Liberty Matters

Why Did Sumptuary Laws Disappear?


Perhaps another figure deserves mention in this discussion of the decline of sumptuary legislation. I have in mind a man famous in the 17th century and well-known in the 18th century, who has since been forgotten. Some of his essays were translated from French by John Locke, and we know that Montesquieu read him. I have in mind Pierre Nicole – who was a close friend and coconspirator of Blaise Pascal, coauthor of The Port-Royal Logic with Antoine Arnauld, and coeditor of Pascal’s Pensées with his erstwhile coauthor.
I mention Nicole here because a year after the appearance of the Pensées he began publishing his own Essais de morale, and therein he rearticulated an aspect of the argument of the Pensées in a fashion, pertinent to our discussion here, that proved to be an inspiration to Pierre Bayle and Bernard Mandeville.[78]
According to Pascal’s account, the Fall transformed self-love into a new form, and what had once been subordinated to the love of God remained “alone” in what was a “great soul, capable of an infinite love”; and, in the absence of a proper object for human longing, by “extending itself & boiling over into the void that the love of God had left behind,” this self-love metamorphosed into the species of vainglory that Pascal and the French moralists of the 17th century called “l’amour propre.” This had, he contended, predictable consequences, for, in the process of becoming “infinite” in its scope, this self-love became both “criminal & immoderate” and gave rise to “the desire to dominate” others.[79]  Then, after sketching what was a more or less conventional Christian account, Pascal went on – in a series of fragments omitted by Nicole and his colleagues from the Port Royal edition of the Pensées – to suggest a paradox: that men in their “grandeur” had somehow learned to “make use of the concupiscence” spawned by amour propre; and that, despite the fact that it dictates that “human beings hate one another,” they had managed to deploy concupiscence in such a fashion as “to serve the public good.” They had, in fact, “founded upon & drawn from concupiscence admirable rules of public administration [police], morality, & justice,” and they had even succeeded in eliciting from “the villainous depths” of the human soul, which are “only covered over, not rooted up” by their efforts, a veritable “picture” and “false image of charity” itself.[80]
To this paradox, Nicole devoted a seminal essay suggesting that Christian charity is politically and socially superfluous – that, in its absence, thanks to the particular Providence of God, l’amour propre is perfectly capable of providing a foundation for the proper ordering of civil society, of the political order, and of human life in this world more generally.[81]
Nicole’s inspiration, and no doubt that of Pascal as well, was a passage in which Saint Augustine dilated on the propensity for human pride [superbia] to imitate the works inspired by Christian charity [caritas]. It could, he claimed, cause men to nourish the poor, to fast, and even to suffer martyrdom.[82] At the beginning of his essay, Nicole specifies that, when he speaks of “l’amour-propre,” he has in mind the fact “that man, once corrupted, not only loves himself, but that he loves himself without limit & without measure; that he loves himself alone; that he relates everything to himself”; in short, that “he makes himself the center of everything”; that “he wants to dominate over everything” and desires “that all creatures occupy themselves with satisfying, praising, & admiring him.”
This “disposition,” which Nicole attributes to all men, he calls “tyrannical.” He acknowledges that it “renders human beings violent, unjust, cruel, ambitious, fawning, envious, insolent, & quarrelsome,” and he readily concedes that, in the end, it gives rise to a war of all against all. He merely insists that, in the shocking manner so famously described by Thomas Hobbes, to whom he with approval alludes, instrumental reason, animated by amour-propre and by nothing else, can provide the polity with a firm foundation, and he contends that, by way of cupidity and vanity, amour-propre, with its “marvelous dexterity,” can promote commerce, encourage civility, and even elicit from men a simulacrum of virtue, as those who desire security and prosperity are forced by the fear of death and the lust for gain to embrace justice and “traffic in works, services, favors, civilities,” and as those who desperately crave admiration and love are driven to do admirable things. “In this way,” he writes, “by means of this commerce” among men, “all the needs of life can in a certain fashion be met without charity being mixed up in it at all.” Indeed, “in States into which charity has made no entry because the true Religion is banned, one can live with as much peace, security, & convenience as if one were in a Republic of Saints.” Nicole is even willing to assert “that to reform the world in its entirety – which is to say, to banish from it all the vices & every coarse disorder, & to render man happy in this life here below – it would only be necessary, in the absence of charity, to confer on all an amour-propre that is enlightened [éclairé], so that they might know how to discern their real interests.” If this were done, he concluded, “no matter how corrupt this society would be within, & in the eyes of God, there would be nothing in its outward demeanor that would be better regulated, more civil, more just, more pacific, more decent [honnête], & more generous. And what is even more admirable: although this society would be animated & agitated by l’amour-propre alone, l’amour propre would not make a public appearance [paraître] there; &, although this society would be entirely devoid of charity, one would not see anything anywhere apart from the form & marks of charity.”[83]
The pertinence to our discussion of Nicole’s analysis of the capacity of l’amour propre to generate civil conduct should be obvious. For vanity is the passion that gives rise to the love of luxury. If one is convinced, as Pascal and Nicole were, that this vice can itself generate the bourgeois virtues and that they suffice for the support of civil society, then one is not apt to think the suppression of luxury politically necessary or even wise.
