I was always quite a fan of Donald Rumsfelds infamous quote about known unknowns. At the time he was widely lambasted for it but it always made perfect sense to me.
As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know
However his quote doesn’t quite come up to the standard of todays guest of honour, a character by the name of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord. There isn’t too much of a reason for people today to have heard of him, infact it appears he is most famous to those not deeply into French history by his death.
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord was once perhaps the most famous diplomat in the world and those he served often distrusted Talleyrand but, like Napoleon, found him extremely useful.
He was Napoleon’s chief diplomat during the years when French military victories brought one European state after another under French hegemony. However, most of the time, Talleyrand worked for peace so as to consolidate France’s gains. He succeeded in obtaining peace with Austria through the 1801 Treaty of Luneville and with Britain in the 1802 Treaty of Amiens.
He could not prevent the renewal of war in 1803 but by 1805, he opposed his emperor’s renewed wars against Austria, Prussia, and Russia. He resigned as foreign minister in August 1807, but retained the trust of Napoleon and conspired to undermine the emperor’s plans through secret dealings with Tsar Alexander of Russia and Austrian minister Metternich.
Talleyrand sought a negotiated secure peace so as to perpetuate the gains of the French revolution. Napoleon rejected peace and, when he fell in 1814, Talleyrand eased the Bourbon restoration decided by the Allies. He played a major role at the Congress of Vienna in 1814–1815, where he negotiated a favourable settlement for France and played a role in decisions regarding the undoing of Napoleon’s conquests.
Talleyrand polarises scholarly opinion. Some regard him as one of the most versatile, skilled and influential diplomats in European history, and some believe that he was a traitor, betraying in turn the Ancien Régime, the French Revolution, Napoleon, and the Restoration.
He was a notorious womaniser and what the French would call a Voluptuary. He would stop at another to achieve his aims and was equally admired and despised by opponents and allies alike as to his craftiness and cunning. He drifted out and into religion and was quite happy to work for those with entirely different positions than those of his previous employer.
Everything in life was about political manoeuvrings and it is reported that upon hearing of the death of a European ambassador, Talleyrand is supposed to have said: “I wonder what he meant by that?”
How deliciously scheming he miss have been to come out with that. It is not hard to guess why now “Talleyrand” has become a byword for crafty, cynical diplomacy.