The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution

The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution

by Roger Chartier, Lydia G. Cochrane

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Reknowned historian Roger Chartier, one of the most brilliant and productive of the younger generation of French writers and scholars now at work refashioning the Annales tradition, attempts in this book to analyze the causes of the French revolution not simply by investigating its “cultural origins” but by pinpointing the conditions that “made is possible because conceivable.”
Chartier has set himself two important tasks. First, while acknowledging the seminal contribution of Daniel Mornet’s Les origens intellectuelles de la Révolution française (1935), he synthesizes the half-century of scholarship that has created a sociology of culture for Revolutionary France, from education reform through widely circulated printed literature to popular expectations of government and society. Chartier goes beyond Mornet’s work, not be revising that classic text but by raising questions that would not have occurred to its author.
Chartier’s second contribution is to reexamine the conventional wisdom that there is a necessary link between the profound cultural transformation of the eighteenth century (generally characterized as the Enlightenment) and the abrupt Revolutionary rupture of 1789. The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution is a major work by one of the leading scholars in the field and is likely to set the intellectual agenda for future work on the subject.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822373841
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 12/11/2015
Series: Bicentennial reflections on the French Revolution
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 260
File size: 458 KB

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The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution

By Roger Chartier, Lydia G. Cochrane

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1991 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7384-1



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ANY REFLECTION ON THE CULTURAL ORIGINS OF THE French Revolution leads ineluctably back to a classic, Daniel Mornet's Les Origines intellectuelles de la Révolution française 1715–1787. Mornet's work seems to dictate the only possible perspective for further work, a perspective that postulates an evident and obligatory connection between the progress of new ideas throughout the eighteenth century and the emergence of the Revolution as an event. For Mornet, three laws governed the penetration of the new ideas that he identified with the Enlightenment into general public opinion. First, ideas descended the social scale from "the highly cultivated classes toward the bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie, and the people." Second, this penetration spread from the center (Paris) toward the periphery (the provinces). Finally, the process accelerated during the course of the century, beginning with minorities who anticipated the new ideas before 1750 and continuing in the decisive and mobilizing conflicts of the mid-century to arrive, after 1770, at a universal diffusion of the new principles. This led Mornet to the book's underlying thesis, that "it was, in part, ideas that determined the French Revolution." Even if he did not deny the importance — indeed, the primacy — of political causes, Mornet set up Enlightenment thought, in both its critical and its reforming aspects, as a necessary precondition for the final crisis of the old monarchy as it moved toward revolution: "Political causes would doubtless not have been sufficient to determine the Revolution, at least not as rapidly. It was intelligence that drew out and organized its consequences."

In spite of his prudence and his rectifications (clearly signaled in his writing by expressions such as "in part," "doubtless," and "at least"), Mornet postulated a necessary connection between the Enlightenment and the Revolution. The reasons for the Revolution were, of course, not entirely contained in philosophy, but without transformations in "public thought" wrought by "the intelligence," that event could not have occurred when it did. This led Mornet to a working hypothesis that for the last fifty years has haunted both the intellectual history and the cultural sociology of the eighteenth century.

The Chimera of Origins

Doubts have arisen, however, that insinuate that the question may have been badly put. First of all, under what conditions is it legitimate to set up a collection of scattered and disparate facts or ideas as "causes" or "origins" of an event? The operation is not as self-evident as it may seem. On the one hand, it supposes a sorting-out process that retains, out of the innumerable realities that make up the history of an epoch, only the matrix of the future event. On the other hand, it demands a retrospective reconstruction that gives unity to thoughts and actions supposed to be "origins" but foreign to one another, heterogeneous by their nature and discontinuous in their realization.

Following Nietzsche, Michel Foucault has offered a devastating criticism of the notion of origin understood in this sense. Assuming the absolute linearity of the course of history, justifying a never-ending search for beginnings and annulling the originality of the event as already present before it happens, recourse to this category obliterates both the radical discontinuity of abrupt historical changes and the irreducible discordance separating the various series of discourses and practices. When history succumbs to "the chimera of origins," it burdens itself, perhaps unconsciously, with several presuppositions: that every historical moment is a homogeneous totality endowed with an ideal and unique meaning present in each of the realities that make up and express that whole; that historical becoming is organized as an ineluctable continuity; that events are linked together, one engendering another in an uninterrupted flow of change that enables us to decide that one is the "cause," another the "effect." For Foucault, however, it was precisely these classical notions of totality, continuity, and causality that "genealogical" or "archaeological" analysis had to escape if it wanted to render an adequate account of rupture and divergence. Like the wirkliche Historie of Nietzsche, such an analysis "transposes the relationship ordinarily established between the eruption of an event and necessary continuity. An entire historical tradition (theological or rationalistic) aims at dissolving the singular event into an ideal continuity — as a teleological movement or a natural process. 'Effective' history, however, deals with events in terms of their most unique characteristics, their most acute manifestations." If history is to replace a search for origins with "the systematic deployment of the notion of discontinuity," the very pertinence of the question with which we began is undermined.

