Liberty Matters

Germaine de Staël, Pragmatic Liberalism, and Sensibilité


Germaine de Staël was an important writer of the era of the French Revolution and best known for her novels and her book on Germany.[47] I agree with Professor Craiutu that her political thought merits more attention than it has generally received. Professor Craiutu elegantly highlights the "moderation" of Staël's political stance, which is certainly one of its notable elements. I would wish to emphasize equally her pragmatic focus on which action and/or ideal required emphasis at any particular time. Whether or not she recommended moderation – a concept that suggests an avoidance of extremes in all situations – depended on the nature of the situation she confronted. I would prefer to characterize her political stance as a form of "pragmatic liberalism."
Professor Craiutu also usefully highlights the positive nature of "enthusiasm" for Staël and how it was considered an important counter to the negative nature of "fanaticism." Again, I agree that these were central elements of Staël's thought; however, I would wish to place them within the wider cultural movement of sensibilité, a cultural shift that focused on many positive and negative emotions and passions.
Moderation and Pragmatic Liberalism
Staël's political ideas were deeply influenced by the constitutional ideas of her father, Jacques Necker, who recommended a constitutional and representative system that would protect "rights" and ensure a sharing of power between the legislative and executive branches of government, and who insisted on energetic public involvement. These remained central to Staël's politics. Professor Craiutu astutely emphasizes how Staël translated this into a moderate position during the first decade of the French Revolution. Present with her father in Versailles during the so-called October Days in 1789, she was shocked by the violence of the crowd and concerned about the safety of the royal family. In July 1792, over a year after the Flight to Varennes, she contacted King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette with an elaborate plan (which they rejected) for a second attempt at escape from the country. She remained a firm supporter of the French monarchy as the Revolution became more radical – with the popular violence and proclamation of the Republic in August and September 1792, the execution of the king in January 1793, the creation of the revolutionary tribunal and the Committee of Public Safety in early 1793, and the Terror during 1793-1794. In August 1793, Staël published Réflexions sur le procès de la reine, in which she claimed that the queen had sentiments "favorable to true liberty" and "had constantly opposed projects hostile to France." The new Republic, she argued, would be damaged if the queen were condemned or physically harmed.[48]
Following the Terror, Staël argued that the political changes of the Revolution could not be reversed without further disruption and that therefore the Republic should be supported. In late-1794, she published Réflexions sur la paix, addressees à M. Pitt et aux Français, appealing to moderates inside and outside France to avoid the "spirit of party" that was tearing the country apart, a "spirit" that unfortunately animated the radical left and right.[49] She encouraged all sides to adopt a policy of peace and to avoid the extreme emotions easily stirred up in times of warfare. She was especially critical of émigrés who "fall back on prejudices of the fourteenth century," "treat political questions as principles of faith," and "reject as heresies considerations drawn from what is useful, sage, and possible."[50] Reasonable royalists, she argued, should separate themselves from feudalism and unite around the interests of property and peace, which in France at this moment was identified with the moderate Republic. Reasonable republicans, similarly, should avoid radical demands, and substitute peace and justice for the furies and enthusiasms associated with Robespierre and the Terror.
Staël followed this in 1795 with Réflexions sur la paix intérieure, another strident call for a closing of the ranks around the current moderate Republic.[51] She wished to distance herself from the Bourbon pretender to the throne, who called for revenge against republicans associated with the Revolution. And she pushed back against the Jacobin Left, whose defenders called for the continued ascendancy of the radical Montagnards and their allies among the sans-culottes (Parisian working-class supporters of the Jacobin Republic). Staël argued that the while the Republic had been "impossible" in 1789, it had become essential after the Terror. Moreover, the unyieldingly reactionary actions of the surviving Bourbons and of émigrés meant that the monarchy was no longer an option for France. The Republic had become the regime that best united people with different sentiments and motives. "The hate of despotism, the enthusiasm for the Republic, the fear of vengeance, and the ambition of the talented," she wrote, "all speak with the same voice."[52]
In Des circonstances actuelles qui peuvent terminer la Révolution (written in 1798 but unpublished until 1906) – arguably her most impressive political writing – Staël expressed regret that she had continued to support the monarchy after the June 1791 Flight to Varennes. If the monarchy had been suppressed at that time, she now argued, France would have been spared some of the traumatic episodes of the following few years.[53] During the years she worked on these manuscripts, she argued that it was essential that those subscribing to a "liberal" political position take a stand between the extremes.[54] They should not compromise with the Royalist Right, identified with the Old Regime monarchy, nor with the Jacobin Left, identified with the excesses of the Terror. Her stance was informed, as Professor Craiutu correctly points out, by a demand for a moderate middle way.
