I thought, as I began to read, that perhaps I would scan the whole essay (republished in Reflections in a Mirror, Second Series by Macmillan in 1946), but while it is rich and valuable and much to be recommended, much of it is concerned with circumstances specific to World War II, to Germany, and to France’s Third Republic, and would not seem immediately relevant today. So I have selected a few passages which do, I think, show a pertinence in the present situation and help to put that situation in a broader perspective of relations between France on the one hand and ‘les Anglo-Saxons’ (broadly, England, America, Canada and perhaps Australia) on the other.
1. ‘France has never surrendered her mind to a dictator, not even to Napoleon, and Napoleon had the wit not to ask it of her. He conscribed her body to his conquests but never her mind to his obsessions. It is the special attribute of the French that they cannot be standardized. No one newspaper can tell them what to think: they have hundreds of little newspapers and are sceptical of them all. No one politician can command a hero-worshipping majority: for better or for worse they have hundreds of little politicians and distrust them all. No one general can dazzle them; they have hundreds of little generals and sack a dozen or two of them at the beginning of each war pour encourager les autres.’
2. ‘They are not a herd-people. Even during their own revolution they cut off the heads of their leaders with reasonable and impartial regularity. This fierce reaction of the French against the drug-like influence of popular slogans is called “cynicism” by their critics, and is, of course, unlikely to recommend them to those English, Americans or Germans who take their opinion from headlines. To put the same idea more gently: the French intellectual integrity has in it an element of scepticism that sometimes offends our sentiment. But my case does not rest on sentimental appeal. I say only that . . . we are bound to recognize – whether we like it or not – this power of the French to resist standardization, this respect of theirs for the liberties of the individual mind, as a contribution to civilized life that we cannot afford to do without.’
Two other elements of France that he goes on to discuss are much less evident today: the value accorded to refinement of pleasure, even in small things; and a level of literary schooling in ordinary Frenchmen (in CM’s case, ‘plain seamen in …one of the most efficient navies in the world’) that made some of them come to see him in his liaison office in the Château of Maintenon holding French translations of his novels and intent on discussing with him ‘highly technical points of method and construction’. Yet I believe that it may still be true to say, as he doe
3. ‘…there is this to be remembered: that, though other nations may claim to excel France in poetry or painting or music or scientific research, it is to France that artists and men of science go to learn – not necessarily in the academic sense of learning how to practise their art or their science; but to learn how to live as scientists and artists. Foreigners go to Oxford or Yale or Heidelberg or Rome to study particular subjects; they go to the Sorbonne for the same reason; but they go to Paris because her cafés, her studios, her great houses, her humblest lodgings are a university of life in which there are no pedagogues… A European traveller may omit Berlin or Rome or Buda-Pesth, but not Paris. Everything – ideas, men, revolutions, all the agonies and the ecstasies of mankind – flow into France and are changed and are given to the world again. She is the heart that pumps the blood of civilization.'
4. ’Through our vision the stream of civilization runs perpetually, an inheritance and a guide. It does not run through the vision of the Germans; it does run through the vision of the French. … The German people [NB: under National Socialism – RK] have rejected the fundamental ideas upon which is based our view of civilization, our hope for mankind. What are those ideas? First, the idea of proportion and balance, of “nothing too much”, which we inherit from the Greeks and to which totalitarianism, whether Nazi or Communist [NB or radical Islamist – RK], is by definition opposed. Second, the idea of variety as distinct from that of standardization. Third, the idea that civilization is a living, flexible and breathing organism that takes in and gives out. Fourth, that it is, or dreams of becoming, universal by acceptance and not by conquest. To all these principles [Nazi] Germany is opposed; to all of them France adheres. That is the nature of the conflict; that is the nature of the alliance. “Si nous nous divisons, le monde est perdu.” If we are divided, the world is lost.’
If, here, we read “radical Islamism” for “Germany”, the pertinence is emphasized. And as we can see, it is not for nothing that Charles Morgan was one of only two Englishmen ever to be elected to the Institut de France, and that that fact was his greatest pride.