The Influential Timeline of Esprit de Corps

The following timeline is an excerpt from my book Ensemblance (Edinburgh University Press, 2020)


1656–58 Pascal writes Différence entre l’esprit de géometrie et l’esprit de finesse.

1662 Louis XIV’s historiographer Ren. Bary publishes L’esprit de cour.

1721 Publication of Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes, in which the author mocks the esprit du corps of the Acad.mie fran.aise.

1732 Lettres de Nedim Coggia, by Germain de Saint-Foix, praises the esprit de corps of the French musketeers.

1752 D’Alembert, in the Encyclopédie, criticises the anti-national esprit du corps of the Jesuits.

1755 Voltaire, in the Encyclopédie, distinguishes esprit de corps from its supposedly worse version, esprit de parti. In the same volume, Diderot, more critical, suggests that the Encyclopaedists must avoid catching the esprit de corps by remaining objective.

1755 Lord Chesterfield, a friend of Voltaire, introduces ‘esprit de corps’ into the English language to describe the natural ‘biased conduct’ and ‘inflamed zeal’ in closed societies, a fatal aspect of ‘human nature’.

1762 Rousseau explains in L’Emile: ‘It is not only in the military that one acquires the esprit de corps, and its effects are not always good.’

1762 The formerly autonomous management of the French military corps, previously known for their respective esprit du corps, is centralised by the royal administration.

1764 The Jesuits are banned from France, after a long public campaign in which their esprit de corps was often attacked.

1765 The Parlement of Metz addresses a remonstrance to the King of France calling for a grand national esprit de corps, also called l’esprit de patriotisme.

1776 In the Wealth of Nations, the Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith criticises the ‘corporation spirit’, leading ‘every man to consent that his neighbour may neglect his duty, provided he himself is allowed to neglect his own’.

1776 The French minister Turgot attempts to eradicate the corporations and their esprit de corps in the name of economic laissez-faire.

1779 In Calcutta, a local petition is signed by British inhabitants against the ‘esprit de corps of the Professors of Law’.

1782 The Parisian author Louis-S.bastien Mercier predicts that the individualistic dissolution of esprit de corps in labour guilds might lead to a revolution.

1787 Mirabeau criticises ‘the esprit de corps of the orders of the state that support despotism’.

1787 In America, the convention led by George Washington and the Founding Fathers debates the pros and cons of esprit de corps.

1789 Several French revolutionaries, one of whom is the Abb. Siey.s, call for a national esprit de corps to achieve the ‘adunation’ of France, against particular and local forms of esprit de corps.

1789 In the UK, Jeremy Bentham defines esprit de corps as ‘professional zeal’.

1791 In Revolutionary France, the Le Chapelier law criminalises professional esprit de corps and proclaims that free trade and free working are the new economic standard: ‘There are no longer corporations in the state, there is only the particular interest of each individual and then the general interest.’

1793 The French minister of war Jean-Baptiste Bouchotte strives to ‘annihilate the esprit de corps’ in military regiments and replace it with a unified army of citizens.

1793 In his K.nigsberg Lectures, Immanuel Kant violently criticises ‘separatists and sectarians of every kind’ and their immoral esprit de corps.

1793 A democratic reform to reduce the esprit de corps in British politics, inspired by the French Revolution, is officially discussed in the House of Commons.

1800 Napoleon and his minister of foreign affairs Talleyrand work on the organisation of a national programme of administrative esprit de corps, founded on several grands corps d’État.

1803 In France, the idea of esprit de corps is popular anew among the elites. Reversing the claims of the Enlightenment, Chateaubriand writes: ‘Esprit de corps, which can be bad in the whole, is always good in the part.’

1803 US President Thomas Jefferson calls for less esprit de corps in the leadership of banks, via a frequent rotation of directors.

1805 Napoleon calls corps enseignant the national corporation of teachers and declares that the former esprit de corps of the Jesuits is a model to be revived in education: ‘If we do not learn from childhood whether to be republican or monarchical, Catholic or irreligious, etc., the State will not form a nation.’

1808 The utopianist Charles Fourier theorises that ‘esprit de corps is enough to eradicate the most shocking vices of the civilized populace’.

