Bertrand De Jouvenel's Melancholy Liberalism

By Anderson, Brian C. | The Public Interest, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Bertrand De Jouvenel's Melancholy Liberalism

Anderson, Brian C., The Public Interest

OF the major political thinkers of his generation--including Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, Michael Oakeshott, and Leo Strauss--Bertrand de Jouvenel suffers from relative neglect. During the 1950s and 1960s, the French philosopher and political economist enjoyed a considerable reputation in the English-speaking world. He lectured as a visiting professor at Yale and the University of California-Berkeley, and his books garnered serious reviews in prestigious journals. But by the time of his death in 1987, his star had dimmed. Read through a span of recent political-theory journals and you will rarely encounter his name.

The neglect is not surprising. Jouvenel's thought does not fit into the two categories that unfortunately came to dominate academic thinking on politics during the 1970s and continue to rule it today: the arid left-liberalism of analytic philosophers like Ronald Dworkin, which reduces political thought to abstract reflection on moral and legal principles, and the nihilist radicalism of post-structuralist thinkers like Michel Foucault, which irresponsibly seeks to blow up the bourgeois world to clear the way for who knows what.

Jouvenel's work, published over five decades in a series of learned, beautifully written books and essays, is anything but abstract. It harkens back to an older style of political thought (as old as Aristotle, really, but arching over the centuries to include Montesquieu and Alexis de Tocqueville) that brings together moral and political philosophy and painstaking historical and institutional analysis.

His work is also a model of political responsibility. The philosopher Pierre Manent places Jouvenel in the sober tradition of liberalisme triste--melancholy liberalism--whose great representative is Tocqueville and among whose recent exemplars I would include Irving Kristol and Manent himself. These anti-utopians fully acknowledge the basic decency and justness of liberal democratic civilization. But they are also aware of its profound weaknesses--the erosion of moral and spiritual life, the hollowing out of civil society, the growth of an overbearing state, and the "joyless quest for joy," as Leo Strauss once put it, of a society dedicated chiefly to commercial pursuits. The task of liberalisme triste is to illumine the tensions and possibilities of this liberal civilization, in the hope of advising citizens and statesmen how best to cultivate the goods and avoid or at least moderate the evils that attend it.

Thankfully, there are signs that Jouvenel is sparking renewed interest. Over the last half-decade, two publishers--Liberty Fund Press and Transaction Publishers--have made available again to English readers some of his most important work. It seems an ideal occasion, then, to reconsider Jouvenel's contribution to political thought.

A life in the age of extremes

Bertrand de Jouvenel was born in 1903 into an aristocratic French household swept up in the political and intellectual currents of the early twentieth century. His father, Baron Henri de Jouvenel, was a well-known Dreyfusard politician and newspaper editor, and his mother, Sarah Claire Boas, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish industrialist, ran a trendy Parisian salon, so young Bertrand met many of the leading artists, writers, and politicians of the day. Through his mother, a passionate supporter of Czechoslovak independence, he gained his earliest political experience, working as private secretary to Eduard Benes, Czechoslovakia's first prime minister, when barely out of his teens.

Jouvenel was close to both of his parents, who divorced in 1912, but his relationship to his father was sorely tested during the early twenties. After divorcing Bertrand's mother, Henri had remarried the novelist and sexual provocateur Colette. In 1919, the 16-year-old Bertrand, strikingly handsome-"all sinews and lank," observes Colette biographer Judith Thurman- entered a scandalous affair with his stepmother, then in her late forties, who had seduced the bookish teenager. …

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