Essay 2: Turgot
London MACMILLAN AND CO., LIMITED New York: The MacMillan Company 1905
Birth and family descent 41
His youth at the Sorbonne 47
Intellectual training 52
His college friends: Morellet, and Lomenie de Brienne 54
Turgot refused to become an ecclesiastic 56
His revolt against dominant sophisms of the time 60
Letter to Buffon 61
Precocity of his intellect 65
Letter to Madame de Graffigny 65
Illustrates the influence of Locke 69
Views on marriage 72
On the controversy opened by Rousseau 72
Turgot's power of grave suspense 76
First Discourse at the Sorbonne 78
Analysis of its contents 80
Criticisms upon it 86
It is one-sided 87
And not truly historic 88
Fails to distinguish doctrine from organisation 89
Omits the Christianity of the East 90
And economic conditions 92
The contemporary position of the Church in Europe 93
Second Discourse at the Sorbonne 96
Its pregnant thesis of social causation 97
Compared with the thesis of Bossuet 99
And of Montesquieu 100
Analysis of the Second Discourse 102
Characteristic of Turgot's idea of Progress 106
Its limitation 108
Great merit of the Discourse, that it recognises ordered succession 110
Turgot appointed Intendant of the Limousin 111
Functions of an Intendant 112
Account of the Limousin 114
Turgot's passion for good government 118
He attempts to deal with the Taille 119
The road Corvee 121
Turgot's endeavours to enlighten opinion 126
Military service 129
" transport 131
The collection of taxes 132
Turgot's private benevolence 133
Introduces the potato 134
Founds an academy 135
Encourages manufacturing industry 136
Enlightened views on Usury 137
Has to deal with a scarcity 138
His plans 139
Instructive facts connected with this famine 142
Turgot's Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Wealth 149
Turgot made Controller-General 150
His reforms 151
Their reception 153
His unpopularity 156
Difficulties with the king 157
His dismissal 158
His pursuits in retirement 159
Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot was born in Paris on the 10th of May 1727. He died in 1781. His life covered rather more than half a century, extending, if we may put it a little roughly, over the middle fifty years of the eighteenth century. This middle period marks the exact date of the decisive and immediate preparation for the Revolution. At its beginning neither the intellectual nor the social elements of the great disruption had distinctly appeared, or commenced their fermentation. At its close their work was completed, and we may count the months thence until the overthrow of every institution in France. It was between 1727 and 1781 that the true revolution took place. The events from '89 were only finishing strokes, the final explosion of a fabric under which every yard had been mined, by the long endeavour for half a century of an army of destroyers deliberate and involuntary, direct and oblique, such as the world has never at any other time beheld.
In 1727 Voltaire was returning from his exile in England, to open the long campaign, of which he was from that time forth to the close of his days the brilliant and indomitable captain. He died in 1778, bright, resolute, humane, energetic, to the last. Thus Turgot's life was almost exactly contemporary with the pregnant era of Voltaire's activity. In the same spring in which Turgot died, Maurepas too came to his end, and Necker was dismissed. The last event was the signal at which the floods of the deluge fairly began to rise, and the revolutionary tide to swell.
It will be observed, moreover, that Turgot was born half a generation after the first race of the speculative revolutionists. Rousseau, Diderot, Helvetius, Condillac, D'Alembert, as well as the foreign Hume, so much the greatest of the whole band of innovators, because penetrating so much nearer to the depths, all came into the world which they were to confuse so unspeakably, in the half dozen years between 1711 and 1717. Turgot was of later stock and comes midway between these fathers of the new church, between Hume, Rousseau, Diderot, and the generation of its fiery practical apostles, Condorcet, Mirabeau, Robespierre. The only other illustrious European of this decade was Adam Smith, who was born in 1723, and between whose labours and some of the most remarkable of Turgot's there was so much community. We cannot tell how far the gulf between Turgot and the earlier band was fixed by the accident that he did not belong to their generation in point of time. The accident is in itself only worth calling attention to, in connection with his distance from them in other and more important points than time.
[Footnote 1: Born in 1743, 1749, and 1759 respectively.]
The years of Turgot exactly bridge the interval between the ministry of the infamous Dubois and the ministry of the inglorious Calonne; between the despair and confusion of the close of the regency, and the despair and confusion of the last ten years of the monarchy. In 1727 we stand on the threshold of that far-resounding fiery workshop, where a hundred hands wrought the cunning implements and Cyclopean engines that were to serve in storming the hated citadels of superstition and injustice. In 1781 we emerge from these subterranean realms into the open air, to find ourselves surrounded by all the sounds and portents of imminent ruin. This, then, is the significance of the date of Turgot's birth.
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His stock was Norman, and those who amuse themselves by finding a vital condition of the highest ability in antiquity of blood, may quote the descent of Turgot in support of their delusion. His biographers speak of one Togut, a Danish Prince, who walked the earth some thousand years before the Christian era; and of Saint Turgot in the eleventh century, the Prior of Durham, biographer of Bede, and first minister of Malcolm III. of Scotland. We shall do well not to linger in this too dark and frigid air. Let us pass over Togut and Saint Turgot; and the founder of a hospital in the thirteenth century; and the great-great-grandfather who sat as president of the Norman nobles in the States-General of 1614, and the grandfather who deserted arms for the toga. History is hardly concerned in this solemn marshalling of shades.
Even with Michel-Etienne, the father of Turgot, we have here no dealing. Let it suffice to say that he held high municipal office in Paris, and performed its duties with exceptional honour and spirit, giving sumptuous fetes, constructing useful public works, and on one occasion jeoparding his life with a fine intrepidity that did not fail in his son, in appeasing a bloody struggle between two bodies of Swiss and French guards. There is in the library of the British Museum a folio of 1740, containing elaborate plates and letterpress, descriptive of the fetes celebrated by the city of Paris with Michel-Etienne Turgot as its chief officer, on the occasion of the marriage of Louise-Elizabeth of France to Don Philip of Spain (August 1739). As one contemplates these courtly sumptuosities, La Bruyere's famous picture recurs to the mind, of far other scenes in the same gay land. 'We see certain wild animals, male and female, scattered over the fields, black, livid, all burnt by the sun, bound to the earth that they dig and work with unconquerable pertinacity; they have a sort of articulate voice, and when they rise on their feet, they show a human face; in fact they are men.' That these violent and humiliating contrasts are eternal and inevitable, is the last word of the dominant philosophy of society; and one of the reasons why Turgot's life is worth studying, is that he felt in so pre-eminent a degree the urgency of lightening the destiny of that livid, wild, hardly articulate, ever-toiling multitude.
The sum of the genealogical page is that Turgot inherited that position which, falling to worthy souls, is of its nature so invaluable, a family tradition of exalted courage and generous public spirit. There have been noble and patriotic men who lacked this inheritance, but we may be sure that even these would have fought the battle at greater advantage, if a magnanimous preference for the larger interests had come to them as a matter of instinctive prejudice, instead of being acquired as a matter of reason. The question of titular aristocracy is not touched by this consideration, for titular aristocracies postpone the larger interests to the narrow interests of their order. And Turgot's family was only of the secondary noblesse of the robe.
Turgot was the third son of his father. As the employments which persons of respectable family could enter were definite and stereotyped, there was little room for debate as to the calling for which a youth should prepare himself. Arms, civil administration, and the church, furnished the only three openings for a gentleman. The effects of this rigorous adherence to artificial and exclusive rules of caste were manifestly injurious to society, as such caste rules always are after a society has passed beyond a certain stage. To identify the interests of the richest and most powerful class with the interests of the church, of the army, and of a given system of civil government, was indeed to give to that class the strongest motives for leaving the existing social order undisturbed. It unfortunately went too far in this direction, by fostering the strongest possible motives of hostility to such modifications in these gigantic departments as changing circumstances might make needful, in the breasts of the only men who could produce these modifications without a violent organic revolution. Such a system left too little course to spontaneity, and its curse is the curse of French genius. Some of its evil effects were obvious and on the surface. The man who should have been a soldier found himself saying mass and hearing confessions. Vauvenargues, who was born for diplomacy or literature, passed the flower of his days in the organised dreariness of garrisons and marches. In our own day communities and men who lead them have still to learn that no waste is so profuse and immeasurable, even from the material point of view, as that of intellectual energy, checked, uncultivated, ignored, or left without its opportunity. In France, until a very short time before the Revolution, we can hardly point to a single recognised usage which did not augment this waste. The eldest son usually preserved the rank and status of the family, whether civil or military. Turgot's eldest brother was to devote himself to civil administration, the next to be a soldier, and Turgot himself to be an ecclesiastic.
The second of the brothers, who began by following arms, had as little taste for them as the future minister had for the church. It is rather remarkable that he seems to have had the same passion for administration, and he persuaded the government after the loss of Canada that Guiana, to be called Equinoctial France, would if well governed become some sort of equivalent for the northern possession. He was made Governor-general, but he had forgotten to take the climate into account, and the scheme came to an abortive end, involving him in a mass of confused quarrels which lasted some years. He had a marked love for botany, agriculture, and the like; was one of the founders of the Society of Agriculture in 1760; and was the author of various pieces on points of natural history.
