Remarks on David Bell’s “The Cult of the Nation in France”

Arthur Goldhammer

for panel at WSFH meeting, Baltimore, Oct. 3, 2002

David Bell has written a remarkably lucid, deeply learned, and thoroughly stimulating book, which brings a fresh and engaging point of view to a subject in need of precisely that. I could easily spend my twenty minutes heaping praise on the work and bestowing garlands on the author. Having come to the work straight from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, of which I’ve just finished a new translation, I was struck by echoes of some of Tocqueville’s themes. This started me on a series of reflections, which I will collect under three heads: “the cult of the nation,” to borrow from David’s title; the so-called linguistic turn in historiography; and the matter of chronology in intellectual and cultural history.

Let me begin, then, with “the cult of the nation in France.” That the concept of the nation carries a sacred charge is one of David’s fundamental themes. “Historically,” he writes, “Western nationalism, patriotism, and religion have twisted around each other like sinuous vines.” Hence he is surprised to discover “that few modern scholars have explored the connections [between the nation and the sacred] in a satisfactory manner.” [22] His chief complaint is that “religion most often serves these writers principally as a convenient, uncomplicated symbol for something else.”[23]

In place of such convenient but misleading simplicity David offers a more complex and nuanced view of the advent of “nation talk” in France. He envisions this process of historical change “as having occurred in two distinct, if connected realms … the realm of religious thought and the realm of material organization.” [27] Invoking the work of Marcel Gauchet and Keith Baker, he makes two key points: first, that “the intellectual achievements of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, by so clearly delineating the terrestrial sphere, also demanded a new vocabulary to describe it and to help human beings discern and maintain order and stability in the face of the terrifying absence of God,” [29] and second, that changes in the material organization of society, and in particular in the ways and scale of warfare, entailed “a striking shift in the way France’s educated elites dealt with and perceived themselves and their government.” [35] Out of this shift came “new or newly redefined foundational concepts of société, civilisation, patrie, nation, and public. Each allowed [elites] to imagine an arena of harmonious human coexistence whose principles did not ultimately derive from the dictates of an (increasingly absent) God.” [35-36]

The Tocquevillean echoes will be apparent. Their presence is not surprising, because Marcel Gauchet, the political theorist on whom David draws so heavily, was himself deeply influenced by Tocqueville. Of course Tocqueville cannot see the phenomenon from beyond it, as it were, from a postmodern perspective in which the cult of the nation has become, as David himself once observed in a review of Pierre Nora’s magnum opus, a lieu de mémoire. Tocqueville was caught up in it, at once an exemplar and epitome of the historical transformation that David sets before us. We know from Tocqueville’s biographers that he suffered a religious crisis in his youth brought on by “the terrifying absence of God” from the affairs of the world. His religious upbringing was influenced by the Augustinian-Jansenist strain in French Catholicism, in which the theology of the deus absconditus or hidden God on which David places so much emphasis was most prominent. We know that Tocqueville viewed statecraft as a high calling, religious in the sense that it lifted man’s gaze from the gratification of worldly and selfish tastes to the realm of the transcendent and eternal. We also know that he saw the nation as the fitting and indeed “natural” sphere of political action, the theater in which a providential equalization of conditions was to be achieved. Now, this implication of Tocqueville in the historical process of sacralization has its costs: there are things he cannot see. But it also has its benefits. As a participant he tends to view the process as one whose course is not fixed and determined in advance. Indeed, his chief purpose is to discover ways in which it can be inflected. Hence he writes, even at his most philosophical, always with a political and even polemical aim, whereas we are free to look back with the detachment, skepticism, and at times cynicism of posterior wisdom, which can be a delusory source of comfort. Nevertheless, I think we can still read him with profit.

