Liberty Matters

A Genealogy of Staël’s Political Concepts


I welcome the opportunity to share my reactions to Professor Aurelian Craiutu's timely paper on Germaine de Staël's enthusiasticdefense of moderation – a paradox he has illuminated thanks to his thoughtful comments on Staël's political vocabulary. Craiutu's paper has done a masterful job at analyzing three passions–fanaticism, the spirit of party, and enthusiasm–whose destructive power Staël witnessed firsthand during the Revolutionary period, and I am grateful for his insights on the reasons why she holds an uncertain place in the liberal canon. I certainly agree with Craiutu's chief explanation: if Staël rarely appears in textbooks and histories of political thought, it is certainly due to the widespread suspicion against political moderates. Craiutu himself has done much to advance our understanding of political moderation and reminds us, in this paper and in previous books as well, of two of the most frequent criticisms against moderates: cowardice and hypocrisy.[64] Indeed, moderates are regularly suspected of being too timid to fight for their own convictions--when they are not accused of lacking convictions altogether. Moderates, seen this way, suffer from a moral flaw, while their tendency to make compromises goes hand in hand (or so it seems to their adversaries) with irresoluteness. Hypocrisy is another reproach frequently formulated against them, as if their willingness to accept contradiction is nothing but a way of advancing a personal agenda behind a deceiving mask of tolerance: larvatus prodeo (I go forward bewitched) is the motto of all moderates, at least if we are to believe their opponents. Seen in this light, Staël's stance on political moderation would explain the relative oblivion to which her political work has succumbed. 
Nonetheless, I would argue that a suggestion made in passing by Aurelian Craiutu is certainly another hint that Staël scholars can follow to explain her place not only in the political canon but in the literary one as well. Craiutu proposes that her gender may be another factor to take into consideration, and I believe he is onto something here. Staël was indeed the object of misogynistic attacks during her own era, some of which came from Napoléon himself.[65] The emperor notoriously detested her independent spirit at a time when her freedom of thought was considered to be at odds with the socially constructed behavioral norms of her gender. "Emperor Napoléon's greatest grievance against me," Staël wrote in Ten Years of Exile, "is my unfailing respect for true liberty."[66] This prejudice did not go away with time, as shown by her widespread designation in French discourse as Madame de Staël. In her case, as in so many others–Madame de Graffigny, Madame de Duras, Madame Riccoboni, Madame du Châtelet, Madame de Genlis…–this almost innocuous-seeming (and perfectly useless) insistence on her gender is fraught with misogynistic undertones. Recent scholarship is, fortunately, underlining Staël's role "in the creation of a new discourse on women's relationship to politics and art" and moving toward a recognition of the originality of her intellectual work in a field largely dominated by men.[67]
That being said, the core of my response to Aurelian Craiutu's paper will not be about Staël's place in the canon. I would like to complement his analysis of the three aforementioned passions by suggesting an intellectual genealogy linking Staël's work to Voltaire and the Enlightenment period. Indeed, Staël's political vocabulary owes much to Voltaire's campaign against the "infâme" (the name he dismissively gave to the Catholic Church) while providing a distinctly Romantic reinterpretation of these very concepts. Thus she offers a case study of the intellectual evolution from the 18th to the 19th century, from the Age of Reason to the Age of Sentiments.
