Reflecting on the experience of the French Revolution, Germaine de Staël draws attention on the emotional overtones of the events of 1789, often characterized by unfiltered public displays of joy, fear, love, anger and hope, by a rhetoric of passions and a zealous sense of exuberance: “a sincere and disinterested enthusiasm inspired all the French at that time; public sphere was everywhere, and, in the upper classes, the best were those who desired most ardently that the nation’s will count for something in the direction of its affairs”. Only a few years earlier, however, her mother, Suzanne Churchod, simply known as Mme Necker thanks to her marriage to the finance minister of Louis XVI Jacques Necker, had distanced herself from a sentimentalist understanding of French public life, arguing that “love of country, humanity” were nothing more than “vague terms empty of meaning that men invented to hide their insensitivity under the very veil of sentiment”.
The fundamental difference between the two women, the one making emotions central to her understanding of French social life and political developments, the other rejecting the idea that emotions might cover a public role, let alone a political one, is illustrative, on the one hand, of a sensible generational gap, and, on the other, of a profound intellectual change taking place in French society during the XVIII century. Specifically, concepts of emotions, sentiments and passions invaded philosophical, literary and political debates, being systematically discussed by Enlightenment philosophers and leading figures of the country’s cultural life. In the Encyclopédie, for example, D’Alembert refers to “the evidence of the heart” as a drive subjugating people “with the same force” as “the evidence of the mind which concerns speculative truths”. In the same work, Diderot points out that “pity is a natural sentiment of the soul, which we experience at the sight of those who suffer or who are in distress. It is not true that pity originates from self-consciousness… Thus we owe more of the noble and merciful actions of this world to the goodness of hearts than to philosophical speculation. Nothing so honors humanity than this generous sentiment; it is of all movements of the soul, the softest and most delectable in its effects”.
Similarly, Voltaire defined pity as “the antidote to all the scourges of this world” and, to use de Staël’s own words, offered a brilliant description of “friendship in love” in his tragedy Tancrède. Montesquieu, in his 1721 Persian Letters, adopts the famous “story of the Troglodytes” to present pity, together with justice and wisdom, as the fundamental instrument for the correction of society’s ills. Furthermore, Condorcet, despite his belief that it is “better to enlighten than to move”, saw the concepts of benevolence, sensibility and affection as crucial for any form of civic development. Rousseau’s 1762 masterpiece Émile also features interesting insights on pity, which is seen as a crucial component of the protagonist’s moral development, via the intuition that the development of the individual in society is largely informed by the former’s witnessing and elaboration of the spectacle of human suffering. Baron D’Holbach, in the 1765 Elements de la Morale Universelle, suggests that benevolence is profoundly beneficial to both beneficiary and benefactor: “from the relief given to he who suffers there also results a real relief to the person providing it; a very soft and sweet pleasure that reflection further increases through the idea of having done somebody some good, of having gained some rights to their affection and merited their thanks, of acting in such a way as to prove that we possess a sensitive and tender heart; a disposition that all men wish to find in their brethren, and whose absence would lead one to believe that one is poorly made”.
The discourse on the power of emotions seems, therefore, to posit particular emphasis on the concept of pity. It is undeniable, at any rate, that debates on pity and benevolence had already been present in French culture long before the XVIII century and the Revolution. Different approaches can be identified in different domains: Renée Descartes, in his 1649 Les Passions de l’Âme, for example, suggested that “those who feel very weak and very much subject to fortune’s adversities seem to be more inclined to this passion than others are, because they represent the misfortunes of others to themselves as possibly happening to them; thus they are moved to pity by the love they bear to themselves rather than by that which they have for others”. Nicolas Boileau’s first Satire (1660) featured a powerful exposition of pity and contempt, as the character Damon witnesses the moral degradation of Paris (II, 7-10): “Las de perdre en rimant et sa peine et son bien, D’emprunter en tous lieux, et de ne gagner rien, Sans habits, sans argent, ne sçachant plus que faire, Vient de s’enfuir chargé de sa seule misère”. The painter and art theorist Charles LeBrun rose to popularity thanks to his 1698 Conférence sur l’Expression Générale et Particulière, in which he extensively drew upon insights by Descartes to provide a detailed account of how to represent emotions in portraits. In theatre, Racine’s works featured extensive use of moral ambiguity to trigger an emotional response of pity and fear in his audience. Commenting on his brilliant Iphigénie, he claimed: “My spectators were moved by the same things which, in ancient times, caused the most learned people in Greece to shed tears and which led to the saying that among poets Euripides was extremely tragic, which is to say that he was marvelous at exciting pity and fear, which are the true effects of tragedy”.
In any case, judgments on passions – and pity, in particular – were not unanimously positive: Pascal, in his 1670 Pensées, proposed a double conception of this concept, proposing that “we should pity this one and that; but we should have for the former a pity born of tenderness and for the latter a pity rising from scorn”. Others, instead, would simply reject any form of compassion, such as François de la Rochefoucauld, who defined pity as “often a way of feeling our own misfortunes in those of other people”.
