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The Trailblazing 18th-Century Woman of Letters Germaine de Staël on Ambition and the Crucial Difference Between Ego and Genius

The Trailblazing 18th-Century Woman of Letters Germaine de Staël on Ambition and the Crucial Difference Between Ego and Genius

Germaine de Staël (April 22, 1766–July 14, 1817) is celebrated as the first Modern Woman. Tolstoy counted her among the “influential forces” that have propelled humanity’s progress. Lord Byron considered her the greatest living writer. Emerson credited her with introducing him to German thought, which shaped his own influential philosophy. She was among a handful of women, alongside Joan of Arc and Sappho, included in Auguste Comte’s famous Calendar of Great Men — a compendium of 559 world-changing minds, spanning from Saint Augustine to Galileo to Zeno. (Lest we forget, brilliant women have been “men” for the vast majority of human history.) Napoleon — who banished her from Paris for a decade for opposing his dictatorial regime and punished all who visited her in exile — reportedly recognized only three powers in Europe: Britain, Russia, and Germaine de Staël.

In the midst of the French Revolution, De Staël composed A Treatise on the Influence of the Passions Upon the Happiness of Individuals and of Nations (public library | PDF) — a visionary inquiry into the limits of and optimal conditions for human flourishing on the interdependent scales of the one and the many.

Germaine de Staël (Posthumous portrait by François Pascal Simon, 1817)

One of the most insightful portions of the book deals with the proper aim of ambition — or what De Staël terms “the love of glory” — and the crucial difference between ego and genius. Half a century before Dostoyevsky contemplated ambition and success, De Staël writes:

Of all the passions of which the human heart is susceptible, there is none which possesses so striking a character as the Love of Glory. The traces of its operations may be discovered in the primitive nature of man, but it is only in the midst of society that this sentiment acquires its true force.


According to that sublimity of virtue which seeks in our own conscience for the motive and the end of conduct, the love of glory is the most exalted principle which can actuate the soul.

And yet this universal motive force has as its object something that eludes all but the very few who possess true genius. A century and a half before Einstein lamented the charade of celebrity, De Staël writes:

True glory cannot be obtained by relative celebrity. We always summon the universe and posterity to confirm the title of so august a crown. It cannot be preserved, then, but by genius, or by virtue.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne

Noting that the “fleeting success” attained by ambition can only resemble but is not glory — “that which is truly just and great” — De Staël admonishes that ambition syphons happiness with “the seducing brilliancy of its charms,” which yield no satisfaction of substance. She paints the social contract at the heart of vain ambition — a contract that aims at the gratification of the ego but masquerades as selfless contribution to the greater good:

The honorable and sincere friend of glory proposes a magnanimous treaty with the human race. He thus addresses them: “I will consecrate my talents to your service. My ruling passion will incessantly impel me to communicate happiness to the greatest portion of mankind by the fortunate result of my efforts. Even countries and nations unknown to me shall have right to the fruit of my wakeful toils. Every thinking being possesses common relations to me; and, free from the contracted influence of individual sentiments, I measure the degree of my happiness only by the extent of my beneficence. As the reward of this devoted attachment, all I ask is, that you celebrate its author, that you command fame to discharge your debt of gratitude. Virtue, I know, constitutes its own enjoyment and reward. For me, however, I require your assistance, in order to obtain that reward which is necessary to my happiness, that the glory of my name be united to the merit of my actions.” What openness, what simplicity in this contract! How is it possible … that genius alone should have fulfilled its conditions?

More than a century and a half before the pioneering mathematician G.H. Hardy asserted that “the noblest ambition is that of leaving behind something of permanent value,” De Staël wryly argues that there is egotism rather than nobility in such an aim:

Doubtless it is a most fascinating enjoyment, to make the universe resound with our name, to exist so far beyond ourselves that we can reconcile our minds to any illusion, both as to the nature of space and the duration of life, and believe that we constitute some of the metaphysical attributes of the Eternal. The soul swells with elevated delight, by the habitual consciousness that the whole attention of a great number of men is directed towards you, that you exist in their hopes, that every idea that rises in your mind may influence the destiny of multitudes, that great events ripen and unfold themselves in your breast, and in the name of the people who rely upon your knowledge demand the most lively attention to your own thoughts. The acclamations of the multitude agitate the soul at once by the reflexions which they inspire, and by the commotions which they produce.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Blob by Joy Sorman — a lovely picture-book about how the lust for approval and acclaim hijacks our self-esteem.

The vision of such electrifying acclaim, De Staël argues, is a powerful animating force, particularly for those still young and hungry to establish themselves as worthy of the world’s admiration. It is curious and disquieting to consider how, a quarter millennium later, the Pavlovian feedback loop of social media is only deepening the groove of this perilous human hunger for glory — or, in our modern case, the vacant simulacra of glory in the form of “likes.” De Staël considers the addictive allure of this pursuit of validation:

The paths which lead to this great end are strewed with charms. The exertions which the ardour of attaining it prescribes, are themselves accompanied with delight; and in the career of success, sometimes the most fortunate incidents with which it is attended arise from the interests by which it was preceded, and which communicate an active energy to life.

Such vain ambition hangs happiness on the amount of attention and acclamation one receives from one’s peers and contemporaries. As its counterpoint, De Staël paints true genius, which unmoors its happiness from both popular opinion and time:

Every discovery which knowledge has produced, by enriching the mass, diminishes the empire of the individual. Human kind is the heir of genius, and the truly great men are those who have rendered such superior beings as themselves less necessary to future generations. The more the mind is allowed to expatiate in the future career of possible perfectibility, the more we see the advantages of understanding surpassed by positive knowledge, and the spring of virtue more powerful than the passion of glory.

Complement this particular fragment of A Treatise on the Influence of the Passions Upon the Happiness of Individuals and of Nations with David Foster Wallace on the double-edged sword of ambition, Thoreau on defining your own success, and a lovely picture-book about how the hunger for fame hijacks self-esteem, then revisit De Staël’s timeless insight into the tragic psychology of envy.

Published May 21, 2018




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