Germaine de Staël knew Voltaire personally. Her mother, Suzanne, developed an epistolary relationship with the philosopher and started a subscription for the sculpting of his statue by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle.[68] Suzanne also took her daughter to meet Voltaire in 1778, shortly before his death the same year.[69] The similarities between Staël's and Voltaire's careers are many. Like Voltaire, Staël experienced a forced exile and used the models of both Italy and Germany to do what her predecessor accomplished with England: "she used, at the beginning of the nineteenth-century, an idealized foreign culture to indirectly criticize the political situation in her own country, where the Revolution, which swept aside the Old Regime, did not lead to democratic and liberal institutions but to a new form of militarized despotism."[70] In his essay, Aurelian Craiutu demonstrates that, fueled by a great political revolution and the burning passions it arouses, the spirit of party rapidly degenerates into fanaticism while another passion, enthusiasm, may hold the cure to contain it. While they are central to Staël's analysis of the Revolutionary period, these three concepts are hardly new as they had been repeatedly used by Voltaire in the context of his fierce criticism of the Catholic Church. Before observing what Staël exactly owes to Voltaire, it is worth noting that her intellectual work can be described as both an appropriation and a transfer of concepts previously coined by Voltaire: she borrowed a vocabulary the Enlightenment philosopher had widely used before her, although she deployed it within a different intellectual conversation, the context of political discourse rather than religious critique. While she understood that Voltaire's irreverence towards the Church was a direct reaction to the atrocities the Protestants (her own fellow believers) experienced during and after the reign of the Louis XIV, she had strong reservations about Voltaire's anti-Christianism: "Several writers, above all Voltaire, were highly reprehensible in not respecting Christianity when they attacked superstition."[71] Thus Staël applied the reading grid Voltaire created to identify the causes and mechanisms of religious zealotry to her own analysis of political passions. This transposition is perfectly logical as Staël understood politics (as Craiutu demonstrates) to be a form of secular religion that elicited the same kind of excesses the Christian faith had previously allowed. Her Considerations on the Principle Events of the French Revolution indeed draws a direct parallel between religious and political fanaticism: "the two elements of religious fanaticism and political fanaticism always subsist; the will to dominate in those who are at the top of the wheel, the eagerness to make it turn in those who are on the bottom. This is the principle of all kinds of violence; the pretext changes, the cause remains, and the reciprocal fury continues the same."[72]
"Fanaticism" is a key concept in Voltaire's work and is widely used in both his literary and philosophical production. The complete title of his 1736 play Mahomet is Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet while the Portable Philosophical Dictionary published three decades later, in 1764, dedicated one article, broken down in five sections, to the concept of "Fanaticism". In his essay, Aurelian Craiutu identifies several components of Staël's understanding of political fanaticism: in particular, its characteristic "ruthlessness" and propensity to take hold of anybody's mind, no matter the rank or the education of its host. In that respect, she is very much indebted to Voltaire's description of the frightening consequences of fanaticism:
Let us contemplate the horrors of fifteen centuries, all frequently renewed in the course of a single one; unarmed men slain at the feet of altars; kings destroyed by the dagger or by poison; a large state reduced to half its extent by the fury of its own citizens; the nation at once the most warlike and the most pacific on the face of the globe, divided in fierce hostility against itself; the sword unsheathed between the sons and the father; usurpers, tyrants, executioners, sacrilegious robbers, and bloodstained parricides violating, under the impulse of religion, every convention divine or human—such is the deadly picture of fanaticism.[73]
In her Considerations, Staël also condemned the fury unleashed by the French Revolution and underlined the singularity of this period by insisting on the exceptional violence it provoked: "The events which we have been recalling until this point have been the only kind of history for which we can find examples elsewhere. But an abyss is now about to open under our feet; we do not know what course to pursue in such a gulf, and the mind leaps in fear from disaster to disaster, till it reaches the annihilation of all hope and of all consolation."[74] In addition, Voltaire insisted on fanaticism's method of diffusion by comparing it to a disease of the mind, thus underlining its contagious nature: "Fanaticism is, in reference to superstition, what delirium is to fever, or rage to anger."[75] This horrifying sickness can be contracted by anyone, including the greatest minds, such as Newton who fell victim to it: "the exalted Newton imagined that he found the modern history of Europe in the Apocalypse.… [I]t seems as if superstition were an epidemic disease, from which the strongest minds are not always exempt."[76] Craiutu reminds us that Staël felt the same way about another remarkable intellect: indeed, she thought that the great mathematician Condorcet was also possessed by the fever of political fanaticism during the French Revolution.
