Liberty Matters

How Radical Was the Political Thought of the Encyclopedie?


Well, at the risk of attracting the unwanted attention of Kent's equivocation-detector, I have to say that I find a great deal to admire and agree with in all three of these latest commentaries. Dan's comment about how hard it is to dispense with our Left-Right terminology reminds me that in a way this modern polarization has its roots not only in the Revolution but in the Enlightenment itself. The term lumières appears over 1,100 times in the Encyclopédie, and though it often means simply "light" or "knowledge," many contemporaries saw it in stark opposition to terms like "superstition" (517 hits), enthousiasme (317), or fanatisme (182). Whereas Left and Right are locational terms, the terms used in the 18th century are more like states of mind. Both pairings have a temporal dimension, as they had recourse to more and less "enlightened" ages just as we resort to the language of progressive and regressive.
As Kent reminds us, though, there are different topics that came under "enlightened" influence--different "Enlightened Experiences" in Dale Van Kley's formulation--each with its own itineraries and parameters. Of the ones he mentioned, I would echo the difficulty of squeezing a "commercial enlightenment" and a classical republican one into the same steamy tent. Since classical republicanism was suspicious of private interests and commerce, it often ended up at loggerheads with any "commercial enlightenment"--and long before Benjamin Constant, looking back ruefully at his own experiences during the Revolution, defined the two as incompatible in his 1819 address "On Ancient and Modern Liberty Compared." Whereas an embrace of commerce was clearly "modern" in its sympathies, an embrace of classical republicanism was likely to be ancient; could the Enlightenment include both?
Andrew asks rhetorically whether provincial assemblies along property lines rather than status lines and commercial erosion (not necessarily abolition) of privilege wouldn't have represented "fairly dramatic reforms." Yes, they could be very far-reaching indeed; but my sense continues to be that in the minds of their proponents, and in our own common parlance, they would usually be considered "reformist" rather than "radical." All close observers were aware of the changes brought by monarchs such as Peter in Russia and Frederick II in Prussia, and most commentators, in the Encyclopédie and elsewhere, looked for ways of folding even far-reaching reforms within the French royal umbrella as well. Both Henry IV and his frugal minister Sully did an extended star turn throughout the century, in general and in the Encyclopédie itself.[95]
The case of Diderot himself is instructive. The philosophe who offered us the strangely cautious ending of "Political Authority" and that "conservative"-sounding passage from the Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville was the same "atheist and materialist" evoked by David Wootton. It was the same Diderot who spent months in Russia (shortly after the Bougainville) trying to convince Catherine II to bring far-reaching (radical?) reforms to her people, only to call her a "despot" some years later, by which point his interventions in Raynal's history of colonialism were sounding some of the most "radical" sentiments of the age. Nor was he alone in this multivocal character of his political ideas: Voltaire, the beating heart of the Enlightenment mainstream if ever there was one, combined a famous sympathy for absolute monarchy--it was the biggest stick to beat the privileged orders he despised--with the view that the "people" will quite naturally prefer "democracy" as their form of government (he differed from Adam Smith on this point), while also noting that "the argument always ends with agreement that men are very difficult to govern."[96] It is not always as easy as we might like to figure out what "team" our 18th-century players are on.
In that vein, I'll close by echoing Dan's remark about our "more limited political imagination" today. In places like the Club de l'Entresol, perhaps frequented briefly by Montesquieu, contemporaries became accustomed to think pluralistically about regimes. Elaborating on a practice that went back to Plato and Aristotle, they thought of different constitutional types not in either-or, end-of-history terms but in cost-benefit terms as options that all had pluses and minuses. Since France was regarded in the middle of the 18th century as a mostly successful country (though that would begin to change somewhat after the Seven Years' War), it should be unsurprising that modern-sounding values such as liberty and equality were first tried out within that framework.
But even 21st-century citizens, according to the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, are concerned not only with liberty and equality but also with the ways in which equally elementary moral intuitions--loyalty, authority, sanctity--are accommodated by their political regimes, inhibiting our understanding of the politics around us. Perhaps we are doubly limited in our attempts to understand the Encyclopédie.[97]
[95.] See Encyclopedic Liberty, 17-20, 147, 215, 250, 314, 484, 504n36, 520-21, 530, 647, 668, 684-85; there are 74 mentions of "Sully" in the Encyclopédie as a whole, though a few of them are to figures other than the royal minister.
[96.] "Patrie. Homeland" in "Pocket Philosophical Dictionary" and "Démocratie. Democracy" in "Questions on the Encyclopedia," in Voltaire, Political Writings, ed. David Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, 29, 37). Smith, on the contrary, wrote, "That kings are the servants of the people, to be obeyed, resisted, deposed, or punished, as the public conveniency may require, is the doctrine of reason and philosophy, but it is not the doctrine of Nature." Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), I.iii.3, 53.
[97.] See Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind (New York: Vintage, 2012), for his argument that evolution has left us with basic moral intuitions on behalf of equality, care, sanctity, loyalty, authority and liberty, which we apply in our different ways to our political lives. Istvan Hont recovered a part of this forgotten history in "Commercial Society and Political Theory in the Eighteenth Century: The Problem of Authority in David Hume and Adam Smith," in Main Trends in Cultural History, ed. Willem Melching and Wyger Velema (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994), 54-94.