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Political Philosophy Colloquium

Mar 03, 2016




  • Princeton University Department of Politics

    Political Philosophy Colloquium Thursday, September 22, 2005, 4:30 PM


    ISTVAN HONT University of Cambridge and King's College, Cambridge

    1 The spectre of luxury 2

    2 Fnelon 7

    3 Mandeville 13

    4 Shaftesbury 24

    5 Hutcheson 29

    6 Berkeley 32

    7 The early Montesquieu 35

    8 Melon 43

    9 Voltaire 47 ____________________________________________________________

    Text to be published in 2006 as Chapter XIII of The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Political Thought, eds. Mark Goldie and Robert Wokler

    Please do not cite or quote without permission

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    1 The spectre of luxury

    A spectre was haunting the modern world, wrote the Neapolitan Fernando

    Galiani in 1751, the spectre of 'luxury'. It 'wanders among us never seen in

    its true light, or recognised for its efficacy and it, perhaps, never occurs to

    the virtuous'. It was akin to the idea of 'terrestrial happiness', but 'no one

    knows or dares to say', Galiani grumbled, 'what luxury might properly be'

    (Galiani, 1977, p. 214). Denis Diderot was in a similar quandary. Defining

    the term, he wrote in the Encyclopdie, called for a 'discussion among those

    who show the most discrimination in their use of the term luxury: a

    discussion which has yet to take place, and which even they cannot bring to

    a satisfactory conclusion' (Diderot, 1755, V, p. 635). The article on

    'Luxury', published in 1762, and written by the marquis de Saint-Lambert

    was as much a summary of the luxury debates of the first half of the

    eighteenth century as an attempt to resolve them. The purpose of this

    chapter is to present the work of eight important contributors to these

    debates in France and Britain before 1748, the year of publication of

    Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws, that supplied Saint-Lambert with the

    resources he needed to try to say what luxury actually was.

    As Saint-Lambert presented it, luxury was not merely an economic

    phenomenon, but the central moral and political issue of modernity. The

    standard definition of 'luxury' was excessive individual consumption (Butel-

    Dumont, 1771), but Saint-Lambert followed the definition of Vron de

    Forbonnais (the author of the articles 'Commerce' and 'Agriculture' and the

    original assignee for 'Luxury') (Forbonnais, 1754, p. 221): '[Luxury] is the

    use men make of wealth and industry to assure themselves of a pleasant

    existence' (Saint-Lambert, 1965, p. 202). This turned 'luxury' into a

    constituent part of 'self-love', a direct offspring of human instinct, a

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    definition that is most familiar today in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations as

    the 'desire of bettering our condition, a desire which, though generally calm

    and dispassionate, comes with us from the womb, and never leaves us till

    we go into the grave' (Smith, 1976, II.iii.28; cf. Saint-Lambert, 1965, p.

    204). The philosophical point of this definition of 'luxury' was to show self-

    love in a positive light, as a counter to Christian and republican moral

    rigorism. Saint-Lambert ferociously attacked the Jansenists and the

    libertines of the seventeenth century (Nicole, Pascal and Rochefoucauld) for

    making 'self-love a principle that is always vicious', and for finding 'no virtue

    in us because self-love is the principle of our actions'. Instead, Saint-

    Lambert aligned himself with the third earl of Shaftesbury, not as a theorist

    who counted 'self-love in man for nothing' as he was often miscast, but as

    an innovative philosopher who regarded 'benevolence, love of order, and

    even the most complete self-sacrifice as the effects of our self-love' (Saint-

    Lambert, 1765a, VIII, p. 818).

