Balzac Refutes Piketty

Politics - October 27, 2023

European Diary: Paris, October 2021

In Paris, intellectuals are taken seriously. On French television, frequently there are long and animated debates about ideas. Books sometimes become sensations. The French would not say flippantly like the English: What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind. When I was growing up in the 1950s, the most famous Parisian intellectuals were the writer couple Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. They frequented the Café de Flore on the left bank of the Seine and were deeply hostile to the West, although they both, as existentialists, promoted the self-expression denied to individuals in communist countries. With their passing, the best-known intellectual celebrity of Paris became Michel Foucault who taught at the prestigious Collège de France, denouncing all hierarchies, however useful they might be, and adopting various left-wing causes.

Why Were They Not Cancelled?

Those three Parisian luminaries were however guided less by reason than passion, even lust. Sartre and Beauvoir, who were themselves in an open relationship, used their exalted position in intellectual circles to exploit impressionable youngsters. Bianca Bienenfeld was a seventeen-year-old student at a French lycée (grammar school, senior high school) when she was seduced by her teacher Beauvoir who then passed her on to Sartre, while finally they abandoned her, as she describes in a memoir, A Disgraceful Affair. Natalie Sorokin was also seventeen years when she was Beauvoir’s student and seduced by her. Her mother complained to the authorities, and Beauvoir lost her job and had her teaching licence suspended. The young actress Olga Kosakiewicz had affairs with both Sartre and Beauvoir and later said, like Bienenfeld and Sorokin, that the couple left deep emotional scars. When Foucault briefly taught philosophy in Tunisia, he was reputed to have abused very young Arab boys, desperately poor and ready to accept his gifts. His defenders retort angrily that his sexual partners in Tunisia may have been older than alleged, seventeen or eighteen years. In their eyes, that seems to make all the difference.

Of course, a serious debate with those intellectuals should focus on their ideas and arguments, not on their personal preferences and private lives. Raymond Aron has subjected French leftism to a searching critique in the Opium of the Intellectuals (1957) and History and the Dialectic of Violence (1975). Sir Roger Scruton has perceptively analysed the works of both Sartre and Foucault in his Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands (2017). It is nevertheless a relevant question why Sartre, Beauvoir and Foucault have not been much affected by the present and powerful ‘cancel culture’, despite their abuse of vulnerable teenagers. I can think of at least one answer: They were anti-Establishment intellectuals of the Left, whereas the advocates of ‘cancel culture’ are mainly looking for Establishment targets.

Antipathy Towards the Rich

Today, probably the best-known Parisian luminary is the economist Thomas Piketty, the author of the best seller Capital in the 21st Century, the title being a direct reference to The Capital by Karl Marx. Indeed, the book, a massive tome, can be regarded as an updated version of Marx’ book. Gone is the prophecy about the inevitable collapse of capitalism, but what is kept is the antipathy towards the rich. Piketty repeatedly quotes from yet another famous Parisian, Honoré de Balzac, whose celebrated novel, Père Goriot, takes place in Paris during a few months in 1819–1820. Piketty claims that the story illustrates what kind of society is being developed by 21st century capitalism, with the rich becoming ever richer and wealth clinging obstinately to some families. According to him, the French nineteenth-century novelist ‘depicted the effects of inequality with a verisimilitude and evocative power that no statistical or theoretical analysis can match’. Piketty asserts that ‘inherited wealth comes close to being as decisive at the beginning of the twenty-first century as it was in the age of Balzac’s Père Goriot’ and that this novel reveals ‘the cynicism of a society entirely corrupted by money’.

The Fragility of Wealth

When I read Piketty’s book, I found these assertions surprising: Balzac’s novel could be read quite differently. I persuaded an American foundation, Liberty Fund in Indianapolis, to hold a colloquium in Paris on Balzac and capitalism on 28–31 October 2021. It took place at the Hilton Opera, but the night before it began I went with a friend to one of the best restaurants in Paris, L’Ambroisie in Place des Vosges, a Michelin three-star restaurant. The food was exquisite, very French indeed, with wines to match, and to my quiet amusement the waiters were just as arrogant as the intellectuals on the Left Bank.

In the lively discussion at the colloquium in the next few days, other participants and I pointed out that the chief protagonists of Balzac’s novel are all in thrall to their passions, not to money except as a means. Old Goriot has transferred almost all his wealth to his two ungrateful daughters and lives modestly in a boarding house. One of his daughters desperately needs money to pay the gambling debts of her lover. The other daughter has seen her husband use her dowry on speculation, with no certainty that its value will be maintained or increased. Another resident in the boarding house, Vautrin, turns out to be a runaway prisoner who had assumed responsibility for a crime he had not committed, because he had passionately loved the real perpetrator. Thus, the novel is really about the fragility of capital and the frailty of human beings. They are not corrupted by money but rather by passions which they cannot completely control. Indeed, Balzac refutes Piketty.