[Footnote 2: Among others, of a little volume still to be met with in libraries, Sur la maniere de preparer les diverses curiosites d'histoire naturelle (1758).]
Turgot went as a boarder first to the college of Louis-le-Grand, then to that of Plessis; thence to the seminary of Saint Sulpice, where he took the degree of bachelor in theology; and from Saint Sulpice to the Sorbonne. His childhood and youth, like that of other men who have afterwards won love and admiration, have their stories. The affection of one biographer records how the pocket-money with which the young Turgot was furnished, used always instantly to disappear, no one knew how nor on what. It was discovered that he gave it to poor schoolfellows to enable them to buy books. Condorcet justly remarks on this trait, that 'goodness and even generosity are not rare sentiments in childhood; but for these sentiments to be guided by such wisdom, this really seems the presage of an extraordinary man, all whose sentiments should be virtues, because they would always be controlled by reason.' It is at any rate certain that the union of profound benevolence with judgment, which this story prefigures, was the supreme distinction of Turgot's character. It is less pleasant to learn that Turgot throughout his childhood was always repulsed by his mother, who deemed him sullen, because he failed to make his bow with good grace, and was shy and taciturn. He fled from her visitors, and would hide himself behind sofa or screen; until dragged forth for social inspection. This is only worth recording, because the same external awkwardness and lack of grace remained with Turgot to the end, and had something to do with the unpopularity that caused his fall. Perhaps he was thinking of his own childhood, when he wrote that fathers are often indifferent, or incessantly occupied with the details of business, and that he had seen the very parents who taught their children that there is nothing so noble as to make people happy, yet repulse the same children when urging some one's claim to charity or favour, and intimidate their young sensibility, instead of encouraging and training it.
[Footnote 3: Vie de Turgot, p. 8 (ed. 1847).]
[Footnote 4: Memoires de Morellet, i. 12 (ed. 1822).]
[Footnote 5: Lettre a Madame de Graffigny. OEuv. ii. 793.]
Morellet, one of the best known of the little group of friends and brother students at the Sorbonne, has recorded other authentic traits. Turgot, he says, united the simplicity of a child to a peculiar dignity that forced the respect of his comrades. His modesty and reserve were those of a girl, and those equivocal references in which the undisciplined animalism of youth often has a stealthy satisfaction, always called the blood to his cheeks and covered him with embarrassment. For all that, his spirit was full of a frank gaiety, and he would indulge in long bursts of laughter at a pleasantry or frolic that struck him. We may be glad to know this, because without express testimony to the contrary, there would have been some reason for suspecting that Turgot was defective in that most wholesome and human quality of a capacity for laughter.
The sensitive purity which Morellet notices, not without slight lifting of the eyebrow, remained with Turgot throughout his life. This was the more remarkable from the prevailing laxity of opinion upon this particular subject, perhaps the worst blemish upon the feeling and intelligence of the revolutionary schools. For it was not merely libertines, like Marmontel, making a plea for their own dissoluteness, who habitually spoke of these things with inconsiderate levity. Grave men of blameless life, like Condorcet, deliberately argued in favour of leaving a loose rein to the mutual inclinations of men and women, and laughed at the time 'wasted in quenching the darts of the flesh.' It is true that at D'Holbach's house, the headquarters of the dogmatic atheism in which the irreligious reaction culminated, this was the only theme on which freedom of speech was sometimes curtailed. But the fact that such a restriction should have been noticed, suggests that it was exceptional. One good effect followed, let us admit. The virtuousness of continence was not treated as a superstition by those who vindicated it as Turgot did, but discussed like any other virtue; and was defended not as an intuition of faith, but as a reasoned conclusion of the judgment. It was permitted to occupy no solitary and mysterious throne, apart and away from other conditions and parts of human excellence and social wellbeing. There is intrinsically no harm in any virtue being accepted in the firm shape of a simple prejudice. On the contrary, there is a multitude of practical advantages in such a consolidated and spontaneously working order. But in considering conduct and character, and forming an opinion upon infractions of a virtue, we cannot be just unless we have analysed its conditions, and this is what the eighteenth century did defectively with regard to that particular virtue which so often usurps the name of all of the virtues together. In this respect Turgot's original purity of character withdrew him from the error of the time.
[Footnote 6: Letter to Turgot, OEuv. de Condorcet, i. 228. See also vi. 264, and 523-526.]
[Footnote 7: Morellet, i. 133.]
With the moral quality that we have seen, Morellet adds that for the intellectual side Turgot as a boy had a prodigious memory. He could retain as many as a hundred and eighty lines of verse, after hearing them twice, or sometimes even once. He knew by heart most of Voltaire's fugitive pieces, and long passages in his poems and tragedies. His predominant characteristics are described as penetration, and that other valuable faculty to which penetration is an indispensable adjunct, but which it by no means invariably implies—a spirit of broad and systematic co-ordination. The unusual precocity of his intelligence was perhaps imperfectly appreciated by his fellow-students, it led him so far beyond any point within their sight. It has been justly said of him that he passed at once from infancy to manhood, and was in the rank of sages before he had shaken off the dust of the playground. He was of the type of those who strangle serpents while yet in the cradle. We know the temperament which from the earliest hour consumes with eager desire for knowledge, and energises spontaneously with unceasing and joyful activity in that bright and pure morning of intellectual curiosity, which neither the dull tumultuous needs of life nor the mists of spiritual misgiving have yet come up to make dim. Of this temperament was Turgot in a superlative degree, and its fire never abated in him from college days, down to the last hours while he lay racked with irremediable anguish.
To a certain extent this was the glorious mark of all the best minds of the epoch; from Voltaire downwards, they were inflamed by an inextinguishable and universal curiosity. Voltaire hardly left a single corner of the field entirely unexplored in science, poetry, history, philosophy. Rousseau wrote a comic opera and was an ardent botanist. Diderot wrote, and wrote well and intelligently, de omni scibili, and was the author alike of the Letters on the Blind and Jacques le Fataliste. No era was ever so little the era of the specialist.
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The society of the Sorbonne corresponded exactly to a college at one of our universities, and will be distinguished by the careful reader from the faculty of theology in the university, which was usually, but not always, composed of docteurs de Sorbonne. It consisted of a large number of learned men in the position of fellows, and a smaller number of younger students, who lived together just as undergraduates do, in separate apartments, but with common hall, library, and garden. One of Turgot's masters, Sigorgne, was the first to teach in the university the Newtonian principles of astronomy, instead of the Cartesian hypothesis of vortices. As is well known, Cartesianism had for various reasons taken a far deeper root in France than it ever did here, and held its place a good generation after Newtonian ideas were accepted and taught at Oxford and Cambridge. Voltaire's translation of the Principia, which he was prevented by the Cartesian chancellor, D'Aguesseau, from publishing until 1738, overthrew the reigning system, and gave a strong impulse to scientific inquiry.
[Footnote 8: Whewell's Hist. Induct. Sciences, ii. 147-159.]
Turgot mastered the new doctrine with avidity. In the acute letter of criticism which, while still at the Sorbonne, he addressed to Buffon, he pointedly urged it as the first objection to that writer's theory of the formation and movements of the planets, that any attempt at fundamental explanations of this kind was a departure from 'the simplicity and safe reserve of the philosophy of Newton.' He only, however, made a certain advance in mathematics. He appears to have had no peculiar or natural aptitude for this study; though he is said to have constantly blamed himself for not having gone more deeply into it. It is hardly to be denied that mathematical genius and philosophic genius do not always go together. The precision, definiteness, and accurate limitations of the method of the one, are usually unfriendly to the brooding, tentative, uncircumscribed meditation which is the productive humour in the other. Turgot was essentially of the philosophising temper. Though the activity of his intelligence was incessant, his manner of work was the reverse of quick. 'When he applied to work,' says Morellet, 'when it was a question of writing or doing, he was slow and loitering. Slow, because he insisted on finishing all he did perfectly, according to his own conception of perfection, which was most difficult of attainment, even down to the minutest detail; and because he would not receive assistance, being never contented with what he had not done himself. He also loitered a great deal, losing time in arranging his desk and cutting his pens, not that he was not thinking profoundly through all this trifling; but mere thinking did not advance his work.' We may admit, perhaps, that the work was all the better for the thinking that preceded it, and that the time which Turgot seemed to waste in cutting his pens and setting his table in order was more fruitfully spent than the busiest hours of most men.
[Footnote 9: OEuv. de Turgot, ii. 783. (Edition of Messrs. Eugene Daire and H. Dussard, published in the Collection des Principaux Economistes, published by Guillaumin, 1844.)]
[Footnote 10: Memoires, i. 16.]
We know the books which Turgot and his friends devoured with ardour. Locke, Bayle, Voltaire, Buffon, relieved Clarke, Leibnitz, Spinosa, Cudworth; and constant discussions among themselves both cleared up and enlarged what they read. One of the disputants, certainly not the least amiable, has painted his own part in these discussions: 'I was violent in discussion,' says the good Morellet, as he was pleasantly called, 'but without my antagonist being able to reproach me with a single insult; and sometimes I used to spit blood, after a debate in which I had not allowed a single personality to escape me.'
[Footnote 11: Ib. i. 20.]
[Footnote 12: Ib. i. 19.]
