‘Esprit de Corps’: Birth and Evolution of a Polemical Notion (France, UK, USA; 1721–2017)
‘A happy phrase is sometimes coined, so humanly expressive that barriers of language are swept aside and like music it becomes a universal sentiment. To the French we are indebted for such an expression, “esprit de corps”, which our English tongue has adopted and naturalized because it visualizes, as no idiom of our own does, the essence of co-operation.’ Jonathan Scofield Rowe, ‘Practical Philosophies’, The Monroe Monitor, 9 August 1929, p. 2.
My thesis provides the first ever transnational intellectual history of the globalised notion of esprit de corps, disputedly defined as a sometimes beneficial, sometimes detrimental mutual loyalty shared by the members of a group or larger social body.
As a polemical argumentative signifier, ‘esprit de corps’ has played an underestimated role in defining moments of modern Western history, such as the French Revolution, the United States Declaration of Independence, French imperialism, British colonialism, the Dreyfus affair, the World Wars, the rise of administrative nation-states, or the deployment of individualism and corporate capitalism. The birth of the term is evidenced in eighteenth-century France, both in military and political discourse. ‘Esprit de corps’ is shown to be an important matter of political and philosophical debate for major historical agents (d’Alembert, Voltaire, Rousseau, Lord Chesterfield, Bentham, the Founding Fathers, Sieyès, Mirabeau, British MPs, Napoleon, Hegel, Durkheim, Waldeck-Rousseau, de Gaulle, Orwell, Bourdieu, Deleuze…), but also for less renowned authors, scientists, officers, militants, entrepreneurs, administrators, or politicians (for example the UK Brexit Secretary of State).
A comparative methodology is proposed, based on the longue durée examination of large corpora of primary sources in French and English, via digitised archives and a focus on explicit mentions of ‘esprit de corps’ in their rhetorical, philosophical, and historical context. The approach is tentatively called ‘histosophy’: the long-term survey of a large issue within a small compass (Walker, 1985), the compass being the invariable observed signifier, and the large issue the multifarious relation between universalism and particularism in the context of globalisation. An interpretation is eventually elaborated to account for the fact that ‘esprit de corps’ is today an incantation of widespread global use, especially in corporate discourse, with laudative essentializing denotations.