Highlights from Liberty’s Dictionary

Henry C. Clark and Christine Dunn Henderson have done a great service in bringing forth their new collection of articles from the Encyclopédie. It demonstrates the project’s main purposes: to limit political authority, to advocate for liberty of conscience, and to call for rationally engaged citizens.

Encyclopedic Liberty: Political Articles in the Dictionary of Diderot and D’Alembert, sumptuously produced by the Liberty Fund, is thoughtfully designed, carefully organized, and eminently readable. The 81 articles it contains are intended to provide a glimpse into “virtually every aspect of the political thought and political imagination of the most ambitious collaborative enterprise of the eighteenth century,” in the words of Clark, editor and author of the Introduction. He and Henderson, with whom Clark collaborated in translating these articles, display a wide-ranging expertise in the history of economic thought, politics and literature, and in 19th century liberalism. The selection of articles and the editorial work support the conclusion that the encyclopedic project springs from the contributors’ shared skepticism of monarchy and powerful religious institutions. Opposition to these two institutions produces unifying principles that transcend the authors and their diverse subjects.

The Encyclopédistes share a commitment to the articulation and defense of liberty understood as limited government and freedom of conscience. They advocate ideas as political goals, even as they evaluate practices and mores from the vantage point of practicality, freedom of thought, and economic flourishing. This shared commitment brings the work closer to a collection of philosophic essays that define the contours of rationally ordered liberty than to a dictionary or encyclopedia. The contributors call upon humanity to synthesize empirical knowledge, to use this knowledge to limit government, to cast off irrational religious prejudices, and to discover economic, agricultural, and moral principles that support human flourishing.

Obstacles Faced by the Encyclopédistes

Clark’s Introduction explains the political challenges the authors confronted, discusses the work’s  contemporary reception, and outlines the selection process that went into assembling this volume. I would have liked to see a more extensive discussion of the criteria employed in choosing these 81 of approximately 70,000 items in the Encyclopédie.

For example, in Denis Diderot’s essay entitled “Citizen,” Diderot cross-references “Société,” “Cité,” “Ville Franche,” and “Franchises.” Clark indicates that these terms appear in the larger Encyclopédie, and this volume includes terms similar to the ones cross-referenced. It would be helpful to know if he regarded the omitted terms as redundant or if the terms failed to satisfy some other criteria. He explains that Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s essay on “Discourse on Political Economy” is omitted because it is widely available elsewhere and Rousseau himself moves away from the encyclopedic project—similar clarifications when terms appear as cross-references would have been useful.

Encyclopedic Liberty includes two tables of contents: the first organized by volume of the original Encyclopédie, and the second alphabetical by article title. Both of these indexes identify the author of the article and the French word(s) of the original heading. Following the tables of contents come biographical sketches of each of the contributors whose work appears here. This is very helpful as a brief guide to key figures in the Enlightenment. (Although several essays begin with illustrations, there is not an index to the illustrations or a discussion of the artists.)

Clark quotes Owen Ruffhead, an 18th century English jurist, on the Encyclopédie’s political articles amounting to “a noble system of civil liberty.” Although he appears sympathetic to Ruffhead’s assessment, much of 18th century Europe did not share this conclusion. One of the great services this volume performs is providing an account of the religious and political obstacles that confronted the Encyclopédistes at nearly every stage of the project. Its publication succeeds, in part, because of the sympathies of the French censor, Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, and because the contributors adopt esoteric writing strategies. These strategies include the careful use of sources that censors deemed theologically permissible, the placement of religious arguments in articles that are not obviously religious, and frequent citations of members of the clergy sympathetic to the Enlightenment project.

In addition to modeling cautious writing, Encyclopedic Liberty presents a discussion of natural rights and human equality, and so would be particularly useful as a reference companion for courses on early modern political thought and the American Founding. Although the Encyclopédie was not read widely by the American Framers themselves, they make frequent reference to Montesquieu.[1] Jean Le Rond d’Alembert’s “Eulogy for President Montesquieu” recounts the Baron de Montesquieu’s contribution to theories of democratic equality. This would be helpful for students and teachers of the Declaration of Independence, as would Louis de Jaucourt’s article entitled, “Democracy.”

Liberty, for these writers, is profoundly social; one experiences freedom in the context of relationships with other human beings. Natural liberty is a kind of self-legislation that empowers the individual to dispose of his or her own person and property in accordance with the terms of natural law and without harming others.[2] Diderot, in his article entitled “Legislation,” writes that the act of legislating is not a matter of “opposing men’s passions” but of “encouraging them by applying them to the private and public interests.” Diderot associates the term “legislation” with ruling peoples, but this definition is consistent with prepolitical natural liberty and liberty within the laws, or “Civil Liberty” (the title of an unsigned essay contained herein).