1809 ‘Esprit de corps’ enters the British Dictionary of Quotations in Most Frequent Use.

1810 Napoleon’s Code pénal forbids any association of more than twenty people without authorisation from the government.

1811 In Scotland, Walter Scott laments the ‘cold and pettifogging esprit de corps’ that governs most societies.

1815 Echoing a general sentiment, the poet and politician François- Auguste de Frénilly criticises the French Revolution for favouring the rise of individualism via its destruction of esprit de corps. In doing so he coins the term ‘individuellism’.

1820 The German philosopher G. W. F Hegel praises the ‘rectitude and esprit de corps of the universal man’, servitor of the state.

1821 In England, Lord Byron wonders in a letter if one should write esprit du corps or esprit de corps.

1828 The essayist and politician Louis de Bonald writes a popular eulogy of esprit de corps: ‘The esprit de corps is the general spirit of the whole body [. . .] The esprit de corps unites and strengthens, and one can say that a body without esprit de corps is a body without a soul.’

1833 Labour strikes in France. Some workers demand the right to associate and organise themselves in syndicats.

1836 The political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville explains to John Stuart Mill and his Westminster friends that French aristocrats lost their esprit de corps in the seventeenth century with Louis XIV, which led to the Revolution. In Democracy in America, he laments that democracies hinder both our capacity for esprit de corps and for individuation, which for him are codependent.

1850 In the UK, an investigation into the University of Oxford commissioned by Queen Victoria concludes that the lack of esprit de corps in top universities is highly damaging.

1863 William de Slane translates Ibn Khaldun’s Arabic notion of asabiyah into French as esprit de corps.

1883 The writer Emile Zola defines esprit de corps as an ‘instinct’.

1884 Labour unions (syndicats) become legal in France. In this, according to the politician Hubert Lagardelle, ‘the corps of workers is recognised by the legislator as having a personal existence’.

1893 Emile Durkheim writes that ‘the spirit of ensemble’ and the related esprit de corps is a prophylactic form of professional solidarity.

1898 In his influential J’accuse, Emile Zola condemns the ‘foolish’ esprit de corps of the French army, which led to the Dreyfus affair.

1899 In the USA, James Mark Baldwin, professor at Princeton University, writes that ‘national spirit is a form of natural esprit de corps’.

1899 The sociologist Gabriel Tarde distinguishes seven useful scales of esprit de corps, from the small family sphere to the large supranational sphere. The Nietzschean philosopher Georges Palante retorts that esprit de corps is but one form of ‘social insincerity’.

1901 US President Benjamin Harrison celebrates the ‘esprit de corps of the American soldier’.

1904 Peter Traub, a US captain of the cavalry, compares esprit de corps to a divine ‘vital force’.

1907 The American activist Jane Addams calls for more esprit de corps in factories, defined as a ‘playful and triumphant buoyancy’.

1913 Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals is translated into English, celebrating ‘the chronic and despotic esprit de corps and fundamental instinct of a higher dominant race’.

1914 In Training Soldiers for War, British officer John Fuller writes: ‘What race pride is to the Empire, so should esprit de corps be to the regiment.’

1917 The entrepreneur Henri Fayol writes that the legal ‘union of the employees’ is an important principle of management. A mistranslation of Fayol’s principle as ‘esprit de corps’, suppressing the trade union aspect, would become highly popular in English business studies.

1920 W. B. Barber, a British military officer, records a ‘cult of esprit de corps’ during the First World War. He adds that in times of peace ‘esprit de corps is a very good antidote to Bolshevism’.

1921 Publication in the USA of The Management of Men: A Handbook on the Systematic Development of Morale and the Control of Human Behavior. In it the phrase ‘esprit de corps’ appears 43 times, defined as ‘a mental state making for cohesion of an organization, as necessary to commercial success as it is to military efficiency’.

1922 Nobel Prize laureate Anatole France explains that ‘esprit de corps is the intelligence of those who have none’.

1929 A handbook of rhetoric published in Shangai defines esprit de corps as the ‘spirit of the collective body’.

1929 The American businessman John Rowe calls esprit de corps a ‘happy phrase’ and a ‘universal sentiment’, ‘the essence of co-operation’.

