Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER X: Of the Influence of Arbitrary Power on the Spirit and Character of a Nation. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER X: Of the Influence of Arbitrary Power on the Spirit and Character of a Nation. - Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, newly revised translation of the 1818 English edition, edited, with an introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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Of the Influence of Arbitrary Power on the Spirit and Character of a Nation.
Frederic II, Maria Theresa, and Catherine II inspired so just an admiration by their talents for governing that it is very natural, in the countries where their memory still lives and their system is strictly followed, that the public should feel, less than in France, the necessity of a representative government. On the other hand, the regent and Louis XV gave in the last century the saddest example of all the misfortunes, of all the degradations attached to arbitrary power. We repeat then that we have here only France in view; and she must not suffer herself, after twenty-seven years of revolution, to be deprived of the advantages she has reaped and be made to bear the double dishonor of being conquered at home and abroad.
The partisans of arbitrary power quote the reigns of Augustus in ancient history, of Elizabeth and of Louis XIV in modern times, as a proof that absolute monarchy can at least be favorable to the progress of literature. Literature in the time of Augustus was little more than a liberal art, foreign to political interests. Under Elizabeth, religious reform stimulated the mind to every kind of development; and the government was the more favorable to it as its strength lay in the very establishment of that reform. The literary progress of France under Louis XIV was caused, as we have already mentioned in the beginning of this work, by the display of intellect called forth by the civil wars. That progress led to the literature of the eighteenth century; and so far is it from being right to attribute to the government of Louis XIV the masterpieces of human intellect that appeared in that age, we must rather consider them almost all as attacks on that government. Despotism, then, if it well understands its interest, will not encourage literature, for literature leads men to think, and thought passes sentence on despotism. Bonaparte directed the public mind toward military success; he was perfectly right according to his object: there are but two kinds of auxiliaries for absolute power, the priests and the soldiers. But are there not, it is said, enlightened despotisms, moderate despotisms? None of these epithets, by which people flatter themselves they will produce an illusion in regard to the word to which they are appended, can mislead men of good sense. In a country like France, you must destroy knowledge if you wish the principles of liberty not to revive. During the reign of Bonaparte and subsequently, a third method has been adopted: it was to make the press instrumental to the oppression of liberty by permitting the use of it only to certain writers enjoined to comment on every error with the more assurance that it was forbidden to reply to them. This is consecrating the art of writing to the destruction of thought, and publicity itself to darkness; but deception of this kind cannot long continue. When government wishes to command without law, its support must be sought in force, not in arguments; for though it be forbidden to refute them, the palpable falsehood of these arguments suggests a wish to combat them; and to silence men effectually, the best plan is not to speak to them.
It would certainly be unjust not to acknowledge that various sovereigns in possession of arbitrary power have known how to use it with discretion; but is it on a chance that the lot of nations should be staked? I shall here quote an expression of the Emperor Alexander which seems to me worthy of being consecrated. I had the honor of seeing him at Petersburg at the most remarkable moment of his life, when the French were advancing on Moscow, and when, by refusing the peace which Bonaparte offered as soon as he thought himself the victor, Alexander triumphed over his enemy more dextrously than his generals did afterward. “You are not ignorant,” said the Emperor of Russia to me, “that the Russian peasants are slaves. I do what I can to improve their situation gradually in my dominions; but I meet elsewhere with obstacles which the tranquillity of the empire enjoins me to treat with caution.” “Sire,” I answered, “I know that Russia is at present happy, although she has no other constitution than the personal character of your Majesty.” “Even if the compliment you pay me were true,” replied the Emperor, “I should be nothing more than a fortunate accident.” Finer expressions could not, I think, have been pronounced by a monarch whose situation could blind him in regard to the condition of men. Not only does arbitrary power deliver nations to the chances of hereditary succession; but the most enlightened kings, if they are absolute, could not, if they would, encourage in their nation strength and dignity of character. God and the law alone can command man in the tone of a master without degrading him.
Do people figure to themselves how ministers such as Lord Chatham, Mr. Pitt, Mr. Fox would have been supported by the princes who appointed Cardinal Dubois or Cardinal Fleury?1 The great men in French history, the Guises, Coligny, Henri IV, were formed in times of trouble because those troubles, in other respects disastrous, prevented the stifling action of despotism and gave a great importance to certain individuals. But in England only is political life so regularly constituted that genius and greatness of soul can arise and show themselves without agitating the state.
