Cromohs 2002 - Kra - The concept of national character in 18th century France

The concept of national character in 18th century France [1]

Pauline Kra
P. Kra, «The concept of national character in 18th century France», Cromohs, 7 (2002): 1-6,
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1. The concept of national character was a subject of debate and development during the eighteenth century.[2] It was generally agreed that each nation has its peculiar characteristics but there was variety of opinion, among the philosophes, on what constitutes national character. There was debate on the relative weight of physical and spiritual factors in shaping national traits. The philosophes differed also in their perception of the relationship of national character to political institutions. The concept grew in complexity and in political importance. At the beginning of the century national character was observed as a historical fact; towards the end it was regarded as an active political force that must be fostered as the basis for reform. Thus national character moved from the realm of speculation to that of theory with immediate practical applications. The purpose of this paper is to trace the debate and the development of the idea of national character in the works of D'Argens, Espiard de Laborde, Montesquieu, Helvétius, Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Condorcet.

Descriptions of national character ranged from stereotypes to penetrating sociological analysis, and perceptions of its nature from a series of moral traits to a complex network of relationships between multiple elements. In the vast panorama of Europe in his Lettres juives, d'Argens[3], established the fact that the inhabitants of each country constitute a nation with a peculiar set of characteristics which he called "le caractère de la nation". He found that sometimes even the people of neighbouring provinces differ sharply from each other. Though he warned against unwarranted generalizations, his descriptions often fall into the category of stereotypes. For instance, pride, shrewdness, poverty, ignorance, bigotry, superstition, vanity, ridicule, ceremony and jealousy describe the Spanish. The British character is portrayed as a mixture of good qualities such as intelligence, fair play, industriousness, and generosity with faults like chauvinism, rudeness, ferocity in games. Montesquieu had anticipated and satirized this type of portrayal in Lettre persane 78, in which Rica sends Usbek the copy of a letter on the Spanish written by a Frenchman traveling in Spain and Portugal, and then imagines how a Spaniard traveling in France would describe the French. The text is a brilliant satire both on the Spanish and Portuguese, and on the manner in which Europeans portray each other. The Frenchman's letter is full of malice, wit and exaggeration. It shows how easily the portrait of a nation can be turned into caricature by connecting superficial traits with moral qualities and by magnifying contradictions.

2. The complexity of national character had been brought out before the Esprit des lois by Espiard de Laborde in a three volume work entitled Essais sur le génie et le caractère des nations, published in 1743[4]. In a confusing definition Espiard de la Borde gave two meanings to the génie des nations. In the first sense it acts as a cause and consists of physical characteristics; in the second sense it is a result and is composed of the spirit produced by the combination of natural temper with customs and opinions. There is a puzzling connection between Espiard and Montesquieu. He shares with Montesquieu many common examples but lacks the organizing ideas of the Esprit des lois.

The broadest definition and fullest analysis of national character was presented by Montesquieu under the name of esprit général[5]. The esprit général consists of the moral characteristics and the habits of thought and behaviour which result from a unique combination of climate, religion, laws, maxims of government, history, mores and manners. What distinguishes one nation from another is a unique combination of factors, a distinctive pattern of interaction and interdependence between them and the peculiar set of moral traits that they produce. The moral character, which is composed of a mixture of virtues and vices such as sociability, sincerity, vanity, generosity, pride, laziness, honesty is part of the larger entity of the esprit général. The quality of the character itself depends on the manner in which the various traits are combined and balance each other.The Chinese system of rites, to which Montesquieu devotes 5 chapters of Book XIX, appears to be used by him as an extreme example and tangible representation of the interdependence and cohesion of elements which exist in every society. Montesquieu had already shown in Lettres persanes 98, 99, 100 that a given trait like inconstancy may pervade fashion, architecture, mores, manners, class structure, economy and legislation; and that all the facets of social existence are interrelated.

