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In another area, however, the cult of great men resists such generalization: the attitudes it embodied towards French history and memory. Heince, Bignon, and Vulson, following Richelieu in his gallery, had presented only 25 great men. But Perrault, in , chose an even hundred. His immediate successors fell back from this mark, limiting themselves to 30 or 40 each. The authors of the collective biographies, on the other hand, felt a con- National Memory and the Canon of Great Frenchmen stant pressure to innovate and to discover new great men to honor. They were authors competing in a commercial marketplace, who had to convince their readers that they had something novel to offer, something not found in previous collections.
Morvan clearly based his Les vies de plusieurs hommes illustres on Heince, Bignon, and Vulson—to put it more plainly, he shamelessly pirated them. Nonetheless, he strove to make his book look as different as possible from its predecessor. These Works are, for the most part, The Cult of the Nation in France nothing more than very short, badly written eulogies, long Genealogies, or cold Panegyrics, or tissues of lies, dictated by private interest, fear or baseness. I have cleared new and uncultivated land.
The collective biographies clearly belonged, then, to the dynamic commercial publishing sector of the French economy. Even more directly than the histories and pamphlets discussed in the previous two chapters, these books represented, in the visions of France they put before the public, a response to commercial and political stimuli alike.
If commercial pressures helped expand the canon, however, they did not, in and of themselves, dictate where to look for new examples of greatness. They chose overwhelmingly from the ranks of kings, queens, and noble military men roughly two-thirds in Sergent, National Memory and the Canon of Great Frenchmen [To view this image, refer to the print version of this title. The philosophes would have labeled these men and women illustrious, not great.
The other 26 came primarily from the world of learning, literature, and the professions, and included not only painters and playwrights, but doctors, jurists, novelists, architects, and astronomers. Even so, in each case more than two-thirds of the total came from outside the ranks of kings, statesmen, and soldiers, and more than two-thirds had died within the past century.
Manuel included architects, bankers, merchants, and even a few artisans. As we have seen, he also devoted several pages to that emblematic martyr of the modern French nation, Jumonville. In short, whereas the cult of great men as a whole amounted to a public project of nation-forming within the symbolic space vacated by the retreat of organized religion, it nonetheless took two very different forms.
For the biographers, it was a project that implicitly arose from within the public as a whole—not the entire population, to be sure, but the learned, largely middle-class public represented in their pages. In a sense, their work amounted less to a cult of great men, than to a cult of the public itself. The successive authorities held up great lives as examples to the citizenry, from boy martyrs cut down in battle against counter-revolutionaries to assassinated leaders like Marat and Le Pelletier de Saint-Fargeau.
The Pantheon, Paris. Five issues of the paper appeared before the fall of Robespierre in , with print runs ranging from 80, to a spectacular , But the book vanished without a trace. This was the case with Mirabeau and also Marat. In sum, most of the cult of great men under the old regime, despite its distinct republican accents, remained constrained within a tradition which saw the nation embodied in the king, those who served him, and those whom he designated. The collective biographies, however, looked ahead to a revolutionary vision in which the nation was embodied, potentially, in every citizen; in which every citizen partook, potentially, of its sacred qualities.
The Cult of the Nation in France National Character and the Republican Imagination CHAPTER 5 National Character and the Republican Imagination If there were in the world a nation which had a sociable humor, an openness of heart, a joy in life, a taste, an ease in communicating its thoughts; which was lively, pleasant, playful, sometimes imprudent, often indiscreet; and which had with all that, courage, generosity, frankness, and a certain point of honor, one should avoid disturbing its manners by laws, in order not to disturb its virtues.
If the character is generally good, what difference do a few faults make? This obstacle is habit. The great ambition of the Frenchman in all classes other than the one I have just mentioned is to behave in a noble, easy-going way. That is to say, it was based on a strict compartmentalization of attitudes, with admiration for the ancients kept separate from acceptance of Christian monarchy in France. The republicanism that emerged during the last decades of the old regime and triumphed during the Revolution therefore saw no more fundamental task than changing the national character.
These issues lay at the very heart of the discussion of nation-building that began in France at the end of the old regime. Here, the issue of national character did not arise directly. These efforts were, in theory, wholly secular, representing the logical culmination of attempts to reshape the terrestrial order without reference to the dictates of God or a divinely-ordained king. But the means which republican reformers adopted again reveals how deeply indebted they remained, in their project of building a nation, to the older, Catholic project of rebuilding the Church.
National Character Investigated It hardly needs saying that national stereotypes, usually based on the attribution of exaggerated individual characteristics to an entire people, long predate the eighteenth century and remain ubiquitous in our own day.
They may or may not have a basis in fact, but they have certainly provided a simple and comforting way for people to come to terms with the array of human diversity. The authors wrote for different purposes and in wildly varying styles. Nonetheless, they generally saw national character determined by three broad factors: climate, political action, and historical evolution.
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But in any case, most authors elided the problem altogether by straightforwardly associating the true national character with a particular slice of the population. And on this subject, if he did not exactly create a piece of conventional wisdom, he certainly helped to popularize it.
For his ideal legislators fought against a powerful enemy: time itself, which slowly and insidiously leeched virtue away and infected the healthiest body politic with the bacillus of self-interest. Other authors, however, treated time far more favorably. They discerned in the history of the world a slow, irregular, but nonetheless visible evolution from savagery to civilization. For them, the character of a nation therefore depended in large part on how far it had scaled this chronological ladder. Thus are the days from morning to night, the years in their solar revolution, the life of man from cradle to tomb, and that of states from their foundation to their fall.