Another member of the circle was Lomenie de Brienne, who, in long years after, was chief minister of France for a narrow space through the momentous winter of 1787 and the spring of the next year, filling the gap between Calonne and Necker in a desperate and fatal manner. Lomenie's ambition dated from his youth; and it was always personal and mean. While Turgot, his friend, was earnestly meditating on the destinies of the race and the conditions of their development, Lomenie was dreaming only of the restoration of his ancestral chateau of Brienne. Though quite without means, he planned this in his visions on a scale of extreme costliness and magnificence. The dreams fell true. Money came to the family, and the chateau was built exactly as he had projected it, at a cost of two million francs. His career was splendid. He was clever, industrious, and persevering after his fashion, astute, lively, pretentious, a person ever by well-planned hints leading you to suppose his unrevealed profundity to be bottomless; in a word, in all respects an impostor. He espoused that richly dowered bride the Church, rose to be Archbishop of Toulouse, and would have risen to be Archbishop of Paris, but for the King's over-scrupulous conviction that 'an Archbishop of Paris must at least believe in God.' He became an immense favourite with Marie Antoinette and the court, was made Minister 'like Richelieu and Mazarin,' and after having postured and played tricks in face of the bursting deluge, and given the government the final impulse into the abyss of bankruptcy, was dismissed with the rich archbishopric of Sens and a cardinal's hat for himself, and good sinecures for his kinsfolk. His last official act was to send for the 20,000 livres for his month's salary, not fully due. His brother, the Count of Brienne, remained in office as Minister of War. He was a person of no talent, his friends allowed, but 'assisted by a good chief clerk, he would have made a good minister; he meant well.' This was hardly a sufficient reason for letting him take 100,000 francs out of an impoverished treasury for the furniture of his residence. The hour, however, was just striking, and the knife was sharpened.
[Footnote 13: Morellet's Memoires, i. 17-21; 262-270; and ii. 15.]
[Footnote 14: Marmontel's Memoires, bk. xiii.; Morellet, however, with persevering friendliness, denies the truth of Marmontel's picture (ii. 465).]
All his paltry honour and glory Lomenie de Brienne enjoyed for a season, until the Jacobins laid violent hands upon him. He poisoned himself in his own palace, just as a worse thing was about to befall him. Alas, poetic justice is the exception in history, and only once in many generations does the drama of the state criminal rise to an artistic fifth act. This was in 1794. In 1750 a farewell dinner had been given in the rooms of the Abbe de Brienne at the Sorbonne, and the friends made an appointment for a game of tennis behind the church of the Sorbonne in the year 1800. The year came, but no Lomenie, nor Turgot, and the Sorbonne itself had vanished.
[Footnote 15: Morellet, i. 21.]
When the time arrived for his final acceptance of an ecclesiastical destination, Turgot felt that honourable repugnance, which might have been anticipated alike from his morality and his intelligence, to enter into an engagement which would irrevocably bind him for the rest of his life, either always to hold exactly the same opinions, or else to continue to preach them publicly after he had ceased to hold them privately. No certainty of worldly comfort and advantage could in his eyes counterbalance the possible danger and shame of a position, which might place him between the two alternatives of stifling his intelligence and outraging his conscience—the one by blind, unscrutinising, and immovable acceptance of all the dogmas and sentiments of the Church; the other by the inculcation as truths of what he believed to be false, and the proscription as falsehoods of what he believed to be true. The horror and disgrace of such a situation were too striking for one who used his mind and acted on principle, to run any risk of that situation becoming his own. An ambitious timeserver like Lomenie, or a contented adherent of use and wont like Morellet, might well regard such considerations as the products of a weak and eccentric scrupulosity. Turgot was of other calibre, holding it to be only a degree less unprincipled than the avowed selfishness of the adventurer, to contract so serious an engagement on the strength of common hearsay and current usage, without deliberate personal reflection and inquiry.
At the close of his course at the Sorbonne, he wrote a letter to his father giving the reasons for this resolution to abandon all idea of an ecclesiastical career and the advancement which it offered him, and seeking his consent for the change from Church to law. His father approved of the resolution, and gave the required consent. As Turgot had studied law as well as theology, no time was lost, and he formally entered the profession of the law as Deputy-Counsellor of the Procureur-General at the beginning of 1752.
His college friends had remonstrated warmly at this surrender of a brilliant prospect. A little deputation of young abbes, fresh from their vows, waited on him at his rooms; in that humour of blithe and sagacious good-will which comes so naturally to men who believe they have just found out Fortune's trick and yoked her fast for ever to the car, they declared that he was about to do something opposed to his own interest and inconsistent with his usual good sense. He was a younger son of a Norman house, and therefore poor; the law without a competency involved no consideration, and he could hope for no advancement in it: whereas in the Church his family, being possessed of influence and credit, would have no difficulty in procuring for him excellent abbeys and in good time a rich bishopric; here he could realise all his fine dreams of administration, and without ceasing to be a churchman could play the statesman to his heart's content. In one profession he would waste his genius in arguing trifling private affairs, while in the other he would be of the highest usefulness to his country, and would acquire the greatest reputation. Turgot, however, insisted on placing genius and reputation below the necessity of being honest. The object of an oath might be of the least important kind, but he could neither allow himself to play with it, nor believe that a man could abase his profession in public opinion, without at the same time abasing himself. 'You shall do as you will,' he said; 'for my own part, it is impossible for me to wear a mask all my life.'
[Footnote 16: Dupont de Nemours. Condorcet's Vie de Turgot, pp. 8-10.]
His clear intelligence revolted from the dominant sophisms of that time, by which philosophers as well as ecclesiastics brought falsehood and hypocrisy within the four corners of a decent doctrine of truth and morality. The churchman manfully argued that he could be most useful to the world if he were well off and highly placed. The philosopher contended that as the world would punish him if he avowed what he had written or what he believed, he was fully warranted in lying to the world as to his writing and belief; for is not the right to have the truth told to you, a thing forfeitable by tyranny and oppression? Truth is not mocked, and these sophisms bore their fruit in due season. Perhaps if there had been found on either side in France a hundred righteous men like Turgot, who would not fight in masks, the end might have been other than it was. The lesson remains for those who dream that by reducing pretence to a nicely graduated system, and by leaving an exactly measured margin between what they really believe and what they feign to believe, they are serving the great cause of order. French history informs us what becomes of social order so served. After all, no man can be sure that it is required of him to save society; every man can be sure that he is called upon to keep himself clean from mendacity and equivoke. Such was Turgot's view.
[Footnote 17: 'La necessite de mentir pour desavouer un ouvrage est une extremite qui repugne egalement a la conscience et a la noblesse du caractere; mais le crime est pour les hommes injustes qui rendent ce desaveu necessaire a la surete de celui qu'ils y forcent. Si vous avez erige en crime ce qui n'en est pas un, si vous avez porte atteinte, par des lois absurdes ou par des lois arbitraires, au droit naturel qu'ont tous les hommes, non seulement d'avoir une opinion, mais de la rendre publique, alors vous meritez de perdre celui qu'a chaque homme d'entendre la verite de la bouche d'un autre, droit qui fonde seule l'obligation rigoureuse de ne pas mentir.'—Condorcet, Vie de Voltaire (OEuv. iv. 33, 34).]
We have said that Turgot disdained to fight under a mask. There was one exception, and only one. In 1754 there appeared two letters, nominally from an ecclesiastic to a magistrate, and entitled Le Conciliateur. Here it is enough to say that they were intended to enforce the propriety and duty of religious toleration. In a letter to a friend we find Turgot saying, 'Although the Conciliator is of my principles, and those of our friend, I am astonished at your conjectures; it is neither his style nor mine.' Yet Turgot had written it. This is his one public literary equivocation. Let us, at all events, allow that it was resorted to, not to break the law with safety, nor to cloak a malicious attack on a person, but to give additional weight by means of a harmless prosopopoeia, to an argument for the noblest of principles.
[Footnote 18: OEuv. ii. 685. Morellet says that it was written by Lomenie de Brienne, 19.]
[Footnote 19: See the note of Dupont de Nemours, ad loc.]
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Before Turgot entered the great world, he had already achieved an amount of success in philosophic speculation, which placed him in the front rank of social thinkers. To that passion for study and the acquisition of knowledge which is not uncommon in youth, as it is one of the most attractive of youth's qualities, there was added in him what is unhappily not common in men and women of any age—an active impulse to use his own intelligence upon the information which he gained from books and professors. He was no conceited or froward caviller at authority, nor born rebel against established teachers and governors. His understanding seriously craved a full and independent satisfaction, and could draw this only from laborious meditation, which should either disclose the inadequacy of the grounds for an opinion, or else establish it, with what would be to him a new and higher because an independently acquired, conclusiveness.