There is an unexpected return to the simpler view of national character as a series of moral and mental qualities in the writings of Helvétius[6], who described the character of nations in terms of virtues and vices such as pride, courage, weakness, cruelty, loyalty, gravity, frivolity.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau[7], on the other hand, enriched the complex structure of national character by associating with it the essential element of national consciousness. He assumed that every nation has a peculiar character composed of its temperament, physical traits, mores and moral qualities, but to these he added distinctive ceremonies and cultural and religious traditions which give the members of a group the awareness of national cohesion. He explained that a nation derives its identity from a distinctive spirit, character, tastes, ceremonies and laws, and may exist without territorial and political unity. He was also the first to use extensively the adjective national in conjunction with caractère.

3. Everyone who wrote about national character pondered the relative importance of physical and spiritual factors, or, more specifically, of climate and government, in determining national characteristics. At one extreme of the debate, Jean-Baptiste Dubos[8], early in the century, gave priority to the geographical factor: climate and the quality of air determined by emanations from the soil. At the opposite extreme, Helvétius argued that differences of character are not the effect of climate, nutrition, temperament or the quality of sense organs, but of education which depends on government. Consequently, the character of a nation evolves gradually or changes abruptly as a result of changes in the political regime. The fragmentary approach which would relate individual qualities to a single cause has failed. D'Argens found that neither climate nor government alone explains differences in wit, intelligence and imagination. The answer to the problem of causes was provided by Montesquieu who regarded national character as the product of a wide range of factors, and who recognized that the determining influence of climate depends on the level of civilization. Montesquieu's solution prevailed and was adopted by Diderot[9], by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, by Voltaire in Essai sur les moeurs et l'esprit des nations[10], and by the Encyclopédie[11].

Beyond their efforts to describe, define and explain national character, the philosophes examined its relationship to political institutions. They addressed the questions how legislation shoud relate to national characteristics, to what extent government policy can or should shape national character, and how national traits affect the establishment and the stability of political regimes. The most comprehensive and probing discussion of these questions was offered by Montesquieu. In the tradition of Aristotle and Bodin, the central principle of the Esprit des lois is that laws must be adapted to the character of the nation. The discussion of the esprit général is an essential complement to the relativistic principles enunciated at the beginning of the work. All the books of the Esprit des lois examine relationships of laws to causes that produce particular characteristics, but it is the concept of the esprit général that mandates the legislator to consider these causes and their effects in their unique association and interaction. Book XIX is framed by chapters which stress the interdependence of government and national character. The first chapters of the book demonstrate that the establishment of a political regime depends on the habits of thought of the people. The best laws are perceived as tyranny if they are not consistent witn mores, manners and habitual forms of entertainment. The famous last chapter on England shows, on the other hand, how the form of government shapes all aspects of social, political and cultural behaviour. A free government promotes attitudes and moral traits which tend to perpetuate it.

4. Montesquieu emphasized the idea that the relation of laws to the esprit général hinges on their connection to mores and manners.The amount and the type of needed legislation depend on the morals of the people. The power of the legislator to alter national character is limited by the fact that manners and mores resist modification by law. Moreover, mores and manners should not be altered when the general character of the nation is good. They should not be changed under despotic governments where they take the place of laws, and any modification in mores and manners entails eventual change in political institutions. Montesquieu also considered the role of national character in international politics: the effect of the moral characteristics of a nation on its capacity for territorial expansion; the necessity to respect the customs and laws of the conquered; cultural differences between the conqueror and the conquered as cause of the need for subjugation, and obliteration of these differences as basis for unification[12].

With surprising disregard of the complex net of interaction and delicate balance demonstrated by Montesquieu, Helvétius maintained that government has full power to determine the moral qualities of the nation through legislation and education. Public vices stem from faulty laws, he wrote, and the reformation of morals and manners must be done through legislation. Legislators have the duty to enforce ethics, and they have the power to do so because men are motivated by self-interest, and what men do in pursuit of their goals depends on the system of rewards and punishments established by law.

