Blandine Barret-Kriegel’s book, La République et le prince moderne [The Republic and the Modern Prince] (PUF) was just published in France and is an important book and in many ways a timely one, given the current ideological and political situation.
1. It offers the first truly convincing explanation of the French intelligentsia’s strange delay in reflecting upon the republic and the law, as the Anglo-Saxons have been for decades. The Revolution, says the author. At fault is the exceptional fascination of the French with the deadly ideal of the pure and joyous revolution. Its appeal had to go flat in order for the question of the constitutional State to come to mind. It was like an epistemological obstacle, and the barrier had to be removed. The sole key was, to invert the Kantian phrase, to limit faith in the impossible in order to allow space for the knowledge of republican precariousness. This book says so. This book does so.
2. It knocks the wind out of the all-too-flattering common assumption that France deserves the credit for having invented the modern republican State. Bullshit, says the author, it’s merely the nth and regrettable manifestation of what we must call our hopelessly dense chauvinism. The actual primitive stage of the republican idea is not France of the Enlightenment. It’s not even America or England and their respective revolutions. It’s a much more modest country, one of much less import. It is a country that doesn’t make such a huge deal of its own History. It is Holland and its popular uprising against the Spain of Philip II, at the end of the 16th century. A complete reversal of perspectives. A decentering of quasi-Copernican proportions. A book that sets the story straight and puts the legend in its place — a rarity, indeed.
3. It reveals the paradigm of a type of intellectual born then and there, at the heart of this Dutch moment, and who is, on the other hand, French. Not Plato’s philosopher-king. Not the Prince’s counsellor, his inspiration, his prompter, in the manner of Voltaire. And even less the definitively insubordinate rebel against all power the Dreyfus affair would later invent. But the writer-mercenary, adventurer at arms and of the spirit, the precursor of an insurrection that is not, à priori, his own, but whose cause he nonetheless embraces. Duplessis-Mornay. Loiseleur de Villiers. Hubert Langlet. None of them ring a bell? That’s not surprising; the official history relegated them to the shadows, even in Europe. But they were the companions, the spiritual lieutenants and, in the course of things, the scribes of another « man on horseback » they saw pass beneath their windows, as Hegel did Napoleon: William of Orange.
4. The portrait of William of Orange Blandine Barret-Kriegel paints is also a timely one. Not just because it offers the romantic dimension of the character she has snatched from the drab grey line of official portraits, but also because she reveals by what incalculable series of happenstance, circumstance, and reactions this Catholic who initially served Philip and, in this capacity, witnessed his exterminating resolution, took sides with the rebellion and thus altered the course of modern history. One must read the pages relating his about-face. One can all but hear the silence of the man who, from that moment on, would become William the Silent, a sort of crowned and sophisticated Billy Budd. And the turn of phrase, at last, describing him: a Kennedy who would become a De Gaulle before being, nonetheless, assassinated. That says it all.
5. Through the figure of William of Orange, the author draws a paradigm of power that is neither that of Machiavelli, nor of Kantorowicz, nor of Carl Schmitt. A modern Prince? Well, yes. Definitively modern. Of a modernity to withstand every test, for he gave a lesson in sovereignty that eluded the three traps. No more cynicism outside the law. No double corps of the king and his retinue of assumed majesties. An end to decisionism and its whiff of disaster. Rather the marriage of instinct and right. The legacy of the arbitrary and of arbitration. The encounter — improbable and yet necessary — of tragedy and the law. A voyage through Holland. The birth of the modern mind, and the apparition of republican and democratic sovereignty.
6. For how, when one is a republican, when one sees the progress of civilisation in the passage of the cité-republic to the republican State and when one thinks — which is the same thing — that the State and the nation oppress less than they liberate, can one help but fall into ‘sovereignism’ (in other words, the ideology according to which the nation-State as such is the sole entity that holds our destiny)? Again, Blandine Barret-Kriegel has the answer, though there is not enough room here to develop it. Suffice it to state clearly that this is one of the rare contemporary texts that specify at what moment, under what conditions of default or failure, at what missed juncture of law and power (as in Serbia in the 90s? in Sudan and Darfur, and later on, in Libya?) it is legitimate to declare the deposition of the sovereign.
7. And, one last merit: the manner in which the author tells of the birth of the modern prince, in other words the importation of the State-form into republican space, or the appearance of this oxymoron that, for its contemporaries, the very idea of the « republican State » represented, allows us by analogy to conceive of this new extension of the idea, this new political oxymoron, this new and nearly unthinkable chimera that would be the republic of Europe. This is where Europeans are, as each of them knows. We are very precisely at the point at which Europe must choose either to break up or to leap into the unknown of a new kind of sovereignty. In recalling the leap that came before, in recounting its triumphs and the risks taken, in lending them their breathtaking depth of perspective and field, BBK’s fine book helps us to consider the next challenge. And, for that reason as well, it must be read.