While bemoaning the capacity of stupidity, greed, intolerance, and sheer accident to block or even reverse progress, he nonetheless concluded that European nations, at least, had overall moved in the proper direction. They were not always consistent, to say the least. Certain authors were consistently critical, and it was they who shaped the emerging republican critique of French national character. On this score it seems to me that a Frenchman is more human than anyone else. Laughter, he wrote, is the distinctive quality of the French nation.
But this lightness, this frivolity is the source of our amusements and our pleasures; it is to delicacy and even gallantry that we owe our happiness, they are virtues for us. It was a commonplace to remark, as Voltaire did, that the French were not simply polite, but the most polite, as well as the most sociable of nations. France, possessed as it was of a perfectly temperate climate, had succeeded, so it was claimed, in avoiding the solitude, seriousness, and moroseness of northern peoples, and the weakness, indolence, and debauchery of southern ones.
Thus the same traits that foreigners associated with the French in general, the French themselves associated particularly with the royal court and the high aristocracy. They agreed with Montesquieu that trying to alter it might prove dangerous. More observers adopted a caustic, Rousseauian view of history, held up the ideal of the patrie over that of civilization, and started to think of impaired national virility as an urgent problem in need of a solution.
We are no longer as robust, as strong, as the ancient Gauls from whom we descend. But would such a reform necessarily entail wiping the slate clean and imprinting an entirely new character on the population? Republican-minded critics of the national character were hardly original in their call for a return to an idealized past.
From a different angle, noble and parlementaire opponents of the crown under the old regime did very little other than assert the claims of the distant past upon the present.
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In contrast, the later republican texts increasingly eschewed any consideration of an ancient French constitution which, no matter how favorably presented, still could not match up to the Roman republican one. They preferred more historically vague, although often lushly evocative, invocations of the earlier, unspoiled national personality. Republican critics of the national character in the s and s most often located it either in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance. The earlier era had experienced something of a vogue in the late eighteenth century, spurred in particular by the meticulous historical researches of La Curne de Sainte-Palaye, which fed a colorful, proto-Romantic celebration of chivalry and the Troubadours.
O forever lamented days! Egoism, that poison which destroys all sensitivity, had not yet attacked the patrie, society, nature itself. In those days the Nation had a character that was simple, and, if I dare say so, poetic and full of grandeur. For in French iconography the mighty Hercules had a particular association with the Gauls, whom he had brought out of barbarism. Break your chains! Yet how could a fatally sick and corrupt nation possibly accomplish such an act of revival?
By it had become commonplace to take images of indolence and corruption to an extreme, with France described as a nation on its deathbed. Many authors therefore implied that it could only rise up again through a sort of miracle, similar to cures brought about by saints, or even the resurrection of Jesus. The popular concept of regeneration perfectly expressed this belief. Certain authors went even further, however, and couched images of national recovery in language taken blatantly from the Gospels. Priests favorable to the Revolution, not surprisingly, used such language with particular fervor and frequency.
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But the religious language nonetheless suggests that when it came to addressing the problem of how a nation and its national character might actually be transformed, French republicans still instinctively reached for religious models. Man and Citizen While the idea of recovering an earlier, more authentic, and more natural national character may have prevailed under the old regime and the start of the Revolution, it was not the only form that the republican critique took. Particularly during the Terror, another, more radical approach to the subject of national character also took shape: instead of a return to nature and an original French national character, the call went out for a complete and utter break with both.
Under the old regime, Christian writers generally tried to deny the opposition, lest it lead to the Machiavellian conclusion that a good Christian could not be a good citizen of the patrie. Their love for it has dried them up entirely. National Character and the Republican Imagination Indeed, it underlies much of his work.
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His Discourse on the Origins of Inequality famously portrayed man in the state of nature and in the intermediary stage of contented savagery, before concluding that in modern times the insidious enticements of amour propre had led humans fatally astray, with the only salvation lying in the adoption of a new, wholly civic nature. The Social Contract then continued the story, suggesting how this new nature might be created through politics. He admitted, however, that a man sheltered in this manner would not grow up into a dutiful patriotic citizen.
How else could they have named the single most important document of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen? Patriotism is the continual practice of all the political virtues.
What is Patriotism? Patriotism is the forgetting of the man, to be nothing other than The Cult of the Nation in France a citizen [my emphasis]. In the heart of the true Patriot, personal interest constantly cedes to the general interest. Patriotism is the total abnegation of all feelings which are not directed towards the happiness of the City. You are the creators of a new world.
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Say let there be light, and light will be. Thus Danton could famously tell the Convention that children belong to the Republic before belonging to their parents, and the legislator Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau could propose in a plan endorsed by Robespierre to remove all French children from their families and send them to state-run boarding schools for periods of six years or National Character and the Republican Imagination longer. The painting brilliantly contrasted the still, unfeeling Brutus, staring straight ahead without visible emotion on one side of the tableau, to his wife and daughters weeping hysterically on the other.
Under the Terror, revolutionary theater repeatedly returned to such themes, with a series of plays celebrating the same sort of chillingly stern and unforgiving heroes, drawn mostly from the history of republican Rome.