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.

Free thinking in secret

We all have secret thoughts which are occasionally betrayed by an unexpected gesture, an uncontrolled facial expression, a peculiar lapsus… which express at an awkward moment precisely what we wanted, or were supposed, to hide. All the secret services of all political regimes rely on that kind of clue to detect clandestine dissidents. But even if we are not all revolutionary rebels or terrorists, the simple conventions of everyday sociability make us very conscious of the necessity of self-censorship and the constraints bearing on the public sphere and even on mundane conversation. When we perceive signs of divergence in others, we judge them according to circumstances and quickly make a feasible interpretation – which may remain secret…

The execution of Anne Du Bourg at the Place de Grève

The execution of Anne Du Bourg at the Place de Grève.

It does not seem to me to be totally extravagant to imagine the birth and spread of free thought in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries on the same model. We know that there existed in France a strict system of censorship, that the punishments inflicted on free thinkers were drastic and that the Bastille, the Vincennes dungeon and the place de Grève (where executions were carried out) were well-known to careless or reckless writers and booksellers. In this context, can we not expect free thought to have found expression in subtle and ambiguous texts addressed to an élite of intellectual accomplices? Isn’t it obvious that texts of that period should be read “between the lines” if one is to discover the undercover coherence and the true intention of the author?

Clandestine manuscripts at the Mazarine library

Clandestine manuscripts at the Mazarine library.

The proceedings of the conference organised at the Mazarine library on The Secret Thoughts of Academicians: Fontenelle and his fellow-members – published in the latest number of the periodical La Lettre clandestine (Paris, Garnier: no 28, 2020)  – assume a positive answer to that question.

Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle by Nicolas de Largillière

Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle by Nicolas de Largillière.

There were indeed many  Academicians who secretly contributed to the spread of free thought: Fontenelle, Lévesque de Pouilly and his brother Lévesque de Burigny, Fréret, Terrasson, the abbé de Saint-Pierre, Voltaire, Montesquieu, D’Alembert, Mirabaud, Naigeon are here studied in depth, as are the conditions of censorship and the circulation of clandestine manuscripts among specialised booksellers and the critical judgement on them offered by Louis Racine, the cardinal de Bernis and by the journalists of the Society of Jesus. A good number of clandestine manuscripts – and in particular those that belonged to the family of Mme Du Châtelet, identified by Maria Susana Seguin – are now kept at the Mazarine Library in Paris.

Jacques-André Naigeon by Fragonard

Jacques-André Naigeon by Fragonard. (Getty Images / The Bridgeman Art Library)

Rather than resume too briefly the many articles published here, I would like to offer a short reflection – based on recent research by Gianluca Mori – on the approach to reading and interpretation that they suggest and on the coherence of the history of free thought of which they give us a glimpse. The historian Oskar Kristeller used to claim that the reputation of Italian scholars of the 16th and 17th centuries as unbelievers and atheists was a false retrospective view of the Paduan professors imposed by French scholars whose historical vision was distorted by their interest in the 18th-century Enlightenment. Despite research published by Jean-Pierre Cavaillé, this thesis – which excludes any covert intention on the part of Cremonini and Pomponazzi in particular – was maintained by the American scholar Richard Popkin in his works on La Mothe Le Vayer, and has more recently been theorised by the Cambridge professor Quentin Skinner.

Nicolas Fréret, Lettre de Thrasybule à Leucippe (Mazarine: ms. 1193-4)

Nicolas Fréret, Lettre de Thrasybule à Leucippe (Mazarine: ms. 1193-4)

However, it obviously imposes very narrow limits on any enquiry concerning authors of the modern period (16th-18th century): since these authors publicly declare their orthodox opinions, tainted by skepticism and fideism, it becomes impossible to suspect them of entertaining heterodox convictions or of being the authors of anti-Christian writings. To my mind, this prejudice is blown apart as we read the articles devoted to Fontenelle and his colleagues: the modern period is marked by the abyss between public and private life, between professions of faith and philosophical convictions. As is demonstrated by the research of Jean-Pierre Cavaillé on “libertinism”, of Alain Mothu on Bonaventure des Périers and of Gianluca Mori on Guy Patin, and as is made manifest by Molière’s comedies and Pierre Bayle’s published works, the Academicians were heirs to a long tradition of dis/simulation. The cat is now out of the bag.

– Antony McKenna

Voltaire’s De la paix perpétuelle

Charles-Irénée Castel

Charles-Irénée Castel, abbé de Saint-Pierre; portrait published in Un contemporain égaré au XVIIIe siècle: Les projets de l’abbé de Saint-Pierre, 1658-1743, by S. Siégler-Pascal (Paris, 1900).