[78.] For a discussion of this neglected figure, see Edward Donald James, Pierre Nicole, Jansenist and Humanist: A Study of his Thought (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1972), and Paul A. Rahe, “Blaise Pascal, Pierre Nicole, and the Origins of Liberal Sociology,” in Enlightenment and Secularism: Essays on the Mobilization of Reason, ed. Christopher Nadon (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013), 129-40. [Editor: There are extracts from Pierre Nicole's "Moral Essays" in Henry Clarke, Commerce, Culture, and Liberty: Readings on Capitalism Before Adam Smith (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003). Nicole in Chap. 4, pp. 54-65 [PDF only]. </titles/836>.
[79.] See Blaise Pascal, Pensées sur la religion et sur quelques autres sujets, qui ont esté trouvées après sa mort parmy ses papiers, third edition, ed. Étienne Périer (Paris: Guillaume Desprez, 1671), 294-95 (XXX.3, in the expanded edition published in 1678 and frequently republished thereafter). Note also the reference to libido sentiendi, libido sciendi, libido dominandi in ibid., 254-55 (XXVIII.55, in the expanded edition published in 1678 and frequently republished thereafter). For a survey of the 17th-century literature discussing amour propre, see Nannerl O. Keohane, Philosophy and the State in France: The Renaissance to the Enlightenment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 183-97, 262-82, 286-311.
[80.] See Blaise Pascal, Pensées: Édition établie d’après la copie référence de Gilberte Pascal, ed. Philippe Sellier (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1999), nos. 150, 243-44. Online version: Blaise Pascal, The Thoughts of Blaise Pascal, translated from the text of M. Auguste Molinier by C. Kegan Paul (London: George Bell and Sons, 1901). </titles/2407>.
[81.] In this connection, note James, Pierre Nicole, 148-61, and Nannerl O. Keohane, “Noncomformist Absolutism in Louis XIV’s France: Pierre Nicole and Denis Veiras,” Journal of the History of Ideas 35:4 (October-December 1974): 579-96, and see Hans-Jürgen Fuchs, Entfremdung und Narzissmus: Semantische Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der ‘Selbstbezogenheit’ als Vorgeschichte von franzözisch ‘amour-propre’ (Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler, 1977), along with Dale Van Kley, “Pierre Nicole, Jansenism and the Morality of Enlightened Self-Interest,” in Anticipations of the Enlightenment, ed. Alan C. Kors and Paul Korshin (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), 69-85; McKenna, De Pascal à Voltaire, I 225-27; and Johan Heilbron, “French Moralists and the Anthropology of the Modern Era: On the Genesis of the Notions of ‘Interest’ and ‘Commercial Society,’” in The Rise of the Social Sciences and the Formation of Modernity: Conceptual Change in Context, 1750-1850, ed. Johan Heilbron, Lars Magnusson, and Björn Wittrock (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1998), 77-106.
[82.] See Augustine, In epistolam Joannis ad Parthos tractatus decem 8.9.
[83.] See Pierre Nicole, “De la charité et de l’amour-propre,” in Nicole, Essais de morale, ed. Laurent Thirounin (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1999), 381-415 (esp. 406-7, where the passage from Augustine is cited and paraphrased). The same theme is developed in Nicole, “De la grandeur,” in ibid., 197-243 (at 212-17). In this connection, see Keohane, Philosophy and the State in France, 293-303.