Author: ericbrandom

The Emotional Life of Laissez-Faire: Emulation in Eighteenth-Century Economic Thought

By guest contributor Blake Smith

Capitalism is often understood by both critics and defenders as an economic system that gives self-interested individuals free reign to acquire, consume, and compete. There are debates about the extent to which self-interest can be ‘enlightened’ and socially beneficial, yet there seems to be a widespread consensus that under capitalism, the individual, egoist self is the basic unit of economic action. For many intellectuals from the right and the left capitalism seems, by letting such economic agents pursue their private interests, to erode traditional social structures and collective identities, in a process that is either a bracing, liberating movement towards freedom or an alienating, disorienting dissolution in which, as Marx famously phrased it, “all that is solid melts into air.”

Economic activity unfettered by government regulation was not always so obviously linked to the self-interest of atomized individuals. In fact, as historians inspired by the work of István Hont show, the first wave of laissez-faire political economists, who transformed eighteenth-century Europe and laid the foundation for modern capitalism, claimed that they were creating the conditions for a new era of mutual admiration and affective connections among economic agents. For these thinkers, members of the ‘Gournay Circle’, emotions, rather than mere self-interest, were the motor of economic activity. They specifically identified the kind of activity they wanted to promote with the feeling of ’emulation’, and touted the abolition of traditional protections on workers and consumers as a means of stoking this noble passion.

Emulation has only been recently been given center stage in the history of economic thought, thanks to scholars like John Shovlin, Carol Harrison and Sophus Reinert, but it has a long history. From Greco-Roman antiquity down through the Renaissance, it was understood as a force of benign mutual rivalry among people working in the same field. Emulation was said to set in motion a virtuous circle in which competitors, bound by mutual admiration and affection, pushed each other to ever-higher levels of achievement. When a sculptor, for example, sees a magnificent statue made by one of his fellow artists, he should experience an uplifting feeling of emulation that will inspire him to learn from his rival in order to make a still more magnificent statue of his own. Emulation thus leads to higher standards of production, generating a net gain for society as a whole; it also, critically, unites potential rivals in a bond of shared esteem rooted in a common identity. This form of friendly competition sustains communities.

Emulation was not for everyone, however. It was understood only to exist in the world of male elites, and only in non-economic domains where they could pursue glory without the taint of financial interest: the arts, politics, and war. The circle of young male artists in the orbit of the great painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), as Thomas Crowe notes, could present their (not always harmonious) competition for attention, resources, and patronage in terms of emulation. In the homosocial space of the studio, anything so petty as jealous or avarice was abolished, and such artists as Antoine-Jean Gros, Anne-Louis Girodet and Jean-Germain Drouais could appear, at least in public, as a set of friends who admired and encouraged each other. Women, meanwhile, were largely excluded from the art world’s apprenticeships, studios, and galleries, on the grounds that their delicate psyches were not suited to the powerful emotions that drove emulation.


Vincent de Gournay

The discourse of emulation shaped access to the arts, but, in a stroke of public relations genius, the members of the Gournay Circle realized that it could also reshape France’s mercantilist economy. Beginning in the 1750s, this group of would-be reformers coalesced around the commercial official and political economist Vincent de Gournay (1712-59). Largely forgotten today (but now increasingly visible thanks to scholars such as Felicia Gottmann), Gournay and his associates inspired the liberal political economists of the next generation, from Physiocrats in France to Adam Smith in Scotland. The Gournay Circle and those who moved in its wake called for the abolition of restrictions on foreign imports, price controls on grain, state monopolies, guilds—the institutions and practices around which economic life in Europe had been organized for centuries.

The Gournay Circle spoke to a France fearful of falling behind Great Britain, its rival for colonial and commercial power. Gournay and his associates argued that France was not making the most of its merchants, entrepreneurs and manufacturers, whose energies were hemmed in by antiquated regulations. To those worried that unleashing economic energies might heighten social tensions, making France weaker and more divided instead of stronger, the Gournay Circle gave reassurance. There was no conflict between fostering social harmony and deregulating the economy, because economic activity was not motivated by self-interested desires for personal gain. Rather, buying and selling, production and distribution were inspired by emulation, the same laudable hunger for the esteem of one’s peers that motivated painters, orators and warriors.

Just as a sculptor admires and strives to outdo the work of his colleagues, laissez-faire advocates argued, a merchant or manufacturer regards those in his own line of work with a spirit of high-minded, warm-hearted camaraderie. Potential competitors identify with each other, forging an emotional bond based on their shared effort to excel. Thus, for example, demolishing traditional guild controls on the number of individuals who could enter into a given field of trade would not only encourage competition, raise the quality of goods and reduce prices—most importantly, it would draw a greater number of people into emulation with each other. Social classes, too, would be drawn to emulate each other, and rather than stoking economic conflict among competing interests, deregulation would encourage economic actors to earn the admiration of their fellows. National wealth and national unity would both be promoted, joined by a common logic of affect.

Under the banner of emulation, reformers challenged the guilds and associations that had long offered some limited protections to workers. Since the Middle Ages, guilds throughout Europe had set standards of production, provided training for artisans, and offered forms of unemployment insurance. Critics observed that they also kept up wages by limiting the number of workers who could enter into specific trades, and further accused guilds of thwarting the introduction of new technologies. Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (1727-1781), a political economist linked to the Gournay Circle, believed that the best way to “incite emulation” among workers was “by the suppression of all the guilds.”

For a brief moment, Turgot (still hailed as a hero in libertarian circles) was able to put his pro-emulation agenda into action. Appointed Comptroller-General of Finances (the equivalent to a modern Minister of Finance) in 1774, Turgot launched a laissez-faire campaign that included the abolition of guilds and the suspension of state controls on the price and circulation of grain. The royal decree announcing his most infamous batch of policies, the Six Edits, declared: “we wish thus to nullify these arbitrary institutions… which cast away emulation.” Turgot’s policies provoked outrage across French society, from peasants who feared bread prices would spiral out of control, to guild members who faced the competition of unregulated production. He was forced to resign in 1776; his most hated policies were reversed. But the damage had been done. The guild system, permanently enfeebled, straggled on for another generation. Peasants and workers, to whom the fragility of the institutions that protected their access to food and labor had been made brutally obvious, remembered the lesson. Their outrage in the mid-1770s was a rehearsal for 1789.


“Carte d’Entrée” for the first annual meeting of the Société d’Emulation

Emulation gradually faded away as a justification for liberal economic policies, although throughout much of the nineteenth century ’emulation clubs’ (sociétés d’émulation) remained a fixture of French municipal life, promoting business ventures while excluding groups whose capacity for emulation was considered questionable: women, Jews, and Protestants. As a key, albeit forgotten, concept in the development of modern economic thought, emulation reveals the extent to which the notion of the self-interested individual as the essential subject of economic activity is not in fact essential to capitalist ideology. In eighteenth-century France, laissez-faire policies aimed at increasing economic growth were justified in terms of their contribution to social harmony and emotional fulfillment. In the rhetoric that promoted these policies, the imagined economic subject was not an isolated, calculating egoist but a passionate striver who wanted, more than mere utility, welfare or profit, the admiration of other members of his community (that this community should exclude certain groups of people went without saying). Such arguments may well have been deployed by cynical activists agitating on behalf of powerful financial interests, yet they nevertheless speak to an affective dimension of economic life that is too often occluded. In its short-lived role as an economic concept, emulation showed that the history of capitalism is necessarily entangled with the history of emotions.

