Chateaubriand's memoirs, XLII, 2

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XLII- Chapter 2
Monsieur Thiers

The July Revolution found a king: has it found a representative? I have described the men of various epochs who have appeared on the scene from 1789 to the present day. Those men belonged more or less to the human race as was: there was a scale of proportion on which to measure them. We have arrived at generations who are no longer part of the past; studied beneath a microscope, they seem incapable of life, and yet they merge with the elements in which they move; they can breathe air one would have thought un-breathable. The future may invent formulas to calculate the rules of existence of these beings; but the present has no means of assessing them.

Without the power then to explain the altered species, here and there one notices a few individuals on whom one can seize, because specific faults or distinct qualities make them stand out from the crowd. Monsieur Thiers, for example, is the one man the Revolution has produced. He founded the school that admires the Terror, a school to which he belongs. If the perpetrators of the Terror, those deniers and denied of God, were such great men, the authority of their opinions would carry some weight; but those men, tearing each other apart, declared that the party whose throats they were cutting was a band of rogues. Read what Madame Roland says of Condorcet, what Barbaroux, principal actor of the 10th of August, says of Marat, what Camille Desmoulins writes in criticism of Saint-Just. Should Danton be assessed according to Robespierre’s view, or Robespierre according to Danton’s? When the members of the Convention had such a poor opinion of one another, how, without lacking in the respect one owes, dare one hold an opinion differing from theirs?

I very much fear however that those who been have taken for extraordinary individuals were brutes worth little more than the wheels on a machine. The machines and its cogs have been confused: the machine was powerful, but it was not the wheels that made it. Who invented it then? God: he created it for necessary ends that also derived from Him, at a moment of society which was foreseen.

With its materialistic approach, Jacobinism did not perceive that the Terror had failed, incapable of fulfilling the conditions for its continuation. It could not achieve its end because it could not cause enough heads to roll; it fell four or five hundred thousand or more short: now, time was lacking to execute these lengthy massacres; only unfinished crimes remained whose fruit no one knew how to gather, the last hours of the storm having failed to ripen it.

The secret of the contradictory nature of the men of today lies in a lack of moral sense, in the absence of settled principles and in the cult of force: whoever succumbs is guilty and without merit, at least without that merit that adjusts itself to events. One must be aware of what is hidden behind the liberal phraseology of devotees of the Terror: success deifies. To adore the Convention is merely to adore a tyrant. The Convention once overthrown, you pass with your bundle of freedoms to the Directory, then to Bonaparte, without suspecting your metamorphosis, without considering what you have done. A sworn dramatist, while considering the Girondins as feeble devils because they were vanquished, you will make of their deaths no less fantastic a picture: they are fine young men marching to the sacrifice crowned with flowers.

The Girondins, a cowardly faction, which spoke in favour of Louis XVI then voted for his execution, behaved marvellously well, it is true, on the scaffold; but who did not bow their head before death in those days? Women distinguished themselves by their heroism; the young girls of Verdun mounted the altar like Iphigenias; the workers, about whom they are discretely silent, those plebeians of whom the Convention made so great a harvest, braved the executioner’s steel as resolutely as our grenadiers did that of the enemy. For every priest and nobleman, the Convention destroyed thousands of working people in the lowest classes of society; that is what no one chooses to remember.

Does Monsieur Thiers proclaim principles? Not in the least; he advocated massacre, and would preach humanity in just as edifying a manner; he would give himself out to be fanatical about freedom, and yet he oppressed Lyons, fired on the Rue Transnonain, and has stood for and against all the September 1835 laws: if he were ever to read this, he would take it for a eulogy.

As President of the Council, and Foreign Minister, Monsieur Thiers is enraptured by diplomatic intrigues of the school of Talleyrand; he exposes himself to being taken for a serial parasite, lacking in nerve, gravity and discretion. One might disdain seriousness and grandeur of soul, but one should not say so, without having first led a subjugated world to take part in one’s orgies at Grand-Vaux.

Yet Monsieur Thiers combines inferior manners with noble instincts; while the surviving feudalists, now impoverished, become stewards on their own lands, Monsieur Thiers, a great Renaissance lord, travelling about like a new Atticus, buys works of art on the road and revives the prodigality of the ancient aristocracy: it is a kind of distinction: but while he sows with as much facility as he reaps, he needs to guard against his old habits of camaraderie: esteem is one of the ingredients of a public persona.

