Liberty Matters

Duplicate of Henry C. Clark, “How Radical Was the Political Thought of the Encyclopédie?” (March 2018)


Hank Clark largely (and rightly) dismisses Jonathan Israel's claim that the Encyclopédie promoted the trifecta of atheism, materialism, and democracy that Israel has dubbed "Radical Enlightenment." Since Hank does an excellent job of showing how the Encyclopédie was, with respect to political thought, often more conservative than radical, I will not reiterate those arguments here. But I would like to pose a broader question: should we even be asking whether the Encyclopédie was "radical"? Given how thoroughly and frequently Israel's category has been denounced as teleological, ideological, misconstrued, and mainly just existing in his own head, why are we using it as a measure of anything? I would suggest that it is long past time to retire this category, not only because it is analytically broken, but because it distorts the historical complexity of Enlightenment political thought.
One of our greatest challenges when seeking to reconstruct how the philosophes thought about politics is to bracket the French Revolution and the left/right political spectrum that it bequeathed us. Indeed, this is another reason why "radicalism" is such a confusing category when applied to the Old Regime: it dates from a postrevolutionary moment, both in the UK and in France, and is closely related to the republican politics of the French Revolution.[63] As such, it is anachronistic and teleological to speak of "radical politics" in 18th-century thought. The word itself was seldom used (except in expressions like "vice radical," or as a term of lexicography).
Once we have banished radicalism from our analytical categories, what is left (no pun intended)? There were of course different flavors of political thought in the Enlightenment, ranging from the frankly conservative to the fairly progressive. But even here, again, we risk projecting onto Old Regime politics our own postrevolutionary categories. The challenge is to describe Enlightenment political thought, or its varietals, with terminology and comparisons that are more historically attuned. In this short essay, I want to dwell on Hank's passing comment about how French Enlightenment authors tended to think "almost invariably within the framework not of a republic but of a decentralized, legally bound, liberalized monarch." I will show how a majority of the Encyclopédie's political claims can indeed be subsumed under this general category of monarchic liberalism.
Most contemporary theorists view nondemocratic liberalism as a dangerous type of regime to be avoided.[64] In the 18th century, however, monarchic regimes were often viewed as affording greater liberty than republics (pace Rousseau). In the famous chapter on the English constitution in On the Spirit of Laws (1748), Montesquieu suggested that "In the Italian Republics … there is less liberty than in our monarchies," an assertion echoed by Jaucourt in at least two Encyclopédie articles.[65] Monarchy and freedom could even be understood as co-constitutive: "When the Goths conquered the Roman Empire, they founded monarchy and liberty everywhere," Montesquieu affirmed, a phrase that similarly resonated throughout the Encyclopédie.[66]
These claims seem foreign to us today, when political autonomy is largely viewed as the foundation of all liberty. But for most Enlightenment thinkers (again, sorry,Rousseau) the real basis of our rights and liberties was natural law -- and who was more likely to understand natural law, the mob or the monarch? The role of the sovereign was to ensure that positive laws did not contradict, and ideally aligned with, natural ones. To turn the spotlight again on Boucher d'Argis, in his well-known article "Droit de la nature," he insisted that the purpose of positive laws "is not to impede liberty, but to direct properly all man's actions."[67] If freedom is not framed as an issue of autonomy, but of adherence to natural law, then popular sovereignty ceases to be one of its preconditions.
While Montesquieu provided a political rationale for monarchic liberalism, it received an important boost from another quarter -- Physiocracy. The Physiocrats offered an understanding of liberalism that easily — in their case, necessarily — coexisted with monarchy. Focusing on private property, they promulgated a theory of natural rights that required a "puissance souveraine," which François Quesnay identified with the monarch. Unlike in Hobbes's Leviathan, this sovereign power "does not destroy the natural right of every man; on the contrary, it guarantees and regulates it in the most fitting and interesting way for society."[68]
Just as there was a Montesquieu-Fénelon pairing in French Enlightenment thought (as Kent Wright notes in his comment), there was also, onward from the 1750s, a Quesnay-Fénelon pairing that promoted economic liberalism, monarchic government, and natural law. And this strain received a good deal of airtime in the Encyclopédie.[69] Quesnay himself contributed six articles, only three of which would be published: "Evidence," "Fermiers," and "Grains." These texts also insisted on liberty, albeit in a different key than Montesquieu: in "Grains," for instance, Quesnay focused primarily on free trade (la liberté du commerce), particularly for the grain trade.[70] This Physiocratic theme was picked up elsewhere. In "Foire," the future Controller-General of Finances, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, assailed the system of exemptions and tariffs that made commercial fairs profitable at the expense of the larger economy. In "Maîtrises," Joachim Faiguet de Villeneuve criticized professional guilds for repressing "competition and liberty in all professions."[71] And in "Vingtième," signed by Boulanger, but authored by Diderot and Étienne-Noël Damilaville, the authors also defended the free trade of wheat, ascribing this doctrine to Henri IV's finance minister Sully who, they claimed
knew very well that the source of happiness and wealth in France was to be found in the great expanse and fertility of its land. The earth, he would say, produces every treasure, both necessary and superfluous; one should only seek to multiply its products, by making their sale safe and free [il ne faut qu'en rendre le commerce sûr & libre].[72]
