We French have for some years been overcome by a furor for republicanism and for citizenship. There is no activity so humble that it cannot take on an intimidating nobility as soon as it is associated with citizenship. The republic calls us, besieges us, smothers us—but where is the republic? Are we part of a republic, or does our intemperate usage of the term mean only that we have forgotten its meaning?
I raise these questions in a nonpartisan, non-polemical way. I do not mean: Our republic is no longer republican enough; we must try harder! I mean: This collective body that we make up together, is it still legitimate to call it a republic? This question can only be raised seriously if we suspend our participation in the current political debate and strive to grasp “republic” as a discernable and shareable object of thought and subject of action.
The idea of a republic as a way of life that can be described and evaluated is not easy to grasp. The republican idea seems so near and familiar to us, it envelops us to the point that we would experience it as a kind of impiety to hold it at a distance in order to describe and judge it; its “value” paralyzes us. Moreover, we are heirs to a very long history, in the course of which different political bodies have grown and declined under the same name of “republic.” How, then, might we extract ourselves from the grip of the word?
The most constant reference for the republican idea has been the Roman Republic, just as the Roman Empire provided Europeans with the type for the idea of empire that has occupied our political imagination almost as long. Montaigne provides us with a striking expression of the pregnancy of the republican and Roman idea even in the circumstances least favorable to the republican regime. “I had knowledge of the affairs of Rome long before I knew those of my own house. I knew the Capitol and its layout before I knew the Louvre and the Tiber before the Seine,” he recalled. “I engaged in a hundred combats for the defense of Pompey and for Brutus’s cause.” It would be a mistake to dismiss such weighty testimonies, which could easily be multiplied, as mere anecdotes.
What now limits our political interest in the experience of republican Rome is the well-founded feeling that there is a qualitative difference between ancient and modern republicanism. Since representative government is the great invention of modern politics, what would be the point of seeking useful teachings in an ancient, that is, non-representative republic?
Far be it from me to minimize the importance of the question of political representation. A good representative regime and a good organization of representation are fundamental conditions of a satisfactory political and social life for a modern people. The great modern political crises can often be described as crises of representation. Without entering the partisan debate, I would say that the “French problem” now doubtless consists in the citizen’s loss of confidence in his representatives.
Nevertheless, even in a representative republic, the basis of political life does not lie in the mechanism of representation. Not only would it be hard to believe in the sincerity of a politician who would say “my policy is to represent you”; in fact this would be a sufficient reason not to choose such a person as a representative. The French, like the citizens of other republics, choose their representatives in order to be well-represented, to be sure, but also, and first of all, in order to be well-governed. Representative government has over time been adopted in all European countries and many more besides, not from love of representation for its own sake, but because, in their experience, the representative has seemed to be the best form of republican government.
What, then, is the basis of republican government? We hardly ever pose this question; or rather we answer it in a hasty way. We say in effect: The basis of republican government is in principle the pursuit of the general interest. But, unfortunately, in practice particular interests usually prevail. Equipped with this important information, we citizens are full of admiration for our good intentions and pitilessly severe towards the politicians who of course betray them. How might we avoid this mix of moralism and skepticism that makes us both idle and querulous citizens?
For once we must think not of ourselves but of those who govern us. What is the basis of their action? We must not by any means ask them, since they will repeat the platitudes called for by the representative system. Whom to ask, then? The advantage of the non-representative republic, especially the Roman Republic, is that it makes available to us the spirit and motives of republican government, which are more visible because they are not veiled or distorted by the enormous artifice of representation. Without necessarily following Montaigne in “taking up the fight” for Pompey or Brutus, we would thus be well-advised to interrogate the Romans.
