Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXX, 11

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XXX, 10 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXX, 12


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXX, chapter 11
On Presumption



Chancellor Olivier, the friend of the great Michel de L’Hôpital, in his sixteenth century language, braving honesty, compares the French to monkeys who, clambering to the tops of trees, climb without a pause till they reach the highest branch, and display their backsides when they get there. What happened in France from 1789 till the present proves the rightness of the simile: every man, clambering through life, is like the Chancellor’s ape; he ends by exposing his infirmities shamelessly to passers-by. See how in ending my despatches I am seized with the desire to boast: the great men now swarming about demonstrate that it is stupid not to proclaim one’s own immortality.

Have you read, in the archives of the Foreign Ministry, the diplomatic correspondence relating to the most important events at the time of that correspondence? - No.

At least you will have read the published correspondence; you will know about the negotiations carried out by Du Bellay, D’Ossat, Duperron, President Jeannin, the Memoirs of Secretary of State de Villeroy, Sully’s Économies royales; you will have read the Memoirs of Cardinal de Richelieu, numerous letters by Mazarin, the items and documents relating to the Treaty of Westphalia and Peace of Munster? You will know Barillon’s despatches regarding affairs in England; the negotiations over the Spanish Succession will be no stranger to you; the name of Madame des Ursins will not have escaped you; Monsieur de Choiseul’s Family Compact will have met your eyes; you will not be ignorant of Ximénès, Olivarès, and Pombal, Hugo Grotius on the freedom of the oceans, his letters to the two Oxenstierns, the negotiations of the Grand-Pensionary Johan de Witt with Pierre Grotius, Hugo’s second son; the whole collection of diplomatic treaties will have attracted your gaze perhaps?

- No.

So, you have not read these everlasting rants? Well! Read them; when you have done, pass on to my war in Spain whose success solicits your attention, even though it was my first claim to be classed as a Statesman; pick up my despatches from Prussia, England and Rome; set them alongside these other despatches I have mentioned: hand on heart, tell me then which of them bored you most; tell me if my work and that of my predecessors is not all of a piece; if the understanding of trivial things and practicalities is not as manifest on my side as on that of past Ministers and dead Ambassadors?

First you will note that I kept an eye on everything; that I concern myself with Reschid Pasha and Monsieur de Blacas; that I defend my privileges and rights as Ambassador to Rome against all-comers; that I am cunning, devious (an eminent characteristic!), subtle, in that Monsieur de Funchal, in an equivocal position, having written to me, I fail to reply; but out of astute politeness I go to see him, so that he cannot show a line of my handwriting and nevertheless is satisfied. Not an imprudent word to retract in my conversations with Cardinals Bernetti and Albani, the two Secretaries of State; nothing escapes me; I grapple with the tiniest details; I achieve compatibility between the affairs of France and Rome, in such a manner that it still endures on the basis I established. With an eagle eye, I perceive that the Treaty of Trinitá dei Monti between the Holy See and Ambassadors Laval and Blacas, oversteps the mark, and that one of the two parties had no right to enter into it. From there, mounting higher and arriving at grand diplomacy, I take it upon myself to entrust a Cardinal with the power of veto, because a Minister of Foreign Affairs left me without instructions and exposed me to the threat of seeing a creature of Austria elected Pope. I procure the secret minutes of the Conclave; something no other Ambassador has been able to obtain; I send day by day the list of candidates nominated. I fail to neglect Bonaparte’s family; I do not despair of bringing about, by kind attentions, Cardinal Fesch’s handing in his resignation as Archbishop of Lyons. If a carbonaro stirs, I know it, and I judge the greater or lesser likelihood of a conspiracy; if a priest intrigues, I know it, and I foil the plots which have been formed for divorcing the Cardinals from the French Ambassador. Finally I discover that an important secret has been entrusted by Cardinal Latil to the breast of the Grand Confessor. Are you satisfied? Is this not a man who knows his trade? Well, I handled this diplomatic job like the first Ambassador to pass by, without it costing me a thought, as a dull peasant in Lower Normandy knits stockings while guarding his sheep: my sheep were my dreams!

Here is another point of view: if you compare my official letters to those of my predecessors, you will see that in mine public affairs are treated like private affairs; that I was carried along by the nature of the ideas of my age to a higher region of the human mind. That can be seen above all in the despatch in which I speak to Monsieur Portalis about the state of Italy, where I show the error governments are making in treating as conspiracies things which are due to the development of civilisation. My Memoir on the war in the East also reveals the realities of a political order which emerges from a common impulse. I spoke with two Popes about other things than government intrigue; I obliged them to discuss religion, liberty, the future fate of the world. My speech delivered at the gate of the Conclave had the same character. I dared to speak to those old men of progress, of setting religion at the forefront of society’s advance.

Be patient, Reader, while I finish my boasting, in arriving at my goal, in the style of Plato taking a ramble around his subject. I am like old Sidrac, age lengthens my road. I resume: I shall be a while yet. Several writers today have a mania for spurning their literary talents in order to pursue their political talents, ranking them far above the former. Thank God, a contrary instinct dominates me; I consider politics of little account for the same reasons that have allowed me to enjoy that game of chance. To be a superior man of affairs, it is not a matter of acquiring qualities it is simply a question of forgetting them. I recognise without shame in myself an aptitude for practical matters, without any illusions as to the barrier within me to ultimate success. That barrier does not come from the Muse; it is born of my indifference to everything. With that flaw, it is impossible to achieve anything in the practical life.

