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Madame de Staël and the Philosophy of "L'Allemagne"
by Joseph F. Charles,
"Les grandes pensées viennent du coeur." (The grandest thoughts come from the heart.)
[Germaine "Minette" de Staël-Holstein, 1766-1817, was a celebrated French scholar, political theorist, writer, and a voice of moderation in the French Revolution. She lived in exile during the Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic War. She was married twice, had affairs, and had children. Her most notable books were Delphine, Corinne, and De l'Allmagne (L'Allemagne is French for Germany).]
"L'Allemagne," suppressed in France, found a publisher, three years later, in London. It was at once recognized as a work of true genius. In the form of a review of German literature, art, philosophy and religion, it contained a fine criticism of life, and brought to the front a conception of culture which laid aside the narrow limits of nationality, and proclaimed the real unity of thought. For the service which it thus rendered to education, it received warm praise from Goethe. "It was a mighty implement," he said, "whereby, in the Chinese wall of prejudices which divided us from France, a broad gap was broken." [Carlyle, "Miscellanies," vol ii. appendix 2.] Ever since, the gap has been slowly widening in the wall which hems in the instructed classes of all nations, although in our English views of culture, there still remains a considerable barrier of insular prejudice. It is not that we now look down upon the ideas which come from abroad, but we feel the difficulty of entering into systems of thought which have grown up among foreign influences, and so we too often slip into a condition of contented ignorance, and pass through life with the slenderest equipment alike of philosophic and literary knowledge.
There is, indeed, in the human mind a constant tendency to look at parts instead of wholes. Not only is the international unity of thought ignored in our habitual estimates of culture, but we draw sharp lines of distinction between the branches of knowledge with which we are familiar. We isolate philosophy, science, art, and religion, each within a ring-fence of its own, whereas in truth they depend closely upon one another, and are, in their expression, but phases of the comprehensive whole of literature. Not only can we often trace direct influence passing over from philosopher or man of science to poet, but we know that, in poetry and imaginative prose, the finest outcome of philosophic thought is frequently to be found. To have mastered Faust, for instance, is to have put oneself into a condition of study with appreciation the systems of contemporary philosophy.
Of this truth Madame de Staël was perfectly aware. She had the great gift of the interpretative critic of a national literature, sympathy with its inspiring spirit. The lasting merit of "L'Allemagne" is that it causes us to breathe afresh the air which gave life to the teachers of Germany. Yet this very sympathy deprives it in some measure, of its value as an exponent of philosophic systems, which require in their treatment the dispassionate impartiality of the scientific mind.
The attitude in which Madame de Staël approached philosophy is indicated with her usual frankness. ["L'Allemagne," part iii. chap 4.] She felt nothing of the need for building up a reasoned explanation of the universe, which was at the bottom of the laborious German speculation of her time, and so she failed to understand the full extent of its significance. Brought up in France, and familiar with the popular forms of more or less materialistic thought, she was conscious of "the mocking and sardonic laughter," [J. Morley, "Voltaire," chap v. p 232.] which has been declared to the be the note of French literature in the middle of the eighteenth century. [An account of French philosophic thought in this century is given to the English translation of Ueberweg's "History of Philosophy," vol ii. pp122-130.] At the present day it is the custom to account for this as the reaction against the tyranny of Church and State, and to feel its under-current of deep and abiding melancholy, but Madame de Staël had another explanation ready. "We have seen," she said, "within the last century in Europe, the birth and growth of a kind of mocking skepticism, of which the base is the philosophy which attributes all our ideas to our sensations." ["L'Allemagne," part iii. chap 4.] This philosophy considers the soul "as passive," and, adopting the ethics of utilitarianism, turns "all our efforts towards material prosperity." ["L'Allemagne," part iii. chap 4.] In opposition to it, she welcomes the German idealism, in which she finds activity of the soul, freedom of the will, and the law of duty claimed as the prerogative of man.