In these works Staël also defended the legal protection of individual rights, especially the right to property; a representative system of government that separated and balanced power; and a "juridical order" that was independent of both the legislative and the executive power. She also discussed in detail the specific circumstances of France at this historical moment and insisted that these be taken into consideration when proposing the specific institutional structure of the polity. Her stance was characterized by a pragmatism that insisted on the acceptance of the constraints of circumstance. As she wrote in 1795:
It is obvious that there is no absolute system of government that does not need to be modified by circumstances. And what circumstance is more influential than a revolution? ... This boiling fermentation produces a new world; one day is able to render impossible the plan of the previous day; and for those who advance always toward the same goal of liberty, the means continuously change.[55]
The circumstances in late-1790s France recommended both the Republic and moderation. The same pragmatism at other times, however, recommended a more strident stance. During the years of the Empire, for example, Staël firmly opposed the regime of Napoleon.[56] It is this which makes me wish to qualify the "moderate" label. While I do not disagree that moderation often marked her politics, I would emphasize that there were times when she was "immoderate." "Pragmatic liberalism," I would suggest, captures her distinctive political stance.
"Enthusiasm," "Fanaticism," and Sensibilité
Staël's liberalism, as Professor Craiutu usefully insists, was also centrally concerned with analyzing social moeurs and human character. She was especially sensitive to how revolutions encouraged strong passions and furies, dangerous excesses that led people to trample the rights of others. For stability to be attained, she argued, it was necessary for violent emotions to be constrained, "fanaticism" rejected, and for positive emotions – "enthusiasm," "pity," and "generosity" – to be encouraged.
This is especially marked in De l'influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et des nations, written between 1793 and 1796,[57] and in Des circonstances actuelles, mentioned above. Staël argued that there was a similarity between religious fanatics and political fanatics in that both attached everything positive to "the despotism of a single idea," a despotism that would "destroy the sole guarantee of virtue, sympathy."[58] Fanaticism is a "singular passion ... that unites the power of crime with the exaltation of virtue." Especially during a revolution, it was important to control dangerous "fanatical" outbursts; it was necessary to "constrain factious passions."[59] What she most worried about was the corrosive nature of hatred and the closely related desire for revenge. Vengeance, she reasoned, was a contagious passion that was difficult to assuage; unchecked, it would quickly poison social relations. It needed to be contained if social and political stability were to be achieved. Uncontained, it would undermine the possibility of the emergence of a stable esprit publique that would allow discussion and reason to prevail.
How was this to be done? Staël recommended encouraging generosity and, especially, compassion (pitié), the sentiment that grows from identification with the suffering of others.[60] She turned to this moral-sentimental theme in hopes of countering the dangerous passion of revenge which she believed infused the counterrevolutionary forces that wished to return to the Old Regime. It would also counter the excessively stern sentiment of personal sacrifice associated with the invocation of revolutionary virtue during the Terror. "It is in the milieu of a revolution that la pitié, that involuntary movement in all other circumstances, ought to be the rule of conduct."[61] More than ever, she reasoned, France needed pitié and générosité. As Professor Craiuti points out, this involved a rehabilitation of "enthusiasm," a passion that had had negative associations with religious exaltation and unreason in the thought of Enlightenment luminaries like Bayle, Locke, and Voltaire. There was a limit to Staël's rehabilitation, however, because she believed that enthusiasm could also be dangerously combined with military action.[62] "The enthusiasm that inspires the glory of arms," she wrote in 1800, "is the only enthusiasm that becomes dangerous to liberty."[63]
Staël's Liberalism
The essential elements of Staël's political liberalism emerged during the French Revolution. She favored the principles of civil liberty, popular sovereignty, and judicial independence, but recognized that making any one of these absolute would potentially risk undermining the others. How to proceed required a pragmatic judgment of how best to balance these principles so as to avoid a return to regressive royalism or adventurous Jacobinism. This "centrist" position, as recent scholars have pointed out, is one of the distinguishing characteristics of modern French liberalism, making it markedly different from the English liberal tradition that assumed the existence of opposing parties committed to the peaceful alternation of political power. One legacy of the French Revolution was a more unstable political culture, a bipolarization of the political landscape, situating liberals like Germane de Staël in the center between groups that were not committed to representative parliamentary institutions. This often led the liberals to take a "moderate" position between the extremes. At times, however, it led Staël to take an "immoderate" position against the government. Which way she turned depended on her assessment of the forces operating at that moment. This required a pragmatic assessment of what actions would be necessary to provide the best hopes for liberty and peace.
