The French Revolution of 1789 and Its Impact

By Gail M. Schwab; John R. Jeanneney | Go to book overview
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6
Mme. De Staël: Comparative Politics as Revolutionary Practice

Susan Tenenbaum

Although Mme. de Staël has not been a neglected figure in intellectual history, her fame has largely attached to her work as a literary critic and novelist, as well as reflected an abiding fascination with her legendary persona. Recently, however, scholars have begun to rediscover Mme. de Staël as a political thinker. 1 I want to emphasize the term rediscover, for the impact of Mme. de Staël's political writing on her own day was considerable, and her legacy so vital that her biographer Albert Sorel dubbed her the "muse of Restoration liberalism." 2

Yet Mme. de Staël does not receive even a footnote in contemporary surveys of political thought. She has long been dismissed as a polemicist whose political writings offer little of permanent value, and criticized for arguments that were, in the words of Jean Touchard, "essentially confused."3 In this chapter, however, I shall be guided by the counsel of the poet and historian Lamartine who assessed most generously that quality of eclecticism that later critics have been less eager to applaud: "Her voice was like an antique chorus, in which all the great voices of the drama unite in one tumultuous concord."4

Following Lamartine, I suggest that Mme. de Staël's practical political involvements and divided intellectual allegiances establish a claim on our attention. The intellectual tensions in her work reflect her status as a thinker at the crossroads of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cultures, and reveal an insatiably inquisitive mind eager to assimilate wide-ranging currents of ideas and apply them to the problems of her revolutionary era. If these problems were tied to the particular circumstances of her day, Mme. de Staël simultaneously perceived them as enduring political questions: What are the causes of revolution? the determinants of political stability? the prerequisites of a free society? These larger questions were, in turn, intimately bound to problems of practical politics: the building of consensus in an age of partisan extremism; the writing of new constitutions; the arresting of revolutionary change. The dynamic interaction between Mme. de Staël's theoretical concerns and her practical political objectives is evidenced throughout her major writings, and provides the frame for my present inquiry into her uses of comparative political analysis.

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