Sundays with Stendhal (3)

February 9

By 1830, would England have been willing to pay for war against another Napoleon?  And the short answer is … according to a group of French aristocrats, nobles and clergy gathered in a secret conclave to contemplate the possibility of a second French revolution that might again depose them, in which the peasant-born Julian Sorel, elevated by his cleverness to private secretary to the Marquis de la Mole, has been tasked to take notes and deliver a summary to certain Eminent Personages in England … no.

These aristocratic, reactionary French conspirators note something already noted in French literary history by the Duc de Saint-Simon, in his diary-memoir of the Sun King, Louis XIV:  Beyond an initial campaign or two, European monarchs lack the money to continue their wars and must perforce borrow it from somewhere.   “Every Englishman,” says one of Stendhal’s Bourbon Restoration noblemen, before “paying for his daily bread, is obliged to pay the interest on the forty thousand million francs which were employed against the Jacobins” in the Napoleonic Wars.  The English middle class, the class to which Parliament belongs, will “not be hoodwinked twice” into financially parlous war.  Public opinion in England (the discussion goes on) has thus embraced the twin propositions of …

economics and Hume.

More properly, “economy and Hume.” I’ve rendered it as the discipline rather than its substance (perhaps “political economy,” as long as I’m rewriting Stendhal to my own purposes) in order to emphasize the features of what Stendhal signals by the reference to Hume: coolly rational, unsentimental, utilitarian, forward-looking, skeptical decision-making shaping European, or at least English, sensibility, arising by 1830 and the gradual birth of the modern.  It’s the rational self-interest of the rising middle classes, a sensibility defined by the busking cry of the market: “So what have you done for me lately?

Stendhal’s reactionary aristocracy of the Bourbon Restoration had good reasons to fear for their restoration and to wonder who would continue to guarantee the “monarchical principle.”  Stendhal was composing the novel in the late 1820s and it was published in 1830, the year of the July Revolution that brought down the (“learned nothing and forgotten nothing”) Bourbon monarchy.  Julian’s employer, the Marquis de la Mole, adds in appalled tones:

In fifty years there will be nothing in Europe but presidents of republics, not one king left.  And with those four letters, K-I-N-G, go the priests and the noble gentlemen.  I can see nothing but candidates paying court to draggle-tailed majorities.

Quelle horreur!  But then, like Julian Sorel, I’m divided between my coolly rational, Humean side, and the side that can’t help but (despite myself sometimes) admire republican France.  Someone told me of a French diplomat not many years ago, attending a gala reception with many European royals and aristocrats, all signing the guest registry with their florid titles of nobility.  A woman ahead of him in line signed herself with some long lost title of French nobility, countess or duchess or something, perhaps dating back to the Bourbon Restoration and the time of The Red and the Black.  Taking out his fountain pen, this diplomat coolly scratched out the title and replaced it with plain Mme. A–, citizen of la republique francaise.  So even against my better judgment sometimes …  pour la France, baby.

(The Red and the Black, Book II, Chapter 53.)

Kenneth Anderson teaches law at Washington College of Law, American University; he is also a non-resident senior fellow of the Brookings Institution, member of the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law, and senior fellow of the Rift Valley Institute.
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