Beaumarchais Should Be a Hero.
It’s not every day that you read a book about someone from the 1700s that pisses you off today, but hot damn if that didn’t happen when I read Maurice Lever’s unbelievable biography about Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the man who famously said: “My life is a combat”, and boy was that ever true.
I love celebrating people who haven’t gotten the attention they deserve. Beaumarchais is one of these people, and if you’re American and you don’t know who he is, realize that you’ve been duped, rooked… swindled… soaked… hoodwinked…
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When you’re thinking about reading a biography, there’s nothing you like to see more than 350 pages staring at you of fine print. Oh boy! This is gonna take a while, you say, flipping back to Reddit. Truth be told, Maurice Lever did a phenomenal job with this book, and it’s easily one of the most well-written and genuinely exciting biographies I’ve ever read. 350+ pages, and not a word of fluff in there, that’s how remarkable Beaumarchais’s life was.
What do we know about Beaumarchais, and how can his story help you in your own life and career? Especially if you’ve had some setbacks, you’re struggling, or you don’t seem to fit neatly into any box?
Pierre-Augustin was a polymath. Like da Vinci, he was someone who had tons of wide-ranging interests and passions. I seek out people like him in a world where we are constantly told we need to specialize in order to succeed.
Do You *Need* To Specialize to Succeed?
Did Beaumarchais specialize?
The man who pioneered watch-making at the age of 21, making them actually, ya know, accurate for the first time in history?
The man who then went on to write the Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, two of the most famous plays of French history, before becoming an instrumental part of the American revolution, without whose help it’s quite probable that the US wouldn’t have existed at all? And then he was completely back-stabbed by the country he helped create in one of the world’s great examples of all-time douche-fuckery, in which the continental congress refused to pay back the millions of aid and arms he gave them for decades, and that’s why Americans aren’t celebrating this man even though he should be an American hero?
And the man who also fought for 18 years to pioneer the concept of author’s copyright (against considerable resistance) in a time when playwrights earned nothing and all the money went to actors. The man who created the first union for writers and generally revolutionized a ton of shit, all while being a flamboyant, basically pan-sexual libertine who kept a steady stream of men and women at his disposal his whole life? That doesn’t sound like someone who specialized to me.
His whole life, no one believed that Beaumarchais could be one thing and another. How can you be a celebrated playwright and a serious secret agent? Can you imagine when the prudish Ben Franklin learned that this open and ostentatious, foppish libertine was behind America’s success against the British? It probably nearly made his Puritanical head explode. But that’s just who Beaumarchais was, for better or for worse.
How could someone be a playwright AND a spy? How could someone be a wealthy financier AND a struggling artist? How could anyone rise from humble watch-maker to the rank of nobleman, serving not one but several King Louis? How could someone like that risk his wealth and life for some colonies that never repaid its debt, nearly ruining him?
I love Beaumarchais’ story because it shows us that true genius can triumph over all, even if that triumph takes many years or even decades.
As he said himself, his life truly was “a combat”.
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Beaumarchais’s Life Had Extreme Ups and Downs
In fact, the vicissitudes of his own fortune were extreme. Nearly every positive thing in his life was directly followed by an equally negative counterpoint. After he invented a ground-breaking watch escapement, this invention was stolen from him. As would be a theme in his life, he was forced to use his cunning and the power of his pen to sway public opinion and win back his own invention, catching the eye of the noble class for the first time. He married, then his wife died, then he married again, then his wife died again. Then he was betrayed and lost everything and was tied up in court on false accusations for many years of his life. He had a taste of nobility, then it was plucked away from him.
Never one to give up, he used his cunning to weasel his way back into the good graces of King Louis the XVth as a spy, acting as a plenipotentiary to help squelch dissenting pamphlets across Europe that the king wanted subdued. Oh, did I mention that he wrote the Barber of Seville, one of the most enduring plays of the French stage in the meantime, and opening night was a complete flop but then he tweaked it until it became a hit? And JUST, folks, JUST as he got back into the good graces of King Louis the 15th, the king DIES. And Louis the 16th hated him. Back to square one. His second play the Marriage of Figaro took years of effort to finally be accepted by the monarchy it criticized. Literally everything he undertook was an enormous struggle.
