7 things to learn from Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754 - 1838)

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord was a French diplomat and renowned statesman who navigated the choppy and often lethal waters of international relations. His rare skill at diplomacy is even now feted by scholars and statesmen alike.

It was nothing short of amazing that Talleyrand's career spanned the rule of Louis XVI, the chaos of the French Revolution, the years of war waged by Napoleon, the Bourbon Restoration and the subsequent rules of Louis XVIII and Louis Philippe. Through the periods of anarchy and iconoclasm, Talleyrand was always at the heart of the politics and diplomacy of his time. Masterfully versatile, the diplomat connived and strategized at the heart of power; that his career spanned so long under so many rulers is incontrovertible proof of his diplomatic skill. Here are 7 things we can learn from his statesmanship.

1. Capitalize on human relationships

Talleyrand was a notorious womanizer, reportedly averse to marrying. He eventually married Catherine (Worlée) Grand (who divorced Charles Grand to marry Talleyrand), but only after repeatedly delaying the ceremony, acquiescing finally when Napoleon suggested he was imperiling his own political career. Aristocratic women played a crucial role in his plans and political machinations, ultimately being the means by which he was first able to attain positions of political power. His alleged lover, Germaine de Staël, was instrumental in lobbying the National Convention and the Director, Paul Barras, for his return from exile in 1796 and his subsequent accession to the post of Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1797.

While there are clear disincentives to committing adultery and being promiscuous (one thinks about the moral reprobation one would suffer at the hands of others, or the dangers of contracting STDs), the clear learning point we have here is that relationships have social currency. Let others be bound by social convention; the real road to success might be cynical or morally reprehensible, but only once one has achieved a position of power does he have the choice to safely practice virtue. To be truly bound by it at the lower rungs of society would hinder social mobility and serve as the lever by which others manipulate your behavior.

2. Always get paid for your work (or even more)

Talleyrand never hid the fact that he expected to be paid for whatever he did, or whatever position he was meant to assume. While modern conventions make this illegal, the idea that passion supersedes pay has made people profligate in their efforts. They waste their attention and time on things with little utility. Talleyrand expected to be remunerated for the state duties he performed, although these might be more properly characterized as "bribes" in modern terms. He accepted payments from the German elite, commensurately expanding their territory and possessions. He even solicited payments from the United States over the course of diplomatic negotiation.

Unlike Talleyrand, who saw things in terms of their benefits and liabilities (probably a result of his diplomatic work), some have the wasteful habit of altruistically helping out others. Altruism doesn't pay, unless publicized, as in the vast philanthropic efforts of billionaires. Help given must be repaid, according to the laws of exchange. Talleyrand never let moral foibles get in the way of enrichment.

3. Loyalty is proportional to power

As a person who survived the chaos and bloodshed of revolution and the subsequent power transitions, Talleyrand has been seen by some as treacherous. How else do we describe a man who gave his services to mutually hostile regimes? From the Ancien Régime, through the French Revolution, Napoleon and the Bourbon Restoration, Talleyrand betrayed each in turn, securing his position in the factions who eventually won. As the relative power of the incumbent governments declined, Talleyrand did not shirk from casting his lot with others, using the trust he accrued with the incumbents to undermine them, simultaneously earning social currency with would-be aspirants.

In the pursuit of our ultimate goal, do not be led astray by clinging uselessly to spent ideals. If the vision is grand enough, nothing and no one should warrant sentimentality.

4. Subvert from the shadows

The worst thing that can happen when one is fomenting dissent is to be exposed. Trust commands a high price; when one loses it, the consequences may be severe. After his resignation from the post of Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1807, Talleyrand still commanded the trust of Napoleon, evidenced by his retention in the Council of State. Secretly, Talleyrand accepted bribes from Austria and Russia, betraying Napoleon's secrets and paving the way for his eventual defeat.

Bitter determination to reach one's goal is good and all, but exposure always comes with accompanying pressures. It is better to conduct one's activities in as clandestine a manner as possible. When you break the trust placed in you, ensure that you never need that trust again.

5. Never let personal grievances get in the way of strategy

Command over emotions is essential to the execution of grand strategy. The road to greatness is treacherous, made ever more dangerous by the tendency to avenge personal grudges. Suspicion of Talleyrand's treasonous tendencies prompted Napoleon's threat that he could "break him like a glass", likening him to defecation "in a silk stocking".

Ever the diplomat, Talleyrand refrained from answering, merely quipping that such a great man had been badly brought up. Years later, Napoleon was defeated and exiled, while Talleyrand was to play an important role in the Congress of Vienna.

6. Make your own opportunities

Hailing from a family with a distinguished military pedigree did not help Talleyrand. He was deprived of his inheritance as firstborn (originally conferred through the practice of primogeniture) on account of his pronounced limp. Subsequently, he could no longer take on the military career he was expected to follow.

Compelled to join the clerical caste, he studied theology and eventually became a priest. As Agent-General of the Clergy, he was crucial to policy drafting, and became recognised for his diplomatic skill when he was sent to Britain to avert war. Ultimately, his true inclinations were revealed when he supported the anti-clericalism of the French Revolution.

By effectively turning the position he was forced to take into an opportunity, Talleyrand made himself indispensable to the Clergy, accumulating renown as he was put into positions of power (such as the Bishopric of Autun). When the position outlived its usefulness, Talleyrand had no qualms abandoning his confession and pouncing on the next opportunity that presented itself.

7. Strive for a higher calling

Scholars have seen Talleyrand as a versatile, masterful statesman. His achievements speak for themselves. He has also been characterized as a traitor, changing allegiances according to the call of power. Yet one thing is certain; while he betrayed regimes, he never betrayed his country. It could be argued that his supposed treachery was a rest of his seeing that the incumbent regime merely hurt France's prospects. Hence when he was sent to Britain, he refused to defect.

Purely self-interested goals are hardly inspiring. It is far easier to keep one's eyes on a goal that is great and that is, to some extent, beneficial for an entire community. It is that element of selflessness that keeps one striving even when the path is fraught with danger. Strive for ideals, rather than personal whims which may well prove flimsy during times of hardship.

To this day, Talleyrand is known for his scholarly work and works of diplomacy. His legacy outlives most of his contemporaries, partly because of his skill in navigating the diplomatic straits of the time, partly because of his unflagging determination to France. To be mercurial, yet to inexorably strive toward a goal, that is what we should aspire to.



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