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Sans-Culottes: An Eighteenth-Century Emblem in the French Revolution. By Michael Sonenscher. Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2008. xi + 493 pp. Hb £32.00; $45.00.

It is certainly an understatement to point out that the title of Michael Sonenscher's book does not fully encompass its content. The author's ambition is nothing less than a 'historiographical realignment' (p. 3) of the 1789–1799 Revolution that integrates the political and economic thought of the eighteenth century, with a particular emphasis on the writings and influence of Rousseau. In the process, the story of how the term 'sans-culotte' was transformed from a literary salon joke into a revolutionary symbol mainly serves as a very loose fil conducteur to Sonenscher's elaborate and impressively documented textual investigations, which include 'such subjects as Ciceronian decorum, Cynic moralism, Rousseau's cultural and political criticism, Fénelon's vision of a flourishing society, Ogilvie's property theory, Bonnet's and Lavater's vitalism, Edward Young's enthusiasm, John Brown's civilisation theory, Law's and Leibniz's intellectual legacies, or Mably's disabused moral and political realism' (pp. 422–23). This list, which is incomplete (such names as Mercier and Sieyès should be added), illustrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of Sonenscher's book. Since Sans-Culottes devotes comparatively little space to the study of actual political events or the effects of economic policies, it frequently seems to be closer to literary criticism. In this regard, there is no disputing the extent of the author's erudition, nor his capacity to provide the philosophical background of often polemical economic and political texts. At times, the ways in which he traces and elucidates classical Greek and Roman references within the literature of the Enlightenment and Revolutionary periods make for fascinating reading. In particular, Sonenscher reconfigures many of the eighteenth-century political debates into a broad theoretical opposition between Cynic moralism and Ciceronian urbanity, with Rousseau represented as the new Diogenes, deflating elitist pretensions and attacking ostentatious luxury: 'A Cynic was someone who took the Socratic concern with self-knowledge and self-sufficiency very literally' (p. 138). In his analysis of the transition from the brutal honesty and simplicity exemplified by Diogenes to the emergence of the Parisian sans-culotte as an emblem of republicanism, the author usefully examines, among others, texts by Kant, Diderot, Mercier and the Physiocrats. In general, however, there does seem to be somewhat of a scattershot approach to the presentation of many of the texts. There is often a lack of clarity as to why some of them are more thoroughly discussed, by which criteria they are conceptually linked and to what degree they were influential. As Sonenscher indicates (p. 4), Sans-Culottes is designed to complement his previous book, Before the Deluge: Public Debt, Inequality and the Intellectual Origins of the French Revolution (Princeton UP, 2007). Through both works, he seeks to bypass the philosophies of history established since the nineteenth century and to refocus the interpretation of the French Revolution on eighteenth-century intellectual concerns and discourse. In this respect, he is successful. Conversely, his wide-ranging textual enquiry does not yield conclusive answers to some [End Page 473] of the thorniest historical dilemmas, such as how the Revolution could give birth to both 'Democracy and Terror' (to use the last chapter's title).

Edward Ousselin
Western Washington University


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