To do that, I propose to interrogate Shakespeare. Since this approach is not obvious, I owe the reader a brief explanation. Shakespeare’s Roman plays follow faithfully Plutarch’s Lives. A historian and philosopher, Plutarch was admired by Montaigne and Rousseau for his acute judgment of human actions and for his skill in revealing the bases of these actions. The drama of the theater adds to these qualities, for it is all about action, and there all speech serves action or is bound up with it, thus bringing to the surface, by its very form, the springs of human endeavor. Shakespeare’s Roman plays thus make available to us not, of course, a historical document, but an interrogation or inquiry into the motives of the actors of the Roman Republic, the regime that left the deepest mark on the history of Europe and of the West.
There are three of Shakespeare’s Roman plays pertinent to our discussion: Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra. Considered together, they form a dramatic exploration of the political arc of Rome. Coriolanus is the most completely political play. It is exclusively and one might say obsessively political: The city is the beginning and the end of all the actions of all the characters. In contrast with the civic closure of Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra deals only with the division or unity of the “world.” There is even, beginning in the first lines, the question of finding out a “new heaven, a new earth.” The aging imperator and the sorceress of the Nile seek to fill, by their passion alone, a world that is henceforth without a city and deserted by the gods of the city. Between these two, we have the brevity and sparseness of Julius Caesar. Unlike Coriolanus, where human motives are in a way produced by the authority of the city, in Julius Caesar the motives of certain of the main characters are infected with uncertainty and ambiguity. The double rupture of the republican compact, first by Caesar’s tyranny and then by his murder, leaves the last Romans worthy of the name, Brutus and Cassius, incapable of acting effectively together or of regathering the Roman people and thus reunifying the disjointed pieces of their humanity. Setting aside with regret Antony and Cleopatra, our inquiry will limit itself to the two other tragedies.
We must begin with Coriolanus. The first political dimension is especially disagreeable and bitter for us, but for this reason it is particularly useful: The principle of the republic is aristocratic; the spirit of those who govern a republic is aristocratic pride, the pride of the few who are capable and virtuous. Coriolanus takes this pride to the point of insolence and furor, but it remains the general principle of the regime. The life of the republic rests on the emulation of those who judge themselves to be the most capable of governing the city and who expect from the city honors proportionate to their service. This aristocratic character belongs to the essence of a self-governing political body, one that wishes to be governed by the best. The modern device of representation is designed to manufacture artificially, with the consent of the many, a few who are capable, if not virtuous.
What characterizes Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is that he will not concede anything to the people. In his eyes, the people know neither how to make war nor how to live in peace; they cannot govern and do not want to be governed. Named consul by the Senate as a reward for his exploits, he finds it difficult to conform to the convention of the regime, which requires that the designated consul ask for the support and voices of the people. Coriolanus finally manages to bend to the custom, all the while covering the plebeians with sarcasm, even though they acclaim him the new consul. Stirred up by the tribunes, the plebeians soon repent of their vote. In a great political scene, Coriolanus offers a ferocious and brilliant critique of the divided character of Roman government and demands a reversal of the very recent establishment of tribunes of the plebes. Then he is accused by the tribunes of “manifest treason” and condemned by them to death.
Plutarch’s Coriolanus is less implacable: He willingly shows his wounds to the people, which Shakespeare’s character refuses to do. Thus Shakespeare takes the dominant nature of Coriolanus, his aristocratic pride, to the extreme, and so brings out the contradiction inherent in this pride, which causes him to covet the honors that he despises because he despises those who grant them. Coriolanus finds the process of popular acclaim repugnant. It injures his independence and implies that his virtues are not sufficient in themselves but require the people’s confirmation. When Coriolanus asks a citizen what price he must pay the people for the position of consul, the citizen answers, “The price is to ask it kindly.” For Coriolanus this is an exorbitant price!
Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, for whom action and even great feats are easy, treats speech as the occasion of torment. He demands that his action alone suffice and that he thus should have no obligation to accompany it with words, even as a matter of simple courtesy. This is what is not possible in a republic. And so words are always throwing him off course. Too sensitive to the words of others, which easily make him furious, he is incapable of mastering his own, which tend naturally to sarcasm. He can hardly bear to be complimented. He is incapable of speaking humanely or calmly to members of the popular class. “You speak o’ the people, / as if you were a god to punish, not / A man of their infirmity,” a tribune tells him (III.i). Acts of war, in which he excels and exults, are speechless. His general, relating his great deeds, describes him as “a thing of blood, whose every motion / Was timed with dying cries” (II.ii).
