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Brave New World

France in the Enlightenment

by Daniel Roche, Translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer
Harvard University Press, 723 pp., $24.95 (paper)

Daniel Roche is an eminent French scholar who has previously written on French provincial academies and the “people” of Paris. One must presumably call him a “social historian,” but in his long and wide-ranging book1 he aims, he says, to “move from social history to history on a broader scale.” It is important that the kind of history he is undertaking is made quite clear. It is not narrative history, though it has an overall chronological drift; nor is it concerned, except incidentally, with wars or with politicians, or (much) with intellectual history. One could say that its central topic is structures—social structures, institutional structures, and mental structures—and the interaction between them, with the “possibilities of transformation” that this brings. Or, more simply, one could say that Roche’s subject is change: the change that came over France during the eighteenth century, when the ground shifted under the ancien régime. He warns us, however, of the danger of teleology or hindsight—of writing the history of “Enlightenment” France in the light of the French Revolution. (In practice he does not always succeed in avoiding this. But then who, apart perhaps from Michel Foucault, has ever managed to?)

Roche’s book falls into three parts. The first is an essay in epistemology, a study of the “frames,” or perspectives, through which French people of the eighteenth century looked at the world and their own country. According to Roche, changing understanding of space became visible, for example, in economic thinking, in which the concept of an economic “circuit” and the integration of roads, canals, rivers, ships, and port facilities, as instruments in the forming of a national market, received a new emphasis. Concern with space also became evident in the government’s growing obsession with mapping, surveying, and boundary drawing. And the same could be said, in Roche’s view, for its emphasis on efficient collection of taxes and control of citizens’ movements. Likewise, according to Roche, the French interpretation of time was transformed from a seasonal and cyclical conception, reinforced by religious practice, to a linear or clockwork one, with the implications that this carried for attitudes toward history, religion, and progress.

Part Two goes on to comparable changes in collective “representations,” and in particular the weakening of the mystique of the monarchy and the “social hierarchy.” These challenges to the court, church, and other traditional institutions were the result, Roche suggests, of the rise of a “public space,” or institutionalized public opinion. (The term comes from the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, whose The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere [1962] has had a large impact on eighteenth-century social history.) Among these new “spaces” for liberal public discourse, discussed by Roche, were new educational institutions, coffeehouses, lodges and secret societies, salons, and, of course, the press.

Part Three describes “life triumphant,” as seen in the mood of “utilitarian optimism” which developed in the second half of the century. It went along, according to Roche, with a revaluation of science, which came to be directed toward the material and the practical. “Contempt for the human condition gave way to praise for man’s ability to create wealth and values.” He sees this change, moreover, as linked to changes in self-awareness: the invention of privacy and the rise of “individualism.”

For long, we used to be lectured, even to the point of rebellion, about the clarté, the beautiful clarity, of French literary prose; but those days are over. Even “establishment” French prose is not easy to read now, and Daniel Roche’s is a case in point. Though essentially a rather orthodox historian, he employs a most elaborate and alembicated syntax, favors certain all-purpose terms (mettre en valeur, enjeu) of elusive meaning, and, as has been seen, makes much reference to cultural “space.” In his prose, things do not happen, they “inscribe themselves.” This presents his distinguished translator, Arthur Goldhammer, with a problem. One seems to hear him saying he has no patience with this French folderol and will see what can be done by downright Anglo-Saxon plainness. Indeed this approach often works, and he manages to simplify and be more down-to-earth than Roche without losing anything essential. Where Roche writes,

The century of Enlightenment inscribes itself at the limit of a more ample respiration. It situates itself at a stage of civilization propitious to the immobilizing of the unstable and the overseeing of movement,2

Goldhammer has

The Enlightenment marked the culmination of a long-term process whereby societies learned to restrict the movements of troublesome individuals.

This, in its bluff way, seems fine, though it begs the question of what Roche means by “respiration” (which indeed is a puzzle: Does he mean breathing in or breathing out?).

It is, all the same, a burden for a translator to be on such strained terms with his author, especially over such a long book, and one can see Goldhammer suffering under it. On occasion he is led astray and gets Roche wrong, simply because of the recherché phrasing. But more often he apparently makes errors out of sheer absent-mindedness and weariness (writing, for example, “egalitarian” for “inegalitarian”).3

Such slips could easily be rectified in a new edition. But Goldhammer’s translation also raises another, and curiously complicated, issue. Roche, in a way common with French historians, makes much use of the present tense (the so-called “historic present”), and Goldhammer, no doubt feeling that this would sound stilted in English, regularly changes verbs into the past tense. This often works perfectly well. But gradually, as one reads on in the French text, it dawns on one what the function of Roche’s present tense really is. It is exemplary; it is meant to suggest not so much what happened as what, in the logic of things, might be expected to happen. Naturally we read this in the light of the Revolution, which we know to have come, but the present tense is, ostensibly anyway, anti-teleological. Goldhammer writes,

When change stalled, the government proved incapable of pursuing reform, and the political goals of the Enlightenment dissolved into a multitude of contradictory ends, the ensuing crisis did not spare either the state or the enclaves of egalitarianism. How could the crisis unfold without calling the very image of the king into question?

