French & Anglo-Saxon ways of thinking

French thinking at Villandry

Having spent virtually all of my adult life within “Anglo-Saxon” cultures and institutions (not least in the hyper-English milieu of The Economist), I must have adopted Anglo-Saxon ways of thinking.

And what are those?

In this post, I’ll try to describe them, by contrasting the Anglo-Saxon mind with what I consider to be its foil or opposite.

Which is to say: French thinking.

And I’ll do that with just three little examples plucked from life:

  1. gardens
  2. cities
  3. laws

1) French and English gardens

In 1992, I spend my summer in Tours, France — allegedly learning the local language but mostly biking along the Loire and its tributaries with friends, visiting the various chateaux in that area.

I was twenty-two at the time, and gardening was not necessarily foremost in my thoughts. And yet, the gardens of those chateaux left an impression. That’s because I had an intuition that they explained a lot else I was observing in the country

Look at the garden of the Chateau of Villandry, above. Or look at the same castle from another view:

More French thinking

The principle that guides this and all “jardins à la française” is the expression of mastery over nature.

A landscaper imposes, through his reason, absolute and mathematically Cartesian symmetry and order onto what would otherwise be disorder.

It is a top-down notion of order. In fact, these gardens are best viewed from above, which is why almost all the chateaux are laid out so that there is a viewing platform above the jardins (as in the picture).

English landscaping developed largely in response to French landscaping and spread to many non-French parts of Europe.

The difference is striking. Here, for instance, is a view of the Englischer Garten, a huge park in the center of Munich, where I grew up:

Yup, those are sheep, in the middle of Munich.

Munich’s Englischer Garten was conceived during the Enlightenment by an Englishman, and the German landscapers to this day observe its “Anglo-Saxon” landscaping philosophy. Here, for instance, is a recent addition, a theater:

Let’s try to make the philosophy behind this landscaping style explicit:

If the French approach is to display top-down mastery of nature with an imposition of order, the English way is to integrate the human into nature, to adjust to the spontaneous or “bottom-up” order of nature itself.

The best way to enjoy such a garden is in fact “from below” — ie from the ground. You’re assumed to be in the garden, not looking down on it from above.

To give this the subtlety it deserves: English gardening does not deny the ability of man to create order (after all, there still is a landscaper). But the landscaper takes a much more humble approach to nature, choosing to see order in its disorder and incorporating its “accidents”.

Let me use a different phrase: The English landscaper “muddles through“.

2) Paris and London

Now think of the two cultures’ capitals as a “tale of two gardens,” writ large.

The “landscaper” of modern Paris was Baron Haussmann (Alsatian, hence the German name, but French). Between 1852 and 1870, he imposed order on the medieval street warren that Paris had been.

Here is the new Paris as he conceived it:

Haussmann's Paris

Boulevards (in red) as straight as swords now cut through the organically evolved webbing of streets, to clear vistas and let armies parade.

And that’s not enough. Along these straight boulevards, the houses must meet regulations as precise as Cartesian math. They stand in a row like soldiers being mustered:

Now London:

A century before Haussmann (and shortly after Descartes’ death), medieval London was burnt down in the The Great Fire of 1666. To the French, this would have been an opportunity to remake London in a rational and orderly way. There even was an equivalent of Baron Haussmann: It was Sir Christopher Wren, the great architect of many churches, including St Paul’s Cathedral.

What did Sir Christopher do? It was very English. He largely honored the network of streets as it had evolved over time. Using legal jargon, you might say that he respected stare decisis (“stand by things decided”).

Adhering to precedent, he then proceeded to … muddle through.

And that’s what London has been doing since. This is its street grid today:

In fact, that picture does not do its organic beauty/chaos (depending on your point of view) justice. London, unlike Paris, is not one city (even politically). It is many cities and towns that grew together. Each bit retains its own charms and problems, and the connections are haphazard and arbitrary.

London cabbies, in fact, spend years learning what they call “the knowledge” to navigate this maze. And London’s streetscapes are full of surprises, both positive and questionable:

3) Code Napoléon v Common Law

French law is a code. In some ways it goes back to Roman law, but its direct ancestor is the Code Napoléon of 1804.

Napoleon, being not only French (well, sort of) but a product of the Enlightenment, believed in the power of reason to impose order (here meaning justice) from above on the chaos of life, the infinite number of situations that can arise and must be adjudicated. The result was a document. Here is its famous first page:

Legal thinking in France and all other civil-law systems is therefore a process of deduction: You find the general principle in the code, then apply it to the instance in real life.

English law is not a code. In fact, England does not even have a written constitution (as its Anglo-Saxon nephew America does). Sure, there are statutes, laws written by legislators over time. But the core of the system in all Anglo-Saxon countries is the common law.

And what is it? In essence, it is the history of all former cases.

For about a millennium, the English have been considering each new case by comparing it with precedents, a bit as Sir Christopher Wren built St Paul’s on the site of the former church that had burnt down.

Which issues does this case raise? Aha, then it must be like X. But it is different, so it must also be like Y. And so on.

The process is inductive: The Anglo-Saxon mind starts with the particular, searches for a general principle, returns to the particular, adjusts the general principle, and so forth.

Put differently, the English mind muddles through.

Conclusion: Churchill vs Balladur

This post has been muddling through by inducing from particulars to generals. I will leave you with two quotes by former prime ministers that I think say it all:

Edouard Balladur of France:

What is the market? It is the law of the jungle. And what is civilization? It is the struggle against nature.

Winston Churchill:

The English know how to make the best of things. Their so-called muddling through is simply skill at dealing with the inevitable.

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