Liberty Matters

How Radical Was the Political Thought of the Encyclopédie?


Kudos and thanks to Andrew, Dan, and Kent for their impressively encyclopedic exercises in wit, wisdom, and erudition. It is no fault of their own if their posts do not converge upon a single conclusion. Indeed, if my original purpose had been to divide and separate my commentators, it would have to be counted a signal success. Andrew and Kent seize the chance to remind us of the overlooked Leftward possibilities of the Encyclopédie, while Dan takes up my suggestion to follow its Rightward drift. Along the way, there are several important agreements in their comments, as well as one or two possible tensions at work.
Andrew makes two general points that are important enough to be highlighted separately: first, that "political" thought itself during this period cannot be divorced from the broader religious and epistemological frameworks in which it was embedded; and second, that once we view the Encyclopédie in this light, we find it much more radical in intention and design than my account allows. "Extracting explicitly political thought from the work as a whole serves to sidestep many of the text's most political interventions," as he puts it, appending the famous "Map of the System of Human Knowledge" for good measure. But even those of us who can embrace these points, as I meant to do by imagining many "Burkeans avant la lettre" among the early readership, might still "curb our enthusiasm" for the conclusion that Andrew seems to draw from them, namely, that "a reader who carefully excavated the text would find less durable material for reinforcing the bases of Old Regime political culture than for laying the foundations of a rather different social and political order."
One hesitation that this formulation evokes concerns simply the perennial gap between intention and result. The "Map of the System of Human Knowledge" appeared in the Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopédie written by d'Alembert in 1751, as the project was just getting under way. As a declaration of intention, it is indeed a bold and far-reaching statement. But d'Alembert himself left his post in disgust after the seventh volume was published in the late 1750s, while over 100 contributors, including the indefatigable Boucher d'Argis and Jaucourt, soldiered on to the bitter end. So the work raises the problem of authorial or editorial intention in an acute form.
Moreover, one may question just how tight the connection is between epistemology and politics. The Map of Human Knowledge was partly inspired by the work of Francis Bacon. But although the ambitious Englishman became crucial to the mainstream of English intellectual life--Joel Mokyr calls him one of the major "cultural entrepreneurs" of the period[77]--his epistemological revolution did not translate readily or automatically into a political one. The English tried republicanism for a while, but they brought back their monarchy at exactly the time they institutionalized Bacon's epistemological project by founding the Royal Society.
Or consider privilege, which Andrew cites as another radical commitment that my way of framing the issue tends to overlook. It is true that the systemic problem of privilege was eventually addressed radically--beginning with abbé Siéyès' famous evocation of a return of the nobility to the Franconian forests of the Middle Ages in 1789[78] But in midcentury, would-be reformers sought to address the problem in ways more respectful of the current order, such as by organizing provincial assemblies along property rather than status lines, or by drawing on the resources of a growing commercial economy. Dan mentioned the articles "Foire" (Fair) and "Maîtrises" (Masterships) as examples of privilege-based problems that could be addressed in this fashion; "Chef d'oeuvre" (Masterwork) would be another example.
Kent, for his part, takes the discussion Leftward in a different way--by referring not to epistemological or religious frameworks but to hitherto overlooked political ones. In particular, he poses two large and intriguing questions. First, is there a "French exception" in the political thought of the period, a kind of incipient "social republicanism" stretching from the reformist circles of the last years of Louis XIV right through the Revolution, and that might be detected within the pages of the Encyclopédie? And second, could the radicalization of Montesquieu's thought that Paul Rahe finds in the work of Rousseau also be detected in Diderot's dictionary? These questions are thrust forward with some insistence, since Kent has discovered that I'm one of those "elegant fencers" (we've all met them) who also want to "have [my] rhetorical cake and eat it too."
Kent's first question inevitably directs attention to the problem of defining a "mainstream" against more marginal strands. Was the existence itself of a kind of egalitarian republicanism a French exception, or was that strand--however defined--somehow more central to French thought than it was elsewhere? In England, after all, there was also egalitarian and republican thinking stretching from at least Winstanley and the Civil War Levellers and Diggers through the various projects of the John Toland era, and throughout the century. In the Encyclopédie, echoes of at least a certain kind of republicanism can be heard in occasional references by Jaucourt and others to works by Algernon Sydney or Thomas Gordon.[79]
But the question is always how much weight to attach to such moments relative to the larger context. The appeal of studying the Encyclopédie for this purpose consists in the tantalizing prospect that with well over 100 authors, one might actually get a glimpse into what a "mainstream" looks like in this period. As it happens, when the political aspirations of its surviving contributors have been measured in practice, they have fallen short of what most of us would call "radical."[80] So my inclination, faced with the option of a ticket on a Fénelon-Babeuf Express, would be to hold off until the rails are more firmly in place.
