Liberty Matters

Madame de Stael, Our Contemporary


Montesquieu once wrote: "Il ne faut pas toujours tellement épuiser un sujet, qu'on ne laisse rien à faire au lecteur. Il ne s'agit pas de faire lire, mais de faire penser." ("One should not try to always exhaust a subject so that nothing is left for the reader to do. The real question is not to make someone read, but to make someone think.") He was certainly right if one judges by Catriona Seth's, Steven Vincent's, and Benjamin Hoffmann's thoughtful responses to my essay on Germaine de Staël's writings on fanaticism and enthusiasm. Whether drawing upon lesser-known texts such as Staël's Réflexions sur le procès de la reine (Reflections on the Queen's Trial, 1793), placing her works within the wider cultural movement of sensibilité, or showing the similarities and differences between Staël's analysis of fanaticism and Voltaire's critique of this nefarious passion, the three responses shed fresh light on key aspects of Staël's writings and invite us to take our dialogue in new directions.
Catriona Seth's commentary highlights the ways in which Staël regarded Queen Marie Antoinette's execution as a triple defeat "for words, for women, and for liberty." Seth raises interesting questions about the role of women in society, while Vincent's and Hoffmann's responses point out the links between religious and political fanaticism and comment on the pragmatic nature of Staël's liberalism. After noting the originality of Staël's analysis of political passions, Vincent singles out the peculiar nature of her moderation, noting that there were times when she behaved immoderately and adopted a form of pragmatism that might surprise even her friends. In turn, Hoffmann argues that Staël's political vocabulary and emphasis on passions offer a fruitful case-study of the intellectual evolution from the 18th to the 19th centuries, that is, from the Age of Reason to the Age of Sentiments. In this regard, he notes, Staël "applied the reading grid Voltaire created to identify the causes and mechanisms of religious zealotry to her own analysis of political passions," while rejecting his virulent anti-Christianism. These are all important points that I hope we will continue to discuss here. They prove that Staël is an original and important author whose writings illustrate so well the values and principles embraced by Liberty Fund: liberty, responsibility, and civility.
To begin our conversation, I would like to focus on a few points on which we all agree. Germaine de Staël was a larger-than-life figure who fascinated her contemporaries and interpreters. During her lifetime, some admired Staël for her ideas and unique gift for conversation; others envied her fabulous wealth. After all, she was the daughter of Jacques Necker (1732-1804), one of the richest men in Europe at that time and a prominent politician and political thinker. Still others were intrigued by her adventurous lifestyle. Almost everyone who met Staël in the salons of Paris, Coppet, London, Vienna, Moscow, or St. Petersburg was impressed by her sparkling and unforgettable personality. Unfortunately, she did not live long enough to play the leading intellectual and political role that she hoped for during the Bourbon Restoration, which witnessed a liberal renaissance in France. After suffering a debilitating stroke in February 1817, she died five months later on July 14, 1817, leaving unfinished her political testament, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution. The posthumous publication of her book in 1818 transformed Staël into what a modern historian (Laurent Theis) called "the historical and political muse of the Restoration."[79] Considerations became a main reference point for a new generation of liberals who came of age during the Bourbon Restoration and remained an object of special interest for liberal-minded intellectuals until the 1850s.[80] In the chapter dedicated to Staël in her superb book Les salons de Paris, the Duchess d'Abrantès unambiguously claimed that Staël was "the most remarkable woman of her time"[81] for whom social conversation was an inescapable necessity.
It is then even more surprising that Staël's political thought has been unduly neglected in the recent past. There are a few important differences and interesting paradoxes here. If the dual bicentenary of both Staël's death and the publication of her political magnum opus was overlooked in North America, known for its strong feminist movements, it did not go unnoticed in Europe, a place where feminism is arguably less vocal but perhaps more eloquent.[82] In 2017 the prestigious Pléiade collection published a long-overdue collection of her literary works edited by Catriona Seth. A substantial edition of Staël's most important (though not all!) political works was published by Theis in the well-known Bouquins series at Robert Laffont.[83] A new critical edition of Staël's works has begun being published under the auspices of la Société des études staëliennes. Divided into three parts—Œuvres critiques, Œuvres littéraires, and Œuvres historiques, each containing three volumes—this new critical edition has yet to be completed but has already become indispensable to anyone interested in doing research on Staël.  Finally, an international conference devoted to her was organized in November 2017 at the Suor Orsola Benincasa University in Naples, Italy, with the participation of major scholars from several European countries.