Stirred by his mercurial character, Monsieur Thiers set out to crush anarchy in Madrid as I suppressed it in 1823: a project all the braver in that Monsieur Thiers was in conflict with Louis-Philippe’s intentions. He may consider himself a Bonaparte; he may believe his letter-knife to be merely an elongation of a Napoleonic sword; he may persuade himself he is a great general, he may dream of conquering Europe, by reason of having constituted himself narrator, and in a very ill-considered move by having Napoleon’s remains brought back here. I accede to all these pretensions; I will merely say that, regarding Spain, at the moment at which Monsieur Thiers thought of invading it, his calculations were in error; he would have ruined his monarch in 1836, while I saved mine in 1823. The essential thing is to do what one desires at the right time: there are two forces: the force of men and the force of events; when the two are in opposition, nothing can be accomplished. At this moment, Mirabeau would sway no one, even though his corruption might not harm him: since no one is disparaged for vice these days; one is only denounced for one’s virtues.

Monsieur Thiers has one of three courses to take: name himself the representative of the republican future, cling to the counterfeit July Monarchy like a monkey on a camel’s back, or revive the Imperial order. The latter course is to Monsieur Thiers taste; but an empire without an emperor, is that credible? It is more natural to believe that the author of a History of the Revolution will allow himself to be consumed by vulgar ambition: he wishes to remain in or re-enter power; in order to keep or re-gain his place, he will utter all the palinodes that the moment or his interests would seem to require; there is a certain audacity in disrobing in public, but is Monsieur Thiers still young enough for his good looks to serve as a veil?

Setting Deutz and Judas aside, I recognize in Monsieur Thiers a supple mind, quick, subtle, flexible, heir to the future perhaps, understanding all, save the greatness that derives from the moral order; free of envy, without pettiness or prejudice, he stands apart from the dull and obscure crowd of mediocrities around him. His exaggerated pride is yet not odious, because it does not involve contempt for others. Monsieur Thiers has resource, variety, favourable gifts; he is scarcely bothered by differences of opinion, bears no grudges, never fears compromising himself, does another man justice, not through probity or because of what he thinks but because of his worth; which would not prevent him from strangling us of all if the need arose. Monsieur Thiers is not what he might be; age will alter him, to the extent that swollen pride does not inhibit it. If his mind holds firm and he is not carried away by some sudden impulse, events will reveal unknown superiorities in him. He will rise or fall swiftly; there is the possibility that Monsieur Thiers will become a great Minister or remain half-formed.

Monsieur Thiers has already shown lack of resolve when he held the fate of the world in his hands: if he had given the order to attack the English fleet, superior in strength as we then were in the Mediterranean, our success would have been assured; the Turkish and Egyptian fleets, combining in the port of Alexandria, would have augmented ours; victory over England would have electrified France. We would have instantly found 150,000 men to send into Bavaria and hurl at whatever positions in Italy were unprepared or had not foreseen an attack. The whole world might yet have been altered. Would our aggression have been justified? That is another matter; but we might have demanded of Europe whether she had acted in good faith towards us in those treaties through which, abusing the victory they had won, Russia and Germany were immeasurably swollen, while France was reduced to her former curtailed borders. Be that as it may, Monsieur Thiers dared not play his last card; analysing his life, he has never been sufficiently purposeful, and yet it is because he has committed nothing to the game that he should have been able to gamble everything. We are fallen at the feet of Europe: a similar opportunity to rise again may not present itself for some time.

But would it have been right to set the world ablaze once more? A profound question! Nevertheless, the President of the Council’s mistakes being bound up with national feeling, ennoble him.

Ultimately, Monsieur Thiers, to rescue his policy, has reduced France to a space of fifty leagues bristling with fortresses; we will see whether Europe has occasion to smile at this childish behaviour on the part of a great mind.

Behold how, led my by pen, I have dedicated more space to a questionable man of the future than I have to people whose remembrance is certain. It is the unfortunate result of having lived too long: I have entered a sterile epoch in which France faces nothing but meagre generations: Lupa …carca nella sua magrezza: a she-wolf… full in her leanness. These Memoirs diminish in interest with the passage of history, diminish in what they have borrowed from great events; their tail-end, I fear, will be shaped like those of the daughters of Acheloüs. The Roman Empire, announced magnificently by Livy, fades and dies obscurely in the works of Cassiodorus. You were happier, Thucydides and Plutarch, Sallust and Tacitus, when telling of the factions that divided Athens and Rome! You were at least certain to enliven them, not merely by your genius, but by the brilliance of Greek and the gravity of Latin! What can we say of our waning society, we Celts, in our jargon confined to its narrow and barbarous bounds? If these final chapters reproduced our courthouse repetitions, those eternal redefinitions of the law, our fighting over portfolios, would they, fifty years from now, be anything more than the unintelligible columns of an old newspaper? Of a thousand and one conjectures, would a single one prove true? Who can foresee the strange leaps and bounds of the mercurial French spirit? Who knows why its execrations and infatuations, its blessings and curses, transform themselves for no apparent reason? Who can divine why it strays from one political system to another, how, with freedom on its lips and slavery in its heart, it can believe in one version of the truth in the morning and a contrary version by evening? Let us toss a little dust about: like Virgil’s bees, we will cease our battles and fly elsewhere.