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Le Groupe de Coppet et le monde moderne

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Françoise Tilkin

Présidence de C.P. Courtney

The Coppet circle: public opinion and the modern state

Susan Tenenbaum

Texte intégral

  • 1 Keith Michael Baker, «Public Opinion is Political Invention», in Inventing the French Revolution, (...)
  • 2 Keith Baker, p. 199.

1In his seminal essay, «Public Opinion as Political Invention»1 Keith Baker assigns the concept of public opinion a central, though «relatively fleeting» place in the history of French political discourse. For Baker, public opinion had, by the eve of the Revolution, become the «articulating concept of a new public space with legitimacy and authority apart from the Crown2». On Baker’s account, the idea of public opinion opened the way to revolution, but did not survive the assaults inflicted by it. The purpose of this paper is to dispute the second half of Baker’s claim; namely, that the importance of the concept receded with the onslaught of the Revolution. Its continuing significance was manifest in the writings of the Coppet circle, for whom public opinion retained importance as the foundation-stone of a modem liberal order. How thinkers like Staël and Constant transformed earlier understandings of the concept in light, of their experience of revolution will be the topic of this essay.

I.

  • 3 Jürgen Habermas, The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of (...)
  • 4 Mona Ozouf, «‘Public Opinion’ at the End of the Old Regime», in The rise and fall of the French Re (...)
  • 5 Daniel Gordon, Citizem without sovereignty, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1994.
  • 6 Dena Goodman, The republic of letters, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1994.

2The Coppet circle operated within a tradition of thinking about public opinion that reached back to the Old Regime, and which has recently become the focus of much scholarly attention. Beginning with Jürgen Habermas’3account of the rise of the bourgeois public sphere and extending to the more current work of Baker, Ozouf4, Gordon5 and Goodman6 intellectual historians have ascribed a central role to public opinion in the emergence of political perspectives that came to challenge the traditional order. While it is impossible to convey the richness and depth of their analyses in the confines of these few pages, it is helpful to extract from their research several broad themes which will illuminate the background and problematics of the Coppet group’s enterprise. Accordingly, I shall discuss eighteenth century conceptions of public opinion in terms of three broad shifts: the political; the conceptual; and the temporal.

1. – The Political Shift

3The appeal to public opinion in the last decades of the Old Regime registered an emerging shift in the perceived principle of sovereign authority. The decrees of an absolutist order, decided in secrecy and issuing from the exercise of monarchical will, came to be regarded as subordinate to the decisions of an informai, but higher court of final appeal: the tribunal of public opinion. With its decisional process marked by open deliberation and broadbased participation, public opinion constituted a source of legitimacy ultimately incompatible with the absolutist order. Yet the locus of this new sovereign tribunal remained indistinct; it attached to no formai institution or specifie social class. Indeed the indeterminate quality of public opinion served to enhance its rhetorical appeal, allowing its authority to be invoked by diverse sets of opponents to the crown in the twilight years of the Old Regime.

4Despite the ambiguity that attended the concept, public opinion was broadly understood to refer to the collective judgment of sociable and literate persons. This definition may be further refined by unpacking its core notion of «sociability», which provides the key to the ascendency of public opinion as an alternate locus of authority. I must here limit my discussion to two exemplary models of sociability: the salon-based and the market-based. Both the salon and the marketplace were regarded as critical venues for the development of sociable exchange, though each represented a distinct set of social practices.

  • 7 Elizabeth Goldsmith, Exclusive conversations, Philadelphia, University of Philadelphia Press, 1988
  • 8 Carolyn Lougee, Le paradis des femmes, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1976.

