From the conclusion of J. Christopher Herold's 1958 biography Mistress to an Age:

Byron, shortly after his first meeting with Germaine, wrote to a friend, "She thinks like a man, but alas! she feels like a woman." The "alas!" is gratuitous. It was her feeling like a woman, her passionate feminine exaltation and emotion, which communicated its power to her male rationality. There is scarcely any disparaging judgment passed on her by her contemporaries that has not a large element of truth in it: she was supremely egotistic, domineering, histrionic; she was superficial and self-contradictory in her thought; she tended to confuse politics with personal feelings; she exalted, at the same time, nationalism and cosmopolitanism, rationalism and mysticism, aristocracy and equality, utilitarianism and enthusiasm, sobriety and intoxication. The defects of her character, however, were by no means unique to her, though the power of her personality magnified them; and the inconsistencies of her thought have been misunderstood. What made her unique is that she sought essentially moderate goals by the most passionate means. Rarely was love more exalted than by her: yet the goal was not the agonizing passion she knew, but the quiet happiness that eluded her. In politics and literature she never pursued extremes but always saw herself as a mediator, as a channel of communication: "The circulation of ideas is, of all kinds of commerce, the one whose benefits are the most certain" --- thus she declared in one of her last writings, her noble essay on "The Spirit of Translation." The circulator of ideas would defeat his own purpose if the ideas he circulates were consistent. Germaine was well aware that she often praised ideas springing from radically opposed principles. But she never ceased to believe that rational men, no matter how opposed in principle, can always agree peacefully on a vast area of ideas and measures, provided they remain free from fanaticism, which sees only the irreconcilable principles, and provided they are inspired by enthusiasm, which alone can vivify the spirit. Freedom, to her, was above all the right of the human spirit to progress; enthusiasm fed it, and fanaticism killed it. In a world where conciliation becomes increasingly difficult because of a fanaticism which is blind to the rational area of agreement and mesmerized by the opposition of principles, in a world where enthusiasm is usurped by fanaticism and where it has been lost by reason, Madame de Staël's passionate defense of moderation has only gained in relevance.



June 2015

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