What can abbé de Saint-Pierre tell us about the political Enlightenment?

Can an author wishing to establish the monarchy in the first decades of the 18th century belong to the Enlightenment, which associated itself with human rights, political freedom and popular sovereignty? In La Monarchie éclairée de l’abbé de Saint-Pierre: une science politique des Modernes I wanted to emphasize that the writings of Charles-Irénée Castel, abbé de Saint-Pierre (1645-1730), invite us to question the chronology, the themes and the areas of influence of a polymorphic emancipatory movement whose legitimizing function leads to a neglect of its complexity and points of tension.

Abbé de Saint-Pierre

Abbé de Saint-Pierre, after François de Troy. (Institut de France)

Saint-Pierre defends the indivisible power of the monarch, redefines access to the nobility and its prerogatives, and assigns religion and the Church an essential role of education and assistance. He thus maintains the pillars of the Ancien Régime, which the French Revolution was going to destroy, rejecting the attempts to reform the monarchy on the side of a bygone world. To interpret what preceded from what followed feeds a retrospective and teleological point of view which has recently been reinforced by the application of the concept of radical Enlightenment to the political arena. Defined as republican, democratic and egalitarian, the Enlightenment, presented as the guarantor of the values of Western modernity, overshadows what has been called ‘the royal thesis’, which made monarchical authority a means of carrying out reforms. Is this thesis contrary to the political Enlightenment; is it an unfinished, incomplete form, or one of its aspects? I ask these questions in my book, not to make the Enlightenment a criterion by which we should judge or rehabilitate the projects of Saint-Pierre, but to examine certain little-known aspects and contradictions.

La Monarchie éclairée de l’abbé de Saint-Pierre, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment 2020:11.

La Monarchie éclairée de l’abbé de Saint-Pierre, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment 2020:11.

The abbé de Saint-Pierre condemned the hereditary dignities and the venal offices, the recommendations, the clienteles, which structured the society of his time and which played an essential role in the exercise of power, whereas other undisputed representatives of the Enlightenment, such as Montesquieu, defended the venality of offices, the role of parliaments and the nobility as a counterweight to the power of the sovereign. Within the framework of the monarchy, Saint-Pierre supposes a social contract that guarantees the well-being of everyone, with a duty, if not of results then of means. For him, the general interest cannot be protected by the compromising of particular interests, opposed in their principle to the ethics of reciprocity, but rather by a single power, which must answer to public opinion and assume sole responsibility for its decisions when exposed to criticism. Education, the social control disciplining subjects without integrating them into political decision – if Saint-Pierre promotes the education of the common people, the State must ensure the slow progress of universal reason through political stability, sustaining the autonomy and the authority of the able and scholarly elites.

In this interrogation of the political Enlightenment, my work looks towards the East, the proponents of a ‘good police’ and an authoritarian welfare state, studying the connections forged by Saint-Pierre to Germany and Prussia. A monarchical framework perceived as the guardian of efficiency and rationality, the promotion of social discipline with a paternalistic tendency, seemed to be compatible with the public use of reason and independent political thinking. This imposes a higher duty of telling the truth and spreading one’s ideas publicly in print, which earned the abbé his eviction from the Académie française and left him no choice but to publish abroad in Holland.

The ambivalence of reason, between despotism and light, which fully belongs to the heritage of the Aufklärung, as Antoine Lilti points out in his latest book on Michel Foucault, seems to perfectly apply to the writings of Saint-Pierre. (See Antoine Lilti, L’Héritage des Lumières, Ambivalences de la modernité, Paris, 2019, p.380.)

– Carole Dornier, University of Caen Normandy, France

A version of this text first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog for November 2020.

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