Blake Smith holds a PhD from Northwestern University and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. He is currently a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute, where he is preparing a study of the eighteenth-century French Orientalist Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron.

Violence, Intimate and Public, in Bel-Ami’s Republic

By Contributing Editor Eric Brandom

Mme Forestier, who was playing with a knife, added:

–Yes…yes…it is good to be loved…

And she seemed to press her dream further, to think of things she dared not say.


“L’argent” (“Money”), from Félix Vallotton’s series “Intimités” (image credit: Van Gogh Museum)

These are lines from a dinner scene early in Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 Bel-Ami (I have consulted, but in places substantially modified or replaced, the Sutton translation). The novel follows the talentless and superficial George Duroy—eventually Du Roy, since the sparkle of aristocracy is all the more fascinating en République—as he makes his social ascent through seduction, daring, and a little judiciously applied journalism. Duroy is driven by desire, especially for wealth, status, to be adored by people in general, and to possess women. His lack of moral feeling for anyone but himself means that he is able to make good use of his one real advantage, which is that women find him uncommonly attractive. Robert Pattinson played him, perhaps without the requisite physicality, in the 2012 film. In this post, I want to think about violence in Maupassant’s novel. Indeed I would like to use the experience of reading to give historical depth and complexity to the notoriously ambiguous and freighted concept of violence.


Bel-Ami is a rich text, taking as major themes not only great passion betrayed, but also journalism, gender, and colonial politics in the early Third Republic. It does not appear particularly violent compared to, for instance, Zola’s Germinal (1885), which breaths misery and social politics from every page, or the same author’s Nana (1880), also about an implausibly sexually attractive individual. For just this reason it seems to me that we may learn something from Maupassant about what counts as violent, what registered as dangerous violence in the Third Republic. As the lines quoted above suggest, violence is by no means absent here. Violence is both presented to the reader in the action of the plot, often at an ironic distance, and also is an effect produced in the reader. These two sorts of violence do not line up. So here I consider several “violent” incidents, including those that are physically—manifestly or naively—violent and those that are not. Indeed it seems to me that it in this novel, and perhaps in the larger society out of which it came, we might look for the most dangerous violence at the juncture of what is spoken and what one does not dare say, of the public and the intimate.

Bel-Ami opens with Duroy as flâneur, going down the boulevard with barely enough money in his pocket to last out the month. He has a powerful thirst for a bock (beer), and covets the wealth of those he can see enjoying the pleasures of life in the cafés. He has just finished two years in “Africa” and the memories are not far away: “A cruel and happy smile passed over his lips at the memory of an escapade which had cost the lives of three men of the Ouled-Alane tribe, and secured for himself and his comrades twenty chickens, two sheep, some money, and something to laugh about for six months.” The novel’s plot is launched when Duroy by chance meets Charles Forestier, an old friend from the military. He is introduced to the borderline honorable professional of newspaper work at the fictional La vie française, owned by “le juif Walter.” We are introduced to Madeline Forestier, whose talent for political journalism and willingness to ghostwrite propelled her husband Charles into prominence, and will now do the same for Duroy.

French expansion in African is woven into the plot. Indeed the way in which the novel takes journalism in general, and the actualités of Third Republic colonial ventures in particular, as a theme is one source of scholarly interest. Duroy’s first publication in the newspaper, which meets with a success he is never able to emulate again without the assistance of Madeline, draws on his experiences in Africa. But there is a larger colonial venture in the background of the novel. Put briefly, the minister Laroche-Mathieu connives with Walter to convince the public that the French will never go into Tunisia. This has the effect of driving down to practically nothing the price of Tunisian government bonds. Then Laroche-Mathieu’s government does decide to invade, determining among other things to guarantee the solvency of the bonds. Walter turns out to own a great quantity of them. From merely wealthy he becomes among the richest men in Paris—from “le juif” he becomes “le riche Israélite.” This subplot ties the novel both to the current events of the 1880s and to Maupassant’s own newspaper career.

But colonial experience is manifest in the novel on quite other levels. Through no fault of his own Duroy becomes involved in an affair of honor, a duel with a reporter from another paper. In a darkly comic scene Duroy, who is capable of self-reflection only in the mode of self-justification, considers the ridiculous possibility that he will die. His military past returns, above all in its irrelevance: “He had been a soldier, he had shot at Arabs without much danger to himself, it is true, a little as one shoots at a boar on a hunt.” Unfortunately for him, “in Paris, it was something else.” The duel takes place, as it must; both parties fire and miss; honor is maintained. Such duels were relatively common among bourgeois men and especially among journalists on the right like Duroy. So well institutionalized was the practice of risking one’s life—even if relatively few people died—for one’s honor that it could be seized by women to criticize the gender divisions of the Third Republic. In an elaborate set piece that farcically repeats his own experience, Duroy attends a charity banquet involving a series of epée and saber duels as entertainment. One section of the spectacle is women sparring to the erotic delight or forbearance of all.

The violence of Algeria has no existential weight for Duroy, as little as do the semi-nude fencers. This has not to do with the victims (Duroy has no feelings for anyone beyond himself, Ouled-Alane or French, man or woman) or more surprisingly even with the objective risk of death.In Paris, there are other men looking at him. It is fame, unequal recognition—to seduce Paris—that Duroy really wants. The duel is violence that does not take place, mere potential violence, as meaningless as the long late-night monologue in which the poet-columnist Norbert de Varenne spills out to Duroy all that he has learned about life and death.

The duel, staged and public, is a comic event for the reader and, at least as he tells it in retrospect, for Duroy. But there are also many moments of intimate violence that are less comical. Charles Forestier succumbs to a long-term illness, and Duroy proposes himself to Madeline as a replacement at the deathbed. Eventually, she agrees. Later, however, Madeline stands in the way of Duroy’s plans to marry Suzanne, the prettier of the now fabulously wealthy Walter’s two daughters. But how to rid one’s self of a wife? Duroy brings in the police to make a public discovery of Madeline in a compromising situation with Laroche-Mathieu, and force a divorce (this, too, was topical–debates around its legalization in 1884 were intense). Duroy breaks down the door to the furnished apartment and the police commissioner follows him in. The policeman demands an account of what has obviously been going on from Madeline. When she is silent: “From the moment that you no longer wish to explain it, Madame, I will be obliged to verify it” (“Du moment que vous ne voulez pas l’avouer, madame, je vais être contraint de le constater”). Duroy is able to turn the revelation—which of course is nothing of the sort—to his own advantage not only by divorcing Madeline but also, in a series of newspaper articles, by destroying the career of Laroche-Mathieu.