5The salon afforded a circle of sociability through the medium of directed conversation. The salon’s historical role in tempering the militaristic culture bequeathed by the sixteenth century wars of religion has been amply documented7, as has its graduai transition from a center of cultivated wit to a forum devoted to the spread of enlightenment. What remained constant in its evolution was the fonction of the salonnière as the orchestrator of harmonious conversations. Under her direction, habituées learned the art of polite exchange and imbibed its attendant virtues of reciprocity, consideration, and self-restraint. In the egalitarian setting of the salon, where merit attached to individual achievement rather than birth8, the salonnière presided over a competition in excellence, creating an alternate well-ordered social space in the bosom of the Old Regime.

  • 9 Albert O. Hirschmann, The passions and the interests, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1977.
  • 10 See Montesquieu, The spirit of the laws, Book XX, ch. 2.

6By contrast, the marketplace taught the disciplines of sociability in the absence of a guiding presence. Each individual act of exchange functioned to temper men’s passions by subjecting them to the rational calculation of interest9. The calculus of private profit engendered the development of social virtues necessary to the smooth functioning of the market: predictability, prudence, honest-dealing, and attentiveness to the desires of others. It was this character-forming capacity of economie exchange to which Montesquieu referred as doux commerce10, and which operated independently of any governmental intervention directed towards maximizing wealth production. Like the salon, whose ethos nonetheless contrasted with the practical material temper of the commercial arena, the marketplace maintained order in its own sphere by virtue of an internally generated sociability.

7Although the idea of sociability developed in ways far more complex than presented here, the models of the salon and the market suffice to make two critical points. First, sociability did not imply a single unifying set of practices nor did it attach to a determinate social class. Second, the cultivation of sociability created Systems of order that lied outside the political.

  • 11 Daniel Gordon, p. 102.
  • 12 Montesquieu, Spirit, Book XIX, eh. 14.
  • 13 Montesquieu, Spirit, Book XX, ch. 4.
  • 14 Montesquieu, Spirit, Book XXII, chs. 17, 18.

8The question of the proper relation between the realms of sociability and the state was thus implicitly raised in the midst of the Old Regime. Reaching back to the close of the seventeenth century, authorities on polite conduct like Méré and Bellegarde drew a distinction between the social judgments of le grand monde (polite society) and the court11, ascribing to the former superior judgment in matters of taste and reputation. This perception posed no challenge to the crown, however, since its holders repudiated political action in favor of the higher forms of excellence attainable in the social sphere. In the writings of Montesquieu, sociability makes greater claims on the state. Where highly developed social connections exist, Montesquieu contended, the scope of state control is appropriately diminished12. Applying this reasoning to the economie sphere, Montesquieu argued that the complexity of commercial exchange rendered arbitrary actions by the state less likely; commerce was, by its very nature, inhospitable to despotism13. It is useful to view Montesquieu’s account as a midpoint in the evolution of the idea of sociable exchange: it stands between the confinement of collective judgment to matters of taste and repute, and its rise as a political force. Montesquieu regarded social judgment as a functional equivalent to the law of the state; its disciplines and complexities carried consequences for state action. However, it was not yet viewed as a consciously directed political force and its barriers to state action were regarded as feeble. Accordingly, Montesquieu feared the growth of the national debt, itself a product of commercial exchange, as dangerously enriching and emboldening the monarch in relation to a vulnerable social sphere14.

  • 15 Jacques Necker, De l’administration des finances de la France, Paris, 1784.

9It is fitting that Jacques Necker, celebrated defender of the national debt, be called upon to represent the political empowerment of collective judgment at the end of the Old Regime. In the writings of Necker and his contemporaries, the divergent strands of sociability recognized under the Old Regime merged into the idea of a politically focused public. Necker’s treatment of the national debt illustrates the distance travelled from Montesquieu. In seeking to introduce publicity into the fiscal affairs of state15, Necker acknowledged the newly politicized gaze of literate society and subordinated the conduct of government to the traditional standards of sociability: visibilty, communication, open exchange. Rendered politically accountable, the national debt no longer threatened social order but testified to the confidence of the public in the managerial powers of the monarch. Implicit in Necker’s formulation is a shift in the locus of sovereignty away from the will of the monarch to a public that draws its force and standards of judgment from a social order distinct from and superior to the crown.