His letter to Buffon, to which we have already referred, is an illustration of this wise, and never captious nor ungracious, caution in receiving ideas. Neither Buffon's reputation, nor the glow of his style, nor the dazzling ingenuity and grandeur of his conceptions—all of them so well calculated, at one-and-twenty, to throw even a vigilant intelligence off its guard—could divert Turgot from the prime scientific duty of confronting a theory with facts. Buffon was for explaining the formation of the earth and the other planets, and their lateral movement, by the hypothesis that a comet had fallen obliquely on to the sun, driven off certain portions of its constituent matter in a state of fusion, and that these masses, made spherical by the mutual attraction of their parts, were carried to different distances in proportion to their mass and the force originally impressed on them. Buffon may have been actuated, both here and in his other famous hypothesis of reproduction, by a desire, less to propound a true and durable explanation, than to arrest by a bold and comprehensive generalisation that attention, which is only imperfectly touched by mere collections of particular facts. The enormous impulse which even the most unscientific of the speculations of Descartes had given to European thought, was a standing temptation to philosophers, not to discard nor relax patient observation, but to bind together the results which they arrived at by this process, by means of some hardy hypothesis. It might be true or not, but it was at any rate sure to strike the imagination, which ever craves wholes; and to stimulate discussion and further discovery, by sending assailants and defenders alike in search of new facts, to confirm or overthrow the position.
[Footnote 20: See Condorcet's eloge on Buffon (OEuv. iii. 335); and a passage from Bourdon, quoted in Whewell's Hist. Induct. Sci. iii. 348.]
Turgot was less sensible of these possible advantages, than he was alive to the certain dangers of such a method. He perceived that to hold a theory otherwise than as an inference from facts, is to have a strong motive for looking at the facts in a predetermined light, or for ignoring them; an involuntary predisposition most fatal to the discovery of truth, which is nothing more than the conformity of our conception of facts to their adequately observed order. Why, he asks, do you replunge us into the night of hypotheses, justifying the Cartesians and their three elements and their vortices? And whence comes your comet? Was it within the sphere of the sun's attraction? If not, how could it fall from the sphere of the other bodies, and fall on the sun, which was not acting on it? If it was, it must have fallen perpendicularly, not obliquely; and, therefore, if it imparted a lateral movement, this direction must have been impressed on it. And, if so, why should not God have impressed this movement upon the planets directly, as easily as upon the comet to communicate it to them? Finally, how could the planets have left the body of the sun without falling back into it again? What curve did they describe in leaving it, so as never to return? Can you suppose that gravitation could cause the same body to describe a spiral and an ellipse? In the same exact spirit, Turgot brings known facts to bear on Buffon's theory of the arrangement of the terrestrial and marine divisions of the earth's surface. The whole criticism he sent to Buffon anonymously, to assure him that the writer had no other motive than the interest he took in the discovery of truth and the perfection of a great work.
[Footnote 21: October, 1748. OEuv. ii. 782-784.]
Turgot's is probably the only case where the biographer has, in emerging from the days of school and college, at once to proceed to expound and criticise the intellectual productions of his hero, and straightway to present fruit and flower of a time that usually does no more than prepare the unseen roots. There is, perhaps, a wider and more stimulating attraction of a dramatic kind in the study of characters which present a history of active and continuous growth; which, while absolutely free from flimsy caprice and disordered eccentricity, are ever surprising our attention by an unsuspected word of calm judgment or fertile energy, a fresh interest or an added sympathy, by the disappearance of some crudity or the assimilation of some new and richer quality. Of such gradual rise into full maturity we have here nothing to record. As a student Turgot had already formed the list of a number of works which he designed to execute; poems, tragedies, philosophic romances, vast treatises on physics, history, geography, politics, morals, metaphysics, and language. Of some he had drawn out the plan, and even these plans and fragments possess a novelty and depth of view that belong even to the integrity of few works.
[Footnote 22: Condorcet's Vie de Turgot, 14.]
Before passing on to the more scientific speculations of this remarkable intelligence, it is worth while to notice his letter to Madame de Graffigny, both for the intrinsic merit and scope of the ideas it contains and for the proof it furnishes of the interest, at once early and profound, which he took in moral questions lying at the very bottom, as well of sound character, as of a healthy society. Turgot's early passion for literature had made him seize an occasion of being introduced to even so moderately renowned a professor of it as Madame de Graffigny. He happened to be intimate with her niece, who afterwards became the lively and witty wife of Helvetius, somewhat to the surprise of Turgot's friends. For although he persuaded Mademoiselle de Ligniville to present him to her aunt, and though he assiduously attended Madame de Graffigny's literary gatherings, Turgot would constantly quit the circle of men of letters for the sake of a game of battledore with the comely and attractive niece. Hence the astonishment of men that from such familiarity there grew no stronger passion, and that whatever the causes of such reserve, the only issue was a tender and lasting friendship.
[Footnote 23: Morellet, i. 140.]
Madame de Graffigny had begged Turgot's opinion upon the manuscript of a work composed, as so many others were, after the pattern of Montesquieu's Lettres Persanes,—now nearly thirty years old,—and bearing the accurately imitative title of Lettres Peruviennes. A Peruvian comes to Europe, and sends to a friend or mistress in Peru a series of remarks on civilisation. Goldsmith's delightful Citizen of the World is the best known type in our own literature of this primitive form of social criticism. The effect upon common opinion of criticism cast in such a mould, presenting familiar habits, institutions, and observances, in a striking and unusual light, was to give a kind of Socratic stimulus to people's ideas about education, civilisation, conduct, and the other topics springing from a comparison between the manners of one community and another. That one of the two, whether Peru, or China, or Persia, was a community drawn mainly from the imagination, did not render the contrast any the less effective in stirring men's minds.
By the middle of the century the air was full of ideas upon these social subjects. The temptation was irresistible to turn from the confusion of squalor, oppression, license, distorted organisation, penetrative disorder, to ideal states comprising a little range of simple circumstances, and a small number of types of virtuous and unsophisticated character. Much came of the relief thus sought and found. It was the beginning of the subversive process, for it taught men to look away from ideas of practical amelioration. The genius of Rousseau gave these dreams the shape which, in many respects, so unfortunately for France, finally attracted the bulk of the national sentiment and sympathy. But the vivid, humane, and inspiring pages of Emile were not published until ten years after Turgot's letter to Madame de Graffigny: a circumstance which may teach us that in moral as in physical discoveries, though one man may take the final step and reap the fame, the conditions have been prepared beforehand. It is almost discouraging to think that we may reproduce such passages as the following, without being open to the charge of slaying the slain, though one hundred and twenty years have elapsed since it was written.
[Footnote 24: Written in 1751. OEuv. ii. 785-794.]
'Let Zilia show that our too arbitrary institutions have too often made us forget nature; that we have been the dupes of our own handiwork, and that the savage who does not know how to consult nature knows how to follow her. Let her criticise our pedantry, for it is this that constitutes our education of the present day. Look at the Rudiments; they begin by insisting on stuffing into the heads of children a crowd of the most abstract ideas. Those whom nature in her variety summons to her by all her objects, we fasten up in a single spot, we occupy them on words which cannot convey any sense to them, because the sense of words can only come with ideas, and ideas only come by degrees, starting from sensible objects. But, besides, we insist on their acquiring them without the help that we have had, we whom age and experience have formed. We keep their imagination prisoner, we deprive them of the sight of objects by which nature gives to the savage his first notions of all things, of all the sciences even. We have not the coup-d'oeil of nature.
[Footnote 25: 'On sera surpris que je compte l'etude des langues au nombre des inutilites de l'education,' etc.—Emile, bk. ii.]
'It is the same with morality; general ideas again spoil all. People take great trouble to tell a child that he must be just, temperate, and virtuous; and has it the least idea of virtue? Do not say to your son, Be virtuous, but make him find pleasure in being so; develop within his heart the germ of sentiments that nature has placed there. There is often much more need for bulwarks against education, than against nature. Give him opportunities of being truthful, liberal, compassionate; rely on the human heart; leave these precious seeds to bloom in the air which surrounds them; do not stifle them under a quantity of frames and network. I am not one of those who want to reject general and abstract ideas; they are necessary; but I by no means think them in their place in our method of instruction. I would have them come to children as they come to men, by degrees.
[Footnote 26: See Locke, Of Education, Sec.Sec. 81, 184, etc.]
'Another article of our education, which strikes me as bad and ridiculous, is our severity towards these poor children. They do something silly; we take them up as if it were extremely important. There is a multitude of these follies, of which they will cure themselves by age alone. But people do not count on that; they insist that the son should be well bred, and they overwhelm him with little rules of civility, often frivolous, which can only harass him, as he does not know the reason for them. I think it would be enough to hinder him from being troublesome to the persons that he sees. The rest will come, little by little. Inspire him with the desire of pleasing; he will soon know more of the art than all the masters could teach him. People wish again that a child should be grave; they think it wise for it not to run, and fear every moment that it will fall. What happens? You weary and enfeeble it. We have especially forgotten that it is a part of education to form the body.'
[Footnote 27: 'La seule lecon de morale qui convienne a l'enfance, et la plus importante a tout age, est de ne jamais faire de mal a personne,' etc. Emile, bk. ii. 'Never trouble yourself about these faults in them, which you know age will cure. And therefore want of well-fashioned civility in the carriage ... should be the parents' least care while they are young. If his tender mind be filled with a veneration for his parents and teachers, which consists in love and esteem and a fear to offend them; and with respect and good-will to all people; that respect will of itself teach these ways of expressing it, which he observes most acceptable,' etc.—Locke, Of Education, Sec.Sec. 63, 67, etc.]