1930 In his autobiography, Winston Churchill equates esprit de corps with the ethics and ‘honourable behaviour’ he learned when he was young.

1931 In Last and First Men, British science-fiction writer and Freud reader Olaf Stapledon speculates about the human ‘very special loyalty toward the whole group, a peculiar sexually toned esprit de corps unparalleled in other species’.

1932 The philosopher Henri Bergson compares esprit de corps to a ‘feeling of honour’ and a civilisational ‘fabulation’ creative of a ‘virtual instinct’.

1934 The future war hero and French president Charles de Gaulle explains how the military can foster a well-organised local and national esprit de corps.

1942 The US national Office of Civilian Defense publishes The Control System of the Citizens’ Defense Corps, a manual to foster ‘esprit de corps among citizens’, defined as ‘instantaneous and unquestioned obedience’.

1943 The USA army advertises in magazines to find new recruits: ‘In the army they call it esprit de corps – the stuff that builds champion teams and victorious armies in which each man is doing the job he does best.’

1949 The analytic philosopher Gilbert Ryle, in The Concept of Mind, insists that esprit de corps is an unreal ‘ghost in the machine’: ‘I do not see whose role it is to exercise esprit de corps.’

1950 Rex D. Hopper, head of sociology at Brooklyn College, writes in the journal Social Forces that ‘esprit de corps is a means of social control’.

1956 In the USA, the university field of Small-Group Studies publishes quantitative measures of esprit de corps.

1956 The Pentagon hires Rex D. Hopper, the academic specialist of ‘esprit de corps as social control’, to direct a counter-insurgency programme that would interfere in South American politics in the 1960s under the name of ‘Project Camelot’.

1957 The American entrepreneur Conrad Hilton publishes his autobiography, in which he explains that the success of his chain of hotels is based on the systematic application of the techniques of esprit de corps he learned during the First World War.

1958 De Gaulle declares in a public speech: ‘We are at the age of effectiveness, efficiency. We are at the time of ensembles.’

1961 In Life magazine, the author and diplomat Romain Gary compares esprit de corps to a collective ‘mystique of self-adoration’.

1971 Irving L. Janis publishes an article that coins the term ‘groupthink’, defined as a collective loss of critical thinking, a perversion of ‘amiability and esprit de corps’ likely ‘to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against outgroups’.

1980 The philosophers Gilles Deleuze and F.lix Guattari publish a laudatory reappraisal of ‘nomadic esprit de corps’ in Mille plateaux, which they associate with Ibn Khaldun’s asabiyah.

1989 The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu defines esprit de corps as a ‘symbolic violence’ and compares it to a ‘magical possession’.

1993 The Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics publishes a paper in which esprit de corps, abbreviated as ‘e’, is a mathematical variable within a complex equation measuring ‘organizational effectiveness’.

2002 US President George W. Bush creates the US Freedom Corps initiative to enable civilians to find ways to serve ‘their community, their country, or the world’. Citizen Corps is a component of the Freedom Corps that ‘creates opportunities for individuals to volunteer and respond to emergencies’.

2002 In Canada, Gilles Barbot founds the Groupe Esprit de Corps, a business consulting and team-building corporation.

2011 The French nationalist politician Marine Le Pen declares in a public speech: ‘I solemnly call for the esprit de corps, the innate sense of duty and of sacrifice manifested by those who have incorporated the love of the fatherland.’

2013 The Harvard Business Review recommends that corporations should develop esprit de corps as military-inspired camaraderie-in-arms ‘to push for hard work’.

2015 A review in the Wall Street Journal praises the ‘girl power esprit de corps’ of the movie Pitch Perfect.

2015 The future American president Donald Trump declares in a press conference that the USA needs ‘spirit, esprit de corps’.

2016 David Davis, the future British Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, writes that too much immigration hinders the ‘national esprit de corps’.

2018 President Donald Trump, in a public speech at the White House, declares: ‘There’s tremendous spirit in our country right now [. . .] Esprit de corps . . .’

2019-2020 France is nearly paralysed for several weeks by strikes in the transportation sector demonstrating that professional esprit de corps can still act as a social force.


Screenshot 2020-01-13 at 16.47.08


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