The Indispensable Talleyrand

21 January 2020

The year is still young, but I already expect that Duff Cooper’s classic biography Talleyrand will be among my favourite reads of 2020. While I cannot say that I trust the book on the French diplomat and his historical role, it has indubitable qualities. Despite his sympathy for Talleyrand, Duff Cooper does not hide or excuse his shortcomings. Cooper knows when to drop an anecdote and when to caution against believing it. But what caught my fancy is that the book also has a theory of history.

Cooper does not propose a great man theory of history, the theory which has Robespierre and Napoleon determine the course of events, instead he follows what one might call the indispensable theory of history. Behind the main scenes, people like Talleyrand remain indispensable for every government. All those famous leaders need to act through the second rank, the Sir Humphreys of the world, and its members change the course of history. Cooper’s biography of Talleyrand documents the amazing continuity that can occur on this level of organization.

Before the revolution for a good part of the revolution, and after the revolution Talleyrand significantly shaped the French foreign police. At any point during these historical developments, Talleyrand might have been the less powerful player, but over the whole stretch of time his decisions affected the outcomes again and again while others had lost their head or were exiled to barren islands. The indispensable theory of history can point to such repeated and reliable action to justify its focus. While Napoleon’s or Robespierre’s vision of society might have been grander than that of Talleyrand, it was the diplomat, who worked consistently for his own behind the scenes, not tirelessly but lazily.

Of course, this approach also leaves much unexplained. If the shake-up of the revolution hadn’t occurred, Talleyrand would have enjoyed fewer opportunities to shape the history of Europe. In addition, the indispensable people are often opportunists. Talleyrand certainly was, despite Cooper’s portrayal of him as a patriot and pro-European.[0] Those who manage to work behind the scenes for multiple governments have to show enormous flexibility in the policies and interests. Sir Humphrey and Talleyrand can exercise only so much of their intentional individual decision-making to shape history without running afoul to their peers and superiors. Much of their energy has to be focused on political survival, and sometimes literal survival. Talleyrand keeps his head during the revolution, because he knows whom to please and when to leave.

Combined with the flamboyant figure of Talleyrand, the theory makes for a good story. That is one reason I don’t trust it. We are suckers for such stories, all too willing to believe them because they engage us. This bias has to be corrected with a dose of scepticism, but that doesn’t undermine the book’s standing as an excellent telling of the story.


[0] I do not quite understand what Cooper has in mind when he describes Talleyrand as being in favour of Europe. It is supposedly not just the status quo Talleyrand favours, but some sort of flourishing of the continent.