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Balzac on anti-social behavior
Reflections on Balzac’s critique of liberalism and capitalism, first drafted June 6, published on June 7, 2017

    « Généralement le créancier est une sorte de maniaque. Aujourd’hui prêt à conclure, demain il veut  tout mettre
    à feu et à sang ; plus tard il se fait ultra-débonnaire.  Aujourd’hui sa femme est de bonne humeur, son petit dernier a
    fait des dents, tout va bien au logis, il ne veut pas perdre un sou ; demain il pleut, il ne peut pas sortir, il est
    mélancolique, il dit oui à toutes les propositions qui peuvent terminer u ne affaire ; le surlendemain il lui faut des  
    garanties, à la fin du mois il prétend vous
    exécuter, le bourreau ! »

    Honoré de Balzac : Eugénie Grandet, republished by Éditions Gallimard 1972 and 2016, pages 219f

Noah denkt™ has just finished reading Eugénie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac. This novel was first published
in 1833, i.e. 44 years after the start of the French revolution and, hence,  a mere four decades after
and égalité had become a reality. Obviously, one would expect that so soon after the breakthrough of liberal
ideas, enlightened minds would still be full of optimism about the prospects of mankind’s ability to manage
reason, freedom and science for the good of the entire race. And many, many thinkers (Saint-Simon,
Lamennais, Fourrier, Proudhon, Auguste Comte etc…) did uphold that enthusiasm
(for further details see
. Not so Honoré de Balzac.

He watched the free market taking on steam and like Burke and Hegel he soon came to the conclusion that
people were better served by the feudal past than by the capitalist presence. Peter Brooks, Professor Emeritus
of Comparative Literature at Yale University has written about this. So you don’t have to take our word for it.
Here is how Prof. Brooks puts it:

    "Born a few months before Napoleon's coup d'état brought a halt to the French Revolution -- while consolidating its
    liquidation of the ancien régime -- Balzac came of age during the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy after Waterloo,
    and wrote most of his fiction during the bourgeois monarchy of Louis-Philippe, which followed the Revolution of 1830.
    His novels generally are set during the restoration but were written after its demise -- written with a sense of its
    impending doom, its inevitable closure and the coming of the age that will ever be characterized by Francois Guizot's
    words, as Prime Minister, to his fellow citizens: ''Enrichissez-vous.'' Make money, get rich.

    Balzac was a self-proclaimed reactionary, a monarchist who wanted to restore all the hereditary rights of the aristocracy
    and a Roman Catholic. Because of his reactionary stance, he was able to perceive all the more sharply the decline of the
    landed gentry, the coming of the cash nexus and the end of what he nostalgically saw as an ordered, organic society with
    each person in an assigned role. The new era was one of convulsive egotism, the cult of the individual personality."
    Peter Brooks: A Monarchist Marxists Could Love, New York Times, May 1999

Eugénie Grandet clearly reflects that skepticism towards market forces and liberty. The above mentioned quote
about the bi-polar nature of creditors speaks to that. And so does the description of Eugénie’s ruthless money
making dad, - a Silas Marner (George Eliot) type -, who loses all his humanity over his unchecked greed.  

What is most striking however in this astonishing novel is Balzac’s characterization of the virtues of a simple
faith-based life that doesn´t try to avoid suffering and pain but embraces it instead. Here are a few excerpts in
which Balzac talks about the beauty of an existence inspired by the aspiration for religious modesty.

    « Mais aussi son despotisme [celui de M. Grandet envers sa femme mourante] n’était-il pas désarmé par cet ange de
    douceur, dont la laideur disparaissait de jour en jour, chassée par l’expression des qualités morales qui venaient fleurir
    sur sa face. Elle était tout âme. Le génie de la prière semblait purifier, amoindrir les traits les plus grossiers de sa figure
    et la faisait resplendir. Qui n’a pas observé le phénomène de cette transfiguration sur de saints visages où les habitudes
    de l’âme finissent par triompher des traits les plus rudement contournés, en leur imprimant l’animation particulière due à
    la noblesse et à la pureté des pensées élevées.  Le spectacle de cette transformation accomplie par les souffrances qui
    consumaient les lambeaux de l’être humain dans cette femme agissait, quoique faiblement, sur le vieux tonnelier dont
    le caractère resta de bronze. » (page 246)
    « Dieu jeta donc des masses d’or à sa prisonnière [Eugénie] pour qui l’or était indifférent et qui aspirait au ciel, qui vivait,
    pieuse et bonne, en de saintes pensées, qui secouraient incessamment les malheureux en secret. Mme de Bonfons
    [Eugénie] fut veuve a trente-trois ans, riche de huit cent mille livres de rente, encore belle, mais comme une femme est
    belle à près de quarante ans. Son visage est blanc, reposé, calme. Sa voix est douce et recueillie, ses manières sont
    simples. Elle a toutes les noblesses de la douleur, la sainteté d’une personne qui n’a pas souillé son âme au contact du
    monde, (…) Eugénie marche au ciel accompagnée d’un cortège de bienfaits. » (296ff)

Now, contemplating these descriptions, notably those of the power of prayer, one may be tempted to wonder
whether Balzac’s views are all that far away from those that Salafists hold in our time. And yet, one would be
heavily betraying his legacy if one were to equate his poetic promotion of spiritual values with the ham-fisted
and often times violent political approach that Salafists are so infamous for. Not only does Balzac refuse to
indulge in the petty detailing of what a spiritual life should actually look like, something that Muslim radicals can’
t stop doing; but he also relies entirely on the power of his writings rather than imposing his views by means of
terror, fear and other atrocities. In fact, Salafists should take their cues from Balzac and understand that the
strength of a spiritual conviction doesn’t show itself in a rabid desire to get to heaven fast but in a celestial
patience for earthly suffering instead.

So, in these sad days of Islamist terror, Balzac’s reasoning offers some up-to-date grounds for reflection.
Whether he is wrong or right on his monarchist stance is another matter. His ultimate peacefulness and
tolerance however is intrinsically liberal and cannot be denied.    

Footnote* : Before the French Revolution the luminaries of enlightenment had long argued in favor of natural law and equality
versus the doctrine of divine right proclaimed by the ancient régime. The French revolution was naturally inspired by the desire of
enlightenment to leave behind man’s self-imposed immaturity (Kant). La Grande Terreur propagated and implemented by
Robespierre and others however quenched that original optimism in the new found freedom considerably. It couldn’t kill it
altogether though. So the inspiration of enlightenment persisted despite the aberrations of the revolution. It reflected itself above
all in the social reforms that Napoléon Bonaparte (Code civil, les écoles supérieurs, separation of church and state, meritocracy
instead of aristocracy) later enacted. In fact these reforms proved to be so resilient that the post-Napoleonic Bourbon restoration
from 1815 to 1830 failed in its attempt to eradicate them, something that ultimately led to the Bourbon downfall.
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Balzac’s view of the power of prayer, capitalistic greed, greed in capitalism,
Balzac’s social views versus Salafist views, Balzac on capitalism, Balzac on the
free market, Balzac’s monarchist views compared to Islamist terror, Balzac`s
critique of liberalism and capitalism