Stendhal, then, is at his intellectual height when he wrote his sardonic article on Transcendental Philosophy. It was published in the Revue de Paris, in response to an attack on Stendhal as a partisan of Helvetius – an old “perruque”, as he puts it. The figure of Louaut, the old Napoleonic conscript crippled by attacks of rheumatism and left to suffer in solitude, is obviously on some level a projection of Stendhal’s own sense of himself. Stendhal copied the article and sent it in a letter to an English friend in December, 1829.
Louaut’s letter is a premise for an analysis of altruism (a word that had yet to be invented by Comte, one of those tedious enthusiasts for “transcendental philosophy”) from a “philosopher of the school of Cabanis.” If Louaut is two degrees of distance from Stendhal, the philosopher is one degree distant. These gradations mark out the essential fiction of the essay.
‘I am the philosopher to whom lieutenant Louaut wrote his letter and, what is a bit more irritating for me, I am of the school of Cabanis: I am making a book on the motives of the actions of men and, as I am not eloquent, nor even a great writer, not counting on my style, I am trying to assemble facts for my book. Having read the story of the action of M. Louaut, I went to see him. How did you do that, I asked him – and we have seen his response: I have only erased a few grammatical faults.
It seems to me to prove marvelously, as the new school says, and in a very wise manner that the motive for human action is very simply the search for pleasure and the fear of pain. A long time ago, Virgil said: each is carried forward by his pleasure: Trahit sua quemque voluptas.
Regulus, returning to Carthage, where horrible tortures awaited him, ceded to the fear of pain. The public contempt of which he would have been the object if he had remained, in violation of his oath, was more painful for him than the cruel death he had to suffer in Carthage.
The search for pleasure is the motive of all men. It would truly be a pleasure for me, and this is what has placed the pen in my hand, to see the new school of eclectic philosophy respond to this. But as I am not eloquent, I wish they would respond to me without eloquence and without beautiful obscure phrases, a l’allemande, but very simply, in small and clear french phrases, as in the style of the Civil Code.
My treatise on the motive for human actions will be, in effect, a supplement to the Civil Code; it will require heroism to publish it. I see from her fifty thousand persons, all tenured, who have a monetary interest to say that I am immoral; they would have said the same of Helvetius and Bentham, the best of men.”
Of course, the question of motivation isn’t answered by Stendhal’s old wig, or whig, for why the fear of public opprobium is more painful than torture does have a deep and disorganizing effect on the thesis. Still, the notion that philosophy should be written in the style of the Civil Code – a notion that Nietzsche, Stendhal’s great reader, picks up on – has had a long and fruitful career.
Finally, let me translate three more paragraphs.
My challenge to the new school, which calls itself eclectic, is, for the moment, only concerned with the explanation of what passed in the soul of lieutenant Louaut during the quarter of an hour preceding his immersion in the Seine.
I value the eloquence and the virtues of the eclectic philosophers, and my estime is so deep, that it triumphs over the distrust I have for any man who is obscure in his language and who is not a fool. Every day we see in life that a man who understands a thing well explains it clearly.
The French born around 1810 feel a lively pleasure, according to me, the child of pride, in going to philosophy talks and going out of them. However, during the talk itself, the pleasure is less lively, they try to understand. How many people have an interest in praising the new philosophy! While waiting for the jesuits to have all the professors hung, the best they can do is to favor german philosophy, a little obscure as it is and often mystical; one might say that all its adherents are obscure for the sake of pleasure…”
I love this, I have to admit. I love the way Stendhal’s fictional philosopher – who exists, so to speak, on a hypothetical level – takes his grand notion of the motive of human action and uses it not only to explain cases, but to explain objections. There is a certain comedy – an old Voltarian comedy – in shifting from everyday action to conceptual explanation. Making theory human abases theory, and the abasement of theory is funny – it is funny when Gargantua makes a student full of macaronic French shit his breeches, and it is funny when the eclectic philosopher’s obscurity is traced not to the obscurity of his object but to the pleasure he takes in being obscure. I could trace a line here from Stendhal to Dostoevsky to Shatov – but I will have mercy on my readers and not.