On April 11, 1804, when Benjamin Constant was thirty-six, he confided to his diary: “I have excellent qualities … but I am not quite a real being. Inside me there are two people, one the observer of the other.” It might have been the voice of the self-analytical Adolphe, the destructive and self-destructive anti-hero of Constant’s celebrated autobiographical novel. Part womanizing Valmont and part sensitive Werther (the author of Adolphe met the creators of both, Laclos and Goethe), Constant was a skeptic rationalist and a self-tormenting introvert, a man fascinated by suicide and obsessed with death. To a confidante of his youth he seemed “a true chameleon.” He was also one of the founding fathers of French political liberalism (a word used here throughout in its European sense). It was he who shaped a diverse mass of liberal notions into a clear and coherent practical political doctrine. Strange...

 
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