“La santé de l’autre” (“The Health of the Other”), from Félix Vallotton’s series “Intimités” (image credit: Van Gogh Museum)

This elaborately public scene with Madeline is to be contrasted with the scene between Duroy and his longtime mistress and benefactor, Clotilde de Marelle. They are together in the apartment that she rented for that purpose long ago; she has just learned, elsewhere, about his impending marriage to Suzanne Walter. Marelle, processing what he has done, how he has kept her in the dark about the plan, abuses him: “Oh! How crooked and dangerous you are!” He gets self righteous when she describes him as “crapule” and threatens to throw her out of the apartment—a miss step because she has been paying for the apartment all along, from back when he had no money at all. She accuses him of sleeping with Suzanne in order to force the marriage. As it happens, Duroy has not and this, it seems, is a bridge too far—at least so he can tell himself. He hits her; she continues to accuse him, “He pitched onto her and, holding her underneath him, struck her as though he were hitting a man.” After he recovers his “sang-froid” he washes his hands and tells her to return the key to the concierge when she goes. As he himself exits he tells the doorman, “You will tell the owner that I am giving notice for the 1st of October. It is now the16th of August, I am therefore within the limits.” It is almost as though Duroy was compelled to assert to a man, of whatever class, that he was “dans les limites.” As Eliza Ferguson succinctly remarks in her rich study of Parisian judicial records related to cases of intimate violence, “the proper use of violence was an integral component of masculine honorability.” In certain situations juries and even the law itself recognized that an honorable man might inflict even fatal violence on a woman. Duroy is of course not an example of honorable masculinity, but he is intensely concerned with that appearance. Familiar with his style, Marelle simply will not accept the appearance he wants to impose in the space of their intimate life. He resorts to physical violence of an extreme sort.


The only scene in the novel that does not follow Duroy in close third takes place between the Walters, when Madame Walter discovers that her daughter Suzanne has disappeared, doubtless with Duroy. Duroy, of course, had earlier seduced, used, and then grown bored of Madame Walter, a devout Catholic who had never previously done anything so immoral. Her relationship with Duroy is, again of course, unspeakable. As she explains to her husband that Duroy has made off with their daughter, Walter responds in a practical way. Rather than rage at betrayal, he is impressed by Duroy’s audacity: “Ah! How that rascal has played us…Anyway he is impressive. We might have found someone with a much better position, but not such intelligence and future. He is a man of the future. He will be deputy and minister.” His wife cannot explain the depths of betrayal she feels, at least without admitting her own culpability, so that she is rendered hypocritical even in her righteous anger. The public face of things, carefully arranged by Duroy, brings appalling suffering to the private.


“L’absoute” (“Absolution”), Félix Vallotton (image credit: Gallica)

The novel’s violent moments are at this juncture, when the not always unspoken code of illicit intimacy is broken. Violence is generally inflicted on women by Duroy, using publicity, using his capacity to apply the logic of public to that of private life, honor to desire. In Duroy’s Third Republic the deepest moral corruption, the most serious violence, is not corruption in the usual sense of the word, the turning of the public to private ends, which is how one might normally think of the Tunisian affair, but rather the brutal and repeated enforcement of the public in the intimate. Here, then, is a way of thinking about differentiation within the broader category of violence. Some violence mattered more than other violence in the Third Republic. Men beating women, French soldiers killing Arabs out of boredom, or a duel in defense of masculine honor—this was violent, but not serious. The interruption of logics of intimacy and desire by logics of publicity, the betrayal of a tacit agreement by spoken law, these are the sorts of transgressions that are not so easily sanitized by ironic distance.


On Tzvetan Todorov: A Personal Recollection

By guest contributor Richard J. Golsan

Tzvetan_Todorov-Strasbourg_2011_(1)Early one morning last February, I received a text from a friend in Paris telling me that Tzvetan Todorov had died. The text concluded with the word “Désolée,” which captures so well feelings of regret and sorrow, and also empathy. My friend knew that I had known Tzvetan for twenty-five years, that I admired him tremendously, and that from an intellectual mentor Tzvetan had become a close friend, whom I looked forward to seeing every time I went to Paris. Although I had known that Tzvetan suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and I had been shocked by his condition when I last visited him last September, I never really imagined that he would die, and so soon.


Devoirs et délices (photo credit: Seuil)

I first met Tzvetan when he came to Texas and stayed in my house for three days while he lectured and gave a seminar for the Interdisciplinary Group for Literary Historical Study at Texas A&M University. Unlike so many other visiting scholars of his stature who fly in, give their lecture, dine with faculty, stay at a nice hotel, and fly out the next morning, Tzvetan wanted to get to know the people he visited, and not just the academics. At my house, where he wished to stay even though we only knew each other through correspondence, he spent as much time talking to my wife and two sons as he did to me. Later, in his autobiography, Devoir et délices he would speak about how the birth of his first child changed his life as well as the trajectory of his intellectual interests, and it became clear to me then why he wished to spend time with my entire little family. For many years Tzvetan was married to the novelist Nancy Huston, with whom he had two children. In conversations he would refer to “my Nancy” and “your Nancy” when talk to turned to family and daily life at home. As so many of his works confirm, for Tzvetan, “life in common” with family and friends was the cornerstone of a rich and happy life as a public intellectual who was respected and admired around the world. In the first years I knew him I visited Tzvetan in his study in his apartment near the Bastille. His daughter Léa and especially his son Sacha were very frequently around, and his tenderness for them and attentiveness to their needs was always evident. Later when he had moved over to the Left Bank and we would take long walks in the Jardin des Plantes or chat in a café near his apartment, he would speak fondly and proudly of his children, now grown. His daughter Léa had become a documentary film maker, and at our memorial conference for him at Reid Hall in Paris this past July, she showed parts of a documentary she was making on Tzvetan during his last visit to his native Bulgaria. Unfortunately he died before the film could be completed.

In our many conversations we ran the gamut of family, politics, books we had read and admired, travels, and many other subjects. He was generous with me in every way—he offered advice on my life and career, told me of important events or debates in Paris, often before they happened. For example, involved early on as an advisor in the Livre noir du Communisme project—which was very close to his heart, given his youth in Communist Bulgaria—Tzvetan told me months before it appeared about the controversy it would generate, and what his own views were.

Tzvetan frequently expressed admiration for friends and intellectuals he admired, and was always circumspect about those whose ideas or views he disliked or found dangerous (in Devoirs et delices, he is open about his dislike of Jacques Lacan and André Glucksmann). Always seeking to live the role of the “responsible intellectual” rather than the “engaged intellectual” of which he was suspicious, he was cautious about the positions he took in the public arena. He wanted to make sure that they measured up to his high standards of being truly thoughtful and reasonable. He was, he told me, discouraged by the often shrill intellectual polemics in the French media. After he published Le nouveau désordre mondial, which obliged him to become involved in these polemics, he said he was done with plunging directly into heated controversies of the moment. He would later, of course, change his mind in the face of new situations and what he perceived as new dangers.

One of Tzvetan’s many qualities was his ability to sum things up with just the right phrase or observation, which he pronounced with a kind of sympathetic detachment. Once when I was overly dramatic in my estimation of the meaning and impact of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s first-round victory in the presidential elections in 2002, Tzvetan stated simply: “Joe, the world is not getting to be a better place.” The phrase, bracing in its simplicity, punctured my apocalyptic pronouncements on the spot. Near the end of his life, he told me that he did not despair of disturbing or even devastating global events and developments, because he did not believe in grand or overarching historical narratives that supposedly gave meaning to these developments while placing them in an imaginary and fictitious “grand scheme” of things. He believed that these crises or disasters had to be dealt with one at a time and on their own merits.

Tzvetan’s ability to capture things in their essence and their profundity was also apparent in more personal things he said to me. In summer 2012, he invited to me to lunch, a break with our habit of walks in the park or café stops. After a long and pleasant lunch in an Indian restaurant near Jussieu, he confided in me that he was worried that he had Alzeimer’s disease. As we left, for the first time he hugged me and said: “You have to promise to come see me next time you are in Paris, even if I don’t remember who you are.”