For one thing, he views the operation of a “cult” from an angle somewhat different from David’s and therefore notices different things. I should perhaps point out that David’s own point of view shifts between chapters one and two. In chapter one he is concerned with the emergence of the cult of the nation as a new unifying principle. In chapter two he moves to a consideration of the political contest that erupts over the representation of the putatively unitary sentiments of the nation, with one faction rallying around the word patrie, the other around the word nation. [68ff] Here he sees the relation between religious rhetoric and patriotic rhetoric as primarily instrumental: the religious concept of the unity of all souls in the eye of God is “carried over,” to use a Tocquevillean locution, to the political realm and to polemical ends. There is a political urgency to this task: “The traditional rituals and rhetoric designed to render the monarchy sacred were losing their effect.” [67] Legal discourse drawing on notions of the “traditional constitution” no longer had the power to persuade, but, David argues, a new discourse had arisen to take its place, a discourse that drew upon theological rhetoric but applied it to terrestrial objects.

Tocqueville tells a similar story but with a somewhat different emphasis and a very different vocabulary. He is struck by the lag in the application of what he calls Cartesian reason to the realm of political philosophy, as opposed to natural philosophy, where it had already swept the field.

Why did Descartes, seeking to limit the employment of his method to certain subjects even though he had developed it to apply to all, state that only philosophical and not political questions should be subject to individual scrutiny? How did it come about that in the eighteenth century people suddenly derived from the same method general applications that Descartes and his predecessors had either not noticed or refused to see? … The philosophical method we are discussing was born in the sixteenth century and developed and generalized in the seventeenth. But it could not be widely adopted in either. The political laws, the social state, the habits of mind that derive from these primary causes worked against it. [DA, II.1.1, 515-6]

Note Tocqueville’s emphasis on the importance of laws, the social state, and the habits of mind that derive from them in determining when and where the Cartesian method can be applied. The tendency toward greater equality of condition that transforms both the social state and political laws also affects habits of mind. This is Tocqueville’s language for describing what David understands in terms of an interplay between the realm of material organization and the realm of thought. In certain respects, to be sure, Tocqueville looked upon the democratic mind as un terrible simplificateur. What he says about pantheistic thinking in theology can be applied almost without change to nationalist thought in political philosophy:

As conditions become more equal and each man in particular becomes more similar to all others, weaker and smaller, one stops looking at citizens and becomes accustomed to considering only the people; one forgets individuals and thinks only of the species.

In such times, the human mind is keen to embrace a host of diverse objects simultaneously. It invariably aspires to associate a multitude of consequences with a single cause. (II.1.7)

David is of course concerned primarily with the verbal and iconic manifestations of the new cult, the tokens of its existence. Signifiers such as these are relatively weightless and change easily. The habits of the mind and heart that ultimately preoccupy Tocqueville are more obdurate. They require changes in practices as well as speech, in rituals and forms as well as doctrine: “I firmly believe in the necessity of forms. I know that they enable the human mind to contemplate abstract truths with a steady gaze and, by helping it grasp such truths firmly, allow it to embrace them ardently. I do not imagine that religion can be maintained without external practices.” (II.1.5)

The issue here is not simply the ancient and irresolvable conflict between nominalism and realism. Do words name things, or do linguistic structures shape our perception of what there is in the world? That is a question for philosophers, whereas Tocqueville was, at least part of the time, a practical politician who believed that what people felt, more than what they said, was the key to acting on them. He would have subscribed to William Graham Sumner’s dictum (quoted by David Hackett Fischer in Albion’s Seed) that “men begin with acts, not with thoughts.” Sumner was trying to define his own neologism, “folkways,” which referred to “’usages, manners, customs, mores and morals’ which he believed to be practiced more or less unconsciously in every culture.”i Thus Sumner’s “folkways” correspond more or less exactly to Tocqueville’s moeurs. Fischer, on the other hand, insists that “in the modern world a folkway is apt to be a cultural artifact—the conscious instrument of human will and purpose. Often … it is also the deliberate contrivance of a cultural elite.” David Bell, I think, would agree with David Fischer, whereas Tocqueville would tend to be rather more skeptical about the malleability of humankind. Hence Tocqueville would recommend that we attend more to forms, rituals, and practices and less to images and words.

