Tag Archives: The French Revolution

Germaine de Stael

k10705

Germaine de Stael – A Political Portrait
By Biancamaria Fontana
Princeton University Press – £24. 95

          It is a cult, but one yawns in church.

What I particularly like about Germaine de Stael – A Political Portrait, is the fine fact that it addresses the very nitty-gritty, head-on, a mere few pages into what is clearly, a most well-researched thesis. There’s no particular elaboration, no flim-flam nor skirting around the edges of what was a resoundingly feisty and exceedingly independent thinker.

To be sure, some might readily argue that Germaine de Stael’s idiosyncratic independence of mind was a reaction to the fractious events taking place in France at the time. As Richard Bourke, author of Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke states, this book is ”a captivating portrait of a fascinating figure caught up in the whirlwind of events.”

Quite possibly best known (today) as a novelist and literary critic, lest it be said it was Stael’s political outspokenness that perhaps best captures her all-round milieu within the parameters of the French Revolution.

The banker’s daughter who became one of Europe’s best-connected intellectuals, Stael was an exceptionally talented woman who achieved a degree of public influence to which not even her ”wealth and privilege would normally have entitled her.” Indeed, when the lives of so many around her were destroyed, she succeeded in carving out a unique path for herself, thereby ensuring her views and thoughts were heard – initially by powerful men within her immediate vicinity, and later by the European public at large.

All of which the Professor of the History of Political Ideas at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, Biancamaria Fontana, has instinctively captured. That her previous books include Montaigne’s Politics, Benjamin Constant and the Post-Revolutionary Mind and Rethinking the Politics of Commercial Society, such instinctive writing ought hardly come as a surprise.

Each of Germaine de Stael’s nine chapters (as well as Introduction and Conclusion) are written with a knowledge that nigh borders on the very dissection of the subject’s ideological belief(s).

A most pertinent example of this being Stael’s mode of necessary compassion within the general gambit of revolution, which Fontana captures perfectly in chapter six (‘Condemned to Celebrity’): ”In a revolutionary crisis it is claimed over and over again that compassion is a childish sentiment, opposed to those actions that are necessary to the general interest, and that it must be set aside, with all effeminate emotions, unworthy of men or state or chiefs of parties; it is on the contrary during a revolution that pity must become a rule of conduct. Where justice is well established, one can do without mercy; but a revolution, whatever its aim, suspends social order, and it is then necessary to go back to the source of all laws, in a moment in which legal power means nothing.”

Again, no particular elaboration, no flim-flam nor skirting around the edges of what was a resoundingly feisty and exceedingly independent thinker.

In the words of Ruth Scurr (author of Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution): ”An important and original book about a prominent female intellectual who took the measure of the French Revolution in both theoretical and practical terms. Fontana argues convincingly that Stael’s political ideas have been overlooked or underrated in previous treatments of her life and work.”

David Marx

Advertisements

Revolutionary Ideas

revolutionary

Revolutionary Ideas –
An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre
By Jonathan Israel
Princeton University Press – £27.95

Philosophy swayed the public and no one could arrest its course.

Banish ignorance and your liberty is safe.

Were it not for the fact that the French Revolution and the ghastly, unfortunate Terror thereof, changed European (and perhaps) world history, some of the contents of this nigh tomb of a book could well read like the darkest of Samuel Becket plays, crossed with a trajectory of inexorable rolling-credits – straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster.

From page 709 onwards for instance, there follows a further 22 pages in a section entitled Cast of Main Participants; which, if nothing else, substantiates the mere breadth of these twenty-five chapters (excluding a Prologue, Notes, Bibliography and Index). It’s all here, every aspect and character, politician and philosophical debate involved within the French Revolution, has been noted, recorded and debated upon within the surprisingly easy to read, Revolutionary Ideas – An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre.

As the author of The Oxford History of the French Revolution has himself said: ”There is nothing else quite like this book. It not only crowns one of the major individual history projects of the past century but also serves as a stimulus to fresh debate on the greatest and most fundamentally important of all revolutions.”

Indeed, historians of the revolution have oft taken for granted what was all too obvious to its contemporary observers – that the French Revolution was initially triggered by the varying radical ideas of the Enlightenment. Although more recently, scholars have pertained that the Revolution was instigated by social forces, politics, economies or that of culture – almost anything other than such abstract notions as liberty and equality.

Hence, this amazingly well-researched book, where one of the world’s leading historians on the Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel, restores the Revolution’s intellectual influence to that of its centrifugal role. Drawing widely from an array of primary sources, Israel shows how the Revolution was set in motion by radical eighteenth-century doctrines, and how these ideas divided revolutionary leaders into vehemently opposed, ideological opponents; the results of which were the invariable turning points of the Revolution itself: ”[…] escalating ideological assault on the ancien regime was concerted not by professionals or lawyers but by a handful of discontented nobles, litteratures, renegade priests, and journalists, a group completely heterogeneous, socially and by education. What counted were neither numbers nor social background but rather their striking ideological cohesion and ability to sway their audience. They seized the urban public’s attention, deploying an entirely new revolutionary rhetoric of equality, democracy, and volonte generale (the general will).”