National character was endowed with crucial political importance and became clearly associated with the term "nation" in the political writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau[13]. The first rule to follow in planning a constitution for a society, he wrote, is that of national character; every society has or should have a national character and if it does not it should be given one. "La première règle que nous avons à suivre est le caractère national. Tout peuple a ou doit avoir un caractère national et s'il en manquait il faudrait commencer par le lui donner."[14] He regarded national character as the basis of national consciousness and patriotism which are the foundation of sovereignty and of a free government. He also saw national identity as a defense against foreign domination. So long as a nation preserves its patriotic zeal, it cannot be permanently subjugated by a foreign power. His contribution to eighteenth-century thought on the subject was the notion that national character was not only a historical result, but also a reality that can and should be created. Not only an appropriate form of government can be devised for a particular society, but also a specific national character may be developed for a particular form of government. A distinctive national character must be promoted by reviving the primitive traits of the society and by developing national institutions, customs, costumes, ceremonies, spectacles and games. It must be nurtured by an education that emphasizes national history and geography. Rousseau also observed that national differences tend to become obliterated in modern societies through cultural fusion, migration, urbanization, luxury and corruption. Therefore the distinctive qualities must be consciously restored through return to a simpler mode of existence and fostered through a nationalistic cultural policy. The opposite policy was seen as a condition of future progress by Condorcet[15], who maintained that inequality between nations should be eliminated through economic cooperation and through the spread of European technological achievements to the peoples of Africa and Asia.

5. The philosophes recognized that women play an important role in shaping national character and pondered how changing the condition of women would modify national characteristics. The feminine influence was discussed most frequently in connection with the French because French frivolity was attributed to early and free association with women. Helvétius explained the negative influence of women by the form of government and education. Under a political regime which does not reward merit with power, men place their energies into the pursuit of pleasure in the frequentation of women, who are frivolous because they are not educated. Therefore, the way to improve the French national character, he argued, was to educate women and to allow greater sexual freedom so that men would spend less time in their company[16]. Montesquieu stressed the fact that the contribution of women is a function of their condition. In the Lettres persanes he, like the others, attributed French levity to the influence of women (Lettre persane 63) but he also showed that their frivolity and superficial gaiety are due to their dependency. In the Esprit des lois he judged the French character to be good and gave women credit for promoting positive qualities. Legislation which would correct or restrain the behaviour of women, he wrote, would deprive society of their civilizing influence. Most forward looking of all, Condorcet called for the end of legal inequality between the sexes and for universal education.

In the eighteenth century, as today, there was awareness of the imprecision involved in the concept of national character. The philosophes warned that the qualities attributed to a nation are not found in every member of the society. They observed that it is easier to predict how particular causes will affect a group than how they will affect an individual. And they found that portraits of nations may be obsolete and contrary to fact. The French were assumed to be frivolous and gay when in fact heavy taxation, extreme poverty and disregard of human rights precluded gaiety[17].

The development of the concept of national character was paralleled by semantic differentiation between the terms "peuple" and "nation." In the early part of the eighteenth century the word "nation" was used interchangeably with "peuple" to denote a tribe or the inhabitants of a territory living under a single government. Beginning with Montesquieu, "nation" acquired the additional distinctive meaning of a collectivity sharing common customs, morals, history and temperament. The distinction between the two terms is particularly apparent in the works of Montesquieu and Rousseau. In the Lettres persanes the term "nation" is used in letters dealing with national qualities or is employed satirically to denote groups united by common fanaticism. In De l'Esprit des lois "nation" figures prominently in the Preface and in the formulation of principles in Book I, but, rare in the theoretical books 2 to 8, it becomes frequent again only in those which examine the effects and causes of national characteristics[18].

6. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau attributed a major political role to national character, he also transferred from "peuple" to "nation" the meaning of sovereign political body[19]. The shift in meaning is reflected by a change in the relative frequency of the two words: in Du Contrat social, there are 17 occurrences of the word "nation", and 259 occurrences of the word "peuple"; in Considérations sur le gouvernemnt de Pologne, 74 "nation", 57 "peuple". In Projet de constitution pour la Corse (III, 943), the union of citizens created by the social contract is called "nation". "Nation" is also endowed with a more positive meaning than "peuple" when Rousseau contrasts the enslaved peoples of Europe corrupted by arts, sciences, luxury and greed with a nation which is free peaceful and wise[20]. The new use of the term "nation" was adopted by the revolutionaries Marat and Robespierre.