Javier Cercas (photo credit: Albin Olsson)

Looking back on our encounters in the last years of Tzvetan’s life, it was clear to me that his life was becoming increasingly difficult, and painful. His marriage of many years ended abruptly, and what he feared was Alzheimer’s disease turned out to Parkinson’s disease. From the wiry, fit man I had known he became thinner and moved with increasing difficulty. But there were things that he very much enjoyed. He had received an award in Spain, and as a result spent a few days with the tennis champion Rafael Nadal, who had also received an award and whom he found delightful. He began watching Nadal’s matches on TV when he could. He also told me of his meeting with the Spanish novelist Javier Cercas, author of Soldiers of Salamis, many of whose ideas he shared and whose company he enjoyed. His admiration for figures like his friend the ethnologist, Resistance fighter, and Nazi camp survivor Germaine Tillion, never waned, and he wrote a lovely essay about her in May 2015, when her remains were placed in the Panthéon, alongside other luminaries of France’s Republican past. Tzvetan also still found pleasure and comfort in his work, writing and completing his final book, Le triomphe de l’artiste, shortly before he lost the ability to type.

I last saw Tzvetan in September 2016, when we spent two evenings together recording an interview that covered his entire life and work. There were so many things I did not know about him, despite years of friendship, and this made the visit all the more moving. When he had come back to Paris the month before, after spending the summer with friends in the country while completing his last book, his condition had worsened dramatically. He could no longer leave his apartment, and had difficulty walking about. While the interview went on, friends called repeatedly to ask after him. His daughter Léa hovered discreetly about, and this appeared to please him a great deal.

At the end of the interview we said goodbye at the door. As I left the building I was frightened for Tzvetan, and yet it did not occur to me that I would not see him again. Now that Tzvetan is gone, however, in looking at his books on my shelves, and thinking back to Léa Todorov’s brief film of him in Bulgaria, I remember the man and his ideas. Despite the sadness of his demise, he lived the life that he wished for, and lived it better than most. His legacy, and the memory of his friendship remain, and that is some comfort.

Richard J. Golsan is Distinguished Professor of French and University Distinguished Professor at Texas A&M University. His most recent monograph is The Vichy Past in France Today: Corruptions of Memory (Lexington/Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). He also recently edited a collection of essays with Sarah M. Misemer, The Trial that Never Ends: Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” in Retrospect (University of Toronto, 2017). Last summer, he went under the FHN spotlight. The interviews with Tzvetan Todorov mentioned above are forthcoming in South Central Review.

The Protestant Origins of the French Republican Revolution? The Case of Edgar Quinet

by guest contributor Bryan A. Banks

In his 1865 La Révolution, Edgar Quinet addressed the question: Why did the republican experiments of 1792 and 1848 seem to turn to terror, empire, and tyranny? “The French, having been unable to accept the advantages of the religious revolution of the sixteenth century, were eventually led to deny them … and from there, how many false views did they end up embracing.” (158) Caught between political “absolute domination” of this world and the Catholic Church’s “spiritual absolutism” over the next, any republican experiment in Catholic France was doomed to fail in Quinet’s mind.

Edgar Quinet

Edgar Quinet by Louis Bochard, 1870

Quinet looked towards the Netherlands, England, and the United States to see the benefits of Protestantism. These states benefitted from their revolutions (the Golden Age following the creation of the Dutch Republic in 1649, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the American Revolution), because they had learned from Protestantism the value of liberty of conscience. In France, the people remained in servitude — whether it be to the bishopric, to a Bonaparte, or to a Bourbon.

Such remarks should not be surprising given that Quinet spent the majority of his republican political life deriding Catholic Church. Born from Calvinist stock at the turn of the century in 1803, Quinet attempted to make a name for himself in the world of letters during the Restoration period. He found his voice and message through his early attempts at philosophical poetry and political essays, but eventually he turned to the history of religion. In his early writing, Quinet began to conceive of a republican religion opposed to the domestic conservatism of the Bourbon Restoration and the July Monarchy, similar to that of his colleague, friend, and collaborator, Jules Michelet. In 1838, Quinet took up the appointed position as professor of the history of literature at Lyons. Four years later, he moved to the Collège de France, where he began to write a history of the French Revolution. In the early 1840s, the Catholic Church sought to gain greater control over the university system. Quinet and Michelet entered into a polemical debate with the Jesuits and Ultramontanists on this issue. The Collège de France in 1846 dismissed Quinet for his attacks against the Roman Catholic Church and his open espousal of republicanism.

Later, Quinet participated in the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy during the Revolution of 1848, only to go into exile in Belgium and Switzerland following Louis Napoleon’s coup and the subsequent establishment of the Second French Empire. So given his historical context, it should not be surprising to find Quinet reflecting on the “failures” of the republican revolutionary tradition. Only later in his life, after the fall of the Empire and the establishment of the French Third Republic, did Quinet return to the country and resume his professorship at the Collège de France.

Quinet’s link between the emancipatory individualism of the Reformation and the outbreak of republican revolution needs to be understood in its transtemporal tradition. At the beginning of the century, the connection between the Reformed faith and the republican revolution were prevalent. In his 1800 travelogue, the German Johann Georg Heinzmann remarked:

The French counter-revolutionaries say that the Protestants are the cause of the Revolution and that they degraded the clergy and disseminated free ideas, which are those of foreigners, not the French … The republican French value Protestants and give them credit for the first victory of light over dark. The true revolutionary … is a friend of the Protestants.(158, 172-3)

Heinzmann’s observation reflected both the persistent confessional divisions in revolutionary France as well as a much larger debate over religious predilections for political expression. Counter-revolutionaries, as Heinzmann noted, imagined a seditious Protestant plot to bring down the Old Regime and replace it with a republic, but this idea was not new to the nineteenth century.

Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, the French bishop and theologian, along with the controversialists that stoked the fires of Louis XIV’s Revocation of the Edict of Nantes at the end of the seventeenth century, too had drawn a direct correlation between the regeneration of the Christian conscience espoused by the Reformed and the “seeds of liberty” that would spring republicanism. In 1689, the Catholic conspiratorial theorist Antoine Varillas published a tract entitled Histoire des revolutions arrivées dans l’Europe en matiere de Religion. The Reformation became a violent revolution hellbent on abolishing the monarchy and establishing a republic.

This connection between Calvinism and republicanism was fostered in part by certain Huguenots in exile like Pierre Jurieu who spread arguments for popular sovereignty based on Scripture. Understanding the political ramifications of these statements led fellow refugees like Pierre Bayle to denounce republican formulations as fomentations. Despite the efforts of many Huguenots in the diaspora to thwart republican sentiment, many philosophers of the Enlightenment furthered reified such a religio-political-cultural connection. Inspired by Montesquieu’s L’Ésprit des lois, the Calvinist La Beaumelle summarized this link as: “The Protestant religion is better suited to a republic because its fundamental principles are directly linked to the republican form of government. An enlightened faith is in perfect harmony with the spirit of independence and liberty.”(29)

The Reformed republican mythos was a persistent political narrative in the French imagination before, during, and after the revolutionary tumult, which installed the first French Republic. Yet this genealogy of the republican-Protestant connection emphasizes a common discursive field that pervaded the early modern and modern periods. Catholic monarchists, Protestant anti-monarchists flirting with republicanism, Huguenot skeptics, French natural philosophers, and nineteenth-century avowed republicans all employed such a connection to celebrate or condemn the religious link to the political — all recognizing such a connection as causal and not constructed from deeper socio-economic drivers. More importantly, this connection valorized the individual as best served by republicanism and best suited to foster a Republic. Following the second of two “failed” republican experiments, thinkers like Quinet, dredged up over two centuries of the French social imaginary to rebuke Catholicism as totalitarian in favor of the republican Reformed.