This is all the more true since the notion of origin entails the further risk of proposing a teleological reading of the eighteenth century that seeks to understand it only in relation to the phenomenon deemed to be its necessary outcome — the French Revolution — and to focus only on the phenomenon seen to lead to this outcome — the Enlightenment. However, precisely what should be questioned is the retrospective illusion inherent in "the regressive movement that enables us to read premonitory signs when the event has arrived at completion and when we regard the past from a point of arrival that perhaps was not necessarily its future." In affirming that it was the Enlightenment that produced the Revolution, the classical interpretation perhaps inverses logical order: should we not consider instead that it was the Revolution that invented the Enlightenment by attempting to root its legitimacy in a corpus of texts and founding authors reconciled and united, beyond their extreme differences, by their preparation of a rupture with the old world? When they brought together (not without debate) a pantheon of ancestors including Voltaire, Rousseau, Mably, and Raynal, when they assigned a radically critical function to philosophy (if not to all the Philosophes), the revolutionaries constructed a continuity that was primarily a process of justification and a search for paternity. Finding the "origins" of the event in the ideas of the century — which was Mornet's program — would be a way of repeating, without knowing it, the actions of the persons involved in the event itself and of holding as established historically a filiation that was proclaimed ideologically.

Can the difficulty be circumvented by a reformulation that replaces the category of intellectual origins with that of cultural origins? Such a substitution would undoubtedly do much to increase the possibilities for comprehension. On the one hand, the notion of cultural origins assumes that cultural institutions are not simple receptacles for (or resistances to) ideas forged elsewhere. This permits us to restore a dynamic of their own to forms of sociability, means of communication, and educational processes that is denied them by an analysis like Mornet's that considers them only from the point of view of the ideology that they contain or transmit. On the other hand, an approach in terms of cultural sociology opens a large range of practices that must be taken into consideration: not only clear and well-elaborated thoughts but also unmediated and embodied representations; not only voluntary and reasoned engagements but also automatic and obligatory loyalties. This enables the revolutionary event to be placed within the long-term transformations of what Edgar Quinet designated "temperament" when he contrasted the inflexible nature of the religious reformers of the sixteenth century and the more malleable temper of the revolutionaries of the eighteenth century, opening the way to an essential reflection on variations in the structure of personality, or, to use Norbert Elias's terminology, psychic economy. But will this enlargement of perspective be enough to avoid the snares of teleological interpretation? "The postulate that 'what actually happened' did so of necessity is a classical retrospective illusion of historical consciousness, which sees the past as a field of possibilities within which 'what actually happened' appears ex post facto as the only future for that past," François Furet wrote, putting us on guard against the a posteriori reconstructions that seem to be necessarily implied in any search for origins.

But is this danger avoidable? Must we, inspired by "counterfactual history," behave as if we were unaware of how the 1780s ended? Must we suspend judgment and suppose that the French Revolution never took place? It might be amusing, even profitable, to take up that challenge. But if we did, what question and what principle of intelligibility would we use to organize our interrogation of the many series of discourse and practice that intertwine to make up what is usually designated as the culture of eighteenth-century France? History stripped of all temptation to teleology would risk becoming an endless inventory of disconnected facts abandoned to their teeming incoherence for want of a hypothesis to propose a possible order among them. Whether we like it or not, then, we have to work within the terrain staked out by Mornet (and before him by the revolutionaries themselves) and consider that no approach to a historical problem is possible outside the historiographical discourse that constructed it. The question posed by Les Origines intellectuelles de la Révolution française — the question of the relationship of ideas formulated and propagated by the Enlightenment to the occurrence of the Revolution — will serve us as a set of problems that we both accept and place aside, that we receive as a legacy and continue to subject to doubt.

Taine: From Classical Reason to the Revolutionary Spirit

Mornet's relationship with the historians who preceded him was of exactly the same order. There are two fundamental bibliographic references in his Origines intellectuelles: one that he reiterated, discussed, and refuted — Hippolyte Taine's L'Ancien Régime (1876) — the other discreet and mentioned almost in passing — L'Ancien Régime et la Revolution, by Alexis de Tocqueville (1856). Both works are central to revolutionary historiography. Mornet offered two criticisms of Taine. First, he reproached him for concluding too hastily that "the revolutionary spirit" was widespread early and for basing his judgment on texts that were too famous, too few, and, furthermore, misconstrued. For Mornet, reconstituting the progress of new ideas required a different approach: an attempt to measure the penetration of those ideas (or resistance to them) on the basis of a collection of evidence as vast as possible and taken not only from literature or philosophy but also from personal memoirs, printed periodicals, academic courses, debates in the academies and the Masonic lodges, and the cahiers de doléances. It is true that in this work Mornet's implementation of his call for rigor is often awkward and tentative, remains more enumerative than quantitative, and accepts the evidence of disparate and incomplete series. The concern Mornet expressed (which on the whole remains faithful to the program drawn up by Lanson in the 1900s) has nonetheless provided a base for studies that have profoundly changed French cultural history in the last twenty or twenty-five years by leading it toward the massive documentary corpus, the treatment of data in time series, and the experience of ordinary people.

