Saturday, July 16, 2005

French Perspective

Lee Harris wrote an interesting article about French culture.

(H/T: Heather the intern at Neal Boortz).

According to Mr. Harris, “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.”

Mr. Harris discusses “amour propre,” which he defines, more or less, as the love of status. “Amour propre” is different from doing something for the sheer joy of the action. It is doing something because it will bring you—or you hope it will bring you—increased status in the eyes of others.

Furthermore, “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”

Mr. Harris sees this attitude as primarily a French one because their language has a word for it. And, actually, that seems to be a good indicator as any of the importance of an idea in a culture: do they bother to define it, to give the idea a special word.
“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.”

I don’t agree that the French culture has succeeded in outwitting “amour propre.” I don’t pretend to be familiar with French culture—I haven’t read Rousseau, Voltaire, Sartre, Camus, or Proust. I’ve spent a grand total of four days in Paris. My father’s family is French, but they are, in my dad’s words, “hillbillies.” Bernadette of Lourdes was one of them. They were busy farming. Their foods are simple and hearty. About the only thing I recognize from Mr. Harris’ description of the French I know personally is the epigram—my grandfather was a master. And, of course, those who came to the U.S. are different, fundamentally, from those who chose to stay.

Still, I think that the idea “amour propre” explains much about how the French political system views the world and why they often react the way they do. In the French legal system, one is guilty until proven innocent and a worldview that includes “amour propre” would explain why that is so. One must always be suspicious of the actions of other nations, other leaders, because they must be acting from “amour propre.” And, therefore, it is the duty of the French to expose that motive.

Mr. Harris and I are both oversimplifying, as one must in a short article. Still, the idea is worth thinking about and keeping in mind every time M. Chirac holds a press conference.