Voltaire’s history of the reign of Louis XV begins with a study of the system of John Law, seen from the point of view of the civilizing process – or at least the domesticating process. Voltaire is at pains to put Law’s bubble in the context of the “habit of obedience” ingrained in the French under the reign of Louis XIV, comparing the troubles that the latter Louis faced, in his regency, from an upstart aristocracy, with the mildness faced by the regent, the Duc D’Orleans, even in the exercise of truly autocratic power.
We wanted to discuss this partly because of the neo-con meme about the supposed merits of the English enlightenment as opposed to the French enlightenment. There’s been a bit of a splash gathered around Gertrude Himmelfarb’s last book, which designs an intellectual history of the 18th century, absurdly enough, to reflect the anti-Gallic bias of the neo-con cabal. We thought the review of the book by Alan Ryan was oddly deficient. For one thing, Ryan confuses the Edinburgh Enlightenment with the English Enlightenment. This is unusual. For another thing, I didn’t feel his defense of the philosophes was very heartfelt. Yet it is obvious to me – as it was, in fact, to the Victorian liberals, like John Stuart Mill – that the French Revolution overthrew a system that was endemically unreformable, and that the philosophes did achieve the spreading of the enlightenment with profoundly good results. It is pretty easy to see this. Compare Czarist Russia or Prussia, before 1848, to the rest of Europe. Or simply read Conrad’s Secret Agent, a pretty profound reflection on the politics of a non-enlightened power – again, Czarist Russia.
Moreover, the root of what twentieth century liberalism has grasped centrally – the failure of central planning to forestall unexpected results, and its increasing confusion in dealing with them – is there, in nuce, in Voltaire. Consider this passage:
Finally, Law’s famous system, which seemed that it must ruin the regency and the state, actually sustained, in effect, both one and the other by consequences nobody had foreseen. The cupidity that it awoke in all conditions of the population, from the basest upt to magistrates, bishops and princes, turned away the attention of all minds from the public welfare, and from all political and ambitious views, in filling them with the fear of losing and the avidity of gaining. It was a new and prodigious game, where all citizens wagered one against the other. The obsessed players hardly quit their cards in order to trouble the government. And so it happened, by a prestige of which the hidden mechanisms could not be seen except by the finest and most practiced eyes, that a chimerical system gave birth to a real commerce, and played the midwife to the rebirth of the Indian company, established in the past by the celebrated Colbert, and ruined by the wars. In the end, if there were many private fortunes destroyed, at least the nation become more commercial and richer. This system enlightened minds, as the civil wars, in the past, had sharpened braveries. It was an epidemic sickness which spread itself in France, Holland and England. It merits the attention of posterity, for here it was not a question of the political interest of one or two princes that sent shockwaves through the nations; rather, the people themselves hurried into this madness which enriched some families, and reduced others to beggary.”
According to Ryan’s review, and the review of a few others, Himmelfarb’s big move is to replace reason, in the age of reason, with virtue – and make virtue the central theme of the English enlightenment, and the English enlightement the central national enlightenment. Reading this, a student of French history can’t help but be confused. Virtue was, of course, the central, and rather sinister, theme of the most radical French revolutionaries. The atheistic, Voltairian enlightment did, it was true, have an idea of virtue, but that idea was markedly heir to the old Aristotelian idea of virtue – it was pre-eminently social.
Again, according to Ryan, Himmelfarb, like many a neo-con, works to revive religion as a central and progressive bulwark and friend to the enlightenment cause. It is an oddity of this historiography that it drops a central Enlightenment term: fanatic. Whether it is Hume or Voltaire, the fanatic is that figure against which the enlightenment finds its tone. It is no accident that satire was the preferred form of the Enlightenment thinker, since it is by satire that the fanatic is disarmed. Voltaire’s ability to see the benefits of Law’s system, even as he accounts it a disaster, is just the proof that here is a perspective that has been cleansed of fanaticism – that attributes social virtue not to the virtue of individuals, but to their mix of virtues and vices, suitably ameliorated by those activities that would take them away from the sharpening bravery of civil war and religious strife. And how does one get to this point? By satire - by understanding both the humor of the discrepency between self-interest and moral claims, but that one understands the further humor of a pietistic horror that this is so -- the Misanthrope will always be the reference for this second level of vision for French Enlightenment figures. It is the same spirit that animates Smith’s Wealth of Nations.