Shakespeare, in the character of Coriolanus, takes to the maximum degree the figure of the great citizen whose action, because it evidently and eminently serves the city, wishes to be independent of the approval of citizens. In any case, what pertinent dialogue could there be between a ruler responsible for everything and everyone and the numberless ruled, each of whom sees but a tiny part of the common concern? Yet this is the supremely unequal dialogue that the great citizen, a Lincoln or a de Gaulle, must elicit and conduct. The test of the republic lies in the almost impossible task of joining speech to deed and deed to speech, and to do so aptly and justly. To speak is easy, and to act is hard; but nothing is harder than to act while accompanying and completing action by the appropriate words: the Appeal of June 18 or the Gettysburg Address.
In Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, a citizen provides the formula for a just exchange between ruler and citizens: “If he show us his wounds and tell us his deeds, we are to put our tongues into those wounds and speak for them” (II.iii). The evocation is not the most pleasant, but it defines precisely how, in a well-constituted republic, the mute eloquence of wounds—assuming the hero is willing to show them—meets the speech of citizens who “speak for them.” As readers of Shakespeare know, this strange image of wounds that speak is also found in Julius Caesar, in the decisive episode of the tragedy. It concerns Antony’s speech, which swings the people’s opinion against Caesar’s murderers. This famous passage sheds vivid light on the transformation of the fundamentally healthy republic of Coriolanus into the corrupt republic of Caesar.
Antony is a friend and a partisan of Caesar. He has just presented him the crown three times, which Caesar has three times refused. Antony was imprudently spared by the conspirators, and he has just received Brutus’s authorization to offer a eulogy for Caesar before the people. Antony’s speech is a drama within the tragedy. It is very long; one hears reactions from the audience; Antony transforms the forum into the stage of a theater. Using every actor’s trick—he takes a long break to cry, for example—having no use for argument appealing to reason or the common good, he intends to play on the most elementary emotions of the people, mainly compassion for Caesar, whose body is exposed to everyone’s view, and on the people’s own interests such as Antony presents them. In Coriolanus the people, whether hesitant or fickle, are a political body, speaking and acting with a sharp awareness of political stakes, especially constitutional stakes. The people who listen to Antony are at a show. Although they turn finally against Caesar’s murderers, they enter into no active relation to his situation. What is decisive for them is the fact that Caesar has bequeathed them his private gardens and newly planted orchards as well as seventy-five drachmas for each person. Antony is sure to emphasize: for each person!
Even though he has already been speaking a long time, Antony declares abruptly that he is not an orator, that he has neither wit, nor words, nor worth, nor action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech: “[I] show you sweet Caesar’s wounds, poor poor dumb mouths, / And bid them speak for me.” But, he continues, if he were an orator, he would “put a tongue/In every wound of Caesar that should move / The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny” (III.ii). In this spectacular moment, nothing remains of the civic relation between the wounds of the living hero Coriolanus and the plebeians who desire to render him justice, and to maintain their place in the republican order by rendering this justice and thus sustaining the proper relation of leader and led. All that remains is the brilliant theatrical speech of the orator, who is no longer really speaking to citizens, but giving eloquence to the mute wounds of the dead hero, wounds that might bring the stones of Rome to life.
This prodigious piece of eloquence seals the end of Roman civic and political eloquence, the eloquence of Cicero, whom Shakespeare barely has speak in the tragedy and who will soon die a victim of Antony’s vengeance. Public speech is henceforth severed from any significant relation to action. At the same time, the success of Antony’s eloquence is not without a certain power of political revelation: What remains of collective attention in Rome is concentrated on Caesar’s pierced body and on his flowing blood. In the body and the blood of Caesar now resides the greatest power.