Bryan A. Banks is Assistant Professor of History at SUNY Adirondack and co-editor of the blog Age of Revolutions. His current research focuses on Huguenot refugees during the long eighteenth century. You can follow him on Twitter @Bryan_A_Banks.

Politics the only common ground

by Eric Brandom

Le congrès des ecrivains et artistes noirs took place in late September 1956, in Paris. Among the speakers was Aimé Césaire, and it is his intervention, “Culture and Colonization,” that is my focus here. This text has been the subject of significant scholarship. Like all of Césaire’s writings it is nonetheless worth reading carefully anew. I look to Césaire now in part to think through the differences between two attempts to take or retake a dialectical tradition for anticolonial politics. How might such a project take shape in and against specifically French political thought? In this post, I hope one unusual moment in Césaire’s talk can be useful.

Put broadly, for Césaire, the problem of culture in 1956 was colonization. By disintegrating, or attempting to disintegrate, the peoples over which it has domination, colonization removes the “framework…structure” that make cultural life possible. And it must be so, because colonization means political control and “the political organization freely developed by a people is a prominent part of that people’s culture, even as it also conditions that culture” (131). Peoples and nations, must be free because this is the condition of true living–having already made this argument with quotations from Marx, Hegel, and Lenin, Césaire next gave his listeners Spengler quoting Goethe. There was a politics to these citations. At issue here was Goethe’s vitalist point, from the heart of “European” culture, “that living must itself unfold.” This was contrary to Roger Caillois (also an object of enmity in the earlier Discourse) and others who “list…benefits” (132) of colonization. One might have “good intentions,” and yet: “there is not one bad colonization…and another…enlightened colonization…One has to take a side” (133).

On an earlier day of the conference Hubert Deschamps, a former colonial governor turned academic, had asked to say a few words from his chair. Inaudible, he had been allowed to ascend to the podium, and had then given a longer-than-expected ‘impromptu’ speech. Deschamps seems to have offered a limited defense of colonization on the basis of the ultimate historical good of the colonization “we French”—the Gauls—experienced by the Romans. Responding the next day Césaire plucked from his memory a pro-imperial Latin quatrain written in fifth century Gaul by Rutilius Namatianus, ending “Urbem fecisti quod prius orbis erat” (“thou hast made a city of what was erstwhile a world”). I pause over this performance of total cultural mastery for two reasons. First, this comparison of ancient and modern imperialism was more powerful for the French than one might think and second, Césaire was surprisingly ambivalent. He notes that both Deschamps and Namatianus come from the ruling group, so naturally see things positively. Of course like the modern French empire, Roman empire did mean the destruction of indigenous culture—and yet Césaire commented that “we may note in passing that the modern colonialist order has never inspired a poet” (134). It seems to me that Césaire was not without sympathy for the idea of the “Urbs,” but recognized its impossibility.

Culture cannot be “mixed [métisse]”, it is a harmony, a style (138). It develops—here Césaire is perhaps as Comtean as Nietzschean—in periods of “psychological unity…of communion” (139). The different origins, the hodgepodge, that results in anarchy is not a matter of physical origins, but of experience: in culture “the rule…is heterogeneity. But be careful: this heterogeneity is not lived as such. In the reality of a living civilization it is a matter of heterogeneity lived internally as homogeneity” (139). This cannot happen in colonialism. The result of the denial of freedom, of “the historical initiative” is that “the dialectic of need” cannot unfold in colonized countries. Quoting again from Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations, Césaire compares the result of colonialism for the colonized to Nietzsche’s “concept-quake caused by science” that “robs man of the foundation of all his rest and security” (140). Colonialism denies its victims the capacity to constitute from the people a collective subject capable of taking action on the stage of the world. From this failed subjectification, everything else flows. In colonized countries, culture is in a “tragic” position. Real culture has withered and dies or is dead. What remains is an artificial “subculture” condemned to marginal “elites” (Césaire puts the word in quotes), and in fact “vast territories of culturally empty zones…of cultural perversion or cultural by-products” (140).

What, Césaire asks, is to be done? This is the question presented by the “situation that we black men of culture must have the courage to face squarely” (140). Césaire rejects the summary choice between “indigenous” or “European”: “fidelity and backwardness, or progress and rupture” (141). This opposition must be overcome, Césaire maintains, through the dialectical action of a people. Césaire’s language itself contains the fidelity and rupture he will no longer accept as alternatives: “I believe that in the African culture yet to be born…” (141). There will be no general destruction of the symbols of the past, nor a blind imposition of what comes from Europe. “In our culture that is to be born…there will be old and new. Which new elements? Which old elements?…The answer can only be given by the community” (142). But if the individuals present before Césaire in Paris—including among other luminaries his former student Fanon and old friend Senghor, as well as Jean Price-Mars, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright—cannot say what the answer will be, “at least we can confirm here and now that it will be given and not verbally but by facts and in action” (142). Thus “our own role as black men of culture” is not to be the redeemer, but rather “to proclaim the coming and prepare the way” for “the people, our people, freed from their shackles” (142). The people is a “demiurge that alone can organize this chaos into a new synthesis…We are here to say and demand: Let the peoples speak. Let the black peoples come onto the great stage of history” (142).

Baldwin, listening to Césaire, was “stirred in a very strange and disagreeable way” (157). His assessment of Césaire is critical:

Césaire’s speech left out of account one of the great effects of the colonial experience: its creation, precisely, of men like himself. His real relation to the people who thronged about him now had been changed, by this experience, into something very different from what it once had been. What made him so attractive now was the fact that he, without having ceased to be one of them, yet seemed to move with the European authority. He had penetrated into the heart of the great wilderness which was Europe and stolen the sacred fire. And this, which was the promise of their freedom, was also the assurance of his power. (158)

Political subjectivity, popularly constructed, is the necessary ground for cultural life–this was Césaire’s conclusion. Baldwin was not wrong to see in Césaire’s performance a certain implied political and cultural elitism. Here we can usefully return to Césaire’s great poem, the Cahier d’un retour au pays natal.

A. James Arnold, editor of the new critical edition of Césaire’s writings, there argues that the 1939 first version of the poem is essentially a lyric account of individual subjectivity. Arnold further argues, and Christopher Miller sharply disagrees, that the first version of the poem is superior, that subsequent versions (in 1947 and 1956) warp the form of the original with socio-political encrustations. Gary Wilder, in the first of his pair of essential books, reads the poem in terms of voice and subjectivity, seeing in it ultimately a failure. What began as critique ends with “a decontextualized and existentialist account of unalienated identity and metaphysical arrival” (288). Looking at Césaire’s attention in 1956 to the poetry of empire, his evident sympathy even in the face of Deschamps’ condescension for the Urbs, impossible though it be in the modern world, we may read the poem differently. Taken together with, for instance, Césaire’s appreciation for and active dissemination of Charles Péguy’s mystical republican poetry in Tropiques, we might see the subjectivity the poem dramatizes as essentially collective, and its project as the activation, the uprising, of this collectivity. It seems to me that we can read the shape of the dilemmas that Césaire confronted in the 1956 talk–between elite and people, decision and growth, culture and civilization, nation and diaspora–at least partly as the pursuit even at this late date, of an impossible republicanism.

