Monday, June 27, 2016

Mme de Staël and the Mystery of the Public Will

One of my favorite characters who makes an appearance in both Trianon and Madame Royale. From The New York Review of Books:
Mme de Staël did not present this problem as a matter of political philosophy. Although she frequented philosophers, notably Benjamin Constant, one of her many lovers, she was known primarily as a literary figure—a salon lioness, a romantic novelist, and the woman who defied Napoleon, preferring exile to subjection. Yet she grasped something that had eluded political theorists and that is still worth pondering. It was the importance of public opinion at the deepest level of political life—neither the shifting, short-term views of policies and politicians nor a preference that could be tallied in the form of votes, but rather a visceral, collective emotion that linked a people to its leaders.

Should that tie be broken, Staël maintained, the public could develop such a sense of estrangement that the political elite, whether royal ministers or elected officials, could no longer manage public affairs. This kind of disaffection ultimately explained the failure of the French Revolution, she argued, and she made the argument by working it into a full-scale history, Considérations sur les principaux événements de la révolution française (Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution), her last and most ambitious book, published posthumously in 1818. (Read more.)

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