond it. When men persecute us, we create for ourselves some refuge beyond them. When we see our most cherished chimeras—justice, freedom, and native land—vanish, we flatter ourselves that there exists somewhere a being who will be grateful that we were true, despite our times, to justice, freedom, and fatherland. When we grieve something we love, we throw a bridge across the abyss, and in our thoughts we cross it. Finally, when life escapes us, we wing our way toward another one. Thus, it is the very essence of religion to be a faithful companion, the ingenious and tireless friend of unhappy souls. . . .

If I were accused here of not defining religious sentiment in a sufficiently precise way, I would ask how one defines with precision that vague and profound part of our moral sensations which by its very nature defies all the efforts of language. How will you define the impression of a deep night, of an ancient forest, of the wind which moans across ruins or above tombs, of the sea which stretches away out of sight? How will you define the emotion caused in you by the songs of Ossian, the church of Saint Peter, the meditation of death, the harmony of sounds or forms? How will you define dreaming, that inner quivering of the soul, where all the powers of the senses and of thought come to gather as though to lose themselves in a mysterious confusion? There is religion at the bottom of all these things. Everything fine, intimate, and profound is religious.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.