De Gaulle's intellectual landscape

De Gaulle grew up with a sound classical culture, which he owed first and foremost to his father. He had a taste for reading, and soon adopted the discipline of keeping notebooks in which he often jotted down literary quotations which later appeared in his published works. Frequency of reference offers certain clues to his preferred periods and authors. He read and reread the Greek tragedians (Aeschylus, Sophocles); he had a wider knowledge of the philosophers of movement (Heraclitus) than of those of permanence (Parmenides). He seems to have been marked more by Aristotle than by Plato. He was familiar with the historians (Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius). He was familiar also with the great Latin authors, and the ternary construction he uses in his public speaking is reminiscent of Latin composition (Claude Roy called him the last of our Latin authors). He was familiar above all with the poets, (Lucretius, Polybius, Horace), but also with the historians (Sallust, Livy, Tacitus) and the memorialists (Caesar, Saint Augustine).

He would sometimes quote from the chansons de geste, the chroniclers, Joinville in particular. He enjoyed Rabelais and quoted him often, whereas he was silent on Montaigne. He was closest of all in spirit, however, to the great classical authors of the 17th century and the romantics of the 19th. Curiously, he seems to have had little feeling for 18th century authors, with the exception of the moralists (Vauvenargues, Chamfort, Rivarol) and the poet André Chénier. He rarely quoted from Voltaire or Rousseau and seems to have been more at ease with their historical works. His preference would appear to have been for the tragedians of the classical century, Corneille and Racine, rather than for Molière. He read Bossuet and often adopted his style. He was also familiar with the moralists La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère, with the philosophers Descartes and Pascal; he knew the work of the memorialists Retz and Saint-Simon well.

The 19th century provided a great part in his intellectual background, however: Pre-romanticism, Romanticism, Naturalism. He was a fervent admirer of Chateaubriand, especially the  Mémoires d’outre-tombe, which he read, reread and quoted from abundantly. He knew the work of Lamartine, Victor Hugo, Vigny, especially Grandeur et Servitude militaires, Balzac, Musset and also Benjamin Constant, Paul-Louis Courier, Barney d’Aurevilly, Villiers de Lisle Adam. He appeared not to have a taste for Stendhal. His religious background and that of his family led him towards the social Catholicism of Montalembert and, above all, Lacordaire. He knew the works of Gustave Flaubert well and often quoted from them. He read Michelet, Renan, Thiers, Sorel, Fustel de Coulanges.

The favourite authors of his youth seem – leaving aside the Comtesse de Ségur, Walter Scott and Jules Verne – to have been Maurice Barrès, Charles Péguy, Psichari, Boutroux and Bergson, but he also read Paul Bourget, Anatole France, Pierre Loti, Claude Farrère etc. He was familiar with the poetry of Baudelaire and Verlaine but went no further than Albert Sarrain. In the period between the two wars, he read whatever authors were talked about, and always the Goncourt prize-winners– Henry Bordeaux, Pierre Benoît, André Gide, Jules Romains, Georges Duhamel etc. He spent time with historian Daniel Halévy.

His culture was not exclusively French, for he was also familiar (for the most part in translation) with the great writers of England - Shakespeare, Bacon, Byron – and, above all, of Germany - Goethe and Schiller, some Kant, Fichte, a great deal of Nietzsche but from the standpoint of a Frenchman of his times, Bismarck and also the military writers von der Goltz and von Bernhardi, in preference to Clausewitz, it would appear. He quoted from and enjoyed the works of the great Russian novelists  (Tolstoy, Dostoievsky). Whenever he mentioned the name of a writer in connection with a major European country, he would for the most part refer to Dante in Italy, Goethe in Germany, Chateaubriand and sometimes Victor Hugo in France. Only rare allusions are found to works in Spanish (Cervantes, Blasco Ibanez, Ortega y Grasset), Italian, Arabic (the Koran, 1001 Nights) or Persian (Saadi). There are almost no references to Hinduism or Buddhism, and none whatsoever to the Far East, even to the classics of military writing.

Charles de Gaulle's political ideas were derived from a range of sources. One element that cannot be overlooked is religion. De Gaulle was a practising Catholic. Catholicism was not the dominant movement in French thinking. It should not be forgotten that the reconciliation between the Republic and the Church did not really come about until 25 August 1944, thanks to de Gaulle and the Résistance [?].

De Gaulle also learned from the church a sense of hierarchy, from which he developed a Gallican vision of problems, "the General's dialectical practices". This explains his refusal to be trapped in traditionalism of any kind. 

If asked to name the key influences on de Gaulle, one would have to mention Bossuet, Chateaubriand, Barrés, Péguy, Bergson. De Gaulle was the product of the intellectual heritage of the Catholic elite. Edmond Michelet saw de Gaulle as an heir of social Catholicism. In 1948, he took the view that "one must have the intelligence and the courage to abolish the salaried class". On 7 June 1968, he declared that capitalism "snatched and enslaved people", a view firmly held by both Pius XI and Pius XII. He did not envisage the disappearance of the free-market economy, but was less vigorous in its defence than some of his colleagues such as Georges Pompidou. De Gaulle belonged to that minor French aristocracy that lived by a disdain of money.

De Gaulle showed himself to be Gallican in his affirmation of the majesty of the state, "in all its rights, dignity and authority". He spoke of "public service", of the "common good", terms which earned him the epithet of "maurrassien" (a supporter of Maurras). His views differed from the thinking that inspired L'Action Française, however, in their rejection of political amoralism, and in proclaiming the struggle for the liberty and dignity of man.