But Beaumarchais’ chief trait was that he never gave up. So he found ways of injecting himself into French affairs, desperately seeking to be a representative of the new king. After much distrust, he finally found his way into Louis the 16th’s ear, positioning himself as a liaison and a spy. While he was doing this, Beaumarchais was busy fighting for the rights of playwrights everywhere, who previously didn’t get the credit (or money) they deserved. This 18-year struggle would see him establish the modern copyright system as we know it, whereby authors are acknowledged as the creators of their works. Sounds basic, but it didn’t exist before him, and it was a helluva fight to get there. Back to spying…
Beaumarchais learned of America’s fight against the British, and having battled his whole life for wealth in essentially a caste system, he identified with the Americans and sought to help them at great personal expense. He contributed millions of livres worth of weapons and aid to the American cause, and by many accounts, America couldn’t have possibly won the war or key battles without his financial help, at a time when the conlonies’ economy was on the verge of collapse. Basically, the US might only be a country today thanks to his extreme personal effort to provide arms and supplies to an emerging country that had not nearly enough.
Beaumarchais Was Screwed Over, Repeatedly.
Even though John Jay and Jefferson and other people initially said things to the effect of: “we can’t possibly thank you enough! You’re a hero! We’ll pay you back in sweet sweet Virginia tobacco right away!” They soon went back on their word, after congress basically convinced themselves, thanks to dumbass assholes like Arthur Lee, that Beaumarchais hadn’t really given them anything at all after they had won the war. Beaumarchais spent decades trying to get repaid, again we’re talking about millions here, and again, thanks to world-class piece of shit Arthur Lee, the congress was somehow convinced that Beaumarchais, having given everything to the Americans over the course of YEARS, actually somehow owed the US money, in an example of crooked accounting that would make Enron blush. It wasn’t until Alexander Hamilton finally looked at the accounts over 12 years later and said: “hey, this isn’t right!” that anybody even looked at the debt, let alone repaid it. Can you imagine hounding someone for over a decade while your life is crumbling and getting insulted for your troubles?
But that’s the kind of life Beaumarchais had.
“My life is a combat.”
Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais fought his whole life in a system that was constantly trying to reject him. He’s possibly one of the greatest examples out there of turning adversity into triumph time and again through nothing more than sheer will and force of determination.
At first he was hated by the nobility, then accepted by them, then hated, then loved by them again. He was loved by the people for his work, then hated by the people when be became rich with his big new house getting looted his staff’s decapitated heads put on a pike. Life’s a bitch, ain’t it?
At this point, you might be thinking “WOW! That’s one hell of a biography! No wonder it’s 350 pages long!” And the lesson might be, if you’re an unusual person, how can you live such that your biography would NEED 350 pages to fully explain it all?
So what’s the moral of this story? What can we learn from this?
I think there are two things to be gained from his remarkable tale:
One: If you’re traveling on an unusual path, it’s to be expected that you occasionally stumble or even have to go back to square one. It’s also likely that many different people, from many different walks of life, won’t understand you for one reason or another. It might take you years to get your footing, and that’s ok. Remember that his battles were sadly measured in decades, not hours or days. But, that brings us to takeaway number 2:
Two: If you keep getting back up, no matter what the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune throw your way, you can change the world and become someone truly remarkable. If Beaumarchais had accepted initial defeat, he would have quit literally dozens of times in his life. In fact, most “normal” people would have quit his life by the time he was 25. But if you are intelligent, if you have wide-ranging interests and passions, keep pushing forward for what you believe in, even if you can’t see how those things are connected. In some way or another, you can succeed in all of them. And also, your personal success will likely come when you attach yourself to a cause greater than you, such as the next American Revolution or big movement you see around you. Just don’t expect to be paid back if you loan an American money, because apparently some of us have always been dicks.