Modern Ambition vs. the Old Regime’s Quest for Honor

December 1, 2016

Nothing then bore any resemblance to the ambulant colony of the present day which, in obedience to orders from above, travels about governing each of our towns, strangers on the wing, with no personal standing, without local landed property, interests or means, encamped in some hired apartment, often in a furnished room, sometimes stopping at a hotel, eternal nomads awaiting a telegram, always prepared to pack up and leave for another place a hundred leagues off in a consideration of a hundred crowns extra pay, and doing the same detached work over again. Their predecessor, belonging to the country, was a stable fixture and contented; he was not tormented by a craving for a promotion; he had a career within the bounds of his corporation and town; cherishing no wish or idea of leaving it, he accommodated himself to it; he became proud of his office and professional brethren, and rose above the egoism of the individual; his self-love was bent on maintaining every prerogative and interest belonging to his guild. Established for life in his native town, in the midst of old colleagues, numerous relatives and youthful companions, he esteemed their good opinion. Exempt from vexatious or burdensome taxes, tolerably well off, owning at least his own office; he was above sordid preoccupations and common necessities. Used to old fashioned habits of simplicity, soberness and economy, he was not tormented by a disproportion between his income and expenses, by the requirements of show and luxury, but the necessity of annually adding to his revenue.

 Portrait of Catherine Coustard, Marquise de Castelnau, Wife of Charles-Leonor Aubry, with Her Son Leonor by Nicolas de Largillière

Portrait of Catherine Coustard, Marquise de Castelnau, Wife of Charles-Leonor Aubry, with Her Son Leonor by Nicolas de Largillière

Thus guided and unembarrassed, the instincts of vanity and generosity, the essence of French character, took the ascendant; the councilor or comptroller, the King’s agent, regarded himself as a man above the common run, as a noble of the Third-Estate; he thought less of making money than of gaining esteem.; his chief desire was to be honored and honorable; “he passed life comfortably and was looked up to,…in the discharge of his duty,…with no other ambition than to transmit to his children…along with their inheritance an unsullied reputation.” Among the other groups of the bourgeoisie the same corporate system, the same settled habits, the same security, the same frugality, the same institutions, the same customs, promoted the growth of nearly the same sentiments, while the intellectual culture of these men was not insignificant. Having leisure, they were given to reading; as they were not overwhelmed with newspapers they read books worth reading…


H.A. Taine, The Revolution, vol. 2. 320-2.


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