The distinction between the two kinds of philosophy is real; the questions at issue between them have been debated as much since the time of Madame de Staël as before it, but, with her, the strictly philosophic point of view is obscured. Principles in her book assume personal forms; the glow of personal feeling takes the place of cold investigation. Into the Eden of the divine freedom of the spirit creeps the serpent of wicked sensational theory. He whispers his subtle suggestions; the thinker, forgetting his priceless heritage of liberty, his self-imposed obedience to the call of duty, eats the forbidden fruit of the philosophy of experience, and becomes a prey to every low and sordid impulse. Then in the time of his degradation he hears the message of the German prophets. His conscience is aroused. He embraces the system of Kant, and is saved.
There is a fine art in the way in which our sympathies are thus from the first enlisted against the philosophy of sensation. We can hardly forbear a cheer when we see it finally rolled lifeless in the dust; but to gain all that "L'Allemagne," can give us, we must not be carried away by the feelings of the writer. We must weigh the personal element exactly, subtract it, and then judge the result.
In the first place, we must not omit to notice that the spirit of Madame de Staël was profoundly religious. More and more in the years in which "L'Allemagne" was taking shape, she was rendering homage to the claims of Christianity. To the wild excesses of the revolution, a religious reaction was succeeding everywhere around her. The brother of her friend Schlegel had already joined the Church of Rome. He himself hesitated about following the example. "I am convinced," he wrote, "that the time is not far off when all Christians will re-unite in the old faith. The work of the Reformation is accomplished; the pride of human reason, which was evident in the first reformers, and still more in their successors, has guided us so ill, especially during the last century, that it has come into antagonism with itself and has destroyed itself. [Lady Blennerhassett, "Madame de Staël," vol iii. pp. 345-347. The whole passage, pp. 328-352, is worth attentive study by all who are interested in the growth of religious ideas in the mind of Madame de Staël.]
Such was the cry of despair which liberty, degenerated into licence, forced from the lips of one of the more generous friends of Madame de Staël. She had too firm a faith in the divine origin of reason to echo it herself. In words which deserve remembrance at every time of theological excitement, she wrote: "There are in the human spirit two perfectly distinct forces; the one inspires the desire of belief, the other that of examination. The one out of these faculties ought not to be satisfied at the expense of the other. Catholicism and Protestantism do not arise out of the fact that there have been Popes and a Luther. It is a poor way of considering history to attribute it to the action of chances. Protestantism and Catholicism exist in the human heart; they are moral powers, which display themselves in nations, because they exist in each individual. If, in religion, as in the other human affections, one can bring the desires of the imagination into union with those of the reason, there is peace in the man; but in him, as in the universe, the power of creation and that of destruction, faith and examination succeed one another." ["L'Allemagne," part iv. chap. 4] In this passage there is a trace of the mystic tendencies which constituted the only shadows in the clearly lighted recesses of Madame de Staël's mind. Christianity to her was no sharply defined act of dogmas, but "the revelation of the moral laws of man and of the universe." ["L'Allemagne," part iv. chap. 2] It displayed the stamp of divinity in all the ideas of genius, art and science; but, above all, it gave hope of an ultimate explanation of much that is beyond our present understanding, in the certainty which it afforded of life beyond the grave.
A firm belief in immortality was, from the first, the doctrine most characteristic of Madame de Staël. Where she learned it is shown in a touching letter to her mother, written when she left her parents for her husband's home. The thought of parting crushed her soul; she felt herself issuing forth upon a career of peril, and looked passionately back upon the influence which hitherto had been her stay. "I cannot describe, dearest mother, how I am strengthened by my love for you. You are so pure and innocent that every thought connected with you must be derived from heaven. I pray God to make me worthy of you. Happiness may come later on by degrees, or may not come at all; everything in this world must have an end, and you are so sure of a future life that neither can I have doubts on the subject." [Lady Blennerhasset, "Madame de Staël" vol I, p. 153.] A doctrine, thus recognised as her spiritual heritage, needed for her no intellectual support. "There is nothing," she said, "on this earth but beginnings;" [Lady Blennerhasset, "Madame de Staël" vol ii, p. 237.] and she never doubted that the continuations would come hereafter.