    Saint-Lambert was a participant in two different luxury debates. The first

    revolved around the uncompromising critique of luxury by republicans and

    Christians. This was a debate between 'ancients' and 'moderns', echoing

    longstanding arguments originating in Greece, republican Rome and early

    Christianity. For its critics luxury was the product of extreme inequality, the

    sacrifice of the countryside for the cities, the cause of depopulation, the

    nemesis of courage, honour and love of country. For its defenders, luxury

    was an engine of population growth, higher living standards, the circulation

    of money, good manners, the progress of the arts and sciences, and, last

    but not least, the power of nations and the happiness of citizens. Saint-

    Lambert was desperate to draw a line under this ultra-polarised debate, and

    sided with the advocates of luxury. He had no truck with radical anti-luxury

    reforms, or the cult of ancient military states. It was better, he wrote, 'for a

    people to obey frivolous epicureans than fierce warriors, and to feed the

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    luxury of voluptuous and enlightened rascals rather than the luxury of

    heroic and ignorant robbers'. The historical record, Saint-Lambert claimed,

    was so mixed that it proved nothing in particular. 'Luxury does not make

    the character of a nation', he wrote, 'but takes on that character' (p. 230).

    Its effects depended on bad and good government, on the balance between

    corruption and 'public spirit'.

    The second debate was amongst the 'moderns' themselves. The issue for

    them was not whether to accept modern economic growth, but how to make

    it politically and morally benign. This was a controversy between the

    partisans of 'unregulated' and 'well-ordered' luxury. Here Saint-Lambert

    was on the side of the critics of unfettered luxury, for he stood for 'patriotic'

    luxury firmly guided by civic spirit. As his allegiance to Shaftesbury

    demonstrated, he was not an Epicurean. But he still wanted a patriotic and

    democratic form of luxury as a source of national happiness, to benefit and

    motivate everyone. Virtuous states did not need to be poor, or rich ones

    dissolute. 'If men use riches according to the dictates of patriotism they will

    seek other things besides their base personal interest and false and childish

    pleasures', he wrote. 'It is then that luxury is no longer in conflict with the

    duties of a father, a husband, a friend, and man' (p. 228). Luxury, Saint-

    Lambert emphasised, was not a problem for societies 'founded on the

    equality and community of goods' (p. 204), where both economy and polity

    were equally communal. It became an issue when the economy became

    'private' (with private property and hence inequality) and less obviously

    compatible with the 'esprit de communaut' (public spirit) (cf. Saint-

    Lambert, 1765b, IX, pp. 357-8). Europe had long reached a level of

    inequality, Saint-Lambert believed, that could not be suppressed. European

    states had to be monarchies, the political form of inequality par excellence.

    Saint-Lambert's regime of 'well-ordered' luxury was a kind of monarchical

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    equivalent of the regime prescribed for Geneva by Rousseau in his Social


    By describing luxury as an epiphenomenon of inequality and private

    property, Saint-Lambert indicated that the luxury debate of the 'moderns'

    was continuous with the property debates of the seventeenth century. The

    difference between the two was a matter of emphasis. As a contemporary

    commentator observed, the seventeenth-century discourse of the 'Law of

    Nations' was already a controversy about the consequences of luxury

    (Mackenzie, 1691, 'Dedication'). However, while the property debate

    focused on the origins of private property, the luxury debate was about the

    political and economic feasibility of a fully developed property system. The

    luxury debate was the property debate at the fourth stage of social

    development, dealing with societies that had progressed beyond not only

    hunter-gathering and shepherding, but also agriculture. It addressed the

    fate of those who had been excluded from private property in land. The

    vital role of the luxury of the cities in creating employment for those whose

    livelihood depended on effective demand for their products and services was

    already recognised in the late seventeenth century. For property theorists

    like Locke and Pufendorf urban luxury was no longer a predominantly moral

    problem but an issue of justice and even more of political prudence (Hont

    and Ignatieff, 1983). The standard complaints of the 'ancients' against

    luxury seemed increasingly outdated as their blindness to the economic

    limits to politics became more apparent. The 'modern' search was for a

    political and moral accommodation of luxury that would yield a positive

    answer to questions of social stability, population growth and the misery of

    the working classes. Saint-Lambert's 'patriotic luxury' was an attempt to

    reconcile the communal spirit of the ancients with modern economic growth

    as a solution to these dilemmas. The other side in the 'modern' debate

    looked for specifically modern forms of politics that could contain the ill

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    effects of luxury. Both sides tended to be highly critical of the prevailing

    European state system, suggesting that it was living on borrowed time,