TCS Daily

A Defense of the French

By Lee Harris - February 26, 2003 12:00 AM

Everyone hates the French now, and always has. Perhaps.

But I would like to say a word in their defense, and if you don't want to forgive the ones who are alive today, at least consider forgiving the ones who died in the past-and even as long as two or three centuries in the past, if that would help.

Keep in mind that my knowledge of the French is entirely limited to dead ones, having been spared any actual acquaintance with them in the flesh except during one fleeting visit to Paris when I was too young to comprehend its splendor. But I can imagine them. I know them quite well through the books that I have read that Frenchmen and women wrote.

The French are indispensable-it is impossible to imagine civilization without them. They had to exist in the past even if you do not believe there is a pressing need for them at present.

There is a whole way of understanding the world that is French and that is critically important in order to make a civilization work.

The French have a method of analyzing human conduct that makes them see truths that are invisible to other forms of the human intellect, especially our boisterously pragmatic American one.

We believe in the power of positive thinking-they believe in the power of intellectual lucidity, even at the price of an increased pessimism. For an American pessimism is a sin; for the French it is prudence.

On this question, I must admit that I am sympathetic to the French. I agree with them in their pessimism because, like them, I am convinced that this pessimism is justifiable based on the universal prevalence of the phenomenon spoken of in French-and only in French-as amour propre.

But before I explain what this is, let me explain what it isn't.

It is not, according to the Geneva-born Francophile, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, amour de soi, literally love of the self, which is the sheer sensuous gratification we get whenever we please ourselves, whether through the enjoyment of food or drink or sex or sports or whatever happens to catch our fancy at the moment.

This is the love of self that Rousseau says-and the French in general agree-is good, and should be, if not encouraged, at least indulged. It is the source of joy in joie de vivre.

The second is amour propre.

Unlike amour de soi, amour propre does not focus on the pleasure of possessing something, but exclusively on the status that the possession of it is thought to give us. And that is a very different thing, indeed.

If a man drives a BMW because he genuinely enjoys the feel of a good car, it is amour de soi, and that is fine; but if he drives it because it gives him a certain status vis-à-vis others, then it's amour propre, and he is in deep merde. And the same may be said of anything in life-our looks, our intellect, our bowling skills, our mate-we can all fall into the trap of making these things important for the status they give us instead of the pleasure; and, as any fool can see, this is a fatal error.

Amour propre brings grief because it is based on a complete illusion-and one that, once seen through, cannot be unseen through.

To watch this illusion collapse before your very eyes, ask yourself what constitutes a person's status and you will instantly see that a person's status is nothing more substantial than the estimation of his character that exists exclusively in the fickle and feckless imagination of other people.

Which is precisely why, for Sartre, hell is other people. Because, when we are driven by amour propre, we are permitting others to control our sense of status-which means that a life devoted to the pursuit of status is ultimately the futile and soul-exhausting chasing after an illusion, as both Pascal and Proust could tell us, the first through his bleak pensées and the second through his epic study of snobbery-that stock exchange of amour propre.

And this is the unique contribution of the French to the spiritual life of the human race-to show us how amour propre is an ever present danger to all human beings, from the saint who wishes to rise above it, and then foolishly prides himself when he succeeds, to the sinner who cannot escape from its snares even in the depths of depravity, like the characters of Marquise de Sade-And what else is sadism, if you but think about it, but the ultimate expression of our superior rank in respect of the Other, and thus the final pathology of amour propre?

The French, in short, see amour propre behind every human action, and regard it as quite impossible for human beings to act without it.

To some this may be depressing and jaded. But to others, including myself, there is something stimulating about such a complete lucidity about what is in fact the source of so much misery in human existence, namely our inability to let go of our desire to outshine and outrank others.

Which, God forbid, is most emphatically not to be confused with healthy competition, which always aims at the achievement of a goal outside one's self, even if this be a goal that is as materialistic as money.

This may sound paradoxical, but it isn't. A man who wants to create the largest fortune in the world or to erect the tallest skyscraper is not automatically ensnared in amour propre-in fact, success often comes to the person who is thinking least of how he ranks against others simply because he is focusing his complete mental and spiritual resources on getting the job done, without wasting even a moment's reflection on where his standing is among his peers. He is lost in his objective.

This state of mind is caught in a favorite maxim of Ronald Reagan: "A man can achieve whatever he wants in life so long as he doesn't care who gets the credit for it." Which is good plain American for saying that, to the extent that a man can outwit his amour propre, his life will be blessed; to the extent to which he can't, it will be accursed.

And make no mistake about it: amour propre must be outwitted. And it requires an entire civilization to succeed in doing this, which was exactly what the French gave to the rest of mankind, in the form of civility, manners, and, above all else, taste; in clarity of expression and cleanness of intellectual line; and in that intrinsic hatred for the prolix felt by the truly polite, so beautifully expressed in the French genius for the epigram.

What greater gift can one culture give to another than what the French have given the world-the spiritual dexterity to systematically outwit the malice of amour propre through the creation of sheer opulent beauty?

Is the beauty sometimes shallow? Sometimes a little vain? Of course-what else could you expect? The French, we must always remember, wrote the book on amour propre. They may be trusted to know whereof they speak.

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