Whereas the republican regime was founded on the most intense and constant possible mobilization of man’s active faculties, the new regime will derive its strange force from the authority of a prince who has been assassinated and reduced to the ultimate passivity of death. Since Shakespeare was writing in a Christian age, his insistence on the body and blood of Caesar forces us to think of the body and blood of Christ. What are we to make of such an explicit parallelism? Is Shakespeare suggesting a political interpretation of Christianity, in which Caesar, by his finally vanquished strength, produces the collective form that will soon be inhabited by the finally victorious weakness of Christ? I do not know. Recalling the political order, we can say that Caesar, by the audacity of his ascension as well as by the shocking contingency of his fall, had left an imprint large and deep enough to clothe with authority princes who fear losing their power as well as to animate the audacity of those who aspire to seize it.
What of the other party, the party of Caesar’s murderers, and especially Brutus, whom many good readers find to be the main and most interesting character of the tragedy? Let us follow the same thread, that of the relation between speech and action.
Brutus’s speech before the people of Rome is the complete opposite stylistically from Antony’s. It is brutally rational, and is built upon abrupt antitheses and contrasts: I honor Caesar for his valor; I killed him for his ambition. I loved Caesar, but I loved Rome still more. It is above all brief, which presupposes that the listeners will be instantaneously persuaded by this juxtaposition of propositions that do not appear to an ordinary understanding to be easily compatible. In short, Brutus’s rhetoric as a whole presupposes that the goodness of his cause is evident, and that it is enough for him to declare it in order to persuade everyone. This disposition, which is so distinctive of Brutus, constitutes at once his greatness and his weakness. To put it directly: He justifies his action in mediocre fashion for the same reason that the deed was clumsily conducted. We must not overestimate Brutus.
It is not Brutus but Cassius who initiates the conspiracy. This friend and relative of Brutus is an excellent judge of men and of situations. We can say with confidence: If he had led the conspiracy alone, it would have taken another turn altogether and the death of Caesar might have opened up a completely different history; the conspirators might have been able to renovate the Roman Republic by giving it a form that is impossible for us to imagine. But Cassius cannot act without Brutus, for he needs Brutus’s credibility in order to recruit the others in the group and give them confidence in the enterprise and, once the deed is done, to persuade the people of its legitimacy. Once he has persuaded Brutus to join the conspiracy, Brutus, by his eminence, necessarily becomes its head and leads it as he sees fit.
Brutus is admired by all for his virtue, and an enterprise takes on a different color when he takes part in it. We have no reason to think that this moral reputation is not deserved. The question is whether Brutus’s virtue—admirable in itself—is the best disposition for leading an action of such consequence and gravity.
Cassius, for his part, is anything but disinterested. He has seen Caesar, his old companion in war and in play, whom he once saved from drowning during a storm, and whose physical weaknesses he knows well—he has seen this man, who was not more a man than he, Cassius, become a god, while he himself has been reduced to waiting for Caesar to deign to look upon him. There is no doubt that resentment and envy rule his actions. At the same time, we cannot consider him a resentful person or one ruled by envy, because his admiring friendship for Brutus is both sincere and lucid to an astonishing degree. The question would be rather: Does Cassius’s burning resentment, which provides him with such a powerful motive for action, deprive this action of its moral and political legitimacy? After all, what is wrong in experiencing Caesar’s exorbitant power over Rome as a personal humiliation, in hating the tyrant as well as the tyranny? Is Cassius’s personal hatred for Caesar more immoral than the special friendship that Brutus maintains for Caesar?
Having agreed to participate in the conspiracy, and having immediately and naturally taken over its leadership, Brutus rejects three proposals of Cassius that seem particularly judicious. The most significant is the third: Would it not be prudent to kill Antony, a skillful intriguer, along with Caesar? Brutus refuses this expedient: Such an action would appear too bloody; we must circumscribe the deed as much as possible in order to show that the murderers acted not by envious passion but according to strict necessity. Strangely, Brutus, rather than seriously discussing the harm that Antony might do and the risk that the conspirators would be taking in allowing him to live, is interested only in the appearance of such an action, and in the impression that it would make, one is tempted to say, on an impartial spectator. Brutus seems to be as much preoccupied by the appearance of an action’s morality as by the morality itself, not its civic effectiveness.