Neither self-legislation nor civil legislation requires altruism; rather, law directs self-interest in ways that benefit the individual and the community. The most extensive civil liberty appears when the laws apply to all citizens equally and no one is compelled to act in ways that the law does not require.

What Is Political Authority, and When is Conquest Just?

Diderot’s essay “Political Authority” asserts that human liberty is a gift from heaven, but that the use of liberty depends upon the cultivation of reason. In a limited way, the family provides a model of authority: parents rule their children, but parents also have a responsibility to educate them. In the state of nature, parental authority ends when a child can care for him or herself. In society, the conclusion of this authority is less clear, but it is related to the cultivation and use of reason. Reasonable people cannot be compelled to obey without violating their rights. Political authority, therefore, is a convention that derives from human reason.

Conventional authority cannot be absolute. A human being cannot totally divest him or herself of the responsibility for rational self-governance. Conventional authority must be established by consent and in accordance with “reason and proportion.” One might infer that Diderot sees rational limitations to state sovereignty; state authority cannot usurp a human being’s capacity for rational self-government.

This explanation of political authority is helpful, but there is a lack of clarity when considering the appropriate response to governments that fail to obtain consent. Diderot refuses to acknowledge a right to rebel—even against the corrupt French monarchy. Government is a public trust, belonging to the people not the rulers, but the appropriate response to political abuse is submission and prayer. To urge nothing more than a resort to divine intervention seems incommensurate with the rational principles from which political authority should derive. Further complicating this inconsistency is Diderot’s claim that governments may begin tyrannically but come to possess consent by providing good governance. Sound administration itself may persuade the ruled to render their consent and legitimize the state. This resolution is plausible, but the resort to heaven seems to minimize the rational obligations that one owes to the self.

Jaucourt’s essay on “Conquest” also addresses the problem of nonconsensual government. He agrees with Diderot that conquest may be necessary and legitimate, but is always a dangerous way to secure political control. Illegitimate authority “always leaves an immense debt to be discharged if human nature is to be repaid”; it is unclear if such a debt could ever be satisfied. Conquest can be just only when it is necessary to preserve one’s own community, but Jaucourt does not clarify what political circumstances might produce this utmost necessity. Rationally given consent, although the most just standard of political authority, is not necessarily the only standard of justice and its absence may not be an appropriate cause for war. Political necessity and existing government may overcome the rational standards Diderot and Jaucourt proclaim.

Veiled Challenge to Religion

Critiques of Christianity often appear in the Encyclopédie when authors demonstrate that religion impedes practical political goods. For example, Diderot’s essay “Celibacy” first considers the history of celibacy. He then turns to the unforeseen and dangerous implications this practice has for the human species, political societies, and Christian community. Some, he says, have argued that Adam and Eve lived in celibate relationship until they sinned by having sex with one another. But, Diderot points out, this explanation for the divine origins of celibacy contradicts God’s command to populate the world and it contradicts the practices of the Hebrew patriarchs. Other ancient cultures regarded fertility as a blessing but considered celibacy as a “sin against nature”; although ancient Greek and Roman religion place special emphasis on virginity, these cultures often glorified claims of virginity to distract from disorder and hypocrisy within religious practice. Human nature depends upon companionship, and society is more stable when men and women make resolute sexual commitments to one another.

Citing the Abbé St. Pierre, Diderot points out that even some members of the clergy regard clerical celibacy as an inessential innovation of Christian practice and a point of discipline not foundational to the Christian faith. Similarly, there is buried within Etienne Damilaville’s seemingly innocuous entry “Population,” another critique of celibacy that challenges religious authority and calls for rational pluralism. Damilaville’s foundational principle is that the universe depends upon a natural balance within itself; everything exists to fulfill a natural purpose that contributes to this balance. The study of population and demographics requires an examination of how each person and civilization contributes to the preservation of this balance or to upsetting it. Religions like Islam and Christianity have introduced customs that have brought turmoil to the natural order.

Christian celibacy violates the natural requirement to populate the earth and requires men and women to neglect the duties of civic life. Those who indulge themselves in this practice cheat nature and deprive the political community of citizens, laborers, and leaders. Furthermore, Christian political intolerance generates conflict and cruelty that have slaughtered millions. A sociological study of population demonstrates that the Christian religion undermines the obligations the human species has to itself and produces institutional violence and oppression.