2. – The Conceptual Shift

  • 16 Keith Baker, Public Opinion, p. 167-199.

10Corresponding to the shift in the locus of authority to a «public» existing outside the absolutist order, there occurred, by the end of the Old Regime, a transformation of the accepted meaning of «opinion». The traditional distinction between reason and opinion had collapsed; opinion shed its customary identification with the subjective imagination, inconstancy and discord to assume the mantle of reason and its attendant virtues. The context of this transformation has been the subject of a valuable study by Keith Baker16.

11In Baker’s account, the appeal to public opinion emerged as a central strategy in the «politics of contestation» that marked the twilight of the Old Regime. Opponents of the crown in matters of political, administrative and economic policy looked beyond the accustomed channels of absolutist politics to appeal to a broader community of support. This political struggle was simultaneously a semantic one; meaning as well as power was contested. If the notion of «opinion» as the collective expression of society had been latent in the evolving conceptions of sociability described above, the polemics of the era served to reinforce its identification with social harmony and right reason. The often-repeated charge that opponents of absolutism sought to plunge France into an anarchy of contending interests provided the impetus for reformers to sever any connection between «opinion» and the subjective, the impermanent or the arbitrary. While placating fears of disorder, the rhetoric of opposition had also to mobilize an unambiguous voice of authority. By the eve of the Revolution, these concerns had contributed to endow public opinion with the following characteristics:

  1. Public opinion was the harmonious expression of sociable interaction.
  2. Public opinion was the voice of reason as grounded in experience and evidence.
  3. Public opinion was stable and durable as opposed to shifting and volatile. It is instructive to quote Necker on this point, «It is necessary to avoid confusing public opinion with those ephemeral movements that often pertain to certain societies and certain circumstances... It is necessary to know how to disdain [these judgments] in order to remain faithful to that public opinion whose characteristics are all authoritative, and which reason, time and the universality of sentiments alone have the right to consecrate17».
  4. Although public opinion was an invisible presence, its force was sufficient to curb the power of kings and shape policy. For the Abbé Raynal, «In a nation that thinks and talks, public opinion is the rule of government, and government must never act against it without giving public reasons or thwart it without disabusing it18».

3. – The Temporal Shift

12In addition to exhibiting the characteristics described above, public opinion had corne to be associated with the idea of moder nity. This temporal dimension of public opinion, later so suggestive to members of the Coppet circle, reflected the assimilation of the concept of sociability into the schemes of evolutionary history that figured so importantly in Enlightenment thought.

  • 19 See Dena Goodman, ch. 4.

13Whereas Montesquieu took a synchronic view of sociability through the prism of comparative sociology, progressionist thinkers like Turgot and Robertson regarded it as the product of historical change in the direction of greater social differentiation and complexity19. The temporal distance traversed between barbarous and civilized eras was marked by the social characteristics of each: barbarism, by social isolation punctuated by violent interactions; civilization, by complex and harmonious social exchanges. As the expression of contemporary sociability, public opinion gave voice to progressionist ideals, errecting them as standards of modem political judgment.

II.

  • 20 On this point, see Biancamaria Fontana, Benjamin Constant and the postrevolutionary mind, New Have (...)
  • 21 Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the principal events of the French Revolution, vol. II, New Y (...)
  • 22 Staël, Considerations, vol. Il, p. 23.
  • 23 Staël, Considerations, vol. II, p. 21.