Swayed thus by her predominant religious feelings, Madame de Staël approached the study of philosophy. On its threshold she heard the impatient question of men of the world: "What is the good of it? What end does it serve?"
Conscious that it, like music, was of "a noble inutility," she dismissed the question with another: "What end does everything that is beautiful serve if not the soul? It is the same with philosophy, which is the beauty of thought, which attests the dignity of man, which is able to occupy itself with the eternal and the invisible." ["L'Allemagne," part iii. chap. 8] She thus declared herself to be interested only in the emotional and practical aspects of philosophy. The theory of metaphysics, she frankly admitted, had need of a faculty to which she was a stranger. ["L'Allemagne," part iii. chap. 1.] She chose to dismiss theoretic questions in favour of the evangelical precept to judge the prophets by their works. "Whatever tends to immorality," she asserted, "can never be anything but a sophism," and so she set to work, not so much to weigh the actual results attained by German research, as to show how its tendency served to confute the systems of which she disapproved.
It was here that she fell into her greatest mistake, and showed most clearly, her lack of philosophic grasp. She judged the ultimate tendencies of systems by the tone of contemporary society in France. We who live in a more serious age, and have seen a philosophy based upon experience the guide of noble lives, can afford to regret the precipitation of her utterances. We can see that in leaving out of consideration the first of her three divisions of metaphysics, which she loosely called "the mystery of creation," and turning to the second, "the formation of ideas in the human mind," she was, in reality, destroying her own support. ["L'Allemagne," part iii. chap. 1.] In any case, the study of the mind of man must be closely linked with that of the system of which he is a part. Fichte saw this, Schelling, and her exposition of their teaching was inadequate, because she failed to understand how profound and far-reaching was their central conception. And yet in one point of the account of Schelling, as well as in her chapter "On the Contemplation of Nature," ["L'Allemagne," part iii. chap. 9.] she strikingly anticipated the Pantheistic and semi-Pantheistic developments of nineteenth-century thought, which have followed the new revelation of the greatness of the universe, the new delight in the grandeur of scenery. It has been said of Madame de Staël that she lived for years under the shadow of the Alps, and never described them; and it is a commonplace of criticism to compare our present admiration of the awful in nature, and the religious feelings to which it gives rise, with the eighteenth-century delight in what was merely pretty. We forget, however, the dangers with which mountain passes bristled then, and that facility for travel may be one at least of the causes of that facile delight in mountain scenery which seems so incongruous on the lips of many who express it. Madame de Staël had more than a modern tourist's appreciation of many of the aspects of nature. There is a deep and touching melancholy, almost reaching the finer moods of [Étienne Pivert] de Senancour, in the thoughts which its beauty inspired, especially if, as in the following passage, the scene were one of calm and peace: "When, at evening, on the edge of the landscape, the sky seems well-nigh to touch the earth, the imagination figures for itself, beyond the horizon, a refuge for hope, a fatherland for love; and nature seems silently to repeat that man is immortal." ["L'Allemagne," part iv. chap. 9.]
