Fleury, Fénélon, and the Burgundy Circle
[This article is excerpted from An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, vol. 1, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith. An MP3 audio file of this article, read by Jeff Riggenbach, is available for download.]
During the early 1670s, the devout Abbé Claude Fleury (1640–1723), a young theologian, moralist, and man of letters, launched an influential opposition to the absolutism and mercantilism of Louis XIV. In a small pamphlet, Pensées Politiques, Fleury upheld the agrarian ideal and opposed the mercantilist forced subsidization of industry. Furthermore, in a companion work, Reflections on the Works of Machiavelli, Fleury attacked Montaigne-type skepticism, which resulted in endorsing an unrestrained exercise of power over depraved men who were virtually devoid of reason. He also denounced Machiavelli's view that politics should be divorced from ethics. Combining the latter themes, Fleury contended that man can use reason to take the path of justice and virtue, while Machiavelli's prince was a godless tyrant who had no desire to lead his subjects to happiness. In contrast to Machiavelli's view that "men are bad," Fleury countered sensibly that "they are for the most part neither very bad nor very good," and that the ruler had the duty to improve their virtue and happiness.
The outstanding clerical opponent of absolutism and mercantilism in late 17th-century France, however, was not so much Fleury as his friend and student, François de Salignac de la Mothe, Archbishop Fénélon of Cambrai (1651–1715). Fénélon led a powerful cabal at court, which was deeply opposed to the absolutist and mercantilist policies of the king and determined to reform them in the direction of free trade, limited government, and laissez-faire. By means of his post as religious instructor to the king's mistress, Madame de Maintenon, Fénélon got himself appointed in 1689 as preceptor to the royal children, in particular the young Duke of Burgundy, grandson of Louis XIV, who seemed destined one day to be king. Assisted by Fleury, Fénélon made the duke into a disciple, surrounding him with ardent oppositionists to the policies of the Sun King.
In 1693, Fénélon, incensed at the continuing wars against the English and Dutch, wrote the king an impassioned and hard-hitting, though anonymous, letter, which he probably sent only to Madame de Maintenon. Blaming the king's evil ministers, he declared,
Sire … for the past thirty years your … ministers have violated and overturned all the ancient maxims of state in order to raise your power, which was theirs because it was in their hands, to the highest possible point. We no longer heard of the State nor of its rules; they only spoke of the King and his pleasure. They have increased your revenues and your expenditures to the infinite. They have elevated you to the heavens, and impoverished all of France so as to introduce and maintain an incurable and monstrous luxury at Court. They wanted to raise you on the ruins of all classes in the State, as if you could become great by oppressing your subjects.
The king's ministers, Fénélon continued, only wish to crush all who resist. They have made the king's name "odious," have wanted "only slaves," and have "caused bloody wars." The wars and their attendant taxes have crushed trade and the poor, driving the people to desperation "by exacting from them for your wars, the bread which they have endeavored to earn with the sweat from their brows."
Fénélon's magnum opus was his political novel, Télémaque, written for the edification of the young Duke of Burgundy, on whom he and his confreres pinned all the hopes for the radical liberalization of France. Télémaque was written during 1695 and 1696, and published without his permission in 1699. Télémaque was a mythical young prince, who traveled through the world of antiquity seeking instruction on the wisest forms of government. What Télémaque learned were the lessons of pure laissez-faire. For example, young Télémaque asked Mentor, a wise man among the Phoenicians, how that people was able to flourish so remarkably in world commerce. Mentor answered, laissez-faire:
Above all never do anything to interfere with trade in order to turn it to your views. The Prince must not concern himself [with trade] for fear of hindering it. He must leave all profits to his subjects who earned them, otherwise they will become discouraged.… Trade is like certain springs; if you turn them from their course they will dry up. Profit and convenience can alone attract foreigners to your shores; if you make trade difficult and less useful for them they will gradually withdraw and not return.
Similarly, in the land of Salente, "the liberty of commerce was entire," by which Fénélon explicitly meant the absence of state interference in domestic as well as foreign trade. Every good entered and left the country with complete freedom; trade "was similar to the ebb and flow of the tide."
In his Treatise on the Existence of God, Fénélon attacked mercantilist nationalism by stressing the unity of all peoples dispersed over the earth. Moreover, he stressed that human reason is "independent and above man, [and] is the same in all countries." And just as God unites all peoples through a common and universal reason, so the sea and the earth unite mankind by providing communication and resources which can be exchanged for one another. Fénélon waxed eloquent on natural specialization and free trade uniting all peoples:
It is the effect of a wise overruling Providence that no land yields all that is useful to human life. For want invites men to commerce, in order to supply one another's necessities. Want therefore is the natural tie of society between nations; otherwise all peoples would be reduced to one sort of food and clothing, and nothing would invite them to know and visit one another.