French Liberals and the Capacity for Citizenship

by guest contributor Gianna Englert

M.L. Bosredon, “L’urne et le fusil” (April 1848). A worker sets aside his weapon to engage in the act of voting—a faith that universal suffrage would mitigate violence. This was a claim that liberals rejected.

2017 has done a lot for the history of ideas. “Post-truth” politics, tyranny, nationalism, and the nature of executive power have pushed us to make sense of the present by appealing to the past. The history of political thought offers solid ground, a way to steady ourselves—not to venerate what has come before, but to use it to clarify or challenge our own ideas.

Debates surrounding citizenship also lend themselves to this approach. They return us to foundational political questions. They force us to ask who is in, who is out, and why.

These questions are not new, nor are they distinctly American. We can learn about them from a seemingly unlikely time and place: from liberal theorists in nineteenth-century France, who were similarly concerned to find solid ground. As Jeremy Jennings notes in his Revolution and the Republic, “the Revolution, and the Republic it produced, gave birth to a prolonged and immensely sophisticated debate about what it meant to be a member of a political community…. It was a debate about the very fundamentals of politics” (25). Democrats used the language of rights, primarily the right to vote. Liberals defended capacité (capacity) as that which preceded political rights. Capacity conferred the title to political participation—it defined who was and who was not a participant in the franchise. There was much at stake in this definition. Only a capable citizenry could overcome revolutionary passion by reason, and safeguard the freedoms and institutions that would ensure a stable nation.

The discourse of capacity drew criticism from liberalism’s nineteenth-century opponents and later scholars. French liberals have been criticized for espousing exclusionary politics that tied citizenship to wealth and social class. Yet this interpretation misrepresents their theory of citizenship. Capacity was actually an elastic, potentially expansive standard for political inclusion. The liberal definition of the citizen was similarly flexible, designed to evolve alongside changing social and economic conditions.

François Guizot (1787-1874)

The discourse of capacité originated with François Guizot (1787-1874), whose politics and personality have long been associated with the revolution of 1848. But his historical lectures, delivered from 1820-22 and again in 1828, offer an alternative to his image as unpopular, uncompromising politician. Prior his role in the July Monarchy, he was known for his narrative history of European institutions—praised by theorists in France, Germany, and even by John Stuart Mill in England. His method of “philosophical history” linked politics to society through the study of the past. Political institutions had to fit the given “social state,” a term that encompassed both economic and class structure. “Before becoming a cause,” Guizot wrote, “political institutions are an effect; society produces them before being modified by them” (Essays on the History of France, 83). Philosophical history was most valuable for how it informed French politics. From the perspective it provided, Guizot saw that neither aristocratic nor democratic rule was well suited to post-revolutionary French society. He championed the alternative of a representative government with capable rather than universal suffrage.

What did it mean to be capable? Guizot associated capacity with individual rationality, independence, and economic participation. Most importantly, the capable citizen could recognize and promote “the social interest,” a standard apart from the individual and the family. The citizen, a participant in the franchise, was first and foremost a member of the community, capable of recognizing what the public good demanded. Guizot named commercial participation among the signs of capacity, as it revealed one’s engagement—indeed, one’s membership—in society.

Those signs of capacity were also variable. Just as political institutions depended upon historically variable social conditions, so too did the requirements of citizenship change over time. Given capacity’s historical character, it was simply wrong to define the capable electorate as a permanently exclusive class. Capacity should remain ever open to “legal suspicion,” since:

The determination of the conditions of capacity and that of the external characteristics which reveal it, possess, by the very nature of things, no universal or permanent character. And not only is it unnecessary to endeavor to fix them, but the laws should oppose any unchangeable prescription regarding them. (History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe, 337)

But Guizot’s own political career was at odds with his theory. If we limit our study to his writings and speeches under the July Monarchy, the image of a dogmatic, inflexible thinker inevitably surfaces. In 1847, he condemned universal suffrage before the Chamber as a destructive force, “whose day would never come” (Speech of 26 March, Histoire Parliamentaire V, 383). Absent from Guizot’s later thought is any mention of the fluidity of capacity or of the potentially more inclusive electorate that might follow.

Guizot’s politics show the path liberalism took on the question of citizenship. Liberals tried to impede the progress of mass politics, and to restrict the franchise to a small, permanent class of the capable. Unsurprisingly, they failed.  In an effort to avoid the rule of the multitude, liberals proposed increasingly stringent residency and property requirements for suffrage, which at once disenfranchised and frustrated much of the population. In a democratizing society, liberals vainly stood astride history. But they also failed to live according to their own standards. They tried to preserve as static that which was intended, as Guizot first argued, to be elastic: the concept of capacity and the idea of the citizen. When liberals sacrificed their theoretical foundations to defend political power, they lost the battle for both.

Despite liberalism’s political limits, we should not dismiss the promise of its theory. In his historical discussion of capacity, Guizot separated citizenship from social class. Capacity was not an exclusive, permanent possession for certain persons or classes, but an evolving, potentially progressive standard for inclusion. If capacity was tied to history, extension of the franchise was possible and in some cases, necessary.

Can liberalism’s past help us make sense of the present? The tradition’s complicated history, marked by tension between theory and practice, offers both a rich vision of citizenship and a cautionary tale of political exclusion. Guizotian capacity would preclude exclusions based explicitly on ascriptive characteristics like race, ethnicity, and gender. But as Guizot’s practical politics revealed, “capacity” could also be co-opted to justify these kind of exclusions, or to import fixed standards for citizenship under the guise of so-called progressive appeals to rationality or independence. This is the darker side of any standard for inclusion, and we should be worried about the potential abuses associated with such standards. The political positions of nineteenth century liberals remind us of these darker possibilities, which persist under different forms even in present-day liberal democracies.

Still, capacity has advantages for thinking about liberal citizenship more broadly. Though French liberals most often addressed the right to vote, they also explored what made someone an informal member of the community, with ties to a given place, way of life, and common cause. And they urged that these informal elements of social membership distinguished the individual from the citizen, arguing that the law ought to track social realities rather than resist them—that citizenship was not just suffrage, but a set of practices and relationships that the law ought to recognize. This resonates with our contemporary experience. There are entire groups of people who are undoubtedly members of American communities without being citizens, who participate in society without benefit of the full complement of civil and political rights. Guizot’s thought shows that we need not invoke thick, idealized conceptions of participation to inform liberal democratic practice or its standards for inclusion. For all of its difficulties, the liberal discourse of capacity prompts us to reconsider what it means to be a member of a political community—a question that has not lost any urgency.

Gianna Englert is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Political Theory Project at Brown University. She holds a Ph.D. in Government from Georgetown University. Her current book manuscript, Industry and Inclusion: Citizenship in the French Liberal Tradition, explores the economic dimensions of citizenship and political membership in nineteenth-century French liberalism.

