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An eighteenth-century interpretation of the Ethica: Henry de Boulainvilliers’s ‘Essai de métaphysique’

  • Roberto Festa
Chapter
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 148)

Abstract

Tdeas are ‘the most migratory things in the world’, said Arthur O. Lovejoy in 1940. No barrier can impede their circulation nor any obstacle prevent their mutual agreement. The doctrinal corpus of any philosophy is nearly always an aggregate in which different ideas and experiences operate, interacting amongst themselves and with their environment and culture as well as with common sense and emotions. The words of the old master of the history of ideas come to mind when confronting the figure of Henry de Boulainvilliers (1658–1722). Like many others of his age the count of Saint-Saire developed a taste for liberal and unbiased research and impassioned and inexhausted collation of ideas and opinions.1 History, philosophy, politics, religion, ethics, astrology, and natural sciences: there was no discipline or area of knowledge which could not arouse his concern and intellectual curiosity or prevent him from venturing into the new expanses and different possibilities which that age of ‘European crises of conscience’ offered to men’s research.

Keywords

Eighteenth Century Adequate Knowledge Religious Dogma Materialistic Sense Free Thought 
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References

  1. 1.
    For information, albeit fairly brief, on Boulainvilliers’s life, see R. Simon, Henry de Boulainviller: Historien, politique, philosophe,astrologue, 1658–1722 (Paris: Boivin, 1941), esp. 9–45. Further brief information is outlined by Colonna d’Istria in his Introduction to Spinoza, Ethique, tr. Henry de Boulainvilliers, with introduction and notes by E. Colonna d’Istria (Paris: Colin, 1907), pp. ixxv, and by I. O. Wade in The clandestine organisation and diffusion of philosophic ideas in France from 1700 to 1750 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1938), 97–123.Google Scholar
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  10. Evidently a close link also existed between Boulainvilliers’s historical activity and the effort he made in criticizing dogma and revealed religion. In the `Avertissement’ to the `Abrégé de l’Histoire universelle’, he wrote that his intention was to establish a `chronologie avec toute l’exactitude’ possible, subordinating scriptural expedience to historical truth (see H. de Boulainvilliers, `Abrégé de l’Histoire universelle’, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS fr. 6363–4, pp. 1–4). Historical method, the exact verification of facts and their succession, could serve to show up contradictions and inexactnesses in the holy text and dogmas which had until then been uncritically accepted.Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    Cf. Colonna d’Istria, Introduction to Spinoza, Ethique, p. xvi.Google Scholar
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    H. de Boulainvilliers, `Apogée du soleil ou Pratique des régies de l’Astrologie pour juger des événements généraux’, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS fr. 12295, p. 294.Google Scholar
  13. 11.
    This is the `Extrait du Traité théologo-politique de Spinosa et la Réfutation de quelques-uns de ses sentiments’, in `Extraits des lectures de M. le comte de Boulainviller, avec des réflexions’, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS n.acq.fr. 11071–6, published by R. Simon in H. de Boulainvilliers, OEuvres philosophiques (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1973), I: 10–82.Google Scholar
  14. 12.
    The `Essai de métaphysique’ was published for the first time in the Refutation des erreurs de Benoît de Spinosa (Brussels: Foppens, 1730. For the present work we are using the more easily traced text published by R. Simon in Boulainvilliers, OEuvres philosophiques, i: 83–212. The `Avertissement’ with which Boulainvilliers prefaced the `Essai’ can be found on pp. 83–5.Google Scholar
  15. 13.
    On the spread of Spinozism in France, the best work even today remains that of P. Vernière, Spinoza et la pensée française avant la Révolution, 2 vols. (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1954), esp. I: 306–22, where Vernière writes on Boulainvilliers. On the spread of Spinozism in France, see also J. S. Spink, French free-thought from Gassendi to Voltaire (London: Athlone Press, 196o), 238–52.Google Scholar
  16. 15.
    Two other works on the Spinozan argument, the Traité théologo-politique and the Analyse du traité de la théologie politique were attributed to Boulainvilliers for a long time. This attribution was challenged, with convincing arguments, by Wade, The clandestine organisation, 112–16. See also Simon’s Preface to the OEuvres philosophiques, io. Google Scholar
  17. 16.
    All published in Boulainvilliers, OEuvres philosophiques, 213–52. Simon’s Essai de bibliographie, 39, mentions two MS copies of the last: Auxerre 238 and Fécamp 24–5.Google Scholar