14The foregoing conception of public opinion had been dealt a powerful, though not fatal, blow by the Revolution. On Constant’s analysis, the attempt to encapsulate public opinion in the institutions of the state constituted a betrayal of the modem essence of its force20. Public opinion was the product of a progressively developed social sphere existing apart from the state and serving as its buffer and critic. Located outside the state, it properly functioned to destroy absolutism; wedded to unrestricted state power, opinion fell victim to corruption, annihilating the modem social sphere that gave it birth. Indeed its susceptibility to manipulation turned public opinion into a prized instrument of modem arbitrary rule. Staël and Constant examined the engineering of opinion by Bonaparte in terms of a temporal paradox: the imposition of anachronistic political ideals through modem techniques of control. The mobilizational character of Napoleon’s regime represented a maglin perversion of the literate sociability of the age. Staël alluded to Napoleon’s «babbling tyranny21», distinguishing it from older forms of censorship content with the silencing of criticism. By contrast, Napoleonic despotism demanded public expressions of acclaim orchestrated by «hired writers» commanded to «introduce... depravity»22 into public opinion. The culture of modem commercial exchange was similarly exploited by Bonaparte who, as sole allocator of property rights, directed all calculations of selfinterest towards his personal aggrandizement23.

  • 24 Germaine de Staël, «On the present circumstances», in Madame de Staël on politics, literature and (...)
  • 25 Staël, «On the present circumstances», p. 126.
  • 26 Staël, «On the present circumstances», p. 125.

15Out of the Revolution, then, emerged a new appreciation of the fallibility of public opinion as a barrier against arbitrary power. Whereas public opinion had earlier been regarded as a dominant force in the politics of the day, it was now portrayed to be «so passive, so submissive to the slightest,.demonstration of force»24 as to be invincible only in the long run. In times of peace, it spoke, according to Staël, only in a «gentle whisper»25. In times of disorder, its timorous nature came to the fore, «In countries where hatreds are unleashed, people join a party to have protectors26». Indeed the forces of modernity to which public opinion owed its birth simultaneously gave rise to its perversion. It was this recognition of the fraility of public opinion – its openness to corruption, its retreat in the face of threats-which separated members of the Coppet circle from their intellectual forebears and distinguished their theoretical enterprise: the rehabilitation of public opinion in the post-Revolutionary age.

16This project had at its core the rebuilding of civil society as the locus of opinion formation. Staël and Constant retained the enlightenment conception of public opinion as the spontaneous critical voice of the social sphere. The violation of this sphere by the statist encroachments of the radical revolution required that its independence be restored and its voice recovered. To secure the social domain against further trespass Staël and Constant looked to constitutional reforms. They placed less emphasis on questions of governmental type than on the problem of delimiting the state and securing its accountability to publie opinion. Thus while Staël and Constant shifted allegiances between monarchical and republican forms, they were consistent advocates of representative government and such constitutional devices as separation of powers and the responsibility of ministers.

17If the independent domain of opinion was to be guarenteed by constitutional reforms, the post-revolutionary charader of opinion was to be shaped by social institutions. Bridging these two dimensions was property ownership, identifïed by both Staël and Constant as a social precondition of active citizenship (i.e. the right to vote and to hold office) and the material basis for public opinion. They thereby assigned opinion an explicit sociological referent, based on the understanding that property ownership possessed character forming qualities needed to stabilize society in the wake of the radical revolution. In this argument, Staël and Constant were unexceptional. Thermidorians in general viewed the assault on property as emblematic of the Terror and defined themselves against it. What merits attention, particularly in the writings of Constant, is how the concept of property served to modify the pre-revolutionary linkage of public opinion with progressionist views.

  • 27 On the doctrine of civic humanism, see J.G.A. Pocock, The machiavellian moment, Princeton, Princet (...)

18Constant’s recommendation that suffrage be based on «landed» rather than «industrial» property introduced into his thought a strand of discourse traditionally hostile to conceptions of progress. The doctrine of civic humanism27 embraced a cyclical view of history according to which landed property functioned to provide men with the economic self-suffïciency needed to stave off corruption arising from dependence on others, whether creditors in the marketplace or factions in government. Landed property, on this account, carried connotations of social stability, moral health and and material reality, virtues which were invariably juxtaposed to the volatility, subjectivity, and irrationality inhering in the world of commercial exchange.