The economic liberalism of the Encyclopédie is often treated separately from its political twin, but the two were typically conjoined. In "Esclavage," Jaucourt drew on Montesquieu's criticism of slavery to further insist that "Le droit de propriété sur les hommes ou sur les choses, sont deux droits bien différens." Our natural right to own property, the basis of economic liberalism, serves here to outline a natural right not to be treated as property, that is, a natural right to civil freedom. The political ramifications of this move are underscored by Jaucourt himself (quoting Montesquieu):
If slavery offends natural law and civil law, it injures as well the best forms of government: it is contrary to monarchical government, in which it is supremely important not to humble or debase human nature.[73]
The importance of Physiocracy in advancing abolitionism can also be seen in later works by Saint-Lambert and Condorcet.[74] But the economic liberalism defended by the Physiocrats had other, more surprising political consequences as well. It was in the name of free trade that some of the first defenses of social welfare were made. In the Encyclopédie article "Fondation," Turgot insisted that society has an obligation to assist those who cannot find employment or are too sick to work: "humanity and religion both make it our duty to assist our fellows in need." He went so far as to frame this duty correlatively in terms of a right: "the poor have uncontestable claims [des droits incontestables] on the abundance of the rich."[75] This defense of socioeconomic rights would remain a fixture of Physiocratic thinking up until the French Revolution: in the cahiers de doléances for the Third Estate of Nemours, Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours included the "right to free assistance" for "anyone in a state of infancy, impotence, invalidity, or disability."[76]
There were, to be sure, other political and economic positions in Enlightenment thought besides what I'm calling monarchic liberalism, but it does appear to have been a dominant theory in the Encyclopédie. Its political and economic strands were not always in perfect harmony -- Montesquieu, for instance, places far less importance on natural laws than Quesnay. But these tensions did not prevent authors from combining elements of both, particularly those authors (including Turgot) who maintained a certain distance from the more doctrinal form of Physiocracy. What makes this kind of nondemocratic liberalism particularly intriguing from a contemporary perspective is how it blurs the lines between progressive and conservative, radical and traditional. On the one hand, its denial of political autonomy seems to our eyes extremely retrograde, and the insistence on economic free-trade would come to be associated with right-wing economics. On the other hand, its attacks on slavery and demands for social welfare would today be categorized as progressive. Rather than attempting to force Enlightenment pegs into our own square holes, we should pay greater heed to their unfamiliar and surprising arrangements of ideas.
[63.] See for instance Jennifer Mori, Britain in the Age of the French Revolution: 1785-1820 (London: Routledge, 2014).
[64.] See, e.g., Sheri Berman, "The Pipe Dream of Undemocratic Liberalism," Journal of Democracy 28, no. 3 (2017): 29-38.
[65.] On the Spirit of the Laws, trans. and ed. Anne M. Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller, and Harold Samuel Stone (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 11.6; 157; cf. "Dix, conseil des" ("la liberté est encore moins à Venise que dans plusieurs monarchies," 4:1088), and "Venise, gouvernement de" ("c'est une aristocratie despotique, &... la liberté y regne moins que dans plusieurs monarchies," 17:15), in Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, etc., eds. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert (University of Chicago: ARTFL Encyclopédie Project, 2017), eds. Robert Morrissey and Glenn Roe: <>.
[66.] On the Spirit of the Laws, 17.5, 283. This same phrase appears twice in the Encyclopédie: see "Fief" (6:689) and "Tartares ou Tatars" (15:924), both by Jaucourt.
[67.] Encyclopédie, "Droit de la nature, ou droit naturel" (5:134); translation in Encyclopedic Liberty: Political Articles in the Dictionary of Diderot and d'Alembert, ed. and trans. Henry C. Clark and Christine Dunn Henderson (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2016), 110.
[68.] Quesnay, Essai physique sur l'œconomie animale (Paris: Cavelier, 1747), 3 vols; sec. 3, chp. XVIII; 3:349-73 (369).
[69.] John Lough, The 'Encyclopédie' (1971; Geneva: Slatkine, 1989), 331-57.
[70.] This expression occurs nine times in "Grains," Encyclopédie, 7:812-31. Liberty is also a central topic of the article "Evidence:" see in particular Encyclopédie, 6:157.
[71.]"Maîtrises," Encyclopédie, 9:911-15.
[72.] "Vingtième," Encyclopédie, 17:872. Damilaville, a civil servant working in tax administration, was an intimate friend of both Diderot and Voltaire, and the latter's chief correspondent in Paris from 1760 until his death in 1768. See Ian Davidson, Voltaire: A Life (London: Profile Books, 2010), chp. 26.
[73.] "Esclavage," Encyclopédie, 5:937; English translation by Naomi J. Andrews, in The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project (Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2012): <>. The second clause is from On the Spirit of the Laws, 15.1.
[74.] See esp. Saint-Lambert, Ziméo,in Les Saisons, poème par Saint-Lambert. L'Abenaki, Sara Th..., Ziméo, contes (n.p., 1769); and Condorcet, Réflexions sur l'esclavage des nègres (Neufchâtel: Société typographique, 1781).  
[75.] "Fondations," Encyclopédie, 7:73-75; English translation, Encyclopedic Liberty, 201. See also Gaston V. Rimlinger, Welfare Policy and Industrialization in Europe, America, and Russia (New York: John Wiley, 1971), 26-27, and Thomas McStay Adams, Bureaucrats and Beggars: French Social Policy in the Age of the Enlightenment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).
[76.] Archives parlementaires de 1787 à 1860, ed. M. J. Mavidal et al. (Paris: P. Dupont, 1862-), 4:162.