The concept of national character was a means to better understand each particular society, to adapt legislation to its needs, and to liberalize its political institutions. Underneath the awareness of diversity there was persistent and pervasive humanitarianism. The philosophes were unanimous in condemning intolerance and mutual contempt among nations. No nation, Helvétius wrote, has reason to regard itself superior to others by virtue of its innate endowment. (Esprit, II, 21). D'Argens declared that beneath differences all men have a common core of passions and a philosophe regards all humans as one nation. Montesquieu placed his loyalty to humanity above loyalty to Europe and to his country (Pensée 741) and Condorcet looked forward to the future when inequality and strife would give way to equality and fraternity of nations.

We find today two contradictory processes: on the one hand the great homogenization spurred by modern technology and, on the other hand, the effort by specific groups and nations to cultivate their own particular cultural heritage. The debate of the philosophes in the eighteenth century foreshadowed the problems of national character and globalization which have yet to be resolved.

[1] The preliminary research for this paper was done with the aid of the ARTFL textual data base at the University of Chicago.

[2] See Frederick Hertz, Nationality in History and Politics (London, 1951); Ernest Barker, National Character and the Factors in its Formation (London, 1927); Robert Derathé, "Patriotisme et nationalisme au XVIIIe siècle", in L'Idée de nation (Annales de philosophie politique, VIII, Paris, 1969), pp. 69-84; Jacques Godechot, "Nation, patrie, nationalisme et patriotisme en France au XVIIIe siècle", Annales historiques de la Révolution française, n.43 (1971), pp. 481-501.

[3] Jean-Baptiste de Boyer d'Argens, Lettres juives (The Hague, 1738, 6 vols.).

[4] Also published as The Spirit of Nations (London, 1753). See Robert Shackleton, Montesquieu (Oxford, 1961), pp. 308-309; "The Evolution of Montesquieu's Theory of Climate", Revue internationale de philosophie, 9 (1955), pp. 317-329; Roger Mercier, "La Théorie des climats des Réflexions critiques à L'Esprit des lois", Revue d'histoire littéraire de la France, 53 (1953), pp. 17-37, 159-174.

[5] De l'esprit des lois; Essai sur les causes qui peuvent affecter les esprits et les caractères, Oeuvres complètes de Montesquieu, ed. M. André Masson (Paris, 1955), III, 397-430.

[6] De l'esprit, (Paris, 1758); De l'homme, (London, 1773).

[7] Projet de constitution pour la Corse in Oeuvres complètes, ed. Robert Derathé (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris, 1964), III, 899-950; Considérations sur le gouvernement de Pologne et sa réformation projettée, Oeuvres, III, 951-1041; Emile, Oeuvres, IV, 826-833, 850-853.

[8] Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et la peinture (Paris, 1719), 2 vols.

[9] Réflexions sur le livre "De l'esprit" par M. Helvétius and Réfutation suivie de l'ouvrage d'Helvétius intitulé L'Homme, Oeuvres complètes de Diderot, ed J. Assézat (Paris, 1875), II, 267-456.

[10] Chap. 197.

[11] Articles "Nation" and "Caractère des nations".

[12] Book IX, chap. 7; Book X, chap. 3.

[13] See Pauline Kra, "Rousseau et la politique du caractère national", Jean-Jacques Rousseau, politique et nation, ed. Robert Thiéry (Paris et Montmorency, 2001), pp. 813-822.

[14] Projet de constitution pour la Corse, Oeuvres, III, 913.

[15] Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain, ed. O.H. Prior (Paris, 1933), pp. 203-239.

[16] De l'esprit, bk. II, chap. 20.

[17] De l'esprit, bk. III, chap. 30.

[18] See André Eskénazi, "'Peuple' et 'nation' dans De l'esprit des lois", Revue Montesquieu, n. 3 (1999), pp. 111-124.

[19] See Michel Launay, Le Vocabulaire politique de Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Paris, 1979); Werner Bahner, "Le mot et la notion de 'peuple' dans l'oeuvre de Rousseau", Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 55 (1967), pp. 113-127.

[20] Considérations sur le gouvernement de Pologne, Oeuvres, III, 1003.


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