Staël's liberalism was also sensitive to the cultural issue of social moeurs, especially when these were inflamed during periods of internal disorder or external attack, or when citizens were suspicious of their neighbors and leaders – exactly the dangerous situations France faced during the Revolution. It was critical, she argued, to create a political culture that avoided fanaticism and narrow self-interest and that fostered respect, compassion, and enthusiasm. It is this mix of civil, political, and cultural dimensions that makes Staël's socio-political views relevant to our era.
[47.] Her best-known novels are Delphine (published in 1802) and Corinne (1807); her book on Germany is De l'Allemagne (1810/1813).
[48.] "Réflexions sur le procès de la reine," in Œuvres complètes de Mme. La Baronne de Staël, t. 2 (Paris: Treuttel et Würtz, 1820), pp. 1-33, these quotes p. 21.
[49.] "Réflexions sur la paix, adressées à M. Pitt et aux Français," in Œuvres complètes, t. 2, pp. 35-94.
[50.] Ibid., p. 54.
[51.] "Réflexions sur la paix intérieure," in Œuvres complètes, t. 2, pp. 95-172. This was written and printed in 1795 but never offered for sale.
[52.] Ibid. pp. 100-02.
[53.] Madame de Staël, Des circonstances actuelles qui peuvent terminer la Révolution et des principes qui doivent fonder la République en France. Written in the late-1790s, this work was unpublished until 1906 (Paris: Fischbache, 1906). There is a newer critical edition, edited by Lucia Omacini (Genève: Droz, 1979).  
[54.] Upon her reentry into Paris in May 1795, Staël opened a salon at the Swedish embassy on the rue du Bac, which became a central meeting place for moderate republicans and constitutional monarchists who hoped to stabilize the post-Terror Republic. Her close ties with nobles, however, and purported actions to assist émigrés who wished to return to France led to attacks by politically influential figures. Much to her annoyance, they were able to convince the government to force her exit from France in mid-December 1795. She took up residence at the Necker château Coppet in the pays de Vaud, which became a vibrant center of liberal culture and politics during the following years.
I have argued elsewhere that Staël and her companion and lover during these years, Benjamin Constant, were the first to use the term "liberal" to refer to their political stance. See my Benjamin Constant and the Birth of French Liberalism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), esp. pp. 39-80.
[55.] "Réflexions sur la paix intérieure," p. 120.
[56.] See Mme. De Staël, Ten Years of Exile, translated by D. Beck (New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972). Staël writes, for example, "Someday, if future generations grant Bonaparte a tomb, people will pass peacefully in front of his ashes, whereas during his lifetime no human being could enjoy either tranquility or independence" (p. 141).
[57.] Germaine de Staël, De l'influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et des nations (Paris: Ramsay, 1979), pp. 53-256.
[58.] Des circonstances actuelles qui peuvent terminer la Révolution et des principes qui doivent fonder la République en France, p. 255; for the discussion of "fanaticism," see pp. 255-68.
[59.] De l'influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et des nations, pp. 67-68.
[60.] In effect, Staël recommended the cultivation of positive sentiments and more specifically of the positive "sentiments prior to reason" (amour-de-soi-même and pitié) that Rousseau had argued were the bases of all morals. Staël's first publication was devoted to Rousseau. She argued that "Rousseau's genius" was to rediscover "natural sentiments." She was critical of Rousseau's rejection of representative politics. Lettre sur les ouvrage et le caractère de J.-J. Rousseau ([Paris]: [no publisher], 1788), pp. 48-49, 78.
[61.] De l'influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et des nations, p. 252.
[62.] I discuss the role of "enthusiasm" in the thought of Constant and Staël in more detail in "Benjamin Constant, the French Revolution, and the Origins of French Romantic Liberalism," French Historical Studies, 23:4 (2000), pp. 545-74, esp. pp. 561-65.
[63.] Germaine de Staël, De la littérature considerée sans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales [1800] (Paris : Classiques Garnier, 1988), p. 322. See also Staël's critical comments concerning "l'amour de la gloire" in De l'influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et des nations, pp. 83-99.