For his polemics against the Church, Voltaire had an arsenal of facts and arguments that he used repeatedly in a variety of contexts. De la paix perpétuelle (1769) presents in a concise and forceful manner materials on bloodshed and strife caused by religious intolerance that appear in La Philosophie de l’histoire, Traité sur la tolérance, Dictionnaire philosophique, L’Examen important de milord Bolingbroke, Des conspirations contre les peuples, Dieu et les hommes, and Histoire de l’établissement du christianisme.

The work is framed by references to the ideas of Charles-Irénée Castel, abbé de Saint-Pierre, who, under the title Projet pour rendre la paix perpétuelle en Europe (1712), proposed a peace plan that is a precursor of the current European Union. This plan stipulates that a lasting peace could be achieved by a permanent alliance of the Christian states of Europe. All princes would forgo war as a means of settling differences. Any prince who engaged in armed hostilities would be banned from the union. If any member state was attacked, it would be defended by all the other member states. National boundaries would be preserved, and the political system of each state would be protected. Once the alliance was formed, a uniform economic policy would be developed. Turkey would be excluded from the confederacy. Voltaire rejected the abbé’s peace plan because he found it utopian and did not believe that lasting peace could be achieved by legal machinery alone without changing the attitudes that lead to war.

Holograph

Holograph dedication to the marquis de Torcy by the abbé de Saint-Pierre, in Projet pour rendre la paix perpétuelle en Europe (1712), copy BnF Rés. *E-534 / Image gallica/BnF

He furthermore foresaw that peace in Europe could not be maintained without taking into account the rest of the world. In Rescrit de l’empereur de la Chine, the emperor is surprised that, in the plan to establish lasting peace, countries outside of Europe such as Turkey, Persia, and Japan have wrongly been left out of the confederacy. He supposes that if Turkey, which was specifically excluded from the abbé’s alliance, attacked Hungary the European equilibrium could be broken. Convinced that Chinese membership is an absolute necessity, he decides to build in the center of the earth a city where the plenipotentiaries of the universe would assemble and where the representatives of all the major religions would come together to be preached into agreement by Portuguese Jesuits.

In De la paix perpétuelle, Voltaire celebrates the fact that war has become less cruel and religious persecutions less frequent, but he recapitulates a long series of atrocities caused by religious intolerance in the past. He emphasizes the fact that intolerance was brought to Rome by Christians. The most original part of the work is a debate between a Christian and a Jew moderated by a Roman senator before Marcus Aurelius. The Christian insists that Christianity is the only true religion and with naive confidence puts forth proofs based on the narrative of the Gospels. The senator invalidates with historical evidence the stories of the census and of the star that appeared upon the birth of Jesus. The Christian flaunts the genealogy of Jesus, the virgin birth, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Old Testament prophecies, and the miracles. Bored by the Christian demonstration, Marcus Aurelius orders the Jew to compare the two religions and the relationship between them.

In contrast with the arrogance and intolerance of the Christian, the Jew is respectful and pledges loyalty to the empire. He impersonates the Jewish apologists praised by Voltaire in the ninth of the Lettres à S. A. Mgr le prince de ***, and his arguments reflect those presented in the letter. He counters the miracles of Jesus with the more grandiose splitting of the Red Sea by Moses and stopping of the sun by Joshua. His well-informed analysis of the Scriptures mirrors the arguments of Orobio de Castro and Isaac of Troki. He challenges the alleged prophecies Christians found in the Old Testament and in sibylline verses. He explains the meaning of the term ‘Messiah’, wrongly associated with Jesus, and interprets the Hebrew expression ‘Son of God’ to mean a virtuous man. He finds proof in the Gospels that Jesus was a Jew preaching the Jewish law and was punished not for wanting to change the law but for fomenting disorder and insulting the magistrates. He mocks the end-of-the-world prophecies. Marcus Aurelius judges that both are equally insane, but while the empire has nothing to fear from the Jew it has everything to fear from the Christian.

The debate is followed by a summary of ecclesiastical history that traces the crimes of Christian emperors, bloodshed caused by controversies over absurd dogma, massacres, and persecutions. The narrative concludes with the belief that discord will end only through the elimination of divisive dogma and with the proclamation that tolerance has begun to spread through enlightenment. Voltaire rejected Saint-Pierre’s peace plan but fully agreed with his religious ideas. In the end, he joined the abbé by advocating the adoption of a universal religion that consists solely of the love of God and benevolence toward men. De la paix perpétuelle addresses problems and solutions that are still with us today.

– Pauline Kra