Since the masses are always eager to believe something,
for their benefit nothing is so easy to arrange as facts.
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand
Talleyrand was the inventor of modern diplomacy and the cloaked language still used by career diplomats today. Talleyrand served King Louis XVI, served during the French Revolution and the Republic afterward, served Napoleon, then the restored Bourbon kings. He managed to keep his head while so many others lost theirs, including those whom he served. How did he do this while being despised by each and every government indicated above? He made himself indispensable. He made himself into the only one FOREIGN governments would deal with. “Send us Talleyrand,” they all said. He also made himself a fortune in the process by actually serving his own interests with a far more polished diligence than he showed to those he was supposed to serve, yet still serving them in the process. He had the remarkable talent of being dispassionate even when his head was threatened by Louis XVI (who lost his own); by Danton, Robispierre, and Marat (who either lost theirs or died by assassin); and threatened and utterly loathed by Emperor Napoleon (this was extremely dangerous), who, to his great chagrin and rage, could find no one capable of replacing him.
Talleyrand was able to hear orders for his arrest, the confiscation of all his property, and a death sentence pronounced on him with all the display of passion one might expect were one to hear from their laundry that their shirts were ready for pickup. Talleyrand was a master of the craft of politics and a master of the craft of language designed to conceal. Talleyrand was the reason why French was the language of international diplomacy for a century-and-a-half before it finally gave way to English with the establishment of the UN and international air travel. Talleyrand could make you or break you. He certainly could survive you and your government. He demonstrated that several times. He was as cold as a January Arctic Char at 10.0° North. It wasn’t blood in his veins; it was ice.
He was also witty, coy, catty, and had a long, searing memory. If one ever crossed him one could expect retribution, which would come steadily at the pace of Talleyrand, which may be as leisurely as a Khyber Belt comet’s trip around the sun, but every bit as certain. On the wit scale, the only other Frenchman to exceed him was Voltaire, but Talleyrand learned much from the great one, and it served him well. He was also a great whist player (an ancient card game played for money) and would no doubt be a top player on today’s World Poker Tour were he still with us. Unfortunately, even great diplomats and politicians must apprehend their own demise. Talleyrand escaped death many times, only to meet death, which is exactly the same spot we all find ourselves in, whether we are as smart as he or not.
Talleyrand faced many obstacles in his life, beginning with a birth defect that left his left leg nearly useless, which in turn caused his family to deny his right-of-firstborn inheritance because he was considered unfit for the military service which was the tradition of his family. Instead, they prepared him for the church. The Roman Catholic Church could not keep him, though. He was ordained as a priest, elevated to bishop, and became the church’s representative to the French Crown, where he no doubt learned much of his diplomatic skills that would serve him in the future. He was excommunicated by Pope Pius VI in 1793, and defrocked by Pope Pius VII in 1801, for serving his own interests rather than those of the church. He had already been accused by many of being an unbeliever, which was no real problem for the church at the time . . . but when he began to use his appointed position to aid the French Republic in sequestering church property, his ties with the church were duly severed. His enemies called him, “Le Diable Boiteaux.” (The Lame Devil.) He apparently had no friends.
He visited America and was the guest of Aaron Burr. Later, when Burr visited France, Talleyrand declined the return of the favor because of Burr’s killing of Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Talleyrand admired Hamilton and his Federalist Papers. This may be the only case we know of wherein Talleyrand did something out of noble purpose, though he may have thought that Burr was up to some political misadventure and thus wanted nothing to do with him which was most likely correct.
Why all this about Talleyrand?
Today, how nations talk to each other has Talleyrand as its basis. He has not been without influence, which lingers, still. There is much one can learn from the study of Talleyrand; much that is good, and much that can be learned, from his example, of what not to do . . . both good and bad.
Many argue that Talleyrand was disloyal to those who were due his loyalty. He was loyal to the one he held most dear, and that was himself. To himself he devoted his unflagging, unwavering loyalty. But he was dispassionate.
He could argue with the best of them, and take either side which suited him in any debate, or invent a third if it became necessary. He could use reason. He could make cutting remarks. He could, with an easy callousness, dismiss his detractors and those less than equal to himself (and there were few equals). But he was dispassionate. He never broke a sweat. He never did more than raise an eyebrow, which for him, was almost a betrayal of the anger and passion that must have followed him all the way from his childhood. He certainly made the most out of what he had, and managed to fit himself into the most complex scenarios with ease. When so many lost their heads during the Reign of Terror, how in the world did he manage to hang on to his?
Perhaps it was his coolness. If one could be that cool under a duress that would make any normal man crack, then perhaps there was no pleasure to be derived from witnessing the death of one so talented. It must be that. It can’t be anything else.
We no longer have dispassion in politics. We only have partisan politics, partisan politicians, and partisan practices. We seem to have lost our ability to step back just a short distance from the place wherein we would be engaged, and to try our best to see it through another set of eyes, to hear it through another set of ears. We’ve abandoned this skill to the eyes and ears of our own self-indulgence and self-importance. Maybe we can no longer think objectively. Maybe we no longer listen to what others are saying. Maybe it was the doing of those things that kept Talleyrand alive when so many governments fell.
So, just give me the facts ― the plain old undistorted facts ― the unredacted facts ― the raw facts ― the unedited facts ― the facts that have not yet been digested and regurgitated in a fit of passionate misadventure. I’ll distort them in the manner I see fit. I’ll edit them to suit my purposes. I’ll only show you the ones I think you need to see. From those, I will build my case, since, according to Talleyrand ― there’s nothing so easy to arrange as facts. He spoke more truth in that than we care to admit.
So, when you see a politician spouting facts like they were his own (perhaps they are!) ― think TALLEYRAND. When you see politicians grown fat from their own self-service, their fine linen and wool suits with buttons and seams straining against the thread that holds them together, their pensions that are better than yours, their insurance that is better than yours, and their war-chests full of PAC money from lobbyists as they sit on committees preparing to vote on legislation which will affect the stocks in their investment portfolios ― think TALLEYRAND.
And when you see two friends or acquaintances going at each other in vain and profane babblings, not meant to persuade, not meant to clarify or impart, but to assuage their own passionate self-interests, whether it is the self-interest of money, the self-interest of power, or worse, the self-interest of a compelling inner need to feel good about one’s own self-righteous indignation when others may see things differently than our facts demand ― think, NOT Talleyrand.
The facts about his life are worthy of further study. I have arranged them here as it suited me. Go and get your own facts and arrange them as you’d like. Talleyrand would be proud.
By the way, before there was a Cher, a Prince, a Sting, or a Madonna, there was a Voltaire and a Talleyrand. Were they the forerunners of modern rock stars? I think I’ll go and make up some facts about this. It can’t hurt.