It is nonetheless in the identification of fanaticism's remedy that Voltaire's and Staël's views strikingly differ. Aurelian Craiutu illuminates for us Staël's recourse to enthusiasm as an unlikely, yet powerful ally to treat the epidemic of fanaticism. Her understanding of the nature and efficacy of enthusiasm stood in stark opposition to Voltaire's views on the subject. Indeed, according to Voltaire, "enthusiasm" should be treated with as much distrust as "fanaticism." First, it is another kind of "disease" that can be caught by anyone; it also tends to be excited by the "spirit of party"; and it is by definition alien to reason: "What is most rarely to be met with is the combination of reason with enthusiasm. Reason consists in constantly perceiving things as they really are. He, who, under the influence of intoxication, sees objects double is at the time deprived of reason."[77] Voltaire would never turn towards the passion of enthusiasm to cure fanaticism. According to him, fanaticism's only remedy is the spirit of philosophy: "There is no other remedy for this epidemical malady [fanaticism] than that spirit of philosophy, which, extending itself from one to another, at length civilizes and softens the manners of men and prevents the access of the disease. For when the disorder has made any progress, we should, without loss of time, fly from the seat of it, and wait till the air has become purified from contagion."[78] In his essay, Craiutu sheds light on the reasons why Staël, on the contrary, considered enthusiasm a cure for fanaticism: it leads individuals to sacrifice petty interests to the common good, to adopt moral and generous conducts, and, overall, to understand that they are part of a community with intertwined interests. In that respect, Staël's understanding of enthusiasm was completely at odds with Voltaire's and signaled a marked intellectual evolution between the Enlightenment and the Romantic era. In her quest to cure the most frightening excesses of political fanaticism, Staël did not place her confidence in the "spirit of philosophy" heralded by Voltaire. She rather turned towards a passion: a spontaneously shared feeling of connection between beings.
To conclude, I'd like to ask if Staël's remedy for fanaticism holds more promise to ease political passions than Voltaire's confidence in the spirit of philosophy. I am inclined to say yes. After all, in the passage quoted above, Voltaire himself does not give many indications as to how we should use the power of reason to soothe the minds of those who have been contaminated by the fury of fanaticism. He recommended only a prudent exile("we should, without loss of time, fly from the seat of [fanaticism], and wait till the air has become purified from contagion"), a solution that has obvious limitations: going away while nature runs its course does not provide individuals with a great sense of agency and control of their destinies. By encouraging us to recognize in ourselves a feeling of connection to our fellow human beings, by inviting us to feel that we are all part of an interconnected system where selfish interests are always self-defeating in the long run, as they tend to hide the fact that personal happiness cannot be solidly ensured without preoccupation for the well-being of those who live around us, Germaine de Staël's romantic, spiritual defense of enthusiasmholds a promising lesson for assuaging the political passions of our time.
[64.] On the topic of political moderation, see by Aurelian Craiutu: A Virtue for Courageous Minds: Moderation in French Political Thought, 1748-1830 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012) and Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).
[65.] On Staël's intellectual career, see Maria Fairweather, Madame de Staël (London: Little Brown Book, 2013); see also Francine du Plessix Gray, Madame de Staël: The First Modern Woman (Atlas & Co., 2008) and Christopher J. Herold, Mistress to an Age: A Life of Madame de Staël (New York: Grove Press, 2002).
[66.] Germaine de Staël, Ten Years of Exile, trans. Doris Beik (New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972), p. 4.
[67.] Judith E. Martin, Germaine de Staël in Germany: Gender and Literary Authority (1800-1850) (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2011), p. 2. In Germaine de Staël: A Political Portrait (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), p 3, Biancamaria Fontana observes that gender has been a crucial factor in determining the manner in which her contemporaries and posterity have judged Staël: "As to her posthumous reputation, historians have often ridiculed her political ambitions and assumed she was always led by her 'infatuation' with some more or less deserving male personality. They have also diminished her political role, downgrading her backstage canvassing to feminine intrigue, and reducing her contributions to that of a somewhat overambitious and hyperactive salon hostess."
[68.] See René Pomeau, Voltaire en son temps, 5 vols. (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1988-1994, vol. 4), pp. 425-29.
[69.] On Germaine de Staël's and Voltaire, see by James F. Hamilton, "Mme de Staël, Partisan of Rousseau or Voltaire?," SVEC 106 (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1973), pp 253-65.
[70.] Edward Ousselin, "Germaine de Staël et Voltaire : de l'usage des modèles littéraires étrangers," Dalhousie French Studies, vol. 92, Fall 2010, p. 68. My translation.
[71.] Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the Principle Events of the French Revolution, newly revised translation of the 1818 English edition, ed. with an introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu, Indianapolis (IN: Liberty Fund, 2008), p. 42.
[72.] Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the Principle Events of the French Revolution, p. 51.
[73.] Voltaire, "Fanaticism" in The Works of Voltaire: A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901), 21 vols. Vol. V. <>.
[74.] Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the Principle Events of the French Revolution, p. 354.
[75.] Voltaire, "Fanaticism."
[76.]   Voltaire, "Fanaticism."
[77.] Voltaire, "Enthusiasm" in The Works of Voltaire. Vol. IV. <>.
[78.] Voltaire, "Fanaticism,"our emphasis.