Monday, January 19, 2009

Renan on decline and reform

Renan, Ernest. La réforme intellectuelle et morale.

It is 1871, France has just lost a war and fallen into civil war and socialist revolution. Frenchmen cannot help but look at the surrounding ruins and wonder what brought them to this point, and what should be done next.

Renan thinks basically that materialism and democracy have brought France to its current state of crisis. The Capetian dynasty made France, preceded it, and France therefore in a sense committed suicide when it killed the king. Since the turmoil of the Revolution, France has sought to replace the king with one dynasty or another—first the Bonapartes, and then the renewed Bourbons. Although Renan remembers the July monarchy with fondness (that, not coincidentally, was the period of his own youth), it was also the scene of creeping materialism that manifested itself in the 1848 revolution and Republic. The folly of universal suffrage was made plain to the idealistic republicans, but not before France had chosen a new monarch, Louis-Napoleon. The Second Empire was a period in which France’s wealth grew vastly, and its moral and intellectual strength (virility) declined just as much. The decadence of this kind of life is not unpopular, and if the Emperor had avoided war, it could have lasted indefinitely.

Yet the era of nations is also that of struggle between nations. France, in its pride and virility, had defeated and humiliated Prussia at the beginning of the 19th century, and now Prussia has taken its revenge. Prussia’s defeat made it strong and disciplined. France, in its materialism, had grown weak. Hence the collapse of the government, of any force of order, hence, that is, the moral defeat following the military one.

The reforms that must be undertaken should be modeled roughly on those that Prussia undertook after its defeat. Most famous here are Renan’s views on the intellectual failure of France. He wants the French to bring back autonomous, competing universities (he’s not the only one), which, he says, were a French idea to begin with, and so would in no sense be copies of German models. More interesting to me is his swipe at representational government. Of course his preference is for a return to the monarchy, but he is willing to admit that once a people has enjoyed a right for a generation—even one such as universal suffrage, with very dubious benefits—that right cannot simply be taken away. Clearly, though, simple election of an assembly by universal suffrage would result in mediocre and worse than mediocre leadership. This kind of election means the advent of the politician, whose only skill is to be elected.

There must be, Renan says, a two-house system. Of course there must be an assembly that represents the population qua population—although even here he thinks that where single men get one vote, married men get two, and married men with children yet more, since Renan’s view is that women already have too much influence in politics as it is. There must also be a house that represents the ‘moral individuals’ that make up the state. This means something like the constituencies. The teachers will be represented as teachers, the bureaucrats as bureaucrats, and so on. Large cities, whose people are already represented, will themselves get representatives. This is, I must say, a remarkable vision of society reflected, or transmuted, into an assembly.

It is also radically at odds with the traditional view that the political culture of France is hopelessly caught in a Jacobin trap. Renan is a liberal. He refers to himself in this way, and has some liberal positions, such as the right to free speech (though not free assembly). But he is a liberal who has become obsessed with order. Democracy, he says, makes of the population a heap of sand—nothing can be built with that. I suppose the answer is that he is not a liberal Republican, but a liberal monarchist who probably prefers Guizot, and Guizot’s ‘moment,’ to any conceivable republican one. Order, for Renan, is built to an extent on the clear-eyed recognition of hierarchy.

Renan thinks in terms of millennia and the vast movement of races. He looks back to the 5th century Germanic invasions for parallels to the current situation, and is pleased to explain a great deal by national, racial, character. It would be interesting to investigate how deep Renan’s racial thinking in fact penetrates into his political thinking (such as it is). It is the right of strong nations to conquer weaker ones, and perhaps, he is willing to hazard, the Latin peoples have lost entirely what warrior spirit they absorbed from their contact with the naturally warrior-like Germanic peoples. After all, some races are suited to servitude (the Chinese are good with their hands and have no honor, which I suppose is meant to signify that they are good for industrial labor, and the Africans are strong and good-natured, and so well suited for agriculture). Perhaps the revenge of France will not be on the battlefield at all. Indeed, Renan works himself into such a frenzy of possibility that by the end of the essay, with the possibility of a global conflict between two models of nationhood (the German and the American) looming on the horizon, he suggests essentially that France will be remembered for its tact and politesse, as the salt of the earth, that which gives taste to an otherwise bland world…small consolation, it seems to me.

It would be easy to read this little essay as a sort of traumatic symptom. The trauma is plain enough, and the thing is full of what seem like contradictions. At one moment he is lamenting the lost possibility of a triumvirate of nations, France, England, and Germany, united to stave off the terrible threat of Russia—at the next moment he is asserting that the real enemy is the Germano-Slavic spirit. The preface suggests that the defeat of France and the victory of Prussia should be seen as the natural consequence of France’s previous victories. The first sentence of the essay itself says that one cannot find (admittedly, rigorous) cosmic justice in the wheel of historical fate. Later in the essay, though, he comes back to the theme again, dressed this time in pseudo-science: France defeated Prussia in 1807, and let the flame of Prussian pride, which comes back to France in 1870, perhaps to help France regenerate itself in the same way…

In the end, it seems to me that if Renan moved through a republican phase, and his scientism in 1848 is something like it, then after the war he returns to the political opinions that his masters held in his youth. We have a racialized version of the elitist liberalism of the July monarchy—making hecatombs of the benighted masses on the altar of reason. Equality is the greatest virtue, and finds its expression in science, but only the best have access to it. I read Renan because he was important, and because his French is beautiful. The sentences are so often quotable, worth writing down and memorizing for use at a dinner-party; which is, after all, both the fault and virtue of French culture, according to Renan. His writing has an ironic distance from itself, even his political attitudes are, as it were, always at a remove, always posed with an awareness of their contingency. Yet I find him distasteful. His honesty amounts to accepting the consequences of his own superiority, or his belief in it. No wonder he was disowned by later generations.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree that Renans prose is quotable, though one often does good in ignoring the context. I find it hard to agree with the global argument in "Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?", but the text contains many eloquently expressed local truths. For example, Renan was absolutely right in talking of the problem of the nation, as one of "ces questions difficiles, où la moindre confusion sur le sens des mots, à l'origine du raisonnement, peut produire à la fin les plus funestes erreurs." It's probably a quote that could be turned against the text in which it is found.