Chateaubriand, especially famous of his influence on the literary movement of romanticism, wrote also some more broadly philosophical writings. The most famous of these, concerning the essence of Christianity, could be said to represent a romantic stance on the philosophy of religion, laying emphasis especially on the aesthetic nature of religious experience. Yet, before we take look at that book, I would like to consider a work Chateaubriand himself later regarded as a juvenile experiment: Essai sur les Révolutions.
The aim of Chateaubriand’s Essay is to understand the forces behind revolutions. We need not wonder the reason for such a work: it is obviously the on-going French Revolution Chateubriand wanted to understand. Yet, he spends relatively little time with the current revolution, since his method is historical – he looks at the great revolutions in ancient Greek and he plans to continue with the Roman and modern European pre-French revolutions, although he later abandoned this project.
Chateaubriand’s main idea is that while the political status of Europe during French Revolution resembles that of Mediterranean during the rebellion against traditional Greek monarchies, its moral status resembles the time of downfall of Greek politeias under the Macedonian rule. We may be quite quick with the first comparison, because even Chateaubriand himself in his more mature period noticed the deficiencies of this approach. The young Chateaubriand drew analogies between the relation of Greece and Persia on the one hand and the relation of France and Holy Roman Empire on the other hand and continued e.g. by comparing Carthage with England and Scythia with Switzerland. Needless to say, these analogies fall apart very quickly – the attempted conquest of Greek city states by Persia had in most likelihood little to do with the rise of democracies, while the war against revolutionary France had a clear ideological basis, not to mention that Greek city states formed no unitary nation unlike France.
Still, if we at least accept the broad analogy of a fledgling and apparently weak democracy pitted against a huge monarchic conglomeration of nations, we can still appreciate Chateaubriand’s questions – will the new French government be able to counter the monarchic backlash and whether it is preferable that it does so? Starting from the latter question, it is surprisingly difficult to find out Chateubriand’s true allegiances in the ideological conflict between democracy and monarchy. Indeed, he was a member of the counterrevolutionary army of emigrants, but this was perhaps more to do with his belief that revolutionary France was no true democracy. Here we can see influence of Rousseau – Chateaubriand holds a legislative assembly of all citizens to be a necessary feature of democracy, while so-called representative democracy is then just a monarchy in disguise or an alliance of smaller democratic republics.
Still, even direct democracy is not the ideal form of state in Chateaubriand’s eyes, paradoxically, because of its lack of freedom – he is apparently thinking of the tradition of ostracism in ancient Athens or the mob trials during the Reign of Terror. Politically, Chateaubriand clearly leans more on the tempered English version of monarchy and not the French absolutism. Yet, sometimes even the English monarchy seems too restrictive for his love of freedom, as he speaks eloquently of the American savages who live in a state of no states in small familial communities.
Chateaubriand does not make the mistake of projecting his ideals to his predictions on the outcome of the Revolutionary Wars. Instead, he bases his estimates again on the example of the battle between Greek city states and Persian empire. What Greeks had and what French revolutionaries lack is a certain moral constitution, which made the Greek men into reliable defenders of their way of life. This moral constitution, Chateaubriand suggest, could be gleamed especially from the philosophers of the period, who all upheld traditional ideals of the city state and polytheistic religion. Then again, when the morality of the people relaxed and philosophers started to speak against both the democratic form of constitution and polytheism (both tendencies might be seen in Plato), the Greek city states fell under the Macedonian rule.
Chateaubriand suggests that the French nation had for long time been in this state of moral degradation. His primary evidence is formed again by the philosophical tendencies of the time – the so-called Enlightened philosophers were all moving toward abolition of traditional Christian monotheism. In this juvenile work Chateaubriand does not suggest that French philosophy should turn its course and start to speak for Christianity. On the contrary, he supposes that the whole Christian clergy is mostly rotten and decadent and that Christianity itself would then fade away. Chateaubriand does suggest the possibility that some form of Enlightement could take the place of religion in the future, but he is more likely to believe that this is all just a premonition of an up-coming time of barbarism, from which a new civilization might then gradually rise again. In his mature phase, Chateaubriand rejects this conclusion with the forceful rejoinder that there are not that much non-civilized areas in the modern world, from which the current civilization could be assaulted. Furthermore, he is far more positive about the strengths of Christianity. We shall see next time how Chateaubriand defended Christianity in his later years.