These reflections lead me naturally to my second theme, which is the so-called linguistic turn in historiography. No one has written more eloquently or forcefully on this topic than David Bell himself:

One of the stranger results of the “linguistic turn” in our discipline has been to make a great deal of actual history sound suspiciously like a graduate seminar. Today, historical actors are always being described as inventing concepts, attributing meanings, and developing understandings. They are seen as producing representations, telling stories, revising received ideas, and even working at discourses. They sound, in short, very much like historians.

I have been as guilty of this tendency as anyone else, and on most days I am ready to defend it to a certain point. Since historical reality can only be perceived through the veils of linguistic representations, these representations necessarily constitute our first object of study. Yet it is also important to recognize that the tendency has come at a high price. It takes away not only much of the color and drama of the past, but also much of its strangeness. By boiling down so much of historical action to a species of mental work, we make it seem deceptively familiar. Very few people in history have spent quite so much of their lives as we do manipulating symbolic concepts. All actions derive their meanings from symbolic fields, but this obviously does not mean that all actions are solely symbolic.ii

Tocqueville shared David’s uneasiness as to precisely what language is capable of revealing about the deepest roots of human action: mores, tastes, habits of the mind and heart. He was particularly skeptical of abstract words and conceptual language and of course saw the penchant for resorting to abstraction as a consequence of equality itself, inasmuch as equality promotes restless unease and constant change:

Men who live in democratic countries will therefore often have vacillating thoughts; they need very broad expressions to contain them. Since they never know whether the idea to which they are giving voice today will fit the new situation in which they may find themselves tomorrow, they naturally develop a taste for abstract ideas. An abstract word is like a box with a false bottom: you can put in any ideas you please and take them out again without anyone being the wiser. (DA II.1.16)

Hence I think it is fair to say that Tocqueville would have been skeptical of the linguistic turn in historiography. To understand something as deeply rooted as the cult of the nation, he would have found words, particularly abstract words, insufficient. He would have wanted to look beyond words to mentalities, traditions, states of mind, unspoken emotions, partis pris, and much else for which substantial evidence is hard to come by. Words simply do not cut deep enough. Just how much confidence can we place, then, in the distinctions we draw among abstractions? Let us assume that patrie was indeed as David tells us it was, “a variable and contradictory term,” yet that it had “one very clear set of associations with the ancient Greek and Roman republics,” whereas civilisation, by contrast, “stretched across political boundaries and carried with it a sense of historical progress,” while société was “a virtual synonym for patrie, complete with resonances of decline.” [40-41] A Tocquevillean, or for that matter a Popperian, might well ask what would count as a falsification of assertions such as these, since one could of course adduce passages from eighteenth-century texts in which, for instance, société is not a virtual synonym of patrie and carries no connotation of decline. Perhaps, in the end, it makes no difference whether the distinctions delineated here inhere in the past, as adepts of the linguistic turn would maintain, or are imposed on the past in order to make sense of it, but I sometimes have trouble keeping clear in my mind which kind of argument is being made.

A second and related remark has to do with the range of sources to which linguistic analysis is applied. Linguistic-turn historians often seem drawn as if by pre-established harmony to relatively obscure pamphleteers, neglected poets, unsung iconographers, and publishing entrepreneurs such as Jean Du Castre d’Auvigny, whose contribution to the cult of great men David reveals to excellent effect. It is certainly an understandable and laudable impulse of scholarly ambition to want to explore what has lain for centuries in obscurity, to uncover what we do not already know. And there are good theoretical reasons for looking beyond canonical texts: it may even be true that one must know a good deal about le degré zéro de l’écriture in order to interpret the great texts properly. Yet Tocqueville, I think, would have asked what weight we are entitled to attach to such discoveries. Assiduous avoidance of the familiar can make the relatively unfamiliar loom disproportionately large. The literature and iconography surrounding the death of Jumonville are fascinating, but the institutional role of the army in forging the nation may be of greater moment. What Jean Soanen preached about “order and harmony” tells us something about the transfer of religious values to the secular sphere, but it might also be useful to learn how the various terms clustering around nation resonated against the sounding board of mercantilist thought. The imagery and poetry growing out of the English-French rivalry cast the two nations in a new and interesting light, but the economic aspects of their competition come in for less attention in David’s book, perhaps because they cannot be neatly fitted into the its implicit chronology, which emphasizes a radical coupure in “the decades around 1700” [27, 33].

