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On Religion

This is the first full-length English translation of Benjamin Constant’s massive study of humanity’s religious forms and development, published in five volumes between 1824 and 1831. Constant (1767–1830) regarded On Religion, worked on over the course of many years, as perhaps his most important philosophical work. He called it “the only interest, the only consolation of my life,” and “the book that I was destined by nature to write.”

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On Religion

This is the first full-length English translation of Benjamin Constant’s massive study of humanity’s religious forms and development, published in five volumes between 1824 and 1831. Constant (1767–1830) regarded On Religion, worked on over the course of many years, as perhaps his most important philosophical work. He called it “the only interest, the only consolation of my life,” and “the book that I was destined by nature to write.”

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Humboldt’s State – and Ours (May 2021)

Welcome to our May 2021 edition of Liberty Matters.  This month Professor Michael Bentley has written our lead essay on Wilhelm von Humboldt.  Humboldt is one of the least well known yet very influential liberal philosophers in the Western world.  Humboldt is best known for his work in the fields of linguistics, education, and the importance of individual development.  His most famous work, The Limits of State Action, published by Liberty Fund, had a significant impact on John Stuart Mill’s thinking in his classic, On Liberty.  Professor Bentley notes that while Humboldt was read in the 19th century as someone commenting on the size and reach of government, the state as he knew it was much smaller, and therefore he focused on the importance of individuals and individual development.  According to Bentley, Humboldt’s key contribution to the history of liberal thought is his emphasis on individual experimentation in the scope of human existence.  He writes that “He (Humboldt) sees liberty of action as fundamental to personal growth. Its exercise, so long as we do not harm others, functions as a mainstay for an individual-within-society.”  It was this focus on providing a wide space for individuals to live their own lives as they saw fit that so influenced Mill and others.

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Keith E. Whittington, “John C. Calhoun, Constitutionalism, and Slavery” (March 2021)

Welcome to our March 2021 edition of Liberty Matters. This month Keith Whittington has written our lead essay on John C. Calhoun. Calhoun was one of the most formidable political thinkers of his era as well as a former Vice President, a member of the House and Senate, and a Secretary of State and War during the first half of the 19th century. He was also a Southerner and a defender of the institution of slavery. As Professor Whittington notes in his essay, Calhoun is fascinating because his writings address many of the issues we are facing about the nature of our Constitutional order today. Much like America during Calhoun’s lifetime, we are deeply divided along regional lines in America today, and Calhoun’s writings on state “nullification” and concurrent majorities speak to many of the discussions we have had about our divisive political landscape. However his defense of slavery was and is so deeply at odds with America’s contemporary culture and values that re-examining Calhoun today helps us confront the question of whether or not we can still learn from the contributions of some historical figures even if we find some of their views repugnant and offensive. This online discussion is part of the series “Liberty Matters: A Forum for the Discussion of Matters pertaining to Liberty.”

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Daniel B. Klein, “Meanings of Liberty: Aron, Constant, Berlin” (April 2021)

Raymond Aron, Benjamin Constant, and Isaiah Berlin are three thinkers whose work illuminates different aspects of the meaning of the idea of "liberty." This collection of essays and responses engages with the differing characterinzations of liberty proffered by these individuals, but also looks for unifying threads running between and among them. Daniel B. Klein kicks things off in his lead essay exploring the ideational dimensions of "liberty" as talked about by Aron, Constant, and Berlin. Responses will follow in weeks to come from Professors Helena Rosenblatt and Daniel J. Mahoney.

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Reflections on Libraries, Liberty, and Black History (February 2020)

On my office wall there hangs an illustrated quotation from Frederick Douglass: “Once you learn to read you will be forever free.” Libraries--online or off--have always been places where voices have mingled across the lines of centuries, cultures, countries, and races. The interaction of those voices has always, to me, been the sound of freedom. This month, in lieu of our standard Liberty Matters format, we present some pieces that use the resources of the Online Library of Liberty to listen to those voices and provoke thought and discussion about Black History and about Black History Month.  We begin by bringing you Jack Russell Weinstein’s fine essay about whether we should read Adam Smith during Black History Month. Following him will be pieces by Rachel Ferguson on Frederick Douglass and the Black church experience, and by Sabine El-Chidiac and Janet Bufton on Black Canadian women and the fight for civil rights. You’ll also find a list of links to material from the OLL and other Liberty Fund websites that bring other voices to the forefront of this discussion. Here’s to more reading, and to forever freedom for us all.  

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Mikko Tolonen, “Mandeville, Hayek and Politics of Self-esteem” (October 2020)

Welcome to our October 2020 edition of Liberty Matters. In this essay and discussion forum Mikko Tolonen, Associate Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Helsinki, discusses the work of Bernard Mandeville, one of the most original thinkers and personalities of the 18th century. Tolonen discusses various aspects of Mandeville’s thought, in particular the insight concerning people’s faith in their own opinions and their inability to be impartial in moral and political matters. Tolonen then compares Mandeville’s critique of human knowledge with F.A. Hayek’s well known discussion of the limits of human reason. According to Tolonen, Hayek’s work on the use of knowledge deftly compares Rousseau’s view of rationality with Mandeville’s Scottish Enlightenment thinking. His provocative essay, and the three excellent response essays from our other contributors, raise interesting questions about the way in which ideas transcend various eras, particularly those that describe human nature and the norms that dictate human behavior in markets.

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Ruth Scurr, “J.S. Mill & Life Writing” (August 2020)

Welcome to our August 2020 edition of Liberty Matters. In this essay and discussion forum Ruth Scurr, a fellow and director of Studies in Human, Social and Political Sciences at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge discusses JS Mill and the concept of what she calls “life writing,” According to Scurr life writing is an area of scholarship that involves biography, autobiography and memoir. Her essay focuses on Mill’s Autobiography and the approach that Mill took to crafting what he believed would become the main narrative of his life. Her essay, and the three splendid response essays from our other contributors, raise interesting questions about the outside forces that influence how we view historical figures as well as the caveats we should use while reading “life writing”. As liberalism is increasingly under attack in the modern world, discussing Mill, arguably the 19th century’s most famous English liberal, is particularly relevant.

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Adam J. Macleod, “Bagehot and the Causes of Our Crises” (January 2020)

In this edition of Liberty Matters, Adam MacLeod, Professor of Law at Faulkner University, Jones School of Law, considers the English constitution of Walter Bagehot. Bagehot’s constitutionalism is not just a theory of institutions. It is far more radical. It concerns what it means to be human. At stake is the question whether a people can govern themselves or instead must be ruled by their intellectual superiors. Bagehot’s constitutional anthropology matters because Bagehot’s constitutionalism is now our constitutionalism. The ascendance of the administrative state, rule-making and adjudication predicated on expert insights, legal positivism and judicial supremacy, and many other features of American constitutionalism that are now taken for granted in our law schools, policy schools, and bar associations are rooted ultimately in the concept of human nature that Bagehot articulated.

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