La philosophie de la liberté

Charles Secrétan

Charles Secrétan, La philosophie de la liberté – Cours de philosophie morale, 2 vols, Paris/ Lausanne: L. Hachette et Cie/ Georges Bridel, 1849.


Already in the middle of the Eighteenth Century there was a remarkable influence of the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment, notably in the Canton of Berne. With the French Revolution this cosmopolitan inclination leads to a progressive movement, especially in the cultural sphere. From the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, there can be found a remarkable influence of German idealism on philosophical thought in Switzerland. At the Academy of Berne, for instance, there can be noticed a vivid reception of Kantianism, Fichteanism, Schellingeanism as well as Hegelianism and German idealist philosophy clearly dominated the intellectual debates in general. This influence can be found, for example, in Johannes Ith and in Philipp Albert Stapfer, both teaching on the so-called “Politisches Institut” in Berne, the fore-runner of the University of Berne, as well as Jens Baggesen (dealing mainly with self-consciousness) and Johann Rudolf Steck (dealing mainly with Stoicism in idealist philosophy). With respect to politics, the state of Berne was definitely orientated towards France, whereas in the domain of spiritual and cultural life, German idealism was clearly predominating. This resulted in a tendency towards a philosophy of freedom, or at least of reform-orientated thought, especially on the field of practical philosophy (see Martin Bondeli: Kantianismus und Fichteanismus in Bern – Zur philosophischen Geistesgeschichte der Helvetik, sowie zur Entstehung des nachkantischen Idealismus (Schwabe Philosophica, vol. 2), Basel: Schwabe 2001, introduction).

Historical Situation and Systematic Context

The selected text by Charles Secrétan stands for a reception of this philosophical influence on Catholic philosophy, i.e. on social philosophy in Catholic territories of Switzerland. The philosophy of liberty is brought in close relationship with religious ideology, not regarding that the principle of religious thought lies in authority but rather than liberty, generally speaking. The work of the author is meant to be an essay in apology, based on the virtues of Christianity. In consequence, the argumentation refers to thinkers of religious philosophy in the past as well as leading figures of modern social and political thought. Another concurring example can be found in the philosophical thought of Ignaz Franz Paul Troxler, a philosopher originating from the Canton of Lucerne.

Content, Abstracts/Conclusions, Insights, Evidence

There can be found a few similarities of the concept of freedom, hold by Charles Secrétan, with the ideas of Plotin, of Duns Scotus, as well as of René Descartes. The focus is, however, more on moral philosophy, than on experience and scientific knowledge. This practical turn derives from the thoughts of Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, who was teaching in Munich, where Secrétan has pursued his philosophical studies for a while. Morality is understood as the art of regulating human activities (“La morale est l’art de régler l’activité humaine”). Such a creational theory of liberty leads immediately to a so-called pantheistic view. Morality is, therefore, necessarily defined by the content of moral duties and rights. The principle of absolute knowledge, inspired by religious thought, has to be implemented to everyday life, must become the actual will of morally acting persons.

As a complement so to say, we have also reproduced the final lesson of the second volume of “The Philosophy of Liberty”, of the main contribution of Charles Secrétan, where practical applications of the insights are concluded. To realise liberty means the overall duty for moral action, in the field of economics as well as in the sphere of politics (“L’être libre doit realiser sa liberté”). In this respect, liberty turns to the founding principle of equality. The will of the State is, therefore, subjected to the moral and spiritual life of its community. To the last extent, liberty can only be fulfilled by the love of God (“La liberté ne se realise que dans l’amour de Dieu”). According to Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, the absolute corresponds to nature and, therefore, moral activities follow the laws of nature.

Philosophical Valuation and Jurisprudential Significance

In terms of history of philosophical thought, this signifies an act of reception of the state-of-the-art idealistic philosophy in Switzerland. Not only in the sphere of political thought, but also with regard to legal thinking, this outcome consists rather in constructing the ground for a general acceptance of political freedoms and freedoms, as guaranteed by the constitutions of the Cantons and the Swiss Federal Constitution later on in the Nineteenth Century. This also includes, for instance, the equality of rights between men and women, as the author developed in his writing “Les droits des femmes” in 1885: “Il est evident, en effet, que la question des droit de la femme s’absorbe dans la question générale de l’existence du droit et se resout avec elle”.

Further Information About the Author

Charles Secrétan, born on 19 January 1815 in Lausanne, died on 21 January 1895, obtained a licence in jurisprudence at the academy of Lausanne, before he went to Munich in 1835 to study with Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling. Back to the Léman region he founded the “Revue Suisse”, a journal of cultural philosophy. After having taught history and philosophy at the University of Lausanne, he was nominated ordinary professor in these domains. Due to political circumstances he had to emigrate to Paris, before coming back to Neuchâtel and later turned back to Lausanne, where he also lectured on natural law between 1874 and 1895. His main work, “La philosophie de la liberté”, is written in the spirit of Alexandre Vinet, followed the current of German idealism and professed the ideals of social Christianity as well as associationist theories and the claims of the labour movement. To be noted is a later writing on “Droit des femmes”, where he defended the emancipation of women. From 1883, he was a corresponding member of the Académie des sciences morales et politiques de l’Institut de France.

The person of the philosopher Charles Secrétan is not to be confused with the lawyer with the same name (1784-1858) who was a professor of civil and roman law at the University of Lausanne.

For more information about the person as well as his main work, please consult:

H. Barker: François T. Pillon, La philosophie de Charles Secrétan, in: Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press), N. S. vol. 7, No. 27 (1898), pp. 423-426;

François T. Pillon: La Philosophie de Charles Secrétan, Paris: Félix Alcan, 1898 (reprinted 2006).

Selected Works of the Same Author

Charles Secrétan: Le droit de l’humanité, Lausanne/ Paris: Payot & Cie/ Félix Alcan, 1890; Idem: Mon utopie – Nouvelles études morales et sociales, Paris/ Lausanne: Félix Alcan/ F. Payot, 1892; Idem: Droit des femmes, Lausanne/ Paris: B. Benda/ Félix Alcan, 3rd ed. 1886.

For Further Reading

Martin Bondeli: Kantianismus und Fichteanismus in Bern – Zur philosophischen Geistesgeschichte der Helvetik, sowie zur Entstehung des nachkantischen Idealismus (Schwabe Philosophica, vol. 2), Basel: Schwabe 2001;

André Burnier: La pensée de Charles Secrétan et le problème du fondement métaphysique des jugements de valeur moraux (Dissertation Universität Lausanne), Neuchâtel: Paul Attinger S. A., 1934;

Felix Lehner: Freiheit in Wirtschaft, Staat und Religion – Die Philosophie der Gesellschaft von Charles Secrétan (1815-1895), Zürich: Orell Füssli, 1967;

Philipp Albert Stapfer: Die fruchtbarste Entwicklungsmethode der Anla­gen des Menschen zufolge eines kritisch-philosophischen Entwurfs der Cultur­geschichte unseres Geschlechts in der Form einer Apologie der classi­schen Werke des Alterthums, eine bey Eröffnung der Vorlesungen des politi­schen Instituts den 13. November 1792 gehaltene Rede, Bern: Hochobrig­keitliche Buchdruckerey, 1792;

Ignaz Franz Paul Troxler: Philosophische Rechtslehre der Natur und des Gesetzes mit Rücksicht auf die Irrlehren der Liberalität und Legitimität, Zürich: Gessner’sche Buchhandlung, 1820.


You can find a scan (PDF) of the original text here: Secrétan Liberté.