  18. 17.
    In P. S. Régis, L’Usage de la raison et de la foy, ou l’accord de la foy et de la raison (Paris, 1704), 481–500.Google Scholar
  19. 18.
    Spinoza, Ethique. The manuscript on the basis of which Colonna d’Istria published the translation attributed to Boulainvilliers is Lyon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS Mestre 839. In the second appendix to the volume Colonna d’Istria also hypothesized that this translation of the Ethica represented `une travaille préparatoire… la première phase de cette transformation dont la Refutation [that is, the `Essai de métaphysique] nous donne la seconde et dernière phase’, and with this in mind collected possible similarities between the two texts (ibid., 369).Google Scholar
  20. 19.
    As we know from Ep. xxx to Oldenburg, Spinoza began work on the Tractatus in 1665, whereas the Ethica had been in preparation since 1661.Google Scholar
  21. 20.
    H. de Boulainviller, `Exposition du système de Benoît de Spinosa et sa defénse contre les objections de M. Régis’, in OEuvres philosophiques I: 214.Google Scholar
  22. 21.
    Wade, The clandestine organisation, 98: `There is no doubt that Boulainvilliers had intercourse with some notable free-thinkers of his time, an association, incidentally, which Voltaire capitalized in the Dîner du comte de Boulainvilliers.’ Google Scholar
  23. 22.
    Wade’s theory does not appear sufficiently justified. If indeed it is possible to recognize the existence of a small group of friends who met with Boulainvilliers, among them the Duke of Noailles, Fréret, d’Argenson, the assumption by Wade of a coterie appears a forced one, aimed at confirming Boulainvilliers’s heterodoxy, which is not supported by documentary evidence.Google Scholar
  24. See also M.-H. Guerrin, Deux amis: Nicolas Fréret (1688–1749), Henry de Boulainvillier (1658–1722)’, Dix-septième siècle, VII—VIII (1950): 197–204; and G. Costa, `Un collaboratore italiano del conte di Boulainvilliers: Francesco M. Pompeo Colonna (1664–1726)’, Atti e memorie dell’Accademia Toscana di Scienze e Lettere La Colombaria,xxlx (1964): 212 ff.Google Scholar
  25. 23.
    Wade, The clandestine organisation,527: The author of the treatise was undoubtedly Boulainvilliers.’Google Scholar
  26. 24.
    In particular manuscripts Arsenal 2236, Auxerre 235–6, Bibliothèque Nationale fr. 12242–3, Laon 514, Chaumont 195. Mazarine 3558 and Arsenal 2235 contain only the Vie and the Essai. Auxerre is composed of the Vie and the first part of the Essai. Fécamp 25–6 contains the first part of the Essai, the Esprit and a Lettre anonyme contre le système philosophique de Boyer. See Wade, The clandestine organisation, 122. A list of manuscript copies of the Esprit de Spinosa (or Traité des trois imposteurs),including Wade’s, has recently been published by Miguel Benitez in O. Bloch (ed.), Le matérialisme du XVIII’ siècle et la littérature clandestine (Paris: Vrin, 1982), 16–25.Google Scholar
  27. 25.
    Among these are Mazarine 3558 Auxerre 237, Bibliothèque Nationale fr. 12242–3, Laon 514, Fécamp 24–5, all of which name Boulainvilliers. Arsenal 2236 and Auxerre 235–6 give the initials M. L. C. D. C. D. B. (that is, Monsieur le Comte de Charles de Boulainvilliers). It should also be noted that among the manuscripts of the Esprit de Spinosa, Périgueux 36 and Rouen 1769 name Boulainvilliers as the author, and Carpentras 1275 notes: `Cependant il est positif que l’auteur du présent opuscule est le comte de Boulainvilliers qui n’a fait que copier le Théologico-Politique de Spinosa.’Google Scholar
  28. 26.
    Wade, The clandestine organisation, 127.Google Scholar
  29. 27.
    See S. Berti, “`La Vie et l’Esprit de Spinosa” e la prima traduzione francese dell’“Ethica”’, in Rivista storica italiana, i (1986): 33–4. Apart from the question of chronological order which the author adduces, and the attentive research undergone in order to identify the author of the Esprit (whom it seems we may recognize as the Councillor of the Court of Brabant, Jan Vroesen, as Berti affirms in ‘Jan Vroesen, autore del “Traité des trois imposteurs”?’, Rivista storica italiana, 1, (1991): 283–98, and in the Introduzione to Trattato dei tre impostori: La vita e lo Spirito del Signor Benedetto de Spinosa, ed. Silvia Berti (Torino: Einaudi, 1991)); apart from all this it is said that the clearest proof that Boulainvilliers did not write the Esprit emerges through a comparison of the two works. As F. Pollock had already stated in his Spinoza: his life and philosophy (London: Duckworth, 1881), pp. xvii ff., the impious pamphlet is completely unworthy of Boulainvilliers’s talents, above all those which he reveals in the ’Essai de métaphysique’. It is not merely a question of stylistic order that renders the attribution of the Esprit to Boulainvilliers improbable (the booklet’s rapid, hasty style is incompatible with the elegant, classical prose of the ’Essai de métaphysique’); it is the actual conceptual system of Boulainvilliers’s