Examining the lives and works of three iconic personalities —Germaine de Staël, Stendhal, and Georges Cuvier—Kathleen Kete creates a groundbreaking cultural history of ambition in post-Revolutionary France. While in the old regime the traditionalist view of ambition prevailed—that is, ambition as morally wrong unless subsumed into a corporate whole—the new regime was marked by a rising tide of competitive individualism. Greater opportunities for personal advancement, however, were shadowed by lingering doubts about the moral value of ambition.
Kete identifies three strategies used to overcome the ethical “burden” of ambition: romantic genius (Staël), secular vocation (Stendhal), and post-mythic destiny (Cuvier). In each case, success would seem to be driven by forces outside one’s control. She concludes by examining the still relevant (and still unresolved) conundrum of the relationship of individual desires to community needs, which she identifies as a defining characteristic of the modern world.
"A fascinating, elegant and thought-provoking book that makes a significant contribution to modern European cultural history.”—David A. Bell, Princeton University~David A. Bell
“The analysis is smart, sure-footed, and highly readable, and the book is guaranteed to attract much attention from all historians and other Europeanists interested in Romantic culture, post-Revolutionary politics, and the discovery of the modern ‘self.’”—Jay M. Smith, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill ~Jay M. Smith
~Darrin M. McMahon
"Genius, vocation, destiny: Kathleen Kete follows these grand themes through the facts and fiction of a host of fascinating lives, showing how French men and women at the turn of the nineteenth century negotiated their fears of a powerful force—ambition—unleashed by the tumults of Revolution. Her scholarship is thorough, her writing elegant, her insights fresh and timely. This is an admirable book."—Darrin M. McMahon, author of Happiness: A History