From Louis XIV to Louis XVI half a century elapsed: a true model of what is called arbitrary government when people wish to represent it in its mildest colors. There was not tyranny, because the means to establish it were wanting; but it was only through the disorder of injustice that any liberty could be secretly acquired. He who wished to become of any account or to succeed in any business was obliged to study the intrigue of courts, the most miserable science that ever degraded mankind. There is there no question either of talents or virtues; for never would a superior man have the kind of patience necessary to please a monarch educated in the habits of absolute power. Princes thus formed are so persuaded that it is always personal interest which suggests what is told to them, that it must be without their consciousness that one can have influence over them. Now, for this kind of success, to be always on the spot is better than the possession of every possible talent. Princes stand in the same relation to courtiers as we to our servants: we should be offended if they gave us advice, if they spoke to us in an urgent tone, even on our own interests; but we are displeased to see them put on a discontented look, and a few words addressed to us at an appropriate moment, a few flatteries which would appear to fall accidentally from them, would completely govern us if our equals, whom we meet on leaving our house, did not teach us what we are. Princes, having to do only with servants of good taste, who insinuate themselves more easily into their favor than our attendants into ours, live and die without ever having an idea of the real state of things. But courtiers, though they study the character of their master with a good deal of sagacity, do not acquire any real information even as to the knowledge of the human heart, at least that knowledge that is necessary to direct nations. A king should make it a rule to take as prime minister a man displeasing to him as a courtier; for never can a superior mind bend itself to the exact point necessary to captivate those to whom incense is offered. A certain tact, half common, half refined, serves to make one’s way at court: eloquence, reasoning, all the transcendent faculties of the mind and soul would offend like rebellion or would be overpowered with ridicule. “What unsuitable discourse; what ambitious projects!” would say the one; “What does he wish; what does he mean!” would say the other; and the prince would participate in the astonishment of his court. The atmosphere of etiquette operates eventually on everybody to such a degree that I know no one sufficiently bold to articulate a significant word in the circle of princes who have remained shut up in their courts. The conversations must be unavoidably confined to the fine weather, to the chase, to what they drank yesterday, to what they will eat tomorrow; finally, to all sorts of things that have neither meaning nor interest for anybody. What a school is this for the mind, and for the character! What a sad spectacle is an old courtier who has passed many years in the habits of stifling all his feelings, dissembling his opinions, waiting the breath of a prince that he may respire, and his signal that he may move! Such men, at last, destroy the finest of all sentiments, respect for old age, when they are seen, bent by the habit of bowing, wrinkled by false smiles, pale more from boredom than from years, and standing for hours together on their trembling legs in those antechambers where to sit down at the age of eighty would seem almost a revolt.
One prefers, in this career, the young men, giddy and foppish, who can boldly display flattery toward their masters, arrogance toward their inferiors, and who despise the part of mankind which is above as well as that which is below them. They proceed thus, trusting only to their own merit until some loss of favor awaken them from the fascination of folly and of wit together; for a mixture of the two is necessary to succeed in the intrigues of courts. Now, in France, from rank to rank, there have always been courts, that is, houses, in which was distributed a certain quantity of favor for the use of those who aimed at money and place. The flatterers of power, from the clerks to the chamberlains, have adopted that flexibility of language, that facility of saying everything, as of concealing everything, that cutting tone in the style of decision, that condescension for the fashion of the day as for a great authority which has given rise to the levity of which the French are accused; and yet this levity is found only in the swarm of men who buzz around power. This levity they must have to change their party readily; they must have it not to enter thoroughly into any study, for otherwise it would cost them too much to say the contrary of what they would have seriously learned; by ignoring many things, one affirms everything more easily. In short, they must have this levity to lavish, from democracy down to legitimacy, from the republic down to military despotism, all the phrases most opposite in point of meaning, but which still bear a resemblance to each other, like persons of the same family, equally superficial, disdainful, and calculated never to present but one side of a question in opposition to that which circumstances have rendered common. The artifices of intrigue at this time intermeddling with literature as with everything else, there is no possibility for a poor Frenchman who reads to learn anything else than that which it is expedient to say, not that which really is. In the eighteenth century, on the contrary, men in power had no apprehension of the influence of writings on public opinion, and they left literature almost as undisturbed as the physical sciences still are at this day. The great writers have all combated, with more or less reserve, the different institutions founded on prejudices. But what was the result of this conflict? That the institutions were vanquished. One might apply to the reign of Louis XV, and to the kind of happiness found under it, the saying of the man who was falling from the third story of a house: “This is very pleasant, if it would but last.”