[Footnote 28: 'Vous donnez la science, a la bonne heure; moi je m'occupe de l'instrument propre a l'acquerir,' etc.—Emile.]
The reader who remembers Locke's Thoughts concerning Education (published in 1690), and the particularly homely prescriptions upon the subjects of the infant body with which that treatise opens, will recognise the source of Turgot's inspiration. The same may be said of the other wise passages in this letter, upon the right attitude of a father towards his child. It was not merely the metaphysics of the sage and positive Locke which laid the revolutionary train in France. This influence extended over the whole field, and even Rousseau confesses the obligations of the imaginary governor of Emile to the real Locke.
We are again plainly in the Lockian atmosphere, when Turgot speaks of men being the dupes of 'general ideas, which are true because drawn from nature, but which people embrace with a narrow stiffness that makes them false, because they no longer combine them with circumstances, taking for absolute what is only the expression of a relation.' The merit of this and the other educational parts of the piece, is not their originality, but that kind of complete and finished assimilation which is all but tantamount to independent thought, and which in certain conditions may be much more practically useful.
Not less important to the happiness of men than the manner of their education, is their own cultivation of a wise spirit of tolerance in conduct. 'I should like to see explained,' Turgot says, 'the causes of alienation and disgust between people who love one another. I believe that after living awhile with men, we perceive that bickerings, ill-humours, teasings on trifles, perhaps cause more troubles and divisions among them than serious things. How many bitternesses have their origin in a word, in forgetfulness of some slight observances. If people would only weigh in an exact balance so many little wrongs, if they would only put themselves in the place of those who have to complain of them, if they would only reflect how many times they have themselves given way to humours, how many things they have forgotten! A single word spoken in disparagement of our intelligence is enough to make us irreconcilable, and yet how often have we been deceived in the very same matter. How many persons of understanding have we taken for fools? Why should not others have the same privilege as ourselves?... Ah, what address is needed to live together, to be compliant without cringing, to expose a fault without harshness, to correct without imperious air, to remonstrate without ill-temper!' All this is wise and good, but, alas, as Turgot had occasion by and by to say, little comes of giving rules instead of breeding habits.
It is curious that Turgot as early in his career as this should have protested against one of the most dangerous doctrines of the philosophe school. 'I have long thought,' he says, 'that our nation needs to have marriage and true marriage preached to it. We contract marriages ignobly, from views of ambition or interest; and as many of them are unhappy in consequence, we may see growing up from day to day a fashion of thinking that is extremely mischievous to the community, to manners, to the stability of families, and to domestic happiness and virtue.' Looseness of opinion as to the family and the conditions of its wellbeing and stability, was a flaw that ran through the whole period of revolutionary thought. It was not surprising that the family should come in for its share of destructive criticism, along with the other elements of the established system, but it is a proof of the solidity of Turgot's understanding that he should from the first have detected the mischievousness of this side of the great social attack. Nor did subsequent discussion with the champions of domestic license have any effect upon his opinion.
[Footnote 29: ii. 790.]
He makes the protest which the moralist makes, and has to make in every age, against the practice of determining the expediency of a marriage by considerations of money or rank. There is a great abuse, he says, in the manner in which marriages are made without the two persons most concerned having any knowledge of one another, and solely under the authority of the parents, who are guided either by fortune, or else by station, that will one day translate itself into fortune. 'I know,' he says, 'that even marriages of inclination do not always succeed. So from the fact that sometimes people make mistakes in their choice, it is concluded that we ought never to choose.' Condorcet, we may remember, many years after, insisted on the banishment by public opinion of avaricious and mercenary considerations from marriage, as one of the most important means of diminishing the great inequalities in the accumulation of wealth.
[Footnote 30: OEuv. de Condorcet, vi. 245.]
In the same letter he took sides by anticipation in another cardinal controversy of the epoch, by declaring a preference for the savage over the civilised state to be a 'ridiculous declamation.' This strange and fatal debate had been opened by Rousseau's memorable first Discourse, which was given to the world in 1750. Preference for the savage state was the peculiar form assumed by emotional protests against the existing system of the distribution of wealth. Turgot from first to last resisted the whole spirit of such protests. In this letter, where he makes his first approach to the subject, he insists on inequality of conditions, as alike necessary and useful. It is necessary 'because men are not born equal; because their strength, their intelligence, their passions, would be perpetually overthrowing that momentous equilibrium among them, which the laws might have established.'
'What would society be without this inequality of conditions? Each individual would be reduced to mere necessaries, or rather there would be very many to whom mere necessaries would be by no means assured. Men cannot labour without implements and without the means of subsistence, until the gathering in of the produce. Those who have not had intelligence enough, or any opportunity to acquire these things, have no right to take them away from one who has earned and deserved them by his labour. If the idle and ignorant were to despoil the industrious and the skilful, all works would be discouraged, and misery would become universal. It is alike more just and more useful that all those who have fallen behind either in wit or in good fortune, should lend their right arms to those who know how best to employ them, who can pay them a wage in advance, and guarantee them a share in the future profits.... There is no injustice in this, that a man who has discovered a productive kind of work, and who has supplied his assistants with sustenance and the necessary implements, who for this has only made free contracts with them, should keep back the larger part, and that as payment for his advances he should have less toil and more leisure. It is this leisure which gives him a better chance of revolving schemes, and still further increasing his lights; and what he can economise from his share of the produce, which is with entire equity a larger share, augments his capital, and adds to his power of entering into new undertakings....
'What would become of society, if things were not so, and if each person tilled his own little plot? He would also have to build his own house, and make his own clothes. What would the people live upon, who dwell in lands that produce no wheat? Who would transport the productions of one country to another country? The humblest peasant enjoys a multitude of commodities often got together from remote climes.... This distribution of professions necessarily leads to inequality of conditions.'
So early was the rational answer ready for those socialistic sophisms which for so many years misled the most generous part of French intelligence. We may regret perhaps that in demolishing the vision of perfect social equality, Turgot did not show a more lively sense of the need for lessening and softening unavoidable inequalities of condition. However capable these inequalities may be of scientific defence, they are none the less on that account in need of incessant and strenuous practical modification; and it is one of the most serious misfortunes of society, and is unhappily long likely to remain so, that since the absorbing question of the reformation of the economic conditions of the social union has come more and more prominently to the front, gradually but irresistibly thrusting behind both its religious and its political conditions, zeal for the amelioration of the common lot has in so few auspicious instances been according to knowledge; while the professors of science have been more careful to compose narrow apologies for individual selfishness, than to extend as widely as possible the limits set by demonstrable principle to the improvement of the common life.
We may notice too in this Letter, what so many of Turgot's allies and friends were disposed to complain of, but what will commend him to a less newly emancipated and therefore a less fanatical generation. There is a conspicuous absence of that peculiar boundlessness of hope, that zealous impatience for the instant realisation and fruition of all the inspirations of philosophic intelligence, which carried others immediately around him so excessively far in the creed of Perfectibility. 'Liberty! I answer with a sigh, maybe that men are not worthy of thee! Equality! They would yearn after thee, but cannot attain!' Compared with the confident exultation and illimitable sense of the worth of man which distinguished that time, there is something like depression here, as in many other places in Turgot's writings. It is usually less articulate, and is rather conveyed by a running undertone, which so often reveals more of a writer's true mood and temper than is seen in his words, giving to them, by some unconscious and inscrutable process, living effects upon the reader's sense like those of eye and voice and accompanying gesture.
Dejection, however, is perhaps not the most proper word for the humour of reserved and grave suspense, natural in those rare spirits who have recognised how narrow is the way of truth and how few there be that enter therein, and what prolonged concurrence of favouring hazards with gigantic endeavour is needed for each smallest step in the halting advancement of the race. With Turgot this was not the result of mere sentimental brooding. It had a deliberate and reasoned foundation in historical study. He was patient and not hastily sanguine as to the speedy coming of the millennial future, exactly because history had taught him to measure the laggard paces of the past. The secret of the intense hopefulness of that time lay in the mournfully erroneous conviction that the one condition of progress is plenteous increase of light. Turgot saw very early that this is not so. 'It is not error,' he wrote, in a saying that every champion of a new idea should have ever in letters of flame before his eyes, 'which opposes the progress of truth: it is indolence, obstinacy, the spirit of routine, everything that favours inaction.'
[Footnote 31: OEuv. ii. 672.]
The others left these potent elements of obstruction out of calculation and account. With Turgot they were the main facts to be considered, and the main forces to be counteracted. It is the mark of the highest kind of union between sagacious, firm, and clear-sighted intelligence, and a warm and steadfast glow of social feeling, when a man has learnt how little the effort of the individual can do either to hasten or direct the current of human destiny, and yet finds in effort his purest pleasure and his most constant duty. If we owe honour to that social endeavour which is stimulated and sustained by an enthusiastic confidence in speedy and full fruition, we surely owe it still more to those, who knowing how remote and precarious and long beyond their own days is the hour of fruit, yet need no other spur nor sustenance than bare hope, and in this strive and endeavour and still endeavour. Here lies the true strength, and it was the possession of this strength and the constant call and strain upon it, which gave Turgot in mien and speech a gravity that revolted the frivolous or indifferent, and seemed cold and timorous to the enthusiastic and urgent. Turgot had discovered that there was a law in the history of men, and he knew how this law limited and conditioned progress.