But nature had other and harder lessons for a soul so truthful. Poison lurked in the sweetest flowers, lightning was ready to burst from the clouds on the brightest days. Destruction and decay met her eyes where she looked for orderly government after a human pattern. The earthly life of man, with his petty ambitions and narrow possibilities, she felt, could not be the object and end of a system so vast, and yet she could not rest in a belief which kept divine purpose out of the universe. With a touch of her usual certainty, she concluded her subject: "The true final causes of nature are its relations with our soul and with our immortal lot; the physical objects themselves have a destiny which is not limited to the short existence of men here below. They are there to unite in the development of our thoughts, in the work of our moral life. The phenomena of nature ought not to be only understood after the laws of matter, however well combined they are; they have a meaning in philosophy and an end in religion, of which the most attentive study will never be able to recognise the full extent." ["L'Allemagne," part iv. chap. 9.] The woman who could write thus was not much behind the later poet [Tennyson] to whom the fuller teachings of an advanced science seemed to point:
"To one far-off divine event,
It is not every thinker who can test a system by the aid of contemporary events, but Madame de Staël was offered this advantage in the French Revolution, which showed, in the most dramatic manner, the struggle between the various ethical and political theories which were current in her time. Eager here, as everywhere, for the precipitation of things, she failed to comprehend how deep and slowly working were the forces around her. We have seen that she identified the cause of true morality with the independent origin of mind, and thought that the utilitarian theory of ethics, based upon the philosophy of experience, could only issue in a luxurious selfishness. It was on the political field that the practical test was to be applied, but here she regarded mankind too much as a collection of individuals to grasp the slow development of the race. With nearly all the finer minds which watched with sympathy the earlier phases of the Revolution, she looked for the emancipation of the individual as its only outcome. "Nothing," observed Kant, "can be more terrible than that the actions of one man should be subject to the will of another"; ["Posthumous Fragments" Ueberweg. "Hist. Philosophy," vol. Ii. p. 102 English Translation.] and to many it seemed that, with the removal of constraining tyranny, the enjoyment of true liberty would be at once attained. Men who had seen America cast of the English yoke, expected that France, freed from a more galling rule, would settle down at once into as tranquil a course of civil government. They forgot that the citizens of the United States had merely substituted a republican government for a monarchical government, and had not found themselves obliged to work out a policy in which individual freedom should be guarded and sustained by law. In France a transition was still necessary across the gulf which separated the ideas of the mediaeval Church from those of the modern world. In England and Germany this change had come slowly, almost without observation, in the wake of the Reformation, whereas, among the French, it followed in a moment the sudden audacious attack which Voltaire and his and his disciples opened in the Church, proving, as Mr. John Morley has well observed, that a "virulent dissolution in the biting acids of Voltairism" ["Voltaire" chap. v., p. 220] is a far less safe remedy for moral and social evils than the slow working of the Protestant spirit.
This slowness of growth, through which alone the child among the nations becomes a man, was lost upon Madame de Staël. The whole interplay of crude individualism and crude socialism which marked the movements of the Revolution was beyond her comprehension. [The individualistic and socialistic tendencies of the Revolution are clearly shown in the interesting little book of Mr. Symes, "The French Revolution"] She could not foresee that henceforward the questions of the rival ethical systems, so far as they affected politics, would be solved, not in the chamber of the solitary philosopher or economist, but, on a wide scale, in daily intercourse, to meet the needs of rough and ready men of toil. In practice the appeal to selfishness which she feared in the utilitarian theory, is checked by the ever-growing acknowledgment that each man is in some sense his brother's keeper. This idea has even assumed philosophic shape under the influence of the doctrine of evolution, in the theory that society is an organism governed, like other organisms, by laws, which we must discover and obey, for the preservation and development of its various parts. On the field of politics, the philosophy which is based on experience has thus assumed a form and a moral power of which she never dreamed. That she foresaw much of the development of thought in religion, morals, and politics is everywhere clear in "L'Allemagne," and the mere fact that after eighty years the book retains its suggestiveness, points to the sagacity of its writer. The friends who gathered round her at Coppet have long passed away, but we still feel, as they felt, the spell of genius which, in her earnest striving after truth and usefulness, brought Madame de Staël, in spite of all her imperfections, so close to the great verities of human life. Around the Lake of Geneva cling memories of interesting figures in modern literature--Voltaire, Rousseau, Gibbon, Byron, Shelley, de Senancour, Matthew Arnold. They have brought many and varied gifts to the cause of human progress, but all yield to the mistress of Coppet in the buoyant enthusiasm with which she tirelessly worked for good. "L'Allemagne" may mark the close of the eighteenth century, yet still more it shows the preparation for the far higher work of the nineteenth; for it is inspired with that spirit which the later musings of Matthew Arnold at Glion recognised as the note of the new era, when
"The world's great order dawns in sheen,
JOSEPH F. CHARLES
Proofread by LNL, Sept. 2023
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