there is a a profound maxim worth laying to heart: ‘What matters is not people but things [quoted by Nietzsche in French]’. This maxim, is like him who spoke it, great, honest, simple and taciturn – like Carnot, the soldier and republican. – But may one now speak to Germans of a Frenchman in this way, and of a Frenchman who is a republican? Perhaps not; perhaps, indeed, one may not even recall what Niebuhr ventured in his time to tell the Germans: that on one had given him so strong an impression oftrue greatness as Carnot. (R.J. Hollingdale translation, Cambridge University Press 1997)
Nietzsche throws a republican Frenchman at Bismarkian imperial Germans. His description on Carnot as great and simple in some ways matches his ideals from the classical past and his hopes for individuals in an age to come . That may not be the full story, but it is still part of it.
It’s worth thinking about Carnot and his life. I confess to not knowing much before. I will be getting what appears to be the standard current autobiography, by Jean and Nicole Dhombres, from an online bookseller very soon. What I have found out is a variety of accomplishments leading to the reception of his remains in the Panthéon, the place which commemorates the heros of the French Republic. A leading military figure in the wars which followed the 1789 Revolution, who was co-founder of what is now the École Polytechnique, one of the leading higher education institutions in France. He stayed true to Republican ideas even after Napoleon acquired semi-monarchical status and then became emperor. As a result he lost the chance for the highest honours, though he did receive some. That indicates a somewhat equivocal role, he was a member of the Committee of Public Safety which lead the Terror of 93-94, and then played a leading role in its downfall and the new government. I would need much more information to evaluate these incident, but my initial impression is of a decent record for a time of great violence and political about turns. He wrote on geometry and spent time in exile during the beginning of Napoleon’s rise writing a book on the metaphysics of calculus. His son Said was a prominent scientist, who had a major role in the emergence of thermodynamics. A grandson was President from 1887 to ’94.
I would not want to simply state that Nietzsche was a republican, and even a Jacobin on the basis of this remark. The remark has a context, which is to challenge the assumptions of German politics and culture after Otto von Bismark unified Germany in a war with France, and turned the King of Prussia into the Emperor of Germany. Nietzsche turned against the nationalism and the elevation of power politics over culture he saw in that period. That has a conservative aspect, a sharing of Goethe’s belief in the value of many German states with traditional rulers providing many cultural centres. That is nevertheless a conservatism with at least some liberal aspects.
Returning to Carnot the Republican, his apotheosis by Nietzsche may serve purposes other than the justification of republicanism, but it is still important that Nietzsche thought it worth quoting a Republic hero and praising him. If his praise for Carnot has a context which might lead us to qualify any republican gesture, it must also be the case that the kind of remarks Nietzsche makes about Carnot should lead us to qualify the critical remarks he makes about the French Revolution in On the Genealogy of Morality, Essay I. We will not understand Nietzsche if we only see him as the enemy of republicanism.
Next post, a democratic hero for Nietzsche.