Cogito ergo sumus

by contributing editor Eric Brandom

As insipid slogans of dubious provenance go, “be the change you wish to see in the world” is not so bad. On a bumper sticker or the signature line of a well-meaning colleague’s email, it is presumably meant to inspire. If it registers at all, it manages only to scold. The idea is not a new one, although it is also not ancient. In any case it is unsurprising that moral reform of the self should seem a good place to begin at a moment when many people who have not recently or perhaps ever thought about how to organize themselves politically are trying to figure out how to do so. With that complex of problems in mind, in this post I look back at a particular document, published in France in 1892, which served as a manifesto of sorts for a durable program of moral, and ultimately political, action. The Union for Moral Action, renamed the Union for Truth in 1904 and extant until 1940, engaged in we might now describe as advocacy and agitation, but was above all a venue for clarifying discussion. It was founded in the context of concern with the disintegration of social bonds—the social question—and emerged strengthened in unity and purpose from the great trial by fire that was the Dreyfus Affair. Paul Desjardins, a young literary-critic-turned-reformer, was the animating spirit of the Union, which in the end was a locus of progressive activity: Dreyfusard, solidariste, and concerned about the political status of women.

Puvis de Chavannes, Scene from the Life of Saint Genevieve, patroness of Paris - Printed for the Union for Moral Action, 1898 (BnF)

Puvis de Chavannes, Scene from the Life of Saint Genevieve, patroness of Paris – Printed for the Union for Moral Action, 1898 (BnF)

My object here appeared as an unsigned text in a summer number of the Revue bleue, with the unassuming title “Simple notes for a program of union and action.” Desjardins signed a brief paragraph introducing the manifesto, suggesting that he had solicited it and hoping that some people, at least, would find their own ideas reflected therein. In fact Jules Lagneau, Desjardin’s philosophy teacher, wrote the text and it would later be reproduced under his name in the Union’s Bulletin.

The first person plural rules the “Simples notes,” which are divided into three sections: our spirit, our rule, our action. “The weakening…of the social bond” is both a cognitive and a moral problem, and therefore the spirit of the Union is reason. This is not individuating reason, but rather, “a principle of order, union, and sacrifice…the ability to pass beyond one’s self while affirming a higher law, the idea of which man finds within himself and only the reflection outside himself.” The group is open to all who have “practical faith” but especially to those “without positive faith…who believe that in man, the spirit must command and not serve, because it alone has in itself its end and meaning, and that life has no value except where spirit has marked it.” The Union, then, welcomes all for whom truth and certitude are something one does not arrive at once and for all, but that are sought constantly.

The Union will not simply be one of good will, but rather one in which a certain minimal agreement of principle is constantly shaped and refined through action: “We are the beginning of a society that expects progress only through determination and the rigor of its principle: we tend to realize unanimity, we do not pretend to start from it.” Fanaticism will be avoided by constantly testing in life one’s ideas, which become mere words when they cease to be “the expression in action of interior freedom [l’expression en acte de la liberté intérieure].” If we act in everyday life in a way consistent with this principle, then “it matters little who brings truth to light, who brings salvation… What deserves to be will be.” This is not irenic faith in progress. There is no easy convergence of good intentions here, but rather a Pascalianism, perhaps of the left, which valorizes “discipline” and “renouncement” and wishes to teach “the unavoidable necessity of suffering… to combat false optimism… [and] the faith in salvation through science alone and through material civilization, lying mask of civilization, [a] precarious external arrangement that cannot replace intimate agreement.” Above all, the immoral idea that “the goal of life is to freely enjoy” must be met with the counter-example of the Union itself, which must model, as we might say now, good and social behavior: “For the people is what we make it: its vices are our vices, looked upon, envied, imitated, and it is right if they come back to us in all their weight.” The union must therefore offer “résistance réfléchie” to popular fashion, and rely on moral authority rather than popularity. “We forbid ourselves irony,” and prefer “un gaieté sérieuse.” We will be, the manifesto declares, simply as we are, without false modesty, pedantry, or pride.

Through a “pure and active charity” the Union will “save l’esprit publique.” And this is not a metaphorical charity, but rather one that, by setting aside the desire to save, hopes to create “the material conditions for morality.” The Union understands that impersonal charity corrupts, but individual and direct interpersonal charity “will be the vehicle of love, the spark that wakes the flame… In true charity, the one who receives merges with the one who gives.” True charity allows the spirit to rise above the immediate “sensible” good, and carries the spirit “infinitely higher through the contagion of love.” Acting first of all on those who are closest to us—and this is the most difficult—we make them happy by “unburdening them of their egoism and putting our love in its place. To make one’s self loved by loving with a male love that is absolute will, which is to say sacrifice, and in this way to learn to love—this is everything.” And the circle of love will expand—along the rails laid down by the division of labor: “the chain of necessary service is the link forged by nature between hearts and the divine path of charity through which we enter into to the soul of the people.” Thus we will create “progressively, naturally, an inner society founded on love, peace, and true justice, within an exterior society founded on interest, competition, and legal justice.” Such an operation requires, first of all, self-abnegation from those who wish to bring it about. In the end, the only model available is a monastic and revolutionary one: “an active Union, a militant laïque Order of private and social duty, living kernel of the future society.”

Demonstration at the place Gambetta in Carmaux, (late 1895) (Archives de la ville de Blois)

Demonstration at the place Gambetta in Carmaux, (late 1895) (Archives de la ville de Blois)

Lagneau’s program is a remarkable one in several ways. It traces a circle from the idea of law as such to the instantiation of law in a quasi-monastic order that would effect change in society by disciplining itself—is this a pre- or an anti-sociological approach to social change? More, in as much as we have to do with a democratic movement here, it is a moral rather than a political one. François Chaubet, historian of the Union, identifies Lagneau’s frankly elitist position as spiritualist republicanism, although here it appears in idealist and not materialist form. Action and even articulation was indeed clarifying: Lagneau’s manifesto drove the future maréchal Lyautey out of the original group, but Lagneau would not follow Jean Jaurès to the workers at Carmaux, and so himself split from the Union when it resolved to support the strike there. Lagneau’s austere, aristocratic, and mystical project for moral action can speak directly to us only in fragments—reduced, that is, to decontextualized quotations like the one with which I began. It is certainly possible to read Lagneau’s manifesto as an example of intense desire—visible in so many places at that moment, and perhaps our own—to be a subject, rather than object of history. Yet I think we can better read it as a usefully wrong answer to questions that are still asked today. There is an unmistakable urgency in his prose, and the moral urgency of truth as an ongoing collective project, grounded in collective action, is surely one we still feel.

Croce between Hughes & White

by contributing editor Eric Brandom

The AHA met in Denver this past weekend. What follows is not a conference report, although there was much worthy of that. It is, rather, a response of sorts to two of the events I attended there in the form of a reflection on two classic works of intellectual history—H. Stuart Hughes’s Consciousness and Society and Hayden White’s Metahistory—that were discussed at these events. The very different books both assign great importance to Benedetto Croce, and treat him at some length as part of a much broader argument.

