A mystery solved?

In the winter, I published a post advertising a philosophical mystery. In a book by Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice from the South, I had found a quote by Germaine de Stael.

Happiness consists not in perfections attained, but in a sense of progress, the result of our own endeavor under conspiring circumstances towards a goal which continually advances and broadens and deepens till it is swallowed up in the Infinite.

I asked all the scholars I knew were working on Stael, but came up with no answer. No-one could tell me where Stael had written these words in her extensive body of work. But most were confident that this was something she might have said.

One possibility was that Cooper had cited from a book of extracts from Stael, and that the translations had not been accurate. Another was that she quoted from memory, summarizing an argument that Stael made in her works.

Either way, I would only find the answer by reading said works, so I set about it as soon as teaching was over. I regretted not having started earlier. My first choice was On Literature, which I discovered was both a great read, a rich history of thought, and an insightful piece of philosophy. This is a text I will gladly go back to again and again. But I did not find my answer there.

Next I read her piece on happiness, published in 1796, when Stael was thirty years old. I did not find this as good, philosophically as the later De la Litterature, but it was interesting to compare to Sophie de Grouchy’s Letters on Sympathy, written four years earlier, but published two years later than Stael’s De L’influence des Passions sur le Bonheur. Both texts cover the same material, and Stael even refers to Smith (whom Grouchy is responding to) at the end of the final chapter. But Grouchy’s text is clearly philosophically superior – it follows a set of arguments, and tries to explicate human emotions in a way that Stael doesn’t. Stael’s book is more descriptive, and the arguments do not follow one another in the way that Grouchy’s do. This probably explains why Stael, when she read the Letters on Sympathy, wrote a letter expressing her admiration, and her envy.

Thought I did not find an exact replica of the Cooper quote in De l’Influence des Passions sur le Bonheur des Individus et des Nations, I did find something that came close in the third chapter of the third part, ‘On Study’.

Philosophy benefits us only by what it takes away : study imparts a portion of the pleasures which we endeavour to derive from the passions: it is a continual action, and man cannot withdraw himself from action, because nature imposes on him the exercise of the faculties whichnature has bestowed. To genius it may be proposed to delight in its own powers and progress; to the heart, to content itself with the good it can do to others. But no kind of reflection can derive happiness from the nothingness of eternal sloth.

A treatise on the Influence of the Passions upon the Happiness of Individuals and of the Nations. London, 1798, p. 287

In this passage, Stael makes some of the points Cooper attributes to her: study, as an important contributor to happiness, is a kind of action, one which brings enjoyment because it gives us a sense of continuous progress, that is, one which has no particular end in sight. It is, as Aristotle said, activity of the mind in accordance to virtues, a development of one’s capacities, which inevitably leads to enjoyment. This is not the exact passage Cooper quotes, but the content is close enough that it’s at least possible that Cooper had it in mind when she wrote it. The fact that she does not offer a citation for it may also suggest that she quoted from memory, and did not have the book at hand to check.

I may also be wrong – I have after all a lot more of Stael’s work to read. And Stael was popular in 19th century America. But more importantly, Cooper was a scholar of the literature of the French Revolution – she later wrote her thesis on slavery in the revolution – so it is safe to assume that her knowledge of Stael was deeper than mine, who have just started reading her.

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