Stranger still, in order to dismiss Cassius’s suggestion, he suddenly changes registers: “Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius.” He thus situates their action in a religious register, or in any case a register superior to human deliberation. Rather than seriously considering the best way to conduct their action, Brutus reinterprets it and strives as it were to cancel it out imaginatively. He continues in this way:
We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar;
And in the spirit of men there is no blood:
O, that we then could come by Caesar’s spirit,
And not dismember Caesar! But, alas,
Caesar must bleed for it! And, gentle friends,
Let’s kill him boldly, but not wrathfully;
Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds.
Brutus does not hesitate; he does not reconsider his resolve to kill Caesar; he is even the most undaunted of the conspirators, reinforcing Cassius himself when he begins to flinch. What is important is that he reinterprets the action before it begins; he cancels it out imaginatively as a human and political action. He depoliticizes and thereby “de-republicanizes” the great action that has been decided on. The political and moral situation as Cassius had described it so vividly and concretely is no longer recognizable. It is no longer a matter of a man who has become a tyrant and a god because of the Romans’ cowardice. It is a question of a being who is neither man nor god, but spirit and blood. The conspirators—or rather the sacrificers—will not be killing either a man or a tyrant, but will be separating Caesar’s spirit from his blood. They have no other choice, Brutus explains, in order to reach Caesar’s spirit than to spill his blood.
This fiction contains and announces the coming reality. Caesar’s spirit, liberated from its ties to Caesar’s blood, will prolong and extend the tyrant’s power. After Cassius’s death, just before his own, Brutus will cry out: “O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet! / Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords / In our own proper entrails” (V.iii).
Let us try to gather the threads of the drama. The action would never have begun without the passion, the energy, and the judgment of Cassius. And Cassius would never have been able to carry it through without the participation and the credibility of Brutus, who by his eminence will alone decide the way to proceed. Brutus contributes decisively to the success of the conspiracy, at least in its first phase, by his unshakeable confidence. He is the most scrupulous, and at the same time the one who trembles least. This is first of all because of his complete confidence in the goodness of the cause. It is also and inseparably because of the kind of isolation from circumstances he maintains by his moral perception of things. Sure of doing good, Brutus neglects to do it well. Cassius, however, tends to lack confidence in himself and in the cause (“Mistrust of good success hath done this deed” [V.iii]). Excess of confidence on the one hand and excess of doubt on the other conspire to the common defeat.
It is reasonable to believe that they would have triumphed if Cassius had sometimes resisted Brutus’s authority, or if Brutus had deferred to Cassius’s prudence. The tragedy resides in the fact that neither the eminent personal qualities of these two great citizens, nor their close and sincere friendship, nor the greatness and the urgency of the stakes, were able to bring them to make a truly common decision following a truly common deliberation. A rift was always opening up between them. Its cause lay in Brutus’s superiority, in the influence he could not put aside and from which Cassius never wished to or never was able to free himself. This is piercingly clear in the saddest, most bitter, and most beautiful scene of the tragedy, when, in the midst of a violent quarrel, Brutus’s bad faith pushes Cassius’s wounded friendship to despair. Having invited Brutus to stab him as he had stabbed Caesar, Cassius cries out: “for, I know, / When thou didst hate him worst, thou lovedst him better / Than ever thou lovedst Cassius” (IV.ii).
Cassius has put his finger on the painful point. The closest, most sincere, and noblest friendship cannot abolish inequality, nor remove its sting. Cassius’s cry demands that we reconsider the tragedy’s architecture.