The problem of objectivity in social science occupies the heart of Hughes’s 1958 Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930. The book is rich, wide-ranging, and combines durable typologizing with uncommon subtlety. The narrative runs something as follows. In the middle of the 19th century, positivism reigned supreme, and positivists were certain that the social world could be known and perhaps even acted upon just as could the natural world. Such knowledge turned out to be at once elusive and unsatisfying. In the later part of the century, many thinkers in parallel staged a “revolt against positivism.” The positivism they attacked was often a caricature. For Hughes, the most enduring thinkers to emerge from this moment were those that felt deeply within themselves the pathos of the age, the wrenching pain of relativism, but also remained faithful to the core rationalist project of Enlightenment that had issued in the now-bankrupt positivism. Many proved to be all too willing to give up the egalitarian and democratic bent of the Enlightenment mindset when its notion of science proved unequal to social reality. Hughes’s story is partly one of the generation of 1890, but also of the encounter of this generation with the war in 1914, and the shards of what had come before that survived into the 1920s. This generation, Hughes writes,

had passed their youth at the climax of the Enlightenment—and simultaneously had inaugurated its most probing critique…their own psychological security—their confidence in such unstated assumptions as humane behavior and intellectual integrity—had given them the inner strength to inaugurate an unprecedented examination of conscience…The philosophies of urbane doubt—skepticism, pragmatism, pluralism—held no terrors for them (Hughes 426).

Their younger brothers (and here we indeed are speaking entirely about men) did seem to be terrified of these things, and Hughes identifies his period as one of experimentation and permissiveness between two ages of dogmatism.

Hughes identifies three figures as the geniuses of the age: Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, and Benedetto Croce. He explicitly writes about the problems and the figures he does because they have relevance in his own time, because the United States in the 1950s had not lost the orientation in social thought then established. Although Hughes doesn’t put it quite this way, as I read him, he believes that Weber more than anyone else posed rightly the central problems of value and objectivity and so provides a sort of standard—and leads into midcentury American social science; that Freud probed more deeply into the individual human psyche than ever before and is therefore an indispensable methodological tool, for instance for understanding Weber’s personality; and that Croce, who first formulated what Hughes takes to be the social science objections to Marxism, provides essential orientation for the historian in pursuing historical work.

Croce’s career can be schematized in terms of his three best-known slogans or positions: first, that history is to be subsumed under the category of art; second that all history is contemporary history; third that history is the story of liberty. This last is the title given in English translation to his 1938 La storia come pensiero e come azione, in which he defends what he describes as “absolute historicism.” Each of these slogans has a certain initial appeal. Yet Hughes’ description of the experience of reading Croce rings true:

Croce’s prose is limpid; it has the rare charm of sounding like the voice of common sense…With irresistible persuasiveness Croce carries his readers along with him. As we come to the end of a chapter we are both captivated and convinced. But when we subject the same pages to more careful analytical scrutiny, we find ourselves no longer so sure…we are driven to ask ourselves in despair: exactly what has Croce said anyway? (Hughes 223)

Indeed for Hughes the problem with Croce was that perhaps just because he in the end assimilated everything into the category of history, he never successfully came to terms with the non-rational character of value. Thus, “the ultimate irony of Croce’s thinking” is that “what starts as a rationalist theory terminates in a kind of mysticism” (Hughes 227). Hughes indicts Croce finally for a certain detachment, what has often been describes as an Olympian equanimity, “in brief, he lacked a sense of tragedy” (Hughes 229).

Irony and tragedy are key terms in White’s Metahistory, which appeared just 15 years after Hughes’ book. White uses the tools of structuralist literary criticism to examine what he calls the “deep structure” of the 19th century European historical imagination. The introduction establishes a system of interpretive categories: master rhetorical tropes, narrative or emplotment, explanatory or argumentative strategies, and modes of ideological implication. Just as, for Hughes, the truly enduring thinkers are those who struggled mightily with a deep contradiction, so for White those texts that remain alive to us are the result of internal struggle. Together with the centrality of rhetorical categories, White has taken on a theory of literary excellence: the best works struggle to synthesize incompatible modes. We as readers may continue to return to Michelet, but not to Ranke: “we admire the achievement of the latter, but we respond directly and sympathetically to the agon of the former” (White 191). White describes the larger goal of his book as an overcoming, through Irony, of the Ironic mode that is the origin of “the skepticism and pessimism of so much of contemporary historical thinking.” In so doing, “the way will have been partially cleared for the reconstitution of history as a form of intellectual activity which is at once poetic, scientific, and philosophical in its concerns—as it was during history’s golden age in the nineteenth century” (White xii).

The final chapter is on Benedetto Croce, regarded by White as “the most talented historian of all the philosophers of history of the century” (White 378). The first pages of the chapter recapitulate the path so far. After Nietzsche, “it remained only for a philosopher of history to reflect on this severed condition of historical consciousness and to conclude that historical knowledge itself was nothing but the existential projection of the Ironic mode to complete the cycle of possible historical attitudes in the philosophy of history…The problem would then be: how could one live with a history explained and emplotted in the Ironic mode without falling into that condition of despair which Nietzsche had warded off only by a retreat into irrationalism?” (White 378). Thus White must end with Croce because the task he believes Croce to have shouldered was just the one that White sees himself as taking up.

And Croce evidently failed. Looking over the first major phase of Croce’s work, from the 1893 programmatic essay reducing history to a subcategory of art, then the tetralogy of books from 1902-1917 making up his “Philosophy of Spirit,” White notes the central place occupied by history as a category. White goes on to object that “Croce consistently presupposed the absolute adequacy of his own “Philosophy of Spirit” for the spiritual needs of his age,” and that “he looked out at contending systems and back to preceding ones with that same Ironic gaze which the great cynics have shared with the great fanatics.” In short, Croce could not regard himself with ironic detachment (White 379). Despite his claims to have constituted “ethico-political” history, “in aestheticizing history, Croce de-ethicized it” (White 401).

White’s final judgment on Croce is withering. Croce’s liberalism, indeed his whole system of philosophy and history “was a sublimate of his generation’s awareness of the passing of an age, the Age of Europe, of humanism, and of that combination of aristocratic and bourgeois values which gave to the ruling groups of nineteenth-century Europe their distinctive life style” (White 423). History as contemporary history indeed. If White’s approach is narratological, it has frequently been pointed out that his chapters are nonetheless biographical. The chapter on Croce is no exception, indeed in the end the facts of Croce’s biography are adduced as evidence (not, White says, that more is needed) to show in good Marxist fashion that his work derives from his class position. White finds “the social equivalents of Croce’s main abstract philosophical categories: the principle of Life was nothing but a sublimation of aristocratic heroism; that of Death was nothing more than the bourgeois acceptance of practical exigency. The interplay of the two constituted Croce’s conception of culture, and the story of that interplay was his idea of history” (White 425)

The gambit of Metahistory, of course, is also to aestheticize history. White does not want to repeat Croce in emptying it of ethical content, if indeed we agree with him that this is what Croce did, and one can surely argue about his conduct under fascism. Rather, by being yet more self-conscious than Croce, White wants to pull the teeth of Irony itself and with liberatory intent:

Historians and philosophers of history will then be freed to conceptualize history, to perceive its contents, and to construct narrative accounts of its processes in whatever modality of consciousness is most consistent with their own moral and aesthetic aspirations. And historical consciousness will stand open to the re-establishment of its links with the great poetic, scientific, and philosophical concerns which inspired the classic practitioners and theorists of its golden age in the nineteenth century (White 434).

Hughes’s criticisms of Croce may be turned on White’s own attempt to overcome Croce. Like Croce his vision of what the writing of history might be seems impossibly encompassing. Beginning with art, White brackets the objectivity that so concerned Hughes and ends in historiography as freedom. White sets out with a rational formalist (although not a formist) account of historical thought and his book issues if not exactly in mysticism, in a therapeutic for historians.