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Sans-Culottes: An Eighteenth-Century Emblem in the French Revolution.

Sans-Culottes: An Eighteenth-Century Emblem in the French Revolution, by Michael Sonenscher. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2008. xi, 493 pp. $45.00 US (cloth).

Whereas the title ofthis book would lead one to expect a study of artisans, workers, and shopkeepers in the French Revolution, what one actually gets is a variety of little known literary debates of the eighteenth century. Micahel Sonenscher has found, for instance, that writers carried on a lively discussion of Cicero's theory of virtue. Cicero had argued that virtue consisted of proper conduct in accordance with the norms of decorum developed in diverse cultures. One of these writers, the Swiss Protestant Antoine Court de Gebelin, in a work from around 1780 on the primitive world, stated that humans developed an understanding for the wisdom and guidance of God, the rules of conduct for complex societies, through agriculture, language, and other collective activities. Authors sharing this optimistic view of culture argued that people developed political societies, not for deliverance from a war of all against all as Hobbes had argued, but in a sequence of voluntary agreements. Even the norms of fashion, authors argued, had the benefit of neutralizing moral principles at odds with one another, assuaging jealousies, restraining the powerful, valuing fine things, and making rigidity look ridiculous.

A rival current of thought built on the ideas of the ancient Greek Cynic philosopher Diogenes. Cynic writers drew inspiration from Diogenes's use of satire and parody to mock cultural assumptions and orthodox pieties. They made use of his concern with self-knowledge and self-sufficiency, his disdain for material comforts, and preference for a simple life focused on needs. Sonenscher points out that the portrayal of the pathology of modern society in Rousseau's discourses a society in which people evaluated one another according to property, rank, and wit, and did all they could to feign possession of these qualities so as to gain esteem in the eyes of others--was thoroughly Cynic. Indeed, much of Sonenscher's book presents the views of authors grappling with Rousseau's juxtaposition of modern society and classical ways. Guy de Castilhon, author of Le Diogene modern, ou le desapprobateur, published in 1770, argued that dance and poetry had formed indivisible expressions of primary emotions prior to the high point of Greek culture. But human conventions separated dance and poetry, turned poetry into a distinct skill with rules of meter and rhythm, and rendered it sterile.

Another debate developed out of the publication of Fenelon's Telemachus at the beginning of the eighteenth century. While historians assume that writers of the time drew dichotomies between monarchies and republics, Sonenscher holds that the writers influenced by Telemachus's political theory saw connections between the two forms of government. The abbe Louis-Clair Le Beau du Bignon, grand-vicar of Bordeaux and Cambrai under Louis XVI, wrote at the end of the 1780s, in a work on the Roman Republic, that an absolute sovereign might take on an aristocracy such as the patricians of the Senate and forge a society of citizens.

An article evincing a modern sociological analysis, published in The London Chronicle in 1765, rejected the idea that the constitution of a government--monarchical, aristocratic, or republican--determined the sovereign. Whatever the constitution, power could lay with any one of a wide range of persons in the state. The sovereign had to heed the interests of constituents in civil society. These constituents, the author argued, formed "the supreme magistrate," and made, abolished, altered, or explained laws as they pleased (pp. 310-11).

Sonenscher indicates that Jean-Jacques Rutledge, from an Irish Jacobite family settled in France, in a 1777 work on the balance of powers in Europe, broached one of the most important debates of the eighteenth century, the potential benefits of public financing. Rutledge argued that the liberalization of the grain trade had to be coupled with a policy to assure the people's ability to afford price increases. Obligatory caps on prices, Rutledge argued, would violate justice and property rights. A bank for the landless, by contrast, would make property and tenancy more profitable, lead to the subdivision of the soil, and assure people's ability to afford grain. Rutledge argued that, though this use of public credit might harm rentiers, they lived in idle comfort and could cope with a reduction of income. The dissemination of property would multiply and enrich the agricultural class and bring down the reign of the feudal tyrants and despotism. The potential of the French economy would be realized and, with the limits placed on England's imperial ambitions by its public debt, would make peace between the two countries possible.

Much of the latter part of Sans-Culottes is devoted to debates about Gabriel Bonnet de Mably's work on the rights and duties of citizens, published in 1788, though written decades earlier. Sonenscher does not pay much attention to Mably's aspiration to dismantle the old regime and establish equality, and instead emphasizes his call for prudence and skillful political management in the pursuit of these goals. Such prudence entailed an accommodation of the king's debts no matter how unjustly incurred, an augmentation of the nobles' status to assuage their fears, an army commanded by nobles, the judicial supremacy of the noble and venal magistrates of the parlements, and regular meetings of the aristocratic provincial assemblies. To prudently transform the old regime, Mably argued, reformers of the third estate would have to grant these assemblies the power to elect the Estates General and to elect tribunals empowered as censors to enforce sumptuary laws, supervise public education, and draft policy recommendations.

All of these debates make for sometimes fascinating reading. But the book would have been far more engaging had Sonenscher shown how these debates altered conceptions of the Revolution. In the case of Mably, Sonenscher might have drawn a contrast with Johnson Kent Wright's depiction of Mably as a devoted republican and proto-socialist. In explaining the alliance of Robespierre and Saint-Just with the sans-culottes, Sonenscher writes that "Circumstances, particularly the war, may have played a part, but so too did the intellectual resources of the array of historical and political investigations that Rousseau's conjectures helped to ignite" (p. 363). Nowhere in the book, however, does Sonenscher explicitly state how these "intellectual resources" explain the radical phase of the Revolution. Nowhere does he clearly state how the interpretations of, say, R.R. Palmer or J.-C. Martin are incomplete or wrong for not incorporating these "intellectual resources." As a result, even the most learned readers will often pause bewilderedly, wondering about the overall purpose of the book's contents.

Stephen Miller

University of Alabama at Birmingham
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Author:Miller, Stephen
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2009
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