In 1750 Turgot, then only in his twenty-fourth year, was appointed to the honorary office of Prior of the Sorbonne, an elective distinction conferred annually, as it appears, on some meritorious or highly connected student. It was held in the following year by Lomenie de Brienne. In this capacity Turgot read two Latin dissertations, one at the opening of the session, and the other at its close. The first of these was upon 'The Advantages that the Establishment of Christianity has conferred upon the Human Race.'
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Its value, as might well have been expected from the circumstances of its production, is not very high. It is pitched in a tone of exaltation that is eminently unfavourable to the permanently profitable treatment of such a subject. There are in it too many of those eloquent and familiar commonplaces of orthodox history, by which the doubter tries to warm himself into belief, and the believer dreams that he is corroborating faith by reason. The assembly for whom his discourse was prepared, could hardly have endured the apparition in the midst of them of what both rigorous justice and accurate history required to have taken into account on the other side. It was not to be expected that a young student within the precincts of the Sorbonne should have any eyes for the evil with which the forms of the Christian religion, like other growths of the human mind, from the lowest forms of savage animism upwards, have ever alloyed its good. The absence of all reference to one half of what the annals of the various Christian churches have to teach us, robs the first of Turgot's discourses of that serious and durable quality which belongs to all his other writings.
It is fair to point out that the same vicious exclusiveness was practised by the enemies of the Church, and that if history was to one of the two contending factions an exaggerated enumeration of the blessings of Christianity, it was to their passionate rivals only a monotonous catalogue of curses. Of this temper we have a curious illustration in the circumstance that Dupont, Turgot's intimate friend of later years, who collected and published his works, actually took the trouble to suppress the opening of this very Discourse, in which Turgot had replied to the reproach often made against Christianity, of being useful only for a future life.
[Footnote 32: OEuv. ii. 586, n.]
In the first Discourse, Turgot considers the influence of Christianity first upon human nature, and secondly on political societies. One feature at least deserves remark, and this is that in spite both of a settled partiality, and a certain amount of the common form of theology, yet at bottom and putting some phrases apart, religion is handled, and its workings traced, much as they would have been if treated as admittedly secular forces. And this was somewhat. Let us proceed to analyse what Turgot says.
1. Before the preaching and acceptance of the new faith, all nations alike were plunged into the most extravagant superstitions. The most frightful dissoluteness of manners was encouraged by the example of the gods themselves. Every passion and nearly every vice was the object of a monstrous deification. A handful of philosophers existed, who had learnt no better lesson from their reason, than to despise the multitude of their fellows. In the midst of the universal contagion, the Jews alone remained pure. Even the Jews were affected with a narrow and sterile pride, which proved how little they appreciated the priceless treasure that was entrusted to their keeping. What were the effects of the appearance of Christ, and the revelation of the gospel? It inspired men with a tender zeal for the truth, and by establishing the necessity of a body of teachers for the instruction of nations, made studiousness and intellectual application indispensable in a great number of persons.
Consider, again, the obscurity, incertitude, and incongruousness, that marked the ideas of the wisest of the ancients upon the nature of man and of God, and the origin of creation; the Ideas of Plato, for instance, the Numbers of Pythagoras, the theurgic extravagances of Plotinus and Porphyry and Iamblichus; and then measure the contributions made by the scholastic theologians, whose dry method has undergone so much severe condemnation, to the instruments by which knowledge is enlarged and made accurate. It was the Church, moreover, which civilised the Northern barbarians, and so preserved the West from the same barbarism and desolation with which the triumphs of Mahometanism replaced the knowledge and arts and prosperity of the East. It is to the services of the Church that we owe the perpetuation of a knowledge of the ancient tongues, and if this knowledge, and the possession of the masterpieces of thought and feeling and form, the flower of the ancient European mind, remained so long unproductive, still religious organisation deserves our gratitude equally for keeping these great treasures for happier times. They survived, as trees stripped by winter of their leaves survive through frost and storm, to give new blossoms in a new spring.
This much on the intellectual side; but how can we describe the moral transformation which the new faith brought to pass? Men who had hitherto only regarded gods as beings to be entreated to avert ill or bestow blessing, now learnt the nobler emotion of devout love for a divinity of supreme power and beneficence. The new faith, besides kindling love for God, inflamed the kindred sentiment of love for men, all of whom it declared to be the children of God, one vast family with a common father. Julian himself bore witness to the fidelity with which the Christians, whose faith he hated or despised, tended the sick and fed the poor, not only of their own association, but those also who were without the fold. The horrible practice of exposing new-born infants, which outraged nature, and yet did not touch the heart nor the understanding of a Numa, an Aristotle, a Confucius, was first proscribed by the holy religion of Christ. If shame and misery still sometimes, in the hearts of poor outcast mothers, overpower the horror which Christianity first inspired, it is still the same religion which has opened sheltering places for the unhappy victims of such a practice, and provided means for rearing foundlings into useful citizens.
Christian teaching, by reviving the principles of sensibility within the breast, may be said 'to have in some sort unveiled human nature to herself.' If the cruelty of old manners has abated, do we not owe the improvement to such courageous priests as Ambrose, who refused admission into the church to Theodosius, because in punishing a guilty city he had hearkened to the voice rather of wrath than of justice; or as that Pope who insisted that Lewis the Seventh should expiate by a rigorous penance the sack and burning of Vitry. It is not to a Titus, a Trajanus, an Antoninus, that we owe the abolition of the bloody gladiatorial games; it is to Jesus Christ. Virtuous unbelievers have not seldom been the apostles of benevolence and humanity, but we rarely see them in the asylums of misery. Reason speaks, but it is religion that makes men act. How much dearer to us than the splendid monuments of antique taste, power, and greatness, are those Gothic edifices reared for the poor and the orphan, those far nobler monuments of the piety of Christian princes and the power of Christian faith. The rudeness of their architecture may wound the delicacy of our taste, but they will be ever beloved by feeling hearts. 'Let others admire in the retreat prepared for those who have sacrificed in battle their lives or their health for the State, all the gathered riches of the arts, displaying in the eyes of all the nations the magnificence of Lewis the Fourteenth, and carrying our renown to the level of that of Greece and Rome. What I will admire is such a use of those arts; the sublime glory of serving the weal of men raises them higher than they had ever been at Rome or at Athens.'
[Footnote 33: See Martin's Hist. de la France, iii. 422. Or Morison's Life of Saint Bernard, bk. iii. ch. vi.]
2. Let us turn from the action of the Christian faith in modifying the passions of the individual, to its influence upon societies of men. How has Christianity ameliorated the great art of government, with reference to the two characteristic aims of that art, the happiness of communities, and their stability? 'Nature has given all men the right of being happy,' but the old lawgivers abandoned nature's wise economy, by which she uses the desires and interests of individuals to fulfil her general plans and ensure the common weal. Men like Lycurgus destroyed all idea of property, violated the laws of modesty, and annihilated the tenderest ties of blood. A false and mischievous spirit of system seduced them away from the true method, the feeling after experience. A general injustice reigned in the laws of all nations; among all of them what was called the public good was confined to a small number of men. Love of country was less the love of fellow-citizens than a common hatred towards strangers. Hence the barbarities practised by the ancients upon their slaves, hence that custom of slavery once spread over the whole earth, those horrible cruelties in the wars of the Greeks and the Romans, that barbarous inequality between the two sexes which still reigns in the East; hence the tyranny of the great towards the common people in hereditary aristocracies, the profound degradation of subject peoples. In short, everywhere the stronger have made the laws and have crushed the weak; and if they have sometimes consulted the interests of a given society, they have always forgotten those of the human race. To recall right and justice, a principle was necessary that could raise men above themselves and all around them, that could lead them to survey all nations and all conditions with an equitable gaze, and in some sort with the eyes of God himself. This is what religion has done. What other principle could have fought and vanquished both interests and prejudice united?
[Footnote 34: Les hommes en tout ne s'eclairent que par le tatonnement de l'experience. P. 593.]
Nothing but the Christian religion could have worked that general revolution in men's minds, which brought the rights of humanity out into full day, and reconciled an affectionate preference for the community of which one makes a part, with a general love for mankind. Even the horrors of war were softened, and humanity began to be spared such frightful sequels of triumph, as towns burnt to ashes, populations put to the sword, the wounded massacred in cold blood, or reserved to give a ghastly decoration to triumph. Slavery, where it was not abolished, was constantly and effectively mitigated by Christian sentiment, and the fact that the Church did not peremptorily insist on its universal abolition was due to a wise reluctance to expose the constitution of society to so sudden and violent a shock. Christianity without formal precepts, merely by inspiring a love of justice and mercy in men's hearts, prevented the laws from becoming an instrument of oppression, and held a balance between the strong and the feeble.
