Liberty Matters

A Thought Experiment: On the Political Use of Enthusiasm


Reading a previous article authored by Aurelian Craiutu (on Tocqueville's Democracy in America), I was struck by a passage where he suggested the following "thought experiment":
Suppose that Tocqueville were to submit Democracy in America as a doctoral dissertation to the faculty of a political science department at a top research university. Would those of our colleagues who stress the importance of statistical and quantitative skills be willing to give him a pass, given his imprecise use of the concept of democracy, his unique style of explanation that made him prone to contradict himself, and his many omissions (political parties, industrial revolution, etc.) from his analysis?[85]
I found Craiutu's suggestion not only quite entertaining but extremely stimulating as a way to question the scientific norms governing present-day academia while underlining some problematic confusions in Tocqueville's magnum opus (in particular: the various and partially conflicting meanings he gave to his key concept democracy). In my turn, I would like to suggest a comparable thought experiment, this time on the question of "enthusiasm" as defined by Germaine de Staël. Craiutu observed in his response that we all agree that Staël's political thought has been unduly neglected in the recent past (especially in the United States) and that we also agree on the relevance of her work for our divided time, a work that reminds us of several virtues (generosity, pity, compassion) and that could certainly play a preeminent role in today's contentious political discourse. Let's see if Staël's concept of enthusiasm could actually be applied to assuage some of the divisions currently tearing apart the very fabric of American society, a society where, without a doubt, political passions are burning and opinions are polarized to the extreme.[86] It could be a sort of practical test to question our shared hypothesis on the relevance of Staël's political work for our time.
First things first: what did Staël mean by enthusiasm? A key component of this concept is its antinomy to selfishness. Staël developed this idea in her work Germany: "Enthusiasm only can counter-balance the tendency to selfishness, and this is with the help of this divine sign that we must recognize immortal creatures."[87] Whereas the direct consequence of a person's selfish reasoning is valuing only what serves her best interest (for example: "health," "money," and "power"[88]), enthusiasm lifts us above the pettiness of these self-serving goals and drives us to "sacrifice our well-being or our own life"[89] Another dimension of Staël's conception of enthusiasm deserves to be underlined: its distinctly aristocratic undertone. Indeed, Staël constantly opposed selfishness to enthusiasm while insisting on the vile nature of the former. Staël associated striving for one's own success with "vulgarity," "indignity," "and degradation."[90] She had no qualms about chastising "selfishness's vulgar ascendency."[91] However, she did not merely allude to the aristocratic nature of enthusiasm by comparing it to the plebeian stigma attached to selfishness. Thanks to a network of metaphors, she also underlined how the experience of enthusiasm revealed the very best in each of us, a noble nature that can be awakened at all times. Thus, a person experiencing enthusiasm will feel "a noble quaking," and her heart will beat for "high feelings."[92] In other words, enthusiasm is not a passion but rather "a disposition of the soul";[93] and this disposition is not conditioned by an aristocratic origin but by the occasional manifestation of individuals' noblest penchants.   Indeed, while being associated with nobility, enthusiasm is not the preserve of the aristocratic class. In her Considerations, Staël mentioned several instances of "popular enthusiasm"[94] and described a scene at the outset of the Revolution when a large crowd was animated by a "true and upright enthusiasm."[95] This is an important detail as it reveals that the above-mentioned "disposition of the soul" does not come with birth and a special upbringing but can, ultimately, be manifested by anyone under special circumstances.
Now that we have a clearer idea of what enthusiasm is, according to Staël, how can we use this concept to fight the animosity of political fanaticism? In his lead essay, Aurelian Craiutu reminded us of the therapeutic role played by enthusiasm, according to Staël, in times of political unrest. But how do you inspire people to follow the inspirations coming from the best part of themselves? If enthusiasm is the opposite of selfishness, how can we encourage such attitudes as self-sacrifice and generosity in a society where the pursuit of one's personal success is intertwined with the very concept of Americanness,a society obsessed with performance and the attainment of personal, ultimately selfish goals, a society where the betterment of each individual trumps the collective effort to bring social change? I would be curious to hear my colleagues' views on the following question: what would be a concrete, practical use of Staël's concept of enthusiasm to calm the political passions of our time? No doubt that these very divided United States could be a good place to undertake the cure – assuming it does exist.
[85.] Aurelian Craiutu, "Tocqueville's New Science of Politics Revisited," May 2014, Liberty Matters Forum, <>.
[86.] On the growing gap between liberals and conservatives in the United States, see the numerous studies published by the Pew Research Center: "Political Polarization" <>.
[87.] Staël, De l'Allemagne (1810) (Paris: Librairie Stéréotype, 1814), 3: 383. All translations are mine.
[88.] Staël, De l'Allemagne, 3: 383
[89.] Staël, De l'Allemagne, 3: 383.
[90.] See Staël, De l'Allemagne, 3: 383 and 387.
[91.] Staël, De l'Allemagne, 3: 387.
[92.] Staël, De l'Allemagne, 3: 384.
[93.] Staël, De l'Allemagne, 3: 387.
[94.] Germaine de Staël, 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, IN: Liberty Fund, 2008), p. 126.  <>.
[95.] Germaine de Staël, Considerations, p. 157. <>.