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Ernest Renan on the Bourgeoisie

1,793 words


Translated by Charles Jansen

Translator’s Note:

Ernest Renan (1823–1892) is famous for his 1882 essay Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? (What is a Nation?), in which he upholds the idea that a nation is founded upon a social contract or a voluntary association of individuals rather than ties of blood or a common history. His statement that “a nation is a plebiscite of each day” has been a pillar of French civic education for decades. Eventually, his iconic status waned as he was labeled a “social Darwinist” and a “white supremacist.”

The following text is drawn from his 1871 book La réforme intellectuelle et morale de la France [2] (The Intellectual and Moral Reform of France) (Paris: Classiques des sciences sociales, 2008), Part I, 2, pp. 27–35, and Part II, 1, pp. 54–56, 59. Here Renan sharply criticizes the plum, self-satisfied spirit of the French provincial bourgeoisie. Various themes — a yearning for the higher, race realism, republican idealism, a dichotomy between Parisian Jacobinism and a provincial nostalgia for lost liberties — intertwine here. Today, in a world where so many Millenials have no choice but to awake from being frail bourgeois “nice guys,” Renan’s words have a striking relevance. The last sentence of the chosen excerpt also appears prescient of the cultural victories of Marxism as well as the emergence of a Deep State.

France, as shaped by the newly established universal suffrage, has become deeply materialistic. The noble concerns of older France — patriotism, enthusiasm for beauty, love of glory — disappeared with the noble classes which embodied the soul of the nation. The right to judge and govern has been given to the mass. But the mass is weighty, vulgar, dominated by the most superficial view of interests. Its chief poles are the industrial and agricultural worker. The first has no lights, and the second mostly wants to buy new lands in order to get a bigger field. Tell a peasant about the Socialist International, about France, about our past and genius; he will not understand your language. From his narrow point of view, military honor seems crazy; the taste for great accomplishments, including those related to the glory of the mind, appears chimerical; money spent for art and science is lost, wasted, because it is taken from the pockets of people who care as little as possible about art and science. Such is the provincial spirit that the empereur [Napoléon III] served marvelously during the first years of his reign. Had he remained the docile and blind servant of that petty reaction, no opposition could have dethroned him.

[. . .]

Actually, [before 1848,] our country and especially its provinces were heading towards a social form analogous to North America, where many functions usually performed by the state were transferred to the private economy. Certainly, one could remain dubious of the merits of such an orientation: by following it, France could merely turn into a lower version of the United States. The latter country lacks a Royal Court, high societies, and old institutions. As a consequence, the US also lacks education and distinction. Yet it has constantly compensated by the fire of its youthful growth, as well as patriotism, an exaggerated trust in its own strength, a belief that it is laboring on the greatest work of all humanity, efficient protestant convictions, an entrepreneurial spirit, a complete absence of socialist seeds, and an easy acceptance of the differences between the rich and the poor. The US also had the immense privilege to grow in an infinite space void of neighbors.

Deprived of those advantages, unable to experiment in such a closed environment, both excessively cumbersome and frivolous, too credulous and derisive, France could never achieve a status even close to the US. It would have remained a trifling, mediocre, second-order America, likely closer to Mexico or South America.

In our older societies, royalty conserves many features that are good to keep. As a firm believer in the vieille France and its geniality, I would call that adieu to glory and great things: Finis Franciӕ. Nonetheless, in politics, one ought to be careful not to confuse one’s own sympathies with what should be. What succeeds in this world is ordinarily, for us idealists, the reverse of our instincts. Always, almost, the very fact that something appears displeasing to us is enough to conclude that it will appear.

The desire for a political state in which central government would be reduced to a minimum is the universal wish of the entire province. Its antipathy against Paris goes beyond a fair indignation against the attacks perpetrated by a factious minority. No: France does not merely loathe revolutionary Paris, but Paris as a governing center. France equates Paris with troublesome requirements. It does not understand the ends Paris aims at, when the capital drafts men and collects money.

The most competent administrator of the last reign told me, as we were discussing the elections of 1869, that what seemed most compromising to him was the tax system. Indeed, the system forces the elected to keep their promises – which will happen someday,  causing the financial ruin of the state. The first time I met Prevost-Paradol, back from his election campaign in lower Loire, I asked him his first impression: “we shall witness the end of the state,” he told me. This is exactly what I would have answered, had he asked me my impressions of the Seine-et-Marne. Let the préfet [administrator in chief of a department] meddle with the minimum ongoing affairs, reduce taxes and the draft as low as possible, and the province will be satisfied. Only poor places still show a strong desire for state posts; in rich departments, such functions have no public esteem and are held as one of the least advantageous uses of one’s effort.