If the history of the ancient republics shows that they hardly knew the difference between liberty and anarchy, and if even the profound Aristotle seemed unable to reconcile monarchy with a mild government, is not the reason to be found in the fact that before the Christian era, the various governments of the world only presented either an ambition without bound or limit, or else a blind passion for independence? a perpetual balance between oppression on the one side, and revolt on the other? In vain did lawgivers attempt to arrest this incessant struggle of conflicting passions by laws which were too weak for the purpose, because they were in too imperfect an accord with opinions and manners. Religion, by placing man under the eyes of an all-seeing God, imposed on human passions the only rein capable of effectually bridling them. It gave men internal laws, that were stronger than all the external bonds of the civil laws. By means of this internal change, it has everywhere had the effect of weakening despotism, so that the limits of Christianity seem to mark also the limits of mild government and public felicity. Kings saw the supreme tribunal of a God who should judge them and the cause of their people. Thus the distance between them and their subjects became as nothing in the infinite distance between kings and subjects alike, and the divinity that was equally elevated above either. They were both in some sort equalised by a common abasement. 'Ye nations, be subject to authority,' cried the voice of religion to the one; and to the other it cried, 'Ye kings, who judge the earth, learn that God has only entrusted you with the image of power for the happiness of your peoples.'
An eloquent description of the efficacy of Christianity in raising human nature, and impressing on kings the obligation of pursuing above all things the wellbeing of their subjects, closes with a courtly official salutation of the virtues of that Very Christian King, Lewis the Fifteenth.
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'It is ill reasoning against religion,' an illustrious contemporary of Turgot's had said, in a deprecatory sentence that serves to mark the spirit of the time; 'to compile a long list of the evils which it has inflicted, without doing the same for the blessings which it has bestowed.' Conversely we may well think it unphilosophical and unconvincing to enumerate all the blessings without any of the evils; to tell us how the Christian doctrine enlarged the human spirit, without observing what narrowing limitations it imposed; to dwell on all the mitigating influences with which the Christian churches have been associated, while forgetting all the ferocities which they have inspired. The history of European belief offers a double record since the decay of polytheism, and if for a certain number of centuries this record shows the civilisation of men's instincts by Christianity, it reveals to us in the centuries subsequent, the reverse process of the civilisation of Christianity by men's instincts. Turgot's piece treats half the subject as if it were the whole. He extends down to the middle of the eighteenth century a number of propositions and implied inferences, which are only true up to the beginning of the fourteenth.
[Footnote 35: Esprit des Lois, bk. xxiv. ch. ii.]
Even within this limitation there are many questions that no student of Turgot's capacity would now overlook, yet of which he and the most reasonable spirits of his age took no cognisance. The men of neither side in the eighteenth century knew what the history of opinion meant. All alike concerned themselves with its truth or falsehood, with what they counted to be its abstract fitness or unfitness. A perfect method places a man where he can command one point of view as well as the other, and can discern not only how far an idea is true and convenient, but also how, whether true and convenient or otherwise, it came into its place in men's minds. We ought to be able to separate in thought the question of the grounds and evidence for a given dogma being true, from the distinct and purely historic question of the social and intellectual conditions which made men accept it for true.
Where, however, there was any question of the two religions whose document and standards are professedly drawn from the Bible, there the Frenchmen of that time assumed not a historic attitude, but one exclusively dogmatic. Everybody was so anxious to prove, that he had neither freedom nor humour to observe. The controversy as to the exact measure of the supernatural force in Judaism and its Christian development was so overwhelmingly absorbing, as to leave without light or explanation the wide and independent region of their place as simply natural forces. It may be said, and perhaps it is true, that people never allow the latter side of the inquiry to become prominent in their minds until they have settled the former, and settled it in one way: they must be indifferent to the details of the natural operations of a religion, until they are convinced that there are none of any other kind. Be this as it may, we have to record the facts. And it is difficult to imagine a Frenchman of the era of the Encyclopaedia asking himself the sort of questions which now present themselves to the student in such abundance. For instance, has one effect of Christianity been to exalt a regard for the Sympathetic over the AEsthetic side of action and character? And if so, to what elements in the forms of Christian teaching and practice is this due? And is such a transfer of the highest place from the beauty to the lovableness of conduct to be accounted a gain, when contrasted with the relative position of the two sides among the Greeks and Romans?
Again, we have to draw a distinction between the Christian idea and the outward Christian organisation, and between the consequences to human nature and society which flowed from the first, and the advantages which may be traced to the second. There was on the one hand a doctrine, stirring dormant spiritual instincts, and satisfying active spiritual needs; on the other an external institution, preserving, interpreting, developing, and applying the doctrine. Each of the two has its own origin, its own history, its own destiny in the memories of the race. We may attempt to estimate the functions of the one, without pronouncing on the exact value of the other. If the idea was the direct gift of heaven, the policy was due to the sagacity and mother-wit of the great ecclesiastical statesmen. If the doctrine was a supernatural boon, at least the forms in which it came gradually to overspread Europe were to be explained on rational and natural grounds. And if historical investigation of these forms and their influences should prove that they are the recognisable roots of most of the benign growths which are vaguely styled results of Christianity, then such a conclusion would seriously attenuate the merits of the supernatural Christian doctrine in favour of the human Christian policy.
If there had been in the Christian idea the mysterious self-sowing quality so constantly claimed for it, how came it that in the Eastern part of the Empire it was as powerless for spiritual or moral regeneration as it was for political health and vitality, while in the Western part it became the organ of the most important of all the past transformations of the civilised world? Is not the difference to be explained by the difference in the surrounding medium, and what is the effect of such an explanation upon the supernatural claims of the Christian idea? Does such an explanation reduce that idea to the rank of one of the historic forces, which arise and operate and expand themselves in accordance with strictly natural conditions? The Christianity of the East was probably as degraded a form of belief, as lowering for human character, and as mischievous to social wellbeing, as has ever been held by civilised peoples. Yet the East, strangely enough, was the great home and nursery of all that is most distinctive in the constituent ideas of the Christian faith. Why, in meditating on Christianity, are we to shut our eyes to the depravation that overtook it when placed amid unfavourable social conditions, and to confine our gaze to the brighter qualities which it developed in the healthier atmosphere of the West?
Further, Turgot might have asked with much profit to the cause of historic truth, and perhaps in more emancipated years he did ask, whether economic circumstances have not had more to do with the dissolution of slavery than Christian doctrines:—whether the rise of rent from free tenants over the profits to be drawn from slave-labour by the landowner, has not been a more powerful stimulant to emancipation, than the moral maxim that we ought to love one another, or the Christian proposition that we are all equals before the divine throne and co-heirs of salvation:—whether a steady and permanent fall in the price of slave-raised productions had not as much to do with the decay of slavery in Europe, as the love of God or the doctrine of human brotherhood. That the influence of Christianity, so far as it went, and, so far as it was a real power, tended both to abolish slavery, and, where it was too feeble to press in this direction, at any rate tended to mitigate the harshness of its usages, is hardly to be denied by any fair-minded person. The true issue is what this influence amounted to. The orthodox historian treats it as single and omnipotent. His heterodox brother—in the eighteenth century they both usually belonged to one family—leaves it out.
[Footnote 36: See on this subject Finlay's Mediaeval Greece and Trebizond, p. 197; and also, on the other hand, p. 56.]
The crowded annals of human misology, as well as the more terrible chronicle of the consequences when misology has impatiently betaken itself to the cruel arm of flesh, show the decisive importance of the precise way in which a great subject of debate is put. Now the whole question of religion was in those days put with radical incompleteness, and Turgot's dissertation was only in a harmony that might have been expected with the prevailing error. The champions of authority, like the leaders of the revolt, insisted on inquiring absolutely, not relatively; on judging religion with reference to human nature in the abstract, instead of with reference to the changing varieties of social institution and circumstance. We ought to place ourselves where we can see both lines of inquiry to be possible. We ought to place ourselves where we can ask what the tendencies of Christian influence have been, without mixing up with that question the further and distinct inquiry what these tendencies are now, or are likely to be. The nineteenth century has hitherto leaned to the historical and relative aspect of the great controversy. The eighteenth was characteristically dogmatic, and the destroyers of the faith were not any less dogmatic in their own way, than those who professed to be its apologists.
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Probably it was not long after the composition of this apologetic thesis, before Turgot became alive to the precise position of a creed which had come to demand apologetic theses. This was, indeed, one of the marked and critical moments in the great transformation of religious feeling and ecclesiastical order in Europe, of which our own age, four generations later, is watching a very decisive, if not a final stage. Turgot's demonstration of the beneficence of Christianity was delivered in July 1750—almost the exact middle of the eighteenth century. The death of the Emperor Charles the Sixth, ten years before, had given the signal for the break-up of the European system. The iron army of Prussia made its first stride out of the narrow northern borders, into the broad arena of the West, and every new illustration of the fortitude and depth and far-reaching power of Prussia has been a new blow to the old Catholic organisation. The first act of this prodigious drama closed while Turgot was a pupil at the Sorbonne. The court of France had blundered into alliances against the retrograde and Catholic house of Austria, while England, with equal blindness, had stumbled into friendship with it. Before the opening of the second act or true climax—that is, before the Seven Years' War began—interests and forces became more naturally adjusted. France, Spain, and Austria, Bourbons and Hapsburgs, the great pillars of the Church, were ranged against England and Prussia, the half-conscious representatives of those industrial and individualist principles which replaced, whether for a time or permanently, the decaying system of aristocratic caste in temporal things, and an ungrowing Catholicism in things spiritual. In 1750 ecclesiastical far-sightedness, court intrigue, and family ambitions, were actively preparing the way for the Austrian alliance in the mephitic air of Versailles. The issue at stake was the maintenance of the supremacy of the Church, and the ancient Christian organisation of France and of Europe.