Following his mentor Fleury, Fénélon stressed the importance and productivity of agriculture, and attacked rulers for impoverishing the countryside through crippling taxation, and for diverting resources from agriculture to luxury products.
Fénélon was eloquent in his attack on tyranny and absolutism. Absolute monarchs, he thundered,
take all and ruin everything. They are sole possessors of the entire state, but the whole realm languishes. The countryside is uncultivated and almost deserted, towns diminish every day, trade stagnates.… The King's absolute power creates as many slaves as he has subjects.… This monstrous power swollen to its most violent excess cannot endure; it has no support in the heart of the people.… At the first blow the idol will fall, crack and be crushed underfoot. Contempt, hate, vengeance, defiance, in a word all passions will unite against so odious a rule.
To Fénélon, "war is the greatest of evils," and France's pernicious policy of constant wars was the result of her nationalist and mercantilist economic policies. Cursed be those rulers, declared Fénélon, who augment their power at the expense of other nations and who seek a "monstrous glory" in the blood of their fellow men.
To educate the young duke of Burgundy on the evils of war, Fénélon engaged a man who was called "one of the cleverest men of the century." François Le Blanc had published a massive treatise on money and coinage in 1690 (An Historical Treatise on the Moneys of France from the Beginning of the Monarchy until the Present.) There Le Blanc had condemned kings for engaging in debasement for their monetary profit. Fénélon commissioned Le Blanc to write a tome for the young duke on all the treaties between the nations of Europe, and the causes and consequences of all the wars that ensued, as well as the ways they might have been avoided. Unfortunately, Le Blanc died before he could finish this monumental task.
One of the key figures in the Burgundy circle was Charles de Sainte-Maure, the duke of Montausier. Montausier was governor of the royal dauphin, and Le Blanc (before taking on the book) and Abbé Fleury were both employees in the service of Montausier. Le Blanc's place in teaching the duke had been preceded by Pierre Daniel Huet, bishop of Avranches. Huet, a friend of Le Blanc, denounced French mercantilist and protectionist policies in 1694, and praised the free trade that had brought prosperity to the Dutch.
In 1711, the Grand Dauphin, son of Louis XIV, died, and the Burgundy circle was overjoyed, since the duke was now in line for the throne to succeed the aged Sun King. But tragedy struck the following year, when the duke, his wife, and his eldest son were all struck dead of measles. All the hopes, all the plans, were cruelly destroyed and, Fénélon wrote to a friend in despair, "Men work by their education to form a subject full of courage and ornamented by knowledge; then God comes along to destroy this house of cards."
The tragic end of the Burgundy circle illuminates a crucial strategic flaw in the plans, not only of the Burgundy circle, but also of the physiocrats, Turgot, and other laissez-faire thinkers of the later 18th century. For their hopes and their strategic vision were invariably to work within the matrix of the monarchy and its virtually absolute rule. The idea, in short, was to get into court, influence the corridors of power, and induce the king to adopt libertarian ideas and impose a laissez-faire revolution, so to speak, from the top. If the king could not be persuaded directly, then a new king's ideas and values would be formed from childhood by liberal preceptors and tutors.
Reliance on the good will of the king, however, suffered from several inherent defects. One, as in the case of the Duke of Burgundy, was reliance on the existence and good health of one person. A second is a more systemic flaw, Even if one can convince the king that the interests of his subjects require liberty and laissez-faire, the standard argument that his own revenue will increase proportionately to their prosperity is a shaky one. For the king's revenue might well be maximized, certainly in the short run and even in the long run, by tyrannically sweating his subjects to attain the maximum possible revenue. And relying on the altruism of the monarch is a shaky reed at best.
For all these reasons, appealing to a monarch to impose laissez-faire from above can only be a losing strategy. A far better strategy would have been to organize a mass opposition from below among the ruled and exploited masses, an opposition that would have given laissez-faire a far more solid groundwork in adherence by the bulk of the population. In the long run, of course, mass opposition, even revolution, was precisely what happened to France — a revolution from below that was partially if not largely inspired by laissez-faire ideals.
The erudite and sophisticated laissez-faire thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries, however, would have rebuffed such a suggested strategy as certainly inconvenient and probably lunatic, especially in the light of the failure of the various inchoate peasant and other fronde rebellions of the mid-17th century. Not least of all, men of influential and privileged status themselves are rarely inclined to toss all their privileges aside to engage in the lonely and dangerous task of working outside the inherited political system.
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This article is excerpted from An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, vol. 1, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith. An MP3 audio file of this article, read by Jeff Riggenbach, is available for download.
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 Madame Françoise d'Aubigne, Marquise de Maintenon (1635–1719).
 Lionel Rothkrug, Opposition to Louis XIV: The Political and Social Origins of the French Enlightenment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965), pp. 267–9.
 Lionel Rothkrug, Opposition to Louis XIV: The Political and Social Origins of the French Enlightenment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965), p. 270.
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