"The monarchy is ruined when a prince, deceived by his ministers, comes to believe that the poorer the subjects, the larger their families will be; and the more they are burdened with taxes, the more able they are to pay them—two sophisms that I call crimes of lèse-majesté, which have always ruined and will always ruin monarchies. Republics end in luxury, monarchies in depopulation and poverty." 
Kent's second question--whether Montesquieu has been radicalized in the process of being quoted--is one that has occurred to me too, for there are indeed cases where a contributor cites Montesquieu but adapts him ever so subtly in a more pointed way. One example will suffice: Montesquieu had written that "Republics end in luxury, monarchies in poverty."[81] In his entry on "Monarchy," Jaucourt states, "Republics end in luxury, monarchies in depopulation and poverty."[82] So Jaucourt trades in the art and brevity of Montesquieu's original for a chance to gently pile on in his veiled critique of the current government--depopulation being a frequent critique of the current regime. This minor detail calls to mind a larger truth in Kent's observation, namely, that answering our original question entails knowing not only which authors were used by the contributors, but how they were used. It seems doubtful, however, whether a thorough study would dramatically change the "radicalism" quotient.
Dan shares my skepticism about the "radicalism" of the Encyclopédie, and in an informative and insightful post, he offers two concrete solutions to the problem of its overuse: one is to banish the term "radicalism" itself as a standard for assessing the project, and the other is to pay more attention to the "monarchic liberalism" informing the work and the period. Since "hear! hear!" was my most common marginal note to Dan's remarks, I'll conclude with just one micro-caveat.
An alternative to retiring the "radicalism" standard (a tempting option, to be sure) would be to rightsize it to more manageable dimensions. Radicalism, after all, is in common parlance a generic, almost statistical term meaning an outlier on any distribution. We talk of everything from the Radical Reformation of the 16th century to the Radical Right of the 21st, and in this common-sense usage, the term strikes me as unlikely to disappear. It ought to be possible to resist the claim that "All Enlightenment by definition is closely linked to revolution"[83] without denying a circumscribed place for its more extreme variety.
Margaret C. Jacob, who did as much as anyone to put the modern notion of a "radical Enlightenment" on the map, has attempted to tether her "radicals" to a larger, more eclectic intellectual environment, and as such, has increasingly distanced herself from a version of "radical Enlightenment" that has--as Kent noted--eclipsed her own among a certain reading public.[84] So while I agree with Dan that the concept of "radicalism" seems to be "analytically broken," there would be at least some loss in abandoning it altogether.
Even monarchical liberals could be "radical." David Hume, whose sympathy for what he called a "civilized monarchy" (a notion calculated to discomfit the blinkered Whigs in his midst) appealed to French readers right up through the Revolution,[85] harbored a religion and metaphysics too "radical" for academic employment. And Baron d'Holbach, despite his own scandalous atheism, has been aptly labeled (by Jacob) a "liberal, almost utopian monarchist."[86]
Perhaps our current democratic discontents will have the indirect effect of making it at least marginally easier to appreciate some of these (far from negligible) complexities in the landscape of Encyclopedic political thought.
[77.] Joel Mokyr, A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), ch. 7.
[78.] See "What is the Third Estate?" in Emmanuel-Joseph Siéyès, Political Writings, ed. and trans. Michael Sonenscher (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2003 [1789]), ch. 2, 99.
[79.] See Encyclopedic Liberty, 85, 92, 227, 238, 461, 530-31, 566, 619.
[80.] See Frank Kafker, The Encyclopedists as a Group: A Collective Biography of the Authors of the Encyclopédie (Oxford: Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 1996).
[81.] Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, 7.4.
[82.] See "Monarchy" in Encyclopedic Liberty, 385.
[83.] Enlightenment Contested, 7.
[84.] See Jacob's Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons, and Republicans (London: Allen & Unwin, 1981) and Living the Enlightenment: Freemasonry and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991). Whatever may be thought of her general thesis, she at least makes a diligent attempt to relate "radicalism" to a broader intellectual mainstream in Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991). Her review of the first of Israel's volumes appears in The Journal of Modern History, 75, no. 2 (June, 2003):387-89, and of later installments in "The Radical Enlightenment and Freemasonry: Where We Are Now," in Revista de Estudios Históricos de la Masoneria: Latinoamericana y Caribeña (2013):13-25, esp. 19-24. (<> )
[85.] Hume first introduced the concept in his "Of Civil Liberty," which appeared in 1742; see Essays Moral, Political, and Literary, 2d ed., ed. Eugene F. Miller (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1987), "Of Civil Liberty," 92-93, 94; he elaborated upon it in "Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences," 111-37, esp. 125-27; and he occasionally incorporated it into his 1754 work The History of England, 6 vols. (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1983 [1778]), 1:50. For his popularity in France, see Laurence L. Bongie, David Hume, Prophet of the Counterrevolution (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000 [1965]).
[86.] Jacob, "The Radical Enlightenment and Freemasonry," 21.