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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Such was the doctrine of the physiocratic school


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higher and nobler spirit, who perished in the Revolution, but ceased not till his last moment to hope and labour for the good of men, was J.-A.-N. de Caritat, Marquis de CONDORCET (1743-94). Illustrious in mathematical science, he was interested by Turgot in political economy, and took a part in the polemics of theology. While lying concealed from the emissaries of Robespierre he wrote his _Esquisse d'un Tableau Historique des Progres de l'Esprit Humain_. It is a philosophy of the past, and almost a hymn in honour of human perfectibility. The man-statue of Condillac, receiving, retaining, distinguishing, and combining sensations, has gradually developed, through nine successive epochs, from that of the hunter and fisher to the citizen of 1789, who comprehends the physical universe with Newton, human nature with Locke and Condillac, and society with Turgot and Rousseau. In the vision of the future, with its progress in knowledge and in morals, its individual and social improvement, its lessening inequalities between nations and classes, the philosopher finds his consolation for all the calamities of the present age. Condorcet died in prison, poisoned, it is believed, by his own hand.

The economists, or, as Dupont de Nemours named them, the physiocrats, formed a not unimportant wing of the philosophic phalanx, now in harmony with the Encyclopaedic party, now in hostility. The sense of the misery of France was present to many minds in the opening

of the century, and with the death of Louis XIV. came illusive hopes of amelioration. The Abbe de Saint-Pierre (1658-1743), filled with ardent zeal for human happiness, condemned the government of the departed Grand Monarch, and dreamed of a perpetual peace; among his dreams arose projects for the improvement of society which were justified by time. Boisguillebert, and Vauban, marshal of France and military engineer, were no visionary spirits; they pleaded for a serious consideration of the general welfare, and especially the welfare of the agricultural class, the wealth-producers of the community. To violate economic laws, Boisguillebert declared, is to violate nature; let governments restrain their meddling, and permit natural forces to operate with freedom.

Such was the doctrine of the physiocratic school, of which FRANCOIS QUESNAY (1694-1774) was the chief. Let human institutions conform to nature; enlarge the bounds of freedom; give play to the spirit of individualism; diminish the interference of government--"laissez faire, laissez passer."[2] Agriculture is productive, let its burdens be alleviated; manufactures are useful but "sterile": honour, therefore, above all, to the tiller of the fields, who hugs nature close, and who enriches humankind! The elder Mirabeau--"ami des hommes"--who had anticipated Quesnay in some of his views, and himself had learnt from Cantillon, met Quesnay in 1757, and thenceforth subordinated his own fiery spirit, as far as that was possible, to the spirit of the master. From the physiocrats--Gournay and Quesnay--the noble-minded and illustrious TURGOT (1727-81) derived many of those ideas of reform which he endeavoured to put into action when intendant of Limoges, and later, when Minister of Finance. By his _Reflexions sur la Formation et la Distribution des Richesses_, Turgot prepared the way for Adam Smith.

[Footnote 2: This phrase had been used by Boisguillebert and by the Marquis d'Argenson before Gournay made it a power. On D'Argenson (1694-1757), whose _Considerations sur le Gouvernement de la France_ were not published until 1764, see the study by Mr. Arthur Ogle (1893).]


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