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A European Debate about Colbert

  • Florian Schui

Abstract

Chapter 2 focussed mainly on the relation of Voltaire’s larger perspective on industry with the specific and often minute experiences in Paris and during his stay in Prussia. This chapter will adopt a different perspective. It will place Voltaire’s views on industry in the context of a European debate about the legacy of Jean Baptiste Colbert. Many contemporaries did not share Voltaire’s admiration for the minister and his policies were the subject of controversial debate throughout the eighteenth century. This debate about Colbert involved many French authors but it also extended across Europe. Adam Smith — after having read Voltaire’s praise of Colbert in the Age of Louis XIV — did not only criticise the minister’s policies for the promotion of industry himself, but he also pointed out that ‘the most intelligent men in France’ were severely criticising ‘Mr. Colbert’.1 Voltaire’s support for the minister thus raises the question of why the most celebrated European poet of the eighteenth century defended the legacy of the most prominent administrator of the seventeenth century.

Keywords

Eighteenth Century Personal Interest Individual Interest Spontaneous Order Early Debate 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 3.
    R. Harris, Absolutism and enlightenment (London, 1964), p. 80.Google Scholar
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  3. 7.
    Nicole Ferrier-Caverivière, Le grand roi à l’aube des lumières, 1715–1751 (Paris, 1985), pp. 98–104. Letter cited in Georges Bengesco, Voltaire, bibliographie de ses oeuvres (4 vols, Paris, 1882), I, p. 341.Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    René Pomeau, Voltaire en son temps (2 vols, Paris, 1995 edn), I, p. 660. Voltaire to Marie Louise Denis, 28 Oct. 1750, D 4251. Voltaire to Marie Louise Denis, 26 Dec. 1750, D 4307.Google Scholar
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  6. 11.
    Bengesco, Voltaire, bibliographie de ses œuvres, I, pp. 340–7. Frederick II, king of Prussia to Voltaire, 25 Feb. 1752, D 4819. Adam Smith, ‘Letter to the Edinburgh Review’ (1756), in W. Wightman, ed., Adam Smith — Essays on philosophical subjects (Indianapolis, IN: 1981), p. 247. Mornet points out that this finding is all the more significant since the owners of private libraries in this period tended to be biased against Voltaire.Google Scholar
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    ‘Brûlé à petit feu’. Pierre le Pesant de Boisguilbert, ‘Factum de la France’ (1707), in Eugène Daire, ed., Économistes-Financiers du XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1843), p. 315.Google Scholar
  9. 16.
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    Boisguilbert’s thought will only be presented here as far as necessary to show the differences to Voltaire. There are several good analyses of Boisguilbert’s views: Gilbert Faccarello, Aux origines de l’économie politique libérale: Pierre de Boisguilbert (Paris, 1986). Hecht, ed., Boisguilbert ou la naissance and Boisguilbert parmi nous. Hazel Roberts, Boisguilbert, economist of the reign of Louis XIV (New York, 1935). Joseph Schumpeter, History of economic analysis (London, 1954), pp. 215–18. ‘Ingratitude’. Pierre le Pesant de Boisguilbert, ‘Traité de la nature’ (1707), in Hecht, ed., Boisguilbert ou la naissance, II, pp. 870–1.Google Scholar
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    For the attribution of the phrase ‘laissez-faire’ to Le Gendre see August Oncken, Die Maxime laissez-faire et laissez passer (Bern, 1886). Boisguilbert does not mention that Le Gendre used the phrase ‘laissez-faire’. Since, at Boisguilbert’s time, the phrase did not have the prominence that it acquired later, he may not have paid special attention to the wording used by Le Gendre. At the same time it is possible that the phrase is wrongly attributed to Le Gendre. While Oncken’s argument is plausible, it remains difficult to show the origin of the phrase conclusively. ‘Et ses semblables’, ‘ardeur de gagner’, ‘intérêt personnel’, ‘tout irait parfaitement bien’, ‘intérêts indirects’, ‘intérêt personnel’. Boisguilbert, ‘Factum’ (1966 edn), p. 795.Google Scholar
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    ‘Il réglerait’, ‘il dirigerait’. Frederick II, king of Prussia, ‘Essai sur l’amourpropre envisagé comme principe de morale’, in J.-D.-E. Preuss, ed., Œuvres de Frédéric le Grand (10 vols, Berlin, 1849), IX, p. 90. ‘L’amour-propre bien dirigé’, ‘vertu’, ‘bonheur’. Voltaire to Frederick II, king of Prussia, 25 Jan. 1770, D 16114. Albert Hirschmann, The passions and the interests (Princeton, 1977), pp. 14–9. Voltaire, ‘Remarques sur les pensées de Pascal’ (1728), in M, XXII, p. 36. Smith, Wealth of nations, I, p. 27.Google Scholar
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    Robert Shackleton, Montesquieu — a critical biography (Oxford, 1961), p. 365.Google Scholar
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    ‘Quatre à cinq laquais’. Christiaan Huygens, Fragment of a letter by Huygens of 1686, in Société Hollandaise des Sciences, ed., Œuvres complètes de Christiaan Huygens (22 vols, La Haye, 1950), IX, p. 79. Huygen’s letter to his brother Lodewijk of 1673 contains not only remarks about the weather in Paris (‘fort beau’) but also a detailed description of the pump (‘fort bien’). Christiaan Huygens to Lodewijk Huygens, 22 Sept. 1673, in Société Hollandaise des Sciences, ed., Œuvres complètes de Christiaan Huygens, VII, pp. 356–61. For Huygen’s role in the context of the construction of Versailles and its gardens see Huygen’s biography in the Œuvres complètes de Christiaan Huygens, XXII, pp. 266–8, 711–2.Google Scholar
  16. 62.
    Wilhelm Treue, Wirtschafts- und Technikgeschichte Preussens (Berlin, 1984), pp. 85–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. See also Otto Busch, Militärsystem und Sozialleben im alten Preussen (1713–1807) (Berlin, 1962), pp. 51–67.Google Scholar
  18. 63.
    ‘Toutes sortes de commodités’, ‘peu de besoins’, ‘beaucoup de besoins’, ‘peu de commodités’, ‘paresse’, ‘industrie et l’activité’. Charles de Secondat, baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu, ‘De l’esprit des lois’ (1748), in Daniel Oster, ed., Œuvres complètes Montesquieu (Paris, 1964), p. 659.Google Scholar
  19. 67.
    Pomeau, Voltaire en son temps, I, p. 703. For Schmid’s position in the company see among others ‘Ausführliche Nachricht von der Octroyrten königlich Preussischen Asiatischen Compagnie’, 1 July 1751, GStA PK, I HA, Rep. 96, Nr. 423 B, p. 111. For his role in Voltaire’s arrest: ‘Ordre an Freytag und Schmid’, 19 April 1753, GStA PK, BPH, Rep. 47, FII Voltairiana 8, p. 3. See also Pomeau, Voltaire en son temps, I, p. 727. René Pomeau, ‘Présentation’, in René Pomeau, ed., La Politique de Voltaire (Paris, 1963), p. 36.Google Scholar

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© Florian Schui 2005

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  • Florian Schui

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