Damilaville goes on to argue that Christianity’s most dangerous threat appears in its stultifying and despotic power over the mind. The pagan religions knew nothing of this kind of tyranny. This problem accompanies new religions, which seek to produce doctrinal uniformity, to shape individual conscience, and that attempt to “subjugate thought to its iron scepter.”

He uses Islam to represent the victory of religious conviction over rational inquiry. Although the struggle for liberty persists in other parts of the world, the unspoken implication is that Christianity aspires to the same degree of authority as “Mohammedanism.” Every institution experiences practical limits that prevent a scientific approach to population management, but limited government, religious liberty, and civil rights tend to support societies with healthy populations. In this case, the author’s caution appears in the title of the essay (“Population”) and the location of his critique more than in the words themselves. Religious toleration is necessary for its salutary effects on the life of the human body and the life of the mind.

Unreconciled Tensions

Encyclopedic Liberty emphasizes the freedom of individual thought and action, but also addresses the duties that appear in and through political community. But the authors of the Encyclopédie do not reconcile the tensions between individual liberty and the responsibilities of political life. The entries on “Natural Law” and on “Public Law” by Antoine Gaspard Boucher d’Argis qualify or stand in tension with the highly rational view of individual liberty found in Damilaville’s “Population.”

“Natural Law” highlights the complexity of human obligation and uses the history of political thought to suggest that an individual’s obligation to the law of reason may bring him or her into conflict with civil law. Although the article proceeds as a survey of natural law theorists, Boucher d’Argis regards Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui’s Principles of Natural Law (1747) as the most precise and methodical.[3] Burlamaqui contends that rationality makes human beings capable of directing their own behavior and accountable for their actions. While it “presupposes a final goal” (happiness), reason does not enable full autonomy. Human beings remain dependent upon family, religion, and civil law as guides to particular action and the highest human ends. Boucher d’Argis’ précis refrains from endorsing or criticizing Principles of Natural Law, but it concludes with a paradox: To observe natural law produces virtue and happiness, but the rationally derived virtues are not sufficient to overcome the disorders that cause suffering.

Boucher d’Argis’ “Public Law” also examines human obligation in light of rational law, obligation to God, and the desire for peace. Public law derives from the conventions between nations, the precepts of divine law, and the civil laws formed within each state. Although the human desire for stability and security derive from reason, the feeling of necessity may compel states to issue regulations that privilege national priorities over an individual’s efficiency, freedom of markets, and freedom of movement. Reason gives rise to politics as a way to satisfy human needs, but rational institutions cannot always satisfy these needs in rationally consistent ways. At best, government can approach rationality and be judged by the standard of individual reason, but the rationally governed individual and the rational state are not obviously commensurate with one another.

Finally, Boucher d’Argis argues that public law applies only to those types of actions that disturb public order. If the state is to remain relatively open on matters of religion, conscience, assembly, and speech, individuals must remain diligent to limit their own appetites and refrain from employing civil institutions to the harm of other citizens. It is unclear if this advice is descriptive of his own time, if it is Boucher d’Argis’ own opinion, or if it is a concession to existing authorities.

In short, Encyclopedic Liberty is a fascinating survey of modern political thought, demonstrating the ambition of the modern project and the struggle to define rationally ordered liberty. The Encyclopédistes’ unsystematic mode of arguing leaves one with significant questions about how to read each contribution. And yet, the kaleidoscope of ideas is a monument to the authors’ vision of pluralism. The tensions between the articles leave the reader in the ultimate position of political and intellectual responsibility. Clark and Henderson have facilitated the recognition of this responsibility, and their editorial work preserves the ongoing nature of modern inquiry.

[1] Clark points out, however (Encyclopedic Liberty, pp. xxii-xxiii), that Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton both owned copies of the Encyclopédie and Hamilton cited it in Federalist 22.

[2] “Natural Liberty,” Encyclopedic Liberty, p. 329. See also “Property,” pp. 534-535. Both of these articles appear anonymously. Clark suggests, based on the essay’s thematic resemblance to Jaucourt’s other contributions, that Jaucourt may be the unsigned author of “Natural Liberty.”

[3] D’Argis includes Cicero, Justinian, Grotius, Selden, Hobbes, Spinoza and Burlamaqui as the leading natural law theorists, but regards Hobbes and Spinoza as advocates of “pernicious systems.”

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