Chamfort and the French Revolution

BookChamfort and the French Revolution

Chamfort and the French Revolution

A Study in Form and Ideology

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, 2002:11


November 1st, 2002

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Sébastien-Roch Nicolas Chamfort remains one of the most enigmatic ‘prompters’ of the French Revolution. This study analyses his rhetorical and political programmes in tandem to reveal how Chamfort’s discourse and politics inform and elucidate one another in both pre-revolutionary and revolutionary periods. It considers his key political texts – his ‘Discours à l’Académie française’, Des académies, the Tableaux historiques de la Révolution française and his posthumous Maximes et pensées, caractères et anecdotes – and exposes how, in each instance, Chamfort’s conception of politics hinges on the adoption and subversion of prescribed discursive forms (reception speech, historical tableau, maxim).
In the ‘Discours’ and Des académies, Chamfort opposes the implicit discursive norm of le bon usage sanctioned by the Académie française, because it represses free expression and at the same time constitutes the Académie itself into an oppressive corporation imbued with neo-feudal values. Chamfort’s subsequent interpretations of revolutionary events in his Tableaux historiques, while making explicit this same radical libertarianism, frame some reservations about the insurgent peuple as a political force. In the end, many of the tensions troubling Chamfort’s politics are resolved by his posthumous Maximes et pensées, whose prevailing principle of honnêteté gives them a rhetorical and political independence from both the ancien régime, centred on notions of honneur, and the revolutionary Republic, founded on a principle of vertu.
Previous studies have tended either to interpret Chamfort’s works from their historical or biographical context, or – by considering exclusively the Maximes et pensées – to subordinate them to an established literary tradition. This innovative reading posits Chamfort’s texts as an exemplary meeting-place of literary practice and political praxis at the time of the Revolution, shedding new light on both the function of literary forms in Chamfort’s politics and the role of Chamfort the writer, as an ideological subject caught up in revolutionary events.

Author Information

Dr David McCallam is Reader in French Eighteenth-Century Studies at the University of Sheffield, UK. His main areas of research are eighteenth-century French literature (Chamfort, Laclos, Chénier, Sade); eighteenth-century travel writing (Alps, southern Italy, eastern Adriatic); and eighteenth-century environmental humanities (volcanoes, avalanches, clouds).

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
Title Page4
Copyright Page5
List of Illustrations8
Chamfort and the Revolution18
Form and Ideology23
1. Chamfort and the Académic Française: Forms of Language30
i. Chamfort's Changing Relation to the Académic Française32
ii. The Question of the Académic's 'Discours de Réception'37
iii. The Dictionary of the Académic Française43
iv. Chamfort and the Issue of the Académic's 'Bon Usage'48
2. Chamfort and the Académic Française: A Study in Ideology55
i. Honour and Virtue in Montesquieu's de L'esprit des Lois56
ii. Ideal and Ideology in Chamfort's 'Discours de Réception'59
iii. Ideal and Ideology in Chamfort's des Académies66
3. Chamfort's Tableaux Historiques de la Révolution Française: A Study in Form79
i. The Form of the Tableau in Late Eighteenth-Century France84
ii. Chamfort's Tableaux Historiques: Revolutionary History in Tableau Form87
iii. Tableau form and Discursive Time: The Model of Popular 'Spectacle' in Chamfort's Tableaux Historiques91
iv. The Politics of the Tableau form in Chamfort's Tableaux Historiques102
4. Chamfort's Tableaux Historiques: An Ideology of 'The People'109
i. Chamfort's Sanctification of the Revolution111
ii. Chamfort's Aesthetics of 'The People'118
iii. A Moralist of 'The People': Chamfort's Tableaux Historiques125
5. Chamfort's Maximes et Pensées: The Form of the Maxim134
i. The Maxim as Defined in Late Eighteenth-Century France135
ii. The Maxim as a General Statement138
iii. The Maxim and the Aphorism145
iv. Chamfort's Maxims and Dialogue154
6. Chamfort's Maxitnes et Pensées: An Ideology of the Maxim160
i. The Ideological Function of the Maxim161
ii. The Dual Role of Caractère in Chamfort's Maxims168
iii. The Principle of Honnêteté in Chamfort's Maxims176
Works Cited188