With the mention of the once-chic term coupure, we come to my third and final point, the matter of chronology. Even Tocqueville succumbs at times to the wish to see bright lines in ancient texts: “The word patrie was not used by French authors before the sixteenth century.” [DA, II.3.18] Yet such flat statements of rupture are rare in his work; he is more drawn to metaphors of diffusion and blending, of ripening and maturation, than to the images of breaking and rending that Foucault made fashionable. (Parenthetically and somewhat pedantically, I might add that to cite Foucault as the emblem of a sharp break in historical writing is itself a kind of Foucaldian fallacy, inasmuch as Foucault’s rhetoric of discontinuity was anticipated by Gaston Bachelard and Georges Canguilhem, to say nothing of Thomas Kuhn. But I digress.) Chiaroscuro historiography can indeed help to restore something of the “color, drama, … and strangeness” of the past that David fears partisans of the linguistic turn often neglect to their detriment. Like chiaroscuro painting, however, the Foucaldian dramaturgy is a method of contrasts. All of its rhetorical devices are aimed at heightening contrast; little interest is evinced in subtle shadings, gradations, or causal mechanisms. Once, while attending a concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall and observing the audience in the pit from the balcony above, I was moved to reflect that history on Foucault’s reading is like a hall full of concert-goers: first there are small knots of people locked in conversation, drawn together by their elective affinities and similarities, like the pre-modern episteme as Foucault describes it; then there are orderly ranks of silent music-lovers, faces raptly intent on the conductor’s raised baton. The contrast between the two states is clear; by bracketing the cause of the transition from one kind of order to another, the observer frees himself to embroider at will upon la différence.

David, despite his insistence on a sharp break around 1700, is properly critical of Foucault, and more particularly of Keith Baker and Quentin Skinner, whom he sees as influenced by Foucault, for failing “to elucidate a broader social and cultural context to which the changing meanings of words ultimately relate, even if they do not reflect it in any simple sense.” [n. 69, p. 227] His text succeeds in making good on this implicit promise to supply not just a context but a causal framework. Yet he is also very much a historian of his generation—younger than mine—a generation brought up to distrust the idea that the formation of national consciousness could be “an almost literal process of construction, involving bricks and mortar, iron track and copper wire.” “Copper wire” might seem a bit anachronistic here; it is included, perhaps, to remind us of Lenin’s misbegotten equation: “communism equals soviet power plus electrification.” Yet even if we eschew such vulgar materialism, we can all surely agree with David that “brick, wire, and track, not to mention newspapers and administrative circulars,” need not be relegated to “history’s dustbin.” [33] To acknowledge, as David does, the importance of the material organization of society as well as its linguistic representation is to make room for a full appreciation of the heroic désenclavement—to borrow a word from Daniel Roche, the historian of La France des Lumières—that made a nation out of a congeries of pays and terroirs, of états provinciaux and parlements de province, of consumers of butter, schmalz de canard, and olive oil. It was not just the building of roads and canals that knitted the country together; it was, among other things, the administrative surveys, royal commissions, committees of enlightened correspondents, emulators of fashion, and keepers-up with the Espinasses and Geoffrins, those Joneses of the Republic of Letters. It was conscripts and heroes and adepts of la cour as well as la ville. It was the fault not only of Voltaire and Rousseau and all the countless Rousseau du ruisseau but of Colbert and Richelieu and Turgot and Necker—familiar names, perhaps, but in our sophistication we are in danger, sometimes, of not giving the familiar its due.

David Bell’s distinctive study gives new depth to the cult of the nation in France. It is a first step toward reconstructing that cult in the round, as it were. David stimulates our interest in learning more about how the lexicon of nation-talk was deployed in areas he hasn’t been able to explore: in the military, for example; in business and commerce; in the administration. We owe him a debt of gratitude for having turned our curiosity in new directions.


i David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed, p. 7.

ii David Bell, H-France review of James Livesey. http:// /hfrance/ reviews/ bell2.html