Such is the spirit of what may be called provincial democracy. As one can see, it differs sharply from the republican spirit. It can go along with an Empire and a constitutional monarchy as well as with a republic, and maybe even better with the former ones. Shielded by a complete indifference to this or that dynasty, unconcerned with glory and shining victories, it favors a royal dynasty as a guarantee of order, but refuses to perform the least sacrifice for establishing the dynasty. In a nutshell, it is pure political materialism, the perfect opposite of the idealistic element which constitutes the soul of legitimist [non-Orleanist monarchism] and republican political theories. Such a party, characterizing the immense majority of the French, is too superficial and narrow to fulfill a country’s destiny. It made a huge mistake when it chose in 1848 Prince Louis-Napoléon [Napoléon III] as its manager, and it will repeat the same mistake twenty times. Bourgeois materialism is fated to be a perpetual dupe: talent is beyond a man with lowly interests; a vulgar bourgeois platitude can never spark a sufficient devotion to create an order of things, and it cannot maintain it either.

There is something true in the Germanic principle according to which a society deserves its patrimony only as long as it can ensure its ownership. An owner must be able to defend what he owns. The chivalrous duel of the Middle Ages, the threat of the armed man awakening the owner from its comfort-induced slumber, were somehow fair. The right of the brave man created property. In a certain sense, the swordsman is the maker of all wealth, as he ensures the wealth of everyone under his protection when he defends whatever he took.

The state desired by the French bourgeoisie, where the owner — and man of pleasure — cannot hold a sword to defend his property, is a cantilever of social architecture. An owning class, living in relative leisure, fulfilling but a few public services, and yet acting arrogantly, as if it had an innate right to possess while the other classes would have an innate duty to defend her; such a class, I say, will not own for long.

Our society is becoming an association of weaklings. Such a society cannot defend itself efficiently. It hardly realizes the great criteria of all right and will that a group of men must conform to in order to live together and defend each other: I mean, a powerful armed force. The creator of wealth is both the one who makes it by his work and the one who ensures it by his weapons. Political economists, merely thinking about how work creates wealth, never understood the merits of feudality — which had at bottom the same legitimacy than our modern armed forces. Dukes, marquis, and counts, were generals, colonels, commanders of a Landwehr; their appointments were lands and feudal rights.


Remember what provoked the end of all cooperative worker societies: an incapacity to gather around a serious leadership, a jealousy against anyone assuming a specific office, a perpetual pretention to subordinate them to those they represented, and an obstinate refusal to let them have dignified positions. French democracy will make the same mistake in politics. The negation of intellectual works and of the value of these works will never produce an enlightened leadership . . .

A republic is fated to both produce anarchy and repress it harshly. An assembly can never be a great man. It has, however, the most crippling defects one can meet in the person of a sovereign. An assembly is intellectually limited, passionate, easily gets emotional, and decides quickly and irresponsibly under the idea that prevails for a moment. Hoping that an assembly composed of departmental notabilities and merely honest provincials could ever maintain the bright inheritance of monarchy and French nobility is a chimera. We need a permanent aristocratic center, able to maintain art, science, and good taste against democratic and provincial philistinism. This need is well felt in Paris. The capital claims the privilege to be, by itself, an institution for the whole France, sometimes acts as a head and sovereign and demands the obedience of everyone else like no ancient aristocracy has ever done. Yet, and while still claiming its capital privilege, Paris pretends to be republican and boasts at having founded universal suffrage. Here is one of the most striking paradoxes that can be found in centuries of recent history.

Offer France a young, serious, and austere king. Let this king rule for fifty years, let him gather hardworking men who will entertain fanaticism for their own work, and France shall enjoy another century of glory and prosperity. The republic will give us indiscipline, disorder, mavericks, pseudo-volunteers pretending to be ready to die for the country but lacking the necessary abnegation to accept the common conditions of military life. Obedience, hierarchy, and so on, are opposed to democratic catechism. A democracy cannot live within the same borders as a significant military state; or, if such a state grows under democracy, the military will absorb the democratic.