July 16, 2024
Mistrust First Impulses

French diplomat Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord said, “Mistrust first impulses; they are nearly always good.” Good luck figuring out this powerful survivor of the 1789 French Revolution and world shaper who was both mistrusted yet valued by successive French governments in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Many people believe, and I am one, that Napoleon Bonaparte studied and practiced de Talleyrand’s skills of forming unlikely, yet strong political alliances and that of masking his true intent.

Why would he say not to trust that which is good? Probably, he believed that most people want to do the right thing, and by doing the right thing, one also does the predictable thing and can walk into traps laid by immoral enemies. De Talleyrand also said, “Speech is the faculty by which men conceal their thoughts,” and he said, “They learned nothing and forgot nothing.” I do not know why this master of planning and mystery said such things, but his quotations reveal much about his power. He understood that most people, even many powerful people, plan nothing. Rather, if an idea pops into their heads, they simply do it and suffer consequences: misfortune or gains. So, de Talleyrand planned in his head the big picture outcomes for France, then kept those plans to himself as he diplomatically worked the crowd of international office seekers and gamers. I think he was the smartest man in the room most of the time.

But, what was France? Was de Talleyrand really selflessly working to achieve what was best for France and its people? He said, “There are no principles, only events.” Did de Talleyrand mean that morality had no place in his goals or that he would feign morality in order to snare moral diplomats into making an agreement which he did not intend to honor? His early advanced education was in theology. He represented the Pope and Catholic Church to French King Louis XVI, who was guillotined after the French Revolution, as were many other people. But, de Talleyrand was not guillotined. His diplomatic services were sought and used during the aftermath of the revolution, when France was most vulnerable to foreign invasion. I mentioned that Napoleon studied his skills and adopted them, but as Emperor of France, Napoleon did more than that: He placed de Talleyrand in front of his advancing armies! Why?

De Talleyrand went forward to meet with kings as Napoleon’s armies advanced to crush them. “Why send your soldiers to slaughter and lose everything?” he might have asked a threatened king. “Trust my Emperor Napoleon to keep you on your throne by giving him your army and the industry of your people to feed and support that army as the Emperor uses it to subdue the world!” Many kings in Napoleon’s path did that. The army that Napoleon took into Russia was only partly French. The King of Bavaria was but one king who contributed soldiers (50,000 Bavarian soldiers) to be part of the invasion force.

Who was this guy? Here is another of de Talleyrand’s quotes, “I fear an army of 100 sheep that is led by a lion more than an army of 100 lions led by a sheep.” Clearly, de Talleyrand worked for a lion (Napoleon), and apparently, he used his diplomatic skill to turn other kings into sheep. #TAG1writer.