  • 28 See Benjamin Constant, «Principles of politics», in Constant: political writings, trans. and ed. b (...)
  • 29 Constant, «Principles», p. 221.
  • 30 Constant, «Principles», p. 219.

19Constant’s claims for the superiority of landed over industrial properity repeated the assumptions of dvic humanism: landed property provided a material basis for independent thought and action; it instilled habits of regularity against the flux and inconstancy of the market; it cultivated loyalty to one’s nation; it rooted thinking in the solid reality of land, discouraging flights of fancy and abstract social innovation28. These daims were strikingly at odds with prerevolutionary concepts of commercial sociability associated with modernity and the rise of public opinion: landed property rendered proprietors not sociable and communicative, but mutually independent; it nourished a parochial, rather than cosmopolitan perspective; it reined in the critical imagination, and so on. With his advocacy of a property qualification, Constant deliberately reached outside modernist discourse to imbue post-revolutionary opinion with an element of conservatism that would immunize it against the siren call of future fanaticisms. In particular, he regarded landed property as a salutory check on the tendency of the liberal professions to engage in abstract thinking and «impracticable extravagances29». As for industrialists, the contrasting qualities attached to mobile forms of wealth did not, according to Constant, make for irreconcilable tensions, «Almost all [industrialists] are in fact also landowners»30.

20For all the attention devoted to the role of property and constitutional reform, both Staël and Constant regarded these measures as insufflaient guarantors of an independent social sphere. The experience of revolution taught that constitutional guarentees were not inviolate and that property did not innoculate its possessors against cowardice:

During our revolution, it is true that property holders have collaborated with those without property in making absurd and ruinous laws. The reason was that the property holders were afraid of the propertyless being invested with power.

  • 31 Constant, «Principles», p. 216.

21They wanted to he forgiven for their property31.

  • 32 This figured as a central theme of Constant’s The spirit of conquest and usurpation.
  • 33 See Staël, On literature considered in relation to social institutions, Part II, ch. 4.

22Staël and Constant sought to buttress these forms of protection by strengthening and widening the networks of civil society. Constant carried forward the enlightenment theory of sociability through the medium of doux commerce, despite his ambivalent feelings towards industrial property. The bonds formed by market relations figured importantly in his theory of society and, indeed, formed the basis of his indictment of the military culture of the radical revolution32. Similarly, Staël referred back to the salon-based model to argue the necessity of disciplining opinion through the protocols of civility as imparted by the superior woman33. Both thinkers extended the web of civil society to include spheres of involvement disregarded by their forebears such as religion, friendship and domestic affections.

  • 34 Staël, On the present circumstances, p. 125-126.

23This complex social tapestry-exhibiting ties of intimacy as well as of sociability-would nourish a public voice with characteristics strikingly similar to the concept of public opinion at the end of the Old Regime. It was seen to be modem, rational and rooted in the lessons of social experience. If Staël and Constant emphasized the greater complexity of that experience, it was to anchor public opinion in a greater sense of the practical and to immunize it against one-dimensional political appeals. Significantly, Staël and Constant’s keen appreciation of social complexity did not lead them to abandon the earlier conception of opinion as the collective expression of a consensual social order. For Staël, public opinion spoke in a single voice, and exerted «pressure in a single direction34». Unlike her predecessors, however, Staël went on to specify the content of opinion:

  • 35 Staël, On the present circumstances, p. 128-129.

... we must not lose sight of the fact that public opinion will be based en the love of tranquility, the desire to acquire wealth, and the need to preserve it; that people will always be more concerned with administrative concepts than political questions because they bear more directly on private life35.

24This collapse of politics into administration was continuons with pre-revolutionary depictions of opinion as rational and unitary. The experience of Revolution, its escalation of political difference into fanatical opposition, reconfïrmed for Staël and Constant the importance of disassociating opinion from a conflictual model of politics. By linking it to the administrative functions of State, Staël lifted opinion out of the subjective world of power and factional dispute to ground it in neutral principles, objective facts and rational authority. Administrative problems, pragmatic and technocratic in nature, were answerable to knowledge rather than will. Public opinion represented the collective expression of social knowledge and summoned to its tribunal all those who would act in its name.