Brought to the fore on a number of occasions throughout Revolutionary Ideas, is the towering presence and prowess of one of the greatest thinkers, writers and composer’s of all time, the Genevan philosoper, Jean-Jacques Rousseau – whose Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract remain milestones within the pantheon of social and political thought to this very day.

To be sure, it is surely impossible to write almost anything on the French Revolution, without Rousseau coming into play at very regular, and substantial intervals.

So far as this book is concerned, Rousseau is already (thoroughly) mentioned in the Introduction, wherein Israel writes: ”Rousseau was the surpassing hero simultaneously of the Left and Right, a status no other ideologue ever achieved. Nevertheless, major leaders of the Revolution prior to 1793 remained mostly rather guarded and critical in their assessments of his admittedly massive contribution and some, like Condorcet, barely referred to Rousseau at all. Shortly after the Bastille’s fall in July 1789, Mirabeau […] exalted Rousseau for his central role in preparing the Revolution: never should one speak of liberty and the Revolution without paying homage to this immortal ”vengeur de la nature humaine.” Among Rousseau’s ”truths” pronounced truly philosophique by Mirabeau was his doctrine that the social system benefits men only if they all own something and no one possesses too much, a notion dear to Fauchet and many revolutionaries. Yet, there was also a continuous tension between the Rousseauist claim that men should be primarily guided by moral instinct and ”feeling,” ”le sens moral,” and the Radical Enlightenment’s allegiance to ”reason” alone.”

Within the above quotation alone, there is so much moralistic food for thought, the likes of which has surely influenced the likes of Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela et al. That ‘le sens moral” doesn’t really come into much of today’s political thinking, could be construed as a travesty of the (moral) truth.

But who in this day and ghastly age of crass consumerism, gives a darn about the (moral) truth?

Revolutionary Ideas, albeit it a weighty read, packs a number of political punches unto the shameful stasis of current-day, lethargic, me-me-me ideology. To describe it as a very, very worthy read, would be an understatement of colossal, consequentialist design. Even if only to miss out on the following: ”All men should enjoy the same ”rights.” The law should be remade on the basis of philosophique principles because ”reason” and equity are the sole criteria of moral and social legitimacy.”

David Marx

The History of Modern France

france

The History of Modern France –
From The Revolution to the Present Day
By Jonathan Fenby
Simon & Schuster – £25.00

Having covered France for the best part of half a century – during which time Jonathan Fenby was not only Paris bureau chief for both Reuters and The Economist, but also edited The Observer and The South China Morning Post – it might go without saying he knows a thing or deux about this most alluring and perplexing paradox of a nation.

He has after all, written eighteen books, among them, the mighty acclaimed On The Brink:The Trouble with France and The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved, the latter of which has been hailed by The New York Times as ”magnificent, learned, incisive and gripping.” So when it came to my attention he’d written an all round, comprehensive history of France, I was immediately inspired to sit up, take note, and fully embrace what can only be described as one of the most engaging books on the country I’ve ever read.

Reason being, The History of Modern France – From The Revolution to the Present Day is so unquestionably all-inclusive.

In other words, Fenby refuses to write from any single premise. He assuredly writes from within and without the exceedingly didactic parameters of a simultaneous history.

And this is just one of the high-octane facets of Fenby’s literary approach, which he instantaneously alerts the reader to in the very first chapter of this most readable of books (‘The Lasting Legacy of the Revolution’): ”Despite all the vicissitudes and upheavals of two centuries, this book will argue that common themes run through France’s modern history, the main one being that a nation which takes its revolutionary and republican legacy as constituting its core values has never, in fact, fully digested that heritage because it has never wanted to shed its other, more conservative character […]. The past is a constant element in the present especially for a country as aware of its history as France and which so prides itself on its exceptionalism. But bringing the two into harmony is a problem hardly any easier at the start of the twenty-first century than it was at the end of the eighteenth.”

Might this be because ”the Hexagon between the Alps and the Atlantic, the Channel and the Mediterranean, Flanders and the Pyrenees saw – and sees – itself as home of the ideas and ideals with a global message to all those who seek liberty, equality and fraternity?” Or, might this be because as Sudir Hazareesingh succinctly states in the equally excellent How The French Think (Allen Lane) which I’m currently in the midst of reading/reviewing: ”More than any nation, France is haunted by a yearning towards universality?”

To be sure, Fenby actually quotes Hazareesignh in the final chapter, ‘The Weight of History,’ where he asks if ”French democracy” remains ”unfinished.”

Either way, there’s a great deal to be said for the simple dictum that ”when the French fight for mankind, they are wonderful. When they fight for themselves, they are nothing.” Just as there’s a great deal to be made of these twenty-four chapters. All of which truly resonate with a pristine knowledge that will be very hard to match, let alone surpass, for a long, long time to come.

David Marx