DE GAULLE'S GREATNESS
12:00 AM, Jul 22, 1996 • By PETER AUGUSTINE LAWLER
NO biographer or historian has yet quite captured the greatness of Charles de Gaulle. Daniel J. Mahoney's De Gaulle: Statesmanship, Grandeur, and Modern Democracy (Praeger, 188 pages, $ 45) takes a new approach. It is an extraordinarily penetrating and original study of de Gaulle as political thinker.
To appreciate this book, Americans must overcome their understandable prejudice against de Gaulle. Even as we are moved by the French general's proud resistance to Hitler in the name of national honor, we note the absurdities: During the war, de Gaulle insisted on being treated as the equal of Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin although the French contributed little to the Nazis' defeat. And after the war, President de Gaulle's political judgment was clouded by unrealistic pretensions for both France and himself. He grandly but foolishly denied the fact of his nation's greatly reduced and declining place in the world, its dependence on the United States for defense and on an increasingly united Europe for its political and economic future. This posturing irritated American presidents, who saw his usefulness as an anti-Communist ally compromised by his French chauvinism and anti-Americanism.
In this age of cosmopolitan interdependence, such nationalism is seen as reactionary; in some quarters, the very idea of the nation seems obsolete. We can scarcely distinguish between Gaullism and Buchananism -- and if anything view the latter as the more reasonable. Buchanan says that Americans should be responsible for America first; de Gaulle saw the greatness of France as the acceptance of European and global responsibilities. By now, even the French have lost interest in the Gaullist obsession with France's independence and status.
Mahoney shows that this analysis is itself distorted by American chauvinism. In fact, de Gaulle was not particularly anti-American, and he favored an integrated Europe of distinct nations. He was a thoroughgoing anti-Communist, even if he failed to appreciate the extent to which Soviet leaders were motivated by ideology.
But more than a treatment of these well-known aspects of de Gaulle's career, Mahoney has written a work of political reflection. His astounding claim is that de Gaulle's books and speeches, analyzed in the light of his deeds, are a source of profound insight, not only into political life but into the human condition. To make his case, Mahoney must overcome our prejudice against the truth and relevance of the statesman's view of morality and politics.
Mahoney succeeds wonderfully. He shows that only a theoretically self- conscious person genuinely committed to political and religious responsibility could comprehend the need to do justice to all the diverse and sometimes contradictory facets of human liberty. De Gaulle's thought is full of complex and nuanced ambivalence, which he maintained without indecisiveness. He never stopped thinking about the greatness of France, but he understood his nation's duty to be the defense of a way of life more properly called European or Western. His idea of France is contained within his idea of European civilization.
De Gaulle affirmed the unparalleled freedom and prosperity of modern democracy but despised its tendency toward mindless materialism and standardization. He had some of the haughtiness and contempt for ordinary life that Aristotle and Nietzsche associated with great leadership, and he felt the lonely burden that comes with the conviction of one's unrivaled political greatness. But he also had an undeniable concern for the souls of the individuals for whom he was responsible. His belief in the dignity of the individual and an egalitarian understanding of justice directed and limited de Gaulle's proud individuality and saved him from any temptation toward the radical self-reliance of the Nietzschean superman. De Gaulle's aristocratic reflections on his own indispensability and personal excellence were moderated by his genuine devotion to the democratic constitutionalism that is the political consequence of the truth of Christianity. He rejected the pagan and modern lie that the creativity of great leaders is the source of all order and nobility.
De Gaulle devoted himself and France to "a certain conception of man." Mahoney shows that he understood this European view of human liberty to be medieval in origin. It was the basis for his criticism of the modern, Lockean, anti-spiritual view of rights as not doing justice to human individuality. Individualism and the attendant isolation of the individual, carried to excess in this century produced their extreme antidote, collectivism. The deepest modern tendency is to make human beings increasingly indistinguishable. De Gaulle wrote that against that tendency "only a tremendous effort can preserve the individual as such." But he also recognized that the "spiritual sickness resulting from a civilization dominated by materialism could not be cured by any form of government."
This deep and elusive account of human liberty as partly aristocratic, partly democratic, and partly Christian, Mahoney explains, is very close to that of the Frenchman who wrote what everyone considers the best book on America, Alexis de Tocqueville. My own bias against de Gaulle virtually disappeared once I began to see that he really might be the most Tocquevillean of contemporary writers.
Tocqueville and de Gaulle agree that "perhaps the key antidote to the petty selfishness and apathy of democratic individualism is a conception of political greatness. The leader must ennoble the people by uniting them politically through dedication to a high national purpose. De Gaulle thought that France must be a great nation for the French people really to flourish in their common political life. He summoned them to accept responsibility for their political destiny, to serve the cause of a great civilization. Mahoney wonders, with de Gaulle, whether such an effort can overcome the corrosive forces of modern individualism in the long run, and he reports that de Gaulle's final reflections included the irony and melancholy of failure. De Gaulle, like Tocqueville, could not always resist the fatalistic thought that, despite the best efforts of statesmen, political greatness and human excellence may have no future today.
Peter Augustine Lawler is professor of political science at Berry College in Mount Berry, Georgia.