It is of course an account of a republican conspiracy, a conspiracy of the good party, against the tyrant Caesar, and of the ruinous consequences. This conspiracy rests on the ambivalent figure of Brutus. He is the leader of the republican party. Yet this position proves contradictory. He shares with Caesar the complicity of superiority. Brutus alone is comparable to Caesar. He alone, we might say today, is in Caesar’s category. The plebeians, who understood nothing of Brutus’s speech in the forum, sense it. They cry out at the end of the speech: “Let him be Caesar.” And again: “Caesar’s better parts shall be crown’d in Brutus” (III.ii).
Brutus is not inclined to tyranny. He is in fact a good republican and would never become another Caesar. And yet, what is to be done with his superiority, which brings him Caesar’s esteem as well as the trust of the republican conspirators? He does not lay down his superiority, since he exercises his influence over Cassius without the least reticence, but wraps it in an exclusive concern for “the common,” in which every person’s position, beginning with his own, becomes invisible. He is the most virtuous of Romans, but also the least self-knowing, or the one who knows least what he is doing. He does not manage to discern or produce action or conduct to match his capacities and deserts under the conditions determined by Caesar’s exorbitant power. He can neither ally himself with Caesar, nor prepare himself to succeed him, nor kill him in a useful way.
This political and moral analysis runs counter to the mimetic interpretation of the tragedy proposed by René Girard. The core of Girard’s thesis, and for me the stumbling block, is the characterization of Cassius as the “mediator of hate.” I find the expression abstract, that is, apolitical. It neglects or rather dismisses the concrete reality of the action. Cassius is first of all the one who begins. He takes the initiative, pushed by no one, but he pushes all the others. Girard discerns well that Cassius is the “true father” of the conspiracy, the arch-actor who must persuade the other potential actors to join him. That he is particularly envious of Caesar is a secondary factor in comparison to the fact that Cassius initiates the action. This matters politically. The term “hate,” employed by Girard, is otherwise perfectly adequate. There is no doubt that Cassius hates Caesar. But the word “hate” is so imprecise!
Unless we think that all hatreds are alike, that all hate is the same sin—and this may indeed be Girard’s view—we will be led to distinguish between hatreds, and the qualities that hatred can take on. I will go so far as to say that there are noble and base hatreds. A very honorable political and moral tradition, one, I must emphasize, that is Christian as well as pagan, holds that hatred for the tyrant is a noble hatred, and that it belongs to the virtue of the good citizen. We might make all we can of the role of personal resentment in Cassius’s hatred (which in any case he does not let us ignore). We can say that Caesar’s tyrannical character is a matter of debate. But we cannot entirely pass over the meaning the actors give to their action or overlook the fact that the person who is the object of hatred is considered to be a tyrant by some of the most competent and honorable citizens. If we neglect this fact, we will be obliged to say, or at least to think, that hatred has settled on Caesar by chance.
It is a mistake to confuse the crystallization of the conspiracy with the contagion of hatred. Hatred is not contagious like an infectious disease. Cassius, moreover, does not awaken the hatred of the conspirators, who, with the exception of Brutus, already hate Caesar; he convinces them to act according to their hatred, which is something different, and which requires something besides hatred. In any case, Brutus, who will take the lead in the conspiracy, does not hate and will never hate Caesar. It is impossible to say why Brutus decides to participate in the action. One thing alone is clear: As tormented as he is before the decision, he is no less implacably resolute once it is taken. As I have emphasized, it is Brutus who knows himself the least. He is perfectly aware that the reason he cannot sleep is that Cassius “did whet” him “against Caesar.” But he was troubled long before Cassius’s devices. Again, Cassius does not awaken Brutus’s hatred for Caesar, but sets off the desire to participate in the plot. How?