work, which cannot be reduced to the mechanical Spinozism of the pamphlet. The understanding of Spinoza’s philosophy shown by Boulainvilliers, as we shall see, goes well beyond that of the Esprit, which was based on a reading that tended to favour the materialistic potentialities present in the Deus sive natura, in a way that prejudiced the complexity of Spinoza’s vision. Another element that would seem to exclude Boulainvilliers from the authorship of the Esprit is the way in which it identifies the figure of Mohammed as a brutal and astute imposter. Boulainvilliers, on the contrary, was fascinated by Mohammed, to the point of dedicating his last work to him: La Vie de Mahomet (London: Hinchcliffe, 1731). In this the sympathy shown for the founder of the Moslem faith was such as to make many suspect that Boulainvilliers had died a Mohammedan (see Simon, Henry de Boulainviller, 37). On the interpretation given by Boulainvilliers to the figure of Mohammed, see M. Petrocchi, ’Il mito di Maometto in Boulainvilliers’, Rivista storica italiana, tx (1948): 367–77.Google Scholar
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    On this point see A. Vartanian, Diderot and Descartes: a study of scientific naturalism in the Enlightenment (Princeton: Princeton University, 1953) 19 ff. Here the scholar’s objective was to examine the way in which Descartes’s natural philosophy and the general conception of science which it implied contributed to the emergence of that tendency towards scientific naturalism which would culminate in the philosophy of Diderot and his contemporaries. Vartanian pointed out that it was the Cartesian metaphysical dualism, with its distinction between res cogitans and res extensa which offered a renewed status to substance, elevating it from the subordinate position which it had occupied in the Aristotelian entelechy. In the period following Descartes, three philosophies aimed, in different ways, to unite the spiritual and physical worlds: Malebranchian occasionalism, Leibnitz’s pre-established harmony, and Spinoza’s system, which, not by chance, was interpreted in the eighteenth century in a version only partly related to the original, that is as pantheism, accentuating the physical side at the expense of the theological one.Google Scholar
  31. On these questions see also J. Roger, Les Sciences de la vie dans la pensée française du XVIII’ siècle (Paris: Colin, 1963). For Roger, science after 1750 was indebted to Spinoza for the theory of one unique substance, capable of reuniting two apparently irreconcilable attributes, thought and extension: `Sur ce point Spinoza est réuni a Locke, quelque abîme qui puisse les separer en fait. Mais it faut ajouter que cette substance unique sera assimilée à la matière, ce qui n’est pas de Spinoza, et qu’on prêtera à cette matière un dynamisme propre. Pour cette idée essentielle, c’est à travers Leibniz que l’on comprendra Spinoza, dans une sorte de synthèse que Toland avait déjà tentée en 1704 dans ses Lettres à Serena, et qu’on voit apparaître ailleurs, et indépendamment de lui’ (p. 462).Google Scholar
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    Spinoza expressed himself thus: `Deus est omnium rerum causa immanens, non vero transiens.’ Ethica, i, i8, in Spinoza, Opera, ed. Carl Gebhardt (Heidelberg: Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1924), n: 63–4. But cf. the Korte Verhandeling van God de Mensch en deszelfs Westand, z, 3, in Spinoza, Opera, I: 35–6.Google Scholar
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    See ibid., 116. In Boulainvilliers’s exposition of Spinoza’s system he obviously could not omit the polemic against finalistic prejudice which Spinoza developed in the long `Appendix’ which concluded the first part of the Ethica. It is the fragment, as we know, from which can be traced the elements of an anthropology and of a secular and materialistic ethic which must have particularly attracted Boulainvilliers’s comments. Criticism of finalism enabled him to oppose himself against theological prejudice, against the superstition of which it was an expression and which accompanied its cultivation, and finally against that system of values which decreed man’s subjugation and justified every form of tyranny. As with Spinoza, also with Boulainvilliers, criticism of finalism was the starting point for universal determinism which governed everything, and for the rejection of the Creation as being totally inadequate in explaining the intercurrent relationship between God-substance and his modes. Cf. ibid., 118–19.Google Scholar
  34. 49.
    Bibliothèque Nationale, MS n.acq.fr. 11073. The four pamphlets are published in Boulainvilliers, OEuvres philosophiques, II: 1–63. Amsterdam: H. Schelte, 1700.Google Scholar
  35. 52.