Regrettably, on the American side of the ocean, all this is barely known, and the bicentenary of Staël's death passed largely unnoticed by political theorists and historians of political thought. To the best of my knowledge, no new editions of her political and literary works appeared in English to mark this event. The reasons for this oversight are complex. As Benjamin Hoffmann remarks, if Staël holds an uncertain place in the liberal canon, it is also due to the widespread suspicion against political moderates, often accused of hypocrisy, cowardice, or weakness. I can hardly agree with him more on this issue. According to Catriona Seth, there is no doubt that this oversight has something to do with Staël's gender. In turn, Steven Vincent points to her pragmatic liberalism linked to her moderate political agenda, which often placed Staël between warring factions. A few historians are still inclined to reduce Staël's life to a host of anecdotes and tend to ridicule her political ambitions, which, in their (biased) view, were too high for a mere salon hostess, brilliant as she may have been. This dismissive attitude might explain why Staël always seemed second to her famous companion, Benjamin Constant, or as a mere complement to the doctrines of her father. It is no mere coincidence then that we still have no Cambridge Companion to Madame de Staël, though there are such volumes dedicated to Rousseau, Burke, Constant, and Tocqueville.
The contrast between Staël's and Burke's analyses of the French Revolution would make for a fascinating article or book.[84] The differences between them become obvious once we consider, for example, Staël's endorsement of the same principles of 1789 which Burke flatly rejected, or her insistence (in the first chapter of the Considerations) that the Revolution of 1789 in France and the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 in England belonged to the same wave of history and were equally legitimate. Yet there were also important similarities between the two thinkers that must not be overlooked. Consider, for example, their common condemnation of the Terror. In this regard, Staël shared to a considerable extent Burke's critique of fanaticism while avoiding sounding Burkean. In Burke's view, the concept was linked to the revolutionary fervor of those who rejected prudence and embraced a utopian form of social engineering. Staël had as little sympathy as the author of Reflections on the Revolution in France for the fanatism of the revolutionary mind. What distinguishes her position from Burke's is that she proposed an enlightened form of enthusiasm as a cure for fanaticism and the excesses of the spirit of party. This may appear surprising to anyone who remembers the close association between fanaticism, superstition, and enthusiasm in 18th-century political thought. But as I have already argued, it was consistent with Staël's general theory of passions and political moderation, which I hope we will continue to discuss in this forum.
Equally interesting, as Benjamin Hoffmann suggests, is the contrast between Staël's and Voltaire's proposals for combatting fanaticism. The author of Considerations chose a solution—enthusiasm—that Voltaire unambiguously rejected. The latter was deeply skeptical of enthusiasm and instead placed his faith in the power of philosophy to dispel superstition. The intellectual dialogue on fanaticism between Staël and Voltaire would deserve an entire article. I can only remark here that for Hoffmann, Staël's proposed remedy for fanaticism holds more promise to ease political passions than Voltaire's confidence in the power of reason. The appeal of Staël's position is also discussed by Vincent, who points out that she emphasized those sentiments that grow from identification with the plight of others and allow us to see our mutual interconnectedness. Hoffmann and Vincent both may be right, especially when one looks around and sees various forms of fanaticism spreading and threatening to tear us apart and isolate us in bubbles and echo chambers. It is in this regard that Madame de Staël remains, to quote Catriona Seth, "a woman for our times," who reminds us of the importance of generosity, pity, and compassion for others, three essential virtues that our world badly needs today.
[79.] Laurent Theis, "Présentation," in Madame de Staël, La Passion de la liberté, ed. Laurent Theis (Paris: Robert Laffont, 2017), p. 299.
[80.] Staël's admirers applauded her defense of the principles of 1789 and agreed with her critique of the Terror of 1793-94 and Napoleon. They endorsed her liberal agenda for political reform and shared her strong appreciation for the English political system. For a comprehensive account of the posterity of Staël's Considerations, see Stéphanie Tribouillard, Le Tombeau de Madame de Staël: Les discours de la postérité staëlienne (1817-1850) (Geneva: Slatkine, 2007).
[81.] Duchess d'Abrantès, Les Salons de Paris (Paris: Balland, 1984), p. 69. Also see the chapter dedicated to Staël in Mona Ozouf, Women's Words: An Essay on French Singularity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 64-87.
[82.] On the singularity of French "feminism," see Ozouf, Women's Words, pp. 229-84. It is worth noting that Ozouf's excellent book, which was widely commented on in France, was poorly received in the United States, where it was never released in paperback.
[83.] La Passion de la liberté has over 1,000 pages and includes four major books: De l'Influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et des nations, Des circonstances actuelles qui peuvent terminer la Révolution et des principles qui doivent fonder la république, Considérations, and Dix Années d'exil. A full edition of Staël's political works, including Réflexions sur le procès de la reine, Réflexions sur la paix, addressées à M. Pitt et aux Français, Réflexions sur la paix intérieure, Idées sur une déclaration de droits, and Fragment sur le droit d'initiative, can be found in Madame de Staël, Œuvres Complètes, Serie III: Œuvres historiques, Tome I, Des circonstances actuelles et autres essays politiques sous la Revolution, ed. Lucia Omacini (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2009).
[84.] The same could be said about her account and Tocqueville's. See Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and Further Reflections on the Revolution in France available online at <> and <>. And also Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856) <>.