Plotting these reflections against the trajectory of cultural and political developments in France during the XVIII century, a number of intuitions can be drawn: first of all, the analysis of compassion in XVII century French culture can contribute to challenging historiographical models depicting the increasing emphasis on passions and emotions as inherent features of XVIII century Enlightenment thought. Secondly, it is possible to identify some peculiar characteristics of debates evolving in the 1700s, primarily the political use of passions and, in particular, of pity, in connection with the intellectual antecedents and experience of the Revolution. Reports of the National Assembly, for example, featured an increasing number of accounts of men bursting into tears, a clear sign of the unfiltered penetration of emotions in the public domain.
A growing consciousness of the political significance of pity, then, can be observed during the second half of the XVIII century: Jean-Paul Marat, in his 1774 Les Chaînes de l’Esclavage, gives a clear description of the ideal representatives of the population, who ought to distinguish themselves for a compassionate sympathy for the oppressed mass of innocents. Similarly, Benjamin Constant established an even clearer connection between Revolution and emotions, by contending that “suffering rouses in us both that which is most noble in our nature, courage, and that which is most tender, sympathy and pity. It teaches us to fight on our behalf and feel for others”. Another contribution to the political thematization of pity – perhaps the most significant one – is represented by Rousseau’s 1755 second Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, defining pity as one of the two – the other being self-preservation – principles prior to reason: “I do not believe I need fear any contradiction in granting men the only Natural virtue which the most extreme Detractor of human virtues was forced to acknowledge. I speak of Pity, a disposition suited to beings as weak and as subject to many ills as we are; a virtue all the more universal and useful to man as it precedes the exercise of all reflection in him and so Natural that even the Beasts sometimes show evident signs of it”. It is easy, at this point, to see how Rousseau, fully makes pity a central precondition to any form of social or political organization: “It is therefore quite certain that pity is a natural sentiment which, by moderating in every individual the activity of self-love, contributes to the mutual preservation of the entire species. It is pity that carries us without reflection to the assistance of those we see suffer; pity that, in the state of Nature, takes the place of Laws, morals and virtue, with the advantage that no one is tempted to disobey its gentle voice; pity that will keep any sturdy Savage from robbing a weak child or an infirm old man of his hard-won subsistence if he can hope to find his own elsewhere: pity that, in place of that sublime maxim of reasoned justice Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, inspires in all Men this other maxim of natural goodness, much less perfect, but perhaps more useful than the first: Do your good with the least possible harm to others”.
Another interesting debate on compassion was that concerned with the possibility to justify the use of violence during the Revolution: Victor Hugo’s poem La Pitié Supreme, for instance, written in 1857-58, but published only in 1879, is concerned with God’s permission to adopt force and cruelty, pointing at their liberating effects. Hugo’s poem is reminiscent of the ideas of Maximilian Robespierre, who, during the Revolution, appealed to the public sentiment of pity in order to urge to commit violent acts. His 1792 Lettres à Ses Committants, for example, are particularly illustrative of this logic: “yet what does this law prescribe? It imposes a double duty: the first is to attend to their own conversation, from which results the right to punish all those who attack liberty or their safety; the second is to assist our oppressed fellows, from which results the right to punish their oppressors. For alongside the penchant that leads us to defend our existence, nature placed the imperious sentiment of compassion, which is but an emanation of the first penchant, and that serves as an internal warning to fear the repercussions of the outrage made to our neighbor”.
At any rate, a fully developed commentary on emotions and their political use would only appear in 1796, when Mme de Staël published her essay De L’Influence des Passions sur le Bonheur des Individus et des Nations. This text, originally conceived to be composed of two sections, the one focusing on psychological and sociological insights and the other translating them into political semantics, is incomplete, but shows, nonetheless, a remarkable degree of familiarity with the debates of the previous years. A paradox, however, seems to characterize the author’s writings on passions, taking the form of a certain ambivalence in her judgment on their presence in the public sphere: in her essays Reflexions sur le Divorce (1794), Essai sur les Fictions (1795), and De La Littérature dans ses Rapportes avec les Institutions Sociales (1800), for instance, she praises the moral implications of emotions within public cultural discourses and social institutions, highlighting the presence of “something great in passion; that passion enhances, as long as it lasts, man’s superiority; that with passion man accomplishes almost all that he wishes”, and that “men cannot be moved without the stimulus of passion”, because “the sensibility of the soul goes farther than the penetration of the mind alone”. Furthermore, when proceeding to illustrate the nature of government, she labels any form of political organization devoid of passions “as simple a machine as any lever the force of which is proportional to the weight it has to lift”.