    Mr. Locke’s reply to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Worcester’s Answer to his second letter, etc. C’est-à-dire, Replique de Mr. Locke à la seconde Réponse de Mr. l’Evêque de Worcester, où l’on traite de la certitude par la raison, par la foi, etc., de la résurrection du même corps, de l’immortalité de l’âme, et de l’incompatibilité des notions de Mr. Locke avec les articles de la foi chrétienne’, Nouvelles de la république des lettres, XVIII (October 1699): 363–84, (November 1699): 483–513. It is known that what most disturbed Bishop Stillingfleet was Locke’s distinction between propositions `according to Reason’, `above Reason’, and `contrary to Reason’, and the fact that he confined faith to the category `above reason’, which could have had heterodox consequences regarding doctrines which were of prime importance to the conservation of faith. To define with the greatest possible exactitude the origin and nature of our ideas, the extension of knowledge, and the capacities of reason, signified implicitly the devaluation of the realm of faith, confined within those truths of which it was not possible to offer experimental verification. The propositions of reason, at which the spirit arrives through the use of the natural faculties, in the first level of perception, were incompatible, and therefore superior to the truths of faith, which were not arrived at through the working of our organs, but merely based on the credit of those who proposed them as originating from God.Google Scholar
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    H. de Boulainvilliers, `Considérations abrégées des opérations de l’entendement humain sur les idées’, in OEuvres philosophiques, II: u.Google Scholar
  37. 54.
    See `Essai de métaphysique’, 145: `Mon corps et mon esprit ne composent qu’un même individu, ou qu’une même modalité d’existence, qui peut être considérée tantôt sous l’attribut d’étendue corporelle, et tantôt sous l’attribut de la pensée, et laquelle, malgré le partage idéel que l’on en fait par usage, n’est qu’un tout réellement indivisible, dont l’action n’est pas plus propre ni plus conséquent d’un attribut que de l’autre’. But cf. ibid., 178–9.Google Scholar
  38. 55.
    Ibid., 158. 56 Ibid., 122, 164. 57 Ethica, u1, Def. 3, Opera, II: 139.Google Scholar
  39. 58.
    Scholars had spoken of affectiones (or also passiones) entis, in the sense of anything that could interest any sort of being: a property which transcended the being, an accident, any sort of statewhich occurs in anything. For Descartes affection was opposed to action as patient to agent (see Les Passions de l’âme, 1, r, in (Euvres de Descartes, éd. C. Adam and P. Tannery (Paris: Vrin, 1964), xi: 325). We already know of Spinoza. But it should be noted that in the Cogitata metaphysica he spoke of affections as a synonym of attribute: `[dicimus] entis affectiones esse, quaedam attributa, sub quibus uniuscuiusque essentiam vel esistentiam intelligimus, a qua tarnen nonnisi ratione distinguuntur’ (Cogitata metaphysica, 1, 3, Opera, 1: 24o). But in some cases Boulainvilliers too used affection in this sense: `les êtres particuliers sont du moins affections de la substance universelle et modalité de ses attributs’ (`Essai de métaphysique’, 125).Google Scholar
  40. 59.
    Ibid., 152–53, but also 147: `Toutes les idées de l’esprit naissent de ses [that is, man’s] perceptions’.Google Scholar
  41. 60.
    See J. Locke, An essay concerning human understanding, ed. P. H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 11: 143–9.Google Scholar
  42. 68.
    See ibid., 156, 159.Google Scholar
  43. 70.
    Ibid.,,80. The prime passions were, according to Boulainvilliers `celles qui résultent immédiatement des affections primitives, en tant qu’elles sont satisfaites, par la jouissance dans la recherche, et l’éloignement dans la fuite, ou en tant qu’elles sont affligées par la privation dans la recherche et la présence dans la fuite’. The consequences were joy in the first case and sadness in the second.Google Scholar
  44. 74.
    See ibid.. This attitude is, on the other hand, a very early one and dates back to Fréret, who was seeking first of all to clear his friend from charges of scant orthodoxy (cf. `Lettres de M. Fréret, de l’Académie des Belles-Lettres, écrites à M. °’° au sujet de la personne et des ouvrages de M. le comte de Boulainvilliers’, Bibliothèque Mazarine, MSS 1577–8 p. 12). But cf. Moreri, Dictionnaire,11: 133: Plusieurs de ses écrits ont donné lieu de croire qu’il avoir beaucoup donné à la liberté de penser. Il est sûr cependant qu’il a passé toute sa vie dans une liason étroite avec les seigneurs de la cour qui ont eu le plus de réputation de piété.’Google Scholar
  45. 75.
    See the `Traité sur l’immortalité de l’âme’, in Boulainvilliers, OEuvres philosophiques, i: 297, and the Vie de Mahomet, 247–8.Google Scholar
  46. 76.
    See the `Abrégé d’Histoire ancienne’, Bibliothèque Mazarine, MS 1577, p. 54.Google Scholar
  47. 81.
    S. Maréchal, Almanach des honnêtes gens,l’an r“ du régne de la Raison (Paris, 1788; réédition Nancy, 1836).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Roberto Festa
    • 1
  1. 1.Università Statale di MilanoItaly

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