According to Cassius (an excellent observer of men and their actions by Caesar’s own testimony), what is important for Brutus is the high opinion of him in Rome, the greatness of his name. Cassius holds a mirror up to Brutus: He must see himself as Rome sees him. His name fills Rome as much as Caesar’s does. His name fills Rome, and Rome fills his soul. Caesar no longer really exists. So Brutus, like a logician who cannot be stopped, will soon distinguish the real Caesar that he continues to love from the possible Caesar that he is resolved to kill. One clarifies nothing by making Caesar, in Girard’s words, “an insurmountable obstacle, the skandalon of mimetic rivalry.” This leaves out the third term, which is Rome, the common or shared thing, the res publica. Rome comes between Brutus and his friends. Brutus loves Cassius but despises him because he is too human. He loves Caesar still more, but he kills him because he might become inhuman. He wants to have no moral relation except with what he calls the “general.” The mechanism singled out by the mimetic theory is not at work here. The opposite is the case. Membership in the republic implies an enlargement that links the individual to the “common,” and in republican form there is an unequal enlargement of souls that nourishes in some a legitimate and dangerous pride. The great citizen is not only greater or smaller than another great citizen. He is also greater than himself, for he has another body and another soul, that of Rome. This enlargement is bearable or controllable only when everyone acts under the view of the shared, of the republic, and with respect for its laws and institutions, as difficult as this may be, as the example of Coriolanus attests.
Caesar’s disproportionate ascent, so well diagnosed by Cassius, has rendered this mediation of greatness by the common impossible. Since the real and effective shared has withered, Brutus allows himself to be carried away by an imagined universal in whose name he sacrifices a Caesar he himself has declared to be imaginary. His hand does not tremble, because, rather than carrying out a terrible action, he is presiding over a rite of his own invention.
The republic is the regime that allows and encourages the most action. This can be seen in Rome, and we see it in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a “republic disguised under the form of monarchy,” as Montesquieu put it. We see it in America’s founding, an extraordinary founding, and we see it in France in the great movement of ’89, especially if this movement is understood to include, as it ought, the adventure of the empire.
Today we expect from a republic the opposite of a republic. We demand from it the least possible action, or what we call “freedom.” For us, freedom is a world without commandment or obedience. It is a world in which public action can neither begin nor commend anything. In practice, as I have noted, we ask our representatives and those who govern us to show their disinterestedness in defending our interests. In this we give evidence of a very naive immorality, especially insofar as we use a moralizing language that prevents us from grasping the moral bases of a truly republican regime. Service to the republic cannot be disinterested, because it is paid for by what is most precious in the eyes of ambitious citizens, that is, the honors granted by the republic, which boil down to public esteem. It is not disinterestedness that we should be asking of those who govern us, but rather ambition. It has been too long since we had the rare benefit of being governed by a truly ambitious statesman. The conviction has taken hold that our regime would be more republican if it ignored political rule still more. Political leaders are to serve our interests rather than commend our collective actions. The reigning social philosophy postulates the power and self-sufficiency of a spontaneous social form that would bring together order and freedom without the mediation of political rule. This is to abandon society to its inertia, that is, its corruption. Thus places and states of toxic stagnation have formed, spreading and producing cysts on the social body over the last ten, twenty, or thirty years; these places have never known the presence of political rule.
The basis of the republic is pride in ruling for the common good, and thus the selection of those who are the most capable, which is never a large number. The more the meaning of action withers, the more the capacity to rule and take initiative fades away, and the more emulation languishes, the more selection is emptied of meaning. When one opens the polls to decide who will have the honor of not acting, rivalries can be lively and passions virulent, but the men and women who fear ruling all look alike. Paralysis and stasis are taking hold and sinking roots, with the fervent help of citizens who demand action—and protest at the first sign of it. Where might we find action that sets new possibilities in motion and commands? I do not know. But European man, so long known for action, cannot flee indefinitely. Europe cannot live indefinitely without any form. There are among us both reasonable citizens and passionate citizens who are waiting for the event that would force us to give ourselves some form, a European form for some and a national form for others. All discern the proliferation of signs of our fate, which they interpret in opposite ways. Is not this tension without any plausible resolution the beginning of tragedy, of the tragedy of the modern republic? Is this not our tragedy?
Pierre Manent was director of studies at L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, until his retirement in 2014.