Yet, de Staël’s definition of the goal of politics as “the most perfect moral independence” intuitively triggers a profound dichotomy between the ethical/psychological domain of emotions and the discourse concerned with their intersection with political life. In this sense, she is compelled to take some distance from an unconstrained and unfiltered penetration of feelings into the French State. This process is said to pave the way for the emergence of fanaticism and “spirit of party”, driving people away from reason and, consequently, from the rationally constituted State. Political fanaticism, in this sense, is closely connected to the emergence of ruffian party tendencies, which she perceived as particularly dramatic in the context of the Jacobin experience of 1793: “At the time”, she recounts, “when the constitutionalists were warring with the Jacobins, if the aristocrats had adopted the system of the former, if they had advised the king to put his trust in them, they might have then overthrown their common enemy, without losing the hope of one day ridding themselves of their allies. But in the spirit of party, persons like better to fall, dragging their enemies with them, than to triumph along with any of them. In place of attending at the elections where they might have influenced the choice of men on whom the fate of France was about to depend, they preferred subjecting her to the yoke of ruffians, to a partial acknowledgment of the principles of the revolution by voting in the primary assemblies”.
In De L’Influence des Passions, therefore, De Staël, lists, on the one hand, the psychological benefits of a private experience of passions, but warns, on the other, against their unchecked penetration into the realm of politics. This is partly due to the acknowledgement of the extraordinary impact emotions can have onto the public, and partly to the fragility of political organization during the Revolution. In Considérations sur la Révolution Française, posthumously published in 1862, then, she further corroborates her discussion of the irrationality of passions and fanaticism, the “stimulus which drives man independently of his will”, arguing that “the sole problem of constitutions is, then, to what degree passions can be aroused or repressed without compromising public well-being”. It should not, then, come as a surprise that, in De L’Influence des les Passions, she speaks of the suspension of the état social during the Revolution and of the consequent – and excessive – proliferation of “boastful passions” in public rhetoric, thinking and decision-making, urging for the adoption of a mechanism of control and preservation of order.
When describing passions as “true tyrants, either on the throne, or in chains”, De Staël is, therefore, evidently confronted with a fundamental issue, namely the quest for a system able to harness and regulate the extent to which emotions and feeling ought to be informing politics. In response, she identifies the said mechanism as pity, clearly seconding the views of Rousseau, whom she greatly admired, when, in the first Discourse, he says that pity is a “principle” man can adopt “in order to mitigate, in certain circumstances, the ferocity of his egocentrism or the desire for self-preservation before this egocentrism of his came into being, [which] tempers the ardor he has for his own well being by an innate repugnance to seeing his fellow men suffer”. Both Rousseau and de Staël, in this sense, describe pity as a protective psychological mechanism, but, while the Genevan philosopher’s argument culminates in the notion of amour propre, the Parisian author goes beyond this definition, translating the idea of compassion into a political dimension, and making it an antidote to fanaticism. In particular, coming to terms with Robespierre’s conception of pity as prodromal to the use of violence, she proceeds to define it as “that divine sentiment which transforms sorrow into a human bond, […] that instinctive virtue which preserves the human species, by preserving individuals from the effects of their own ferociousness, [which] the spirit of party has alone succeeded in erasing from the soul, by shifting concerns from individuals in order to focus it on nations and future generations”.
De Staël, then, proceeds to argue that “it is during the crisis of the Revolution that our ears are incessantly compelled to hear that pity is a puerile sentiment; that it impedes every necessary action, and obstructs the general interest; and that it ought consequently to be banished, together with those effeminate affections which let down the dignity of statesmen and unnerve the vigor of party leaders. The contrary, however, is the truth: it is amidst the disorder of a revolution that pity, which under every other circumstance, is an involuntary emotion, ought to be come the rule and guide of our conduct”. Urging for the systematic reliance upon pity in a revolutionary context is certainly not a novelty, as Robespierre had already adopted this notion in order to justify the use of violence, but de Staël could not be more distant from the Jacobin leader in proposing pity as a precondition for solidarity and the preservation of social order.
These considerations intuitively allows to gain precious insights on de Staël’s intention to come to terms with the experience of the Jacobin violence via a powerful, yet, subtle, criticism of Robespierre’s views and, at the same time, to imagine what the second half of De L’Influence des les Passions might have looked like, had it ever been written. Passions, she seems to suggest, are a glorious thing, as long as their influence is limited to the private sphere, or tied to an aesthetic discourse: they ennoble the soul and enhance one’s own moral landscape, but their unregulated presence in politics is extremely dangerous, as it paves the way for excess, savagery and violence. It is easy, in this sense, to imagine that the book may have been intended to be built around the tension between a positive appraisal of emotions, pertinent to individuals and a harsh criticism, pertinent to national life. At the same time, Mme de Staël does not limit her reasoning to a critique of revolutionary ideologies and sentiments, but moves on to identify the politics of pity as a necessary regulative mechanism: thanks to pity, emotions can be channeled in the right direction, the dangers of excess and fanaticism averted and solidarity truly fostered.
© Alessandro De Arcangelis, 2015