Mornet had a second reproach for Taine, however. When Taine stated that the "revolutionary spirit" already existed, completely formed, in Old Regime society, and was carried to its most extreme consequences by the Philosophes, he gave new life to the old plot theory and to the thesis of a planned revolution. Mornet found this idea unacceptable. "A Lenin, a Trotsky, wanted a particular revolution; first they prepared it, then they carried it out, then they directed it. Nothing like that occurred in France. The origins of the Revolution are one story, the history of the Revolution is another." The remark is a valuable one. It opens the way to all the lines of thinking that distinguish the Revolution as it was inscribed within a long-term process as the necessary outcome of a constellation of causes that made it happen, on the one hand, and, on the other, the Revolution as an event instituting, by a dynamic of its own, a political and social configuration in no way reducible to the conditions that made it possible. Even assuming that the Revolution had many origins (intellectual, cultural, or other), its own history still cannot be limited to them.

Mornet's double-pronged criticism doubtless missed the paradoxical originality of Taine's work — that is, the genealogy that traces the "revolutionary spirit" back to its matrix in French classicism. In a letter addressed to Boutmy in 1874, Taine described his projected work in the following terms:

[I want to] show that Boileau, Descartes, Lemaistre de Sacy, Corneille, Racine, Fléchier, etc. are the ancestors of Saint-Just and Robespierre. What held them back was that monarchical and religious dogma was intact; once that dogma was worn down by its excesses and overthrown by the scientific view of the world (Newton, via Voltaire), the classical spirit inevitably produced the theory of abstract, natural man and the social contract.

Beyond the Enlightenment, the Revolution was rooted in the triumph of la raison raisonnante of classicism. By substituting an "abstract world" for "the plenitude and complexity of actualities," replacing the real individual as he actually exists in Nature and in history by "man in general," the classical spirit gave philosophical thought its framework at the same time that it undermined the customary and historical foundations of the monarchy.

The negation of reality that lies at the heart of classicism reached its completion in an acculturating eradication called for by the men of the Revolution:

In the name of Reason, of which the State alone is the representative and interpreter, they undertake to unmake and make over, conformably to reason and to reason alone, all customs, festivals, ceremonies, and costumes, the era, the calendar, weights and measures, the names of the seasons, months, weeks and days, of places and monuments, family and baptismal names, complimentary titles, the tone of discourse, the mode of salutation, of greeting, of speaking and of writing, in such a fashion, that the Frenchman, as formerly with the Puritan or the Quaker, remodelled even in his inward substance, exposes, through the minutest details of his conduct and exterior, the dominance of the all-powerful principle which refashions his being and the inflexible logic which controls his thoughts. This constitutes the final result and complete triumph of the classic spirit.

Must this be seen as the exuberance or inebriation of a counter-revolutionary philosophy rewriting national history in the light of its inevitable, destructive, and detestable outcome? Perhaps not, or not merely. By tracing the "revolutionary spirit" not directly to Enlightenment reforms but to tradition itself — to tradition in its forms most respectful of authority, royal and divine — Taine set aside the topos forged by the Revolution, which, in its search for founding heroes, picked only Descartes (proposed but not admitted to the revolutionary Pantheon) to stand beside the Philosophes. Filiations that failed to surface in the consciousness of history's protagonists and that wove unknown relationships underneath their proclaimed ideologies are more interesting than the ones they claimed and exalted. In this regard, Taine aided the conceptualization of the cultural process that included the Revolution, setting it in a longer time span than was taken into account either before him or after Mornet. Furthermore, when Taine characterized classicism in terms of its rejection of reality and its negation of the social world, he provided an outline for later analyses that defined this "dereification" as the distinctive trait of French literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. "The classic tragedy of the French represents the ultimate extreme in the separation of styles, in the severance of the tragic from the everyday and real, attained by European literature." This pronouncement of Erich Auerbach's is like a reminiscence of Taine's statement. For Auerbach as well, the classical aesthetic (which also ruled the literature of the Enlightenment, and of which tragic drama was simply an exemplary expression) substituted a universal, absolute, and mythical humanity for concrete, daily experience, practical politics, and individual existences. Twenty years before Taine, and considering a shorter time span, Tocqueville conceived of the same opposition between the abstract world of reason and "the plenitude and complexity of actualities," using another pair of contrasted categories: "literary politics" and "experience of public affairs."


Excerpted from The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution by Roger Chartier, Lydia G. Cochrane. Copyright © 1991 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Cover Title Copyright Contents Acknowledgments Editors’ Introduction Introduction 1. Enlightenment and Revolution; Revolution and Enlightenment 2. The Public Sphere and Public Opinion 3. The Way of Print 4. Do Books Make Revolutions? 5. Dechristianization and Secularization 6. A Desacralized King 7. A New Political Culture 8. Do Revolutions Have Cultural Origins? Conclusion Notes For Further Reading Index

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