Indifference, I admit, is a quality of Statesmen, but Statesmen without conscience. One must know how to view every event with a cool gaze, swallow snakes as if they were sweet wine, setting at naught, in respect of others, morality, justice, suffering, so long as in the midst of revolution one knows how to secure a private fortune. For to these transcendent spirits, chance, whether good or evil, is forced to yield something; it must finance them at the cost of a throne, a coffin, a vow, an insult; the tariff is set by some Mionnet of disasters and affronts; I am no connoisseur in such numismatics. Unfortunately my nonchalance is a dual one; I am no more concerned about my self than about events. Contempt for the world derived in St Paul the Hermit from his religious faith; disdain for society derives in me from my political scepticism. That scepticism would take me far in the sphere of action if, being more sensible of my personal folly, I knew at the same time how to disguise it and humble it. I have done well, I remain a simple and honest man, naively astonished and quite naked, knowing neither how to crawl nor snatch.

D’Andilly, speaking of himself, seems to have depicted one aspect of my character: ‘I have never possessed any ambition’, he says, ‘because I have too much, being unable to endure a subservience which confines within such narrow limits the effects of that inclination God has given me for great things, things glorious to the State and those which might procure the happiness of nations, and finding it impossible to envisage my personal interests in it all. I was only fit to be a King who would reign alone and who would have no other desire but to make his glory immortal.’ In that respect, I was not suited to the Kings of the day.

Now that I have led you by the hand through the most private by-ways of my virtues and you have become acquainted with all that is rare in my despatches, like one of my colleagues in the Institute who sings his own praises incessantly and teaches men how to admire him, now I will tell you where I am going with all this vanity: by showing what they can achieve in a post, I want to defend men of letters against the diplomats, accountants and bureaucrats.

There is no cause for the latter to suddenly think themselves above men of whom the least surpasses them by a head; when one knows so many things, like those practical gentlemen, one should at least not spout inanities. You speak of facts, well recognise the facts: most of the great writers of antiquity, of the Middle Ages, of present-day England, have been great Statesmen, when they have deigned to descend to public affairs. ‘I would not like them to know,’ says Alfieri, refusing an Embassy, ‘that their diplomacy and their despatches seemed to me, and were certainly for me, less important than my tragedies or even those of others; but it is impossible to reclaim those kind of people: they cannot and should not be converted.’

Who was more literary in French history than L’Hôpital, the heir of Horace, than D’Ossat, that skilful Ambassador, than Richelieu, that strong mind, who, not content with dictating controversial treatises, with creating memoirs and histories, invented endless dramatic subjects, made rhymes with Malleville and Boisrobert, and by the sweat of his brow engendered the Academy and the Grande Pastorale? Was it because he was a poor writer that he was a great Minister? But the question is not one of more or less talent; it is one of having a passion for paper and ink: now Monsieur de l’Empyrée never showed more ardour, never spent more than the Cardinal to win the palm of Parnassus, whose production of his tragicomedy Mirame cost him two hundred thousand crowns! If in a person, at once political and literary, poetic mediocrity created the Statesman’s superiority, one should conclude that the Statesman’s weaknesses resulted from poetic strengths: yet did literary genius destroy Solon’s political genius, an elegist equal to Simonides; or that of Pericles stealing from the Muses the eloquence with which he controlled Athens; or that of Thucydides or Demosthenes who elevated the glories of the writer and orator so highly, while dedicating their lives to war and the public forum? Did it destroy the genius of Xenephon who orchestrated the retreat of the Ten Thousand, while dreaming of the Cyropedia; of the two Scipios, the one the friend of Laelius, the other associated with Terence’s fame; of Cicero, king of letters as he was father of his country; and finally Caesar, the rival of Archilochus in satire, of Sophocles in tragedy, of Demosthenes in eloquence, and whose Commentaries are the despair of historians?

Notwithstanding these examples and a thousand others, literary talent, quite evidently the supreme talent of all because it does not exclude any other ability, will always be an obstacle to political success in this country: what indeed is the use of a superior intellect? It is no use for anything at all. French fools, a species peculiar to our nation, have no Frenchman to match Grotius, Frederick, Bacon, Thomas More, Spencer, Falkland, Clarendon, Bolingbroke, Burke, or Canning.

Our vanity will never accept two aptitudes in a single individual, even a genius, or the ability to do as well as a common mind faced with common things. If you overstep the bounds of vulgar thought, a thousand imbeciles shout: ‘You’re lost in the clouds!’ delighted that they feel able to live in the depths, where their thought resides. Those envious wretches, because of their inner poverty, refuse to countenance merit; they send Virgil, Racine and Lamartine back to their versifying. But, proud Sirs, where should you be sent? To oblivion: it waits for you at twenty paces from your door, while twenty lines written by those poets will endure to the last generation.