We now know how this long battle has gone. The Jesuit Churchmen lost their lead, and were thrown back out of the civil and political sphere. We know, too, what effect these blows to the Catholic organisation have had upon the activity of the Catholic idea. With the decline and extermination of the predominance of Churchmen in civil affairs, there began a tendency, which has since become deeper and stronger, in the Church to withdraw herself and her sons from a sphere where she could no longer be sovereign and queen. Religion, since the Revolution, isolates the most devout Catholics from political action and political interests. This great change, however, this return of the leaders of the Christian society upon the original conceptions of the Christian faith, did not come to pass in Turgot's time. He watched the struggle of the Church for the maintenance of its temporal privilege and honour, and for the continued protection by secular power of its spiritual supremacy. The outcome of the struggle was later.
We may say, in fine, that if this first public composition of Turgot's is extremely imperfect, it was better to exaggerate the services of Christianity, alike as an internal faith and as a peculiar form of social organisation, than to describe Gregory the Great and Innocent, Hildebrand and Bernard, as artful and vulgar tyrants, and Aquinas and Roger Bacon as the products of a purely barbarous, stationary, and dark age. There is at first sight something surprising in the respect which Turgot's ablest contemporaries paid to the contributions made to progress by Greece and Rome, compared with their angry disparagement of the dark ages. The reason of this contrast we soon discover to be that the passions of present contests gave their own colour to men's interpretation of the circumstances of the remote middle time, between the Roman Empire and the commencement of the revolutionary period. Turgot escaped these passions more completely than any man of his time who was noble enough to be endowed with the capacity for passion. He never forgot that it is as wise and just to confess the obligations of mankind to the Catholic monotheism of the West, as it is shallow and unjust in professors of Christianity to despise or hate the lower theological systems which guide the humbler families of mankind.
Let us observe that only three years after this academic discourse in praise of the religion of the time, Turgot was declaring that 'the greatest of the services of Christianity to the world was that it had both enlightened and propagated natural religion.'
[Footnote 37: Lettres sur la Tolerance, II. vol. ii. 687.]
Turgot's inquiry into the extent and quality of the debt of European civilisation to Christianity was marked by a certain breadth and largeness, in spite of the bonds of circumstance and subject—for who, after all, can consider Christianity to any purpose, apart from other conditions of general progress, or without free comparison with other dogmatic systems? It is not surprising, then, to find the same valuable gifts of vision coming into play with a thousand times greater liberty and power, when the theme was widened so as to comprehend the successive steps of the advancement of the human mind in all its aspects. The Second and more famous of the two Discourses at the Sorbonne was read in December 1750, and professes to treat the Successive Advances of the Human Mind. The opening lines are among the most pregnant, as they were among the most original, in the history of literature, and reveal in an outline, standing clear against the light, a thought which revolutionised old methods of viewing and describing the course of human affairs, and contained the germs of a new and most fruitful philosophy of society.
[Footnote 38: Sur les progres successifs de l'esprit humain. OEuv. ii. 597-611.]
'The phenomena of nature, subjected as they are to constant laws, are enclosed in a circle of revolutions that remain the same for ever. All comes to life again, all perishes again; and in these successive generations, by which vegetables and animals reproduce themselves, time does no more than bring back at each moment the image of what it has just dismissed.
'The succession of men, on the contrary, offers from age to age a spectacle of continual variations. Reason, freedom, the passions, are incessantly producing new events. All epochs are fastened together by a sequence of causes and effects, linking the condition of the world to all the conditions that have gone before it. The gradually multiplied signs of speech and writing, giving men an instrument for making sure of the continued possession of their ideas, as well as of imparting them to others, have formed out of the knowledge of each individual a common treasure, which generation transmits to generation, as an inheritance constantly augmented by the discoveries of each age; and the human race, observed from its first beginning, seems in the eyes of the philosopher to be one vast whole, which, like each individual in it, has its infancy and its growth.'
This was not a mere casual reflection in Turgot's mind, taking a solitary and separate position among those various and unordered ideas, which spring up and go on existing without visible fruit in every active intelligence. It was one of the systematic conceptions which shape and rule many groups of facts, fixing a new and high place of their own for them among the great divisions of knowledge. In a word, it belonged to the rare order of truly creative ideas, and was the root or germ of a whole body of vigorous and connected thought. This quality marks the distinction, in respect of the treatment of history, between Turgot, and both Bossuet and the great writers of history in France and England in the eighteenth century. Many of the sayings to which we are referred for the origin of the modern idea of history, such as Pascal's for instance, are the fortuitous glimpses of men of genius into a vast sea, whose extent they have not been led to suspect, and which only make a passing and momentary mark. Bossuet's talk of universal history, which has been so constantly praised, was fundamentally, and in substance, no more than a bit of theological commonplace splendidly decorated. He did indeed speak of 'the concatenation of human affairs,' but only in the same sentence with 'the sequence of the counsels of God.' The gorgeous rhetorician of the Church was not likely to rise philosophically into the larger air of universal history, properly so called. His famous Discourse is a vindication of divine foresight, by means of an intensely narrow survey of such sets of facts as might be thought not inconsistent with the deity's fixed purpose to make one final and decisive revelation to men. No one who looks upon the vast assemblage of stupendous human circumstances, from the first origin of man upon the earth, as merely the ordained antecedent of what, seen from the long procession of all the ages, figures in so diminutive a consummation as the Catholic Church, is likely to obtain a very effective hold of that broad sequence and many-linked chain of events, to which Bossuet gave a right name, but whose real meaning he never was even near seizing. His merit is that he did in a small and rhetorical way what Montesquieu and Voltaire afterwards did in a truly comprehensive and philosophical way; he pressed forward general ideas in connection with the recorded movements of the chief races of mankind. For a teacher of history to leave the bare chronicler's road so far as to declare, for example, the general principle, inadequate and over-stated as it is, that 'religion and civil government are the two points on which human things revolve,'—even this was a clear step in advance. The dismissal of the long series of emperors from Augustus to Alexander Severus in two or three pages was to show a ripe sense of large historic proportion. Again, Bossuet's expressions of 'the concatenation of the universe,' of the interdependence of the parts of so vast a whole, of there coming no great change without having its causes in foregoing centuries, and of the true object of history being to observe, in connection with each epoch, those secret dispositions of events which prepared the way for great changes, as well as the momentous conjunctures which more immediately brought them to pass—all these phrases seem to point to a true and philosophic survey. But they end in themselves, and lead nowhither. The chain is an arbitrary and one-sided collection of facts. The writer does not cautiously follow and feel after the successive links, but forges and chooses and arrays them after a pattern of his own, which was fixed independently of them. A scientific term or two is not enough to disguise the purely theological essence of the treatise.
[Footnote 39: Discours sur l'Histoire Universelle, part iii. ch. ii.]
Montesquieu and Voltaire were both far enough removed from Bossuet's point of view, and the Spirit of Laws of the one, and the Essay on the Manners and Character of Nations of the other, mark a very different way of considering history from the lofty and confident method of the orthodox rhetorician. The Spirit of Laws was published in 1748, that is to say a couple of years before Turgot's Discourse at the Sorbonne. Voltaire's Essay on Manners did not come out until 1757, or seven years later than the Discourse; but Voltaire himself has told us that its composition dates from 1740, when he prepared this new presentation of European history for the service of Madame du Chatelet. We may hence fairly consider the cardinal work of Montesquieu, and the cardinal historical work of Voltaire, as virtually belonging to the same time. And they possess a leading character in common, which separates them both from Turgot, and places them relatively to his idea in a secondary rank. In a word, Montesquieu and Voltaire, if we have to search their most distinctive quality, introduced into history systematically, and with full and decisive effect, a broad generality of treatment. They grouped the facts of history; and they did not group them locally or in accordance with mere geographical or chronological division, but collected the facts in social classes and orders from many countries and times. Their work was a work of classification. It showed the possibility of arranging the manifold and complex facts of society, and of the movements of communities, under heads and with reference to definite general conditions.
[Footnote 40: Preface to Essai sur les Moeurs, OEuv. xx.]
There is no need here to enter into any criticism of Montesquieu's great work, how far the merits of its execution equalled the merit of its design, how far his vicious confusion of the senses of the word 'law' impaired the worth of his book, as a contribution to inductive or comparative history. We have only to seek the difference between the philosophic conception of Montesquieu and the philosophic conception of Turgot. The latter may be considered a more liberal completion of the former. Turgot not only sees the operation of law in the movements and institutions of society, but he interprets this law in a positive and scientific sense, as an ascertainable succession of social states, each of them being the cause and effect of other social states. Turgot gives its deserved prominence to the fertile idea of there being an ordered movement of growth or advance among societies; in other words, of the civilisation of any given portion of mankind having fixed conditions analogous to those of a physical organism. Finally, he does not limit his thought by fixing it upon the laws and constitutions only of countries, but refers historical philosophy to its veritable and widest object and concern, the steps and conditions of the progression of the human mind.