National Character and Public Spirit in Britain and France, 1750-1914

National Character and Public Spirit in Britain and France, 1750-1914

National Character and Public Spirit in Britain and France, 1750-1914

National Character and Public Spirit in Britain and France, 1750-1914

Synopsis

In a work of unusual ambition and rigorous comparison, Roberto Romani considers the concept of "national character" in the intellectual histories of Britain and France. Perceptions of collective mentalities influenced a variety of political and economic debates, ranging from anti-absolutist polemic in eighteenth-century France to appraisals of socialism in Edwardian Britain. Romani argues that the eighteenth-century notion of "national character", with its stress on climate and government, evolved into a concern with the virtues of "public spirit" irrespective of national traits, in parallel with the establishment of representative institutions on the Continent.

Excerpt

Can two authors, unquestionably minor in many respects, be taken to represent a breakthrough in European thought? the answer is yes, if their inferior status when judged by posterity rests on a relative lack of brilliance, but contrasts with both the great esteem in which they were held by contemporaries and the wide sway they exerted. Additionally, when the scholar concentrates on the underlying structures of thought, the so-called 'minor'writers may prove more representative than the 'major' ones. in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the Italian Melchiorre Gioja (1767–1829) and the Frenchman Charles Dupin (1784–1873) provide exemplary evidence of that most un-English intellectual product, early and mid-nineteenth-century Continental political economy. the focus of the chapter is on the clues to the shift from 'virtue' to 'industry' which can be gained from the two authors. the second section is devoted to a short profile of Gioja, while the third deals with Dupin; subsequently, it will be argued that some key aspects of their approach are discernible in other Italian (section 4) and French (section 5) economists of the first half of the century. the main issues raised are reconsidered in the concluding remarks (section 6). the parallel treatment of two national cases is intended to highlight not only the similarity of responses that the demise of revolutionary Rousseauism induced, but also the differences.

The relevance of classical political economy to the subject of this book is twofold. First, as a refined form of social knowledge which aspired to be scientific, political economy was a medium for national character arguments, especially on the Continent, where it often acted as a general theory of modernization. in particular, national character comparisons played an important role within the economic thought of Chevalier, Faucher, and other French writers. Second, political economy, predictably enough, highlighted economic virtues, a matter of the utmost concern in an age witnessing an unusually rapid pace of growth. But it is apparent that the validity of the patterns of human character set as standards by political economy went much beyond the economic sphere. These patterns of behaviour, and this is the hypothesis the chapter sets . . .

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