- The Cult of the Nation in France: Inventing Nationalism, 1680–1800
David A. Bell’s elegantly written and handsomely produced book offers many new insights into the origins of modern French nationalism. Perhaps the most important insight involves the chronology of the analysis itself, for Bell establishes beyond doubt that patriotic sensibilities and the desire to build a cohesive nation predated the French Revolution by at least forty years. In fact, as Bell shows, attention to the patrie and its needs increased in intensity already in the last decades of Louis XIV’s reign. The author traces the growing importance of the ideas of nation and patrie in published literature of the eighteenth century with such thoroughness and care that The Cult of the Nation must count as one of the most widely researched books to have appeared in the field over the last ten years. Few references to the nation and the patrie escaped the author’s notice, it seems, and specialists of the eighteenth century, and historians of nationalism more generally, will benefit from Bell’s meticulous research for years to come.
Nevertheless, Bell’s considerable evidence attesting the efflorescence of patriotic and nationalist ideas is attached to an overarching thesis that, to say [End Page 244] the least, will prove controversial. Drawing from the work of Marcel Gauchet, Bell constructs an elaborate hypothesis concerning the “disenchantment” of the European world in the later seventeenth century. By this process of disenchantment, the people of France (by which Bell really means the educated elites who reasonably form the focus of the book’s investigation) came to regard God as “absent from the sphere of human affairs.” This separation of the worldly realm from the realm of the divine inspired the assumption that the “ordering principles” of worldly institutions had to be the product of human creation (p. 199). The operation of human affairs, it was now assumed, obeyed no transcendent logic that ordered the cosmos and represented the mind of God for all to see. Consequently, the nation came to be seen as an object requiring the determined attention, and the shaping intentions, of the political community that it encompassed. Nationalism, as distinct from mere national sentiment, grew out of this new will to construct and shape the political community.
This argument is plausible, as far as it goes, but Bell does little to distinguish the phenomenon of disenchantment either from the appearance of a newly secular historical consciousness in the Renaissance or from the affirmation of “everyday life” that proved to be one of the important and widespread consequences of the Reformation. 1 The lack of conceptual precision is important, because Bell specifically dates the emergence of the new national ideas to the “decades around 1700” (p. 15). Even if one concedes the reality and importance of the long-term process of disenchantment, the timing of this “patriotic” turn still requires explanation. Bell alludes to changes in material culture that bespoke the appearance of a Habermasian public sphere, but he curiously rejects any political explanation for the change in sensibilities at the end of the seventeenth century. He does this even though “the decades around 1700” were a time of growing dissatisfaction with Louis XIV’s absolutist style, and even though the king was criticized specifically for placing his own pursuit of gloire above the interests of the patrie and nation. 2 He snidely dismisses the evidence and arguments for a pivotal aristocratic resistance to absolutism, for example, partly on grounds that the aristocrats did not “treat the nation as a political artifact in need of construction, as the French revolutionaries would later do” (p. 25).
Leaving aside the issue of the accuracy of that claim, Bell’s reasons for discounting aristocratic and other “political” opposition to absolutism around 1700 betray a teleological impulse that influences his reading of the evidence in unfortunate ways. Bell notes, for example, that widespread use of the terms patrie and nation really only occurred after about 1750, when conflicts between the king...