25If public opinion in the post-revolutionary state was directed towards questions of administration, it was simultaneously preoccupied with the limitation of state power. The administrative state had historically been identified with the centralizing monarchy and its ever-expanding domain of control. Coppet liberals sought to sever this connection, aligning the practice of sound administration to a diminished state, reflective of the modem rise of civil society. Accordingly, public opinion was assigned a dual role: on the one hand, to applaud the merits of the rational statesman; and on the other, to cast a continually suspicious eye on any enlargement of the governmental sphere. Staël and Constant admitted no conflict between these roles-as Staël reminded us, good administration enhanced the satisfactions of private life and nourished no emotional involvement with the state. The problem of the relation between knowledge and power was neatly reconciled in the agency of public opinion. The limitations of this unitary vision would soon become evident; for Staël and Constant, survivors of the violent upheavals of revolution, it held out the only. promise of redemption.

Notes

1 Keith Michael Baker, «Public Opinion is Political Invention», in Inventing the French Revolution, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 167-199.

2 Keith Baker, p. 199.

3 Jürgen Habermas, The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society, Cambridge (Mass.), MIT Press, 1989.

4 Mona Ozouf, «‘Public Opinion’ at the End of the Old Regime», in The rise and fall of the French Revolution, ed. T.C.W. Blanning, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1996, p. 90-110.

5 Daniel Gordon, Citizem without sovereignty, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1994.

6 Dena Goodman, The republic of letters, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1994.

7 Elizabeth Goldsmith, Exclusive conversations, Philadelphia, University of Philadelphia Press, 1988.

8 Carolyn Lougee, Le paradis des femmes, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1976.

9 Albert O. Hirschmann, The passions and the interests, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1977.

10 See Montesquieu, The spirit of the laws, Book XX, ch. 2.

11 Daniel Gordon, p. 102.

12 Montesquieu, Spirit, Book XIX, eh. 14.

13 Montesquieu, Spirit, Book XX, ch. 4.

14 Montesquieu, Spirit, Book XXII, chs. 17, 18.

15 Jacques Necker, De l’administration des finances de la France, Paris, 1784.

16 Keith Baker, Public Opinion, p. 167-199.

17 Quoted in Keith Baker, p. 194.

18 Quoted in Keith Baker, p. 187.

19 See Dena Goodman, ch. 4.

20 On this point, see Biancamaria Fontana, Benjamin Constant and the postrevolutionary mind, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1991, ch. 6.

21 Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the principal events of the French Revolution, vol. II, New York, James Eastbum and Co., 1818, p. 22.

22 Staël, Considerations, vol. Il, p. 23.

23 Staël, Considerations, vol. II, p. 21.

24 Germaine de Staël, «On the present circumstances», in Madame de Staël on politics, literature and national character, trans. and ed. by Morroe Berger, Garden City (N.Y.), Doubleday and Co., 1964, p. 129.

25 Staël, «On the present circumstances», p. 126.

26 Staël, «On the present circumstances», p. 125.

27 On the doctrine of civic humanism, see J.G.A. Pocock, The machiavellian moment, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1975.

28 See Benjamin Constant, «Principles of politics», in Constant: political writings, trans. and ed. by Biancamaria Fontana, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988, ch. 6.

29 Constant, «Principles», p. 221.

30 Constant, «Principles», p. 219.

31 Constant, «Principles», p. 216.

32 This figured as a central theme of Constant’s The spirit of conquest and usurpation.

33 See Staël, On literature considered in relation to social institutions, Part II, ch. 4.

34 Staël, On the present circumstances, p. 125-126.

35 Staël, On the present circumstances, p. 128-129.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1998

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