Representative governments, it will still be objected to me, have not existed in Germany, and yet learning has made immense progress there. Nothing has less resemblance than Germany and France.2 There is a methodical spirit in the German governments which much diminishes the irregular ascendancy of courts. No coteries, no mistresses, no favorites, nor even ministers who can change the order of things are to be found there. Literature proceeds without flattering anyone; the rectitude of character and the abstract nature of studies are such that even in the time of civil troubles, it would be impossible to compel a German writer to play those strange tricks which have justly led to the remark that, in France, paper suffers everything, so much is required of it. You acknowledge then, I shall be told, that the French character has invincible defects which are hostile to the knowledge, as well as to the virtues, without which liberty cannot exist? By no means; I say that an arbitrary, fluctuating, capricious, and unstable government, full of prejudice and superstition in some respects, and of frivolity and immorality in others, that this government, such as it existed once in France, had left knowledge, intellect, and energy only to its adversaries. And, if it be impossible that such an order of things should be in accordance with the progress of knowledge, it is still more certain that it is irreconcilable with purity of morals and dignity of character. We already perceive that, notwithstanding the misfortunes of France, marriage is far more respected since the Revolution than it was under the old system. Now, marriage is the support of morals and of liberty. How should women have confined themselves to domestic life under an arbitrary government and not have employed all their seductive means to influence power? They were certainly not animated by an enthusiasm for general ideas, but by the desire of obtaining places for their friends; and nothing was more natural in a country where men in favor could do everything, where they disposed of the revenues of the state, where they were stopped by nothing but the will of the King, necessarily modified by the intrigues of those by whom he was surrounded. How should any scruple have been felt to employ the credit of women who were in favor to obtain from a minister any exception whatever to a rule that did not exist? Can it be believed that Madame de Montespan under Louis XIV, or Madame du Barry under Louis XV, ever received a refusal from ministers?3 And without approaching so near the throne, where was the circle upon which favor did not act as at court, and where everyone did not employ all possible means to achieve one’s purpose? In a nation, on the contrary, regulated by law, what woman would have the useless effrontery to solicit what was unfair or rely more on her entreaties than on the real claims of those whom she recommended? Corruption of morals is not the only result of those continual solicitations, of that activity of intrigue of which French women, particularly those of the first class, have but too frequently set the example; the passions of which they are susceptible, and which the delicacy of their organs renders more lively, disfigure in them all that is amiable in their sex.
It is in free countries only that the true character of a woman and the true character of a man can be known and admired. Domestic life inspires all the virtues in women; and the political career, far from habituating men to despise morality as an old tale of the nursery, stimulates those who hold public functions to the sacrifice of their personal interests, to the dignity of honor, and to all that greatness of soul which the habitual presence of public opinion never fails to call forth. Finally, in a country where women are at the bottom of every intrigue, because favor governs everything, the morals of the first class have nothing in common with those of the nation, and no sympathy can exist between the persons who fill the salons and the bulk of the people. A woman of the lowest order in England feels that she has some kind of analogy with the Queen, who has also taken care of her husband and brought up her children in the way that religion and morality enjoin to every wife and mother. But the morals to which arbitrary government leads transform women into a sort of third factitious sex, the sad production of a depraved social order. Women, however, may be excusable for taking political matters as they are and for finding pleasure in those lively interests from which they seem separated by their natural destiny. But what are men who are brought up under arbitrary government? We have seen some of them amidst the Jacobins, under Bonaparte, and in foreign camps—everywhere except in the incorruptible band of the friends of liberty. They take their stand on the excesses of the Revolution to proclaim despotism; and twenty-five years are opposed to the history of the world, which displays nothing but the horrors committed by superstition and tyranny. To believe in the good faith of these partisans of arbitrary power, we must suppose that they have never read what preceded the era of the French Revolution; and we know some who may well found their justification on their ignorance.
Our Revolution, as we have already stated, almost followed the different phases of that of England, with the same regularity which the crises of a similar malady present. But the question which now agitates the civilized world consists in the application of all the fundamental truths upon which social order rests. The greed of power has led men to commit all the crimes which sully history; fanaticism has seconded tyranny; hypocrisy, violence, fraud, and the sword have enchained, deceived, and devastated the human race. Two periods alone have illumined the globe: the history of some centuries of Greece and Rome. Slavery, by limiting the number of citizens, allowed the republican government to be established even in extensive countries, and thence resulted the greatest virtues. Christianity, by liberating slaves and by civilizing the rest of Europe, has since conferred on individual existence a good which is the source of all others. But despotism, that disorder within order, has all along maintained itself in several countries; and all the pages of our history have been stained, either by religious massacres or judiciary murders. Suddenly Providence permitted England to solve the problem of constitutional monarchies; and America, a century later, that of federal republics. Since this period, not one drop of blood has been shed unjustly by tribunals in either of these countries. For sixty years past religious quarrels have ceased in England, and they never existed in America. The venom of power, which has corrupted so many men during so many ages, has undergone at last, by representative governments, a salutary innoculation, which has destroyed all its malignity. Since the battle of Culloden, in 1746, which may be considered the close of the civil troubles that commenced a hundred years before, not one abuse of power can be cited in England. There exists not one worthy citizen who has not said, “Our happy constitution,” because there exists no one who has not felt its protection. This chimera, for such whatever is sublime has always been called, stands there realized before our eyes. What feeling, what prejudice, what hardness of mind or heart can prompt us, in recalling what we have read in our history, not to prefer the sixty years of which England has given us an example? Our kings, like those of England, have been alternately good and bad; but their reign presents at no time sixty years of internal peace and liberty together. Nothing equal to it has even been thought possible in any other epoch. Power is the protector of order; but it is also its enemy by the passions which it excites: regulate its exercise by public liberty, and you will have banished that contempt for mankind which exempts all vices from restraint and justifies the art of profiting by them.
[1. ] Cardinal Dubois (1656–1723) and Cardinal Fleury (1653–1743) were prominent French statesmen during the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV.
[2. ] This point is developed in Madame de Staël’s On Germany.
[3. ] The Marquise de Montespan (1640–1707) and the Countess du Barry (1743–93) were the mistresses of Louis XIV and Louis XV, respectively.