Roche’s original, by contrast, is all if‘s: “If the change stalls…if the goals of Enlightenment politics dissolve….” And it ends with a far more tentative question: “Cannot the crisis develop even further if even the image of the king is called into question?”

It is right, I think, to emphasize the translation problem, for, though from one point of view it springs from a profound difference in national idioms, it also indicates a problem about Roche himself. To put it brutally, one cannot help sometimes suspecting his elaborate style of being a disguise for the obvious, or at least the well-worn. I am inclined, indeed, to think that Roche has chosen an approach toward eighteenth-century France, by way of sociological abstractions, that does not really suit him. In reading his opening pages one cannot help being reminded of Michel Foucault’s Les Mots et les choses, which uses the epistemological approach to such prodigious and eye-opening effect. By comparison, Roche’s reflections on “Mastery of Space” and “Time and History” strike one as somewhat factitious.

For instance, he writes that the high death rate in the cities meant that people had “to look about more broadly” to find marriage partners or work. “This, too,” he says, “contributed to the expansion of space.” It would be a strange set of values that would rate expanded “space” high among the implications of mortality; and, moreover, the amount of space regularly covered by the shepherds of medieval Montaillou is enough to make one gape. Roche’s phrase “the expansion of space” begins to seem rather forced.

Then, Roche is a great multiplier of entities, in the manner stigmatized by William of Ockham. Of the mid-eighteenth century, he writes:

The mercantile kingdom and the agricultural kingdom stood in opposition because each embodied a distinctive social structure and mentality. Conflict between the two societies had emerged with the formation of the territorial state and the organization of a royal administration obsessed with its fiscal powers and with controlling the flow of wealth through ports and trading centers.

The seed of this large generalization seems to be simply an observation of Voltaire, that merchants were socially more highly regarded in England than they were in France. It is hard to see how this, or any other such remark, can justify positing the existence of “two societies”—a “mercantile kingdom” and an “agricultural kingdom.” Whom would this “agricultural kingdom” be thought to include? Just the peasants? Or the peasants and their noble landlords? Or an imagined ancient France of king, feudal seigneur, and peasant? Who, again, would be the citizens of the “mercantile kingdom”? The high-flying international merchants or négociants? But, according to Fernand Braudel, they were numerically a quite tiny group4 ; and if we are thinking of lesser merchants, would we not find them in close, even day-to-day, contact with shopkeepers and market traders and peasants? These two separate societies, or “universes” as Roche elsewhere calls them (Goldhammer translates this as “distinct subcultures”), would seem to be a phantasm.

The subjects that really appeal to Roche, one feels, are more down to earth. For instance, institutions. His enthusiasm rises when these come into question, and, for example, he is a very helpful guide through the law courts of the ancien régime, which bolster his point that “the state did not have an absolute monopoly over justice.” These included the ecclesiastical courts, the urban and consular ones, the financial and admiralty and military courts, and the seigneurial courts administered by the nobility. Of the latter, we learn that in the Paris basin, there was one for every two or three parishes. Finally there were the royal-delegated common-law courts (the prévôtés, bailliages, and parlements), which formed “the backbone of urban society.” Together, Roche says, these courts were the place where royal power could be covertly challenged.

It was impossible to limit or eliminate the sovereignty of magistrates in the exercise of their power, even if this led, as Voltaire charged, to “contradiction, uncertainty, and arbitrariness.” Two things followed from this. First, each court and tribunal had a specific function and kept a watch over certain local interests…. Second,…the lower courts proved insubordinate, and their lack of discipline in matters of appeal or enforcement of general decrees destroyed the image of a hierarchical judicial system and undermined the authority of magistrates generally.

The resulting system was, of course, a maze, and the litigants themselves, not surprisingly, very frequently got lost in it.

Roche is illuminating again, and by contrast, about the professionalizing of the career of engineer in France, a sphere in which France was far in advance of the rest of Europe, not least in mastering mathematical technologies of mapping. He brings out here the point that so struck Tocqueville: the curious coexistence, in eighteenth-century France, of ancient and entrenched muddle and modernizing and centralizing efficiency. A nice reflection on this was made by Daniel Defoe, a great admirer of French efficiency, in his Review, apropos of the siege of Lisle, during the War of the Spanish Succession. His spokesman, “Madman,” declares to “Mr. Review” that not a single English engineer “ever miscarry’d or misbehaved” at the siege. And why was that, asks Mr. Review? Because there were none there, replies “Madman”; there was “not one English Engineer in the whole Army.”5

Roche writes: “If we are to understand how the new world developed, we must not isolate changes in consciousness from material change: this fundamental theme is what unifies the various approaches I have taken in this book.” This is what a historian of the Fernand Braudel school would perhaps have taken for granted. Nevertheless, it points to another strength in Roche, who can be most copiously and intelligently informative about “material change.” From a large-scale survey of objects used in everyday life, he is able to illustrate changes in the household, for instance a revolution in the kitchen:

Well into the eighteenth century, women still knelt, crouched, or sat while cooking. Kitchen utensils were few in number and were either arrayed around the kitchen or stored on shelves. After 1750, however, fireplaces with multiple hearths became common, the tripod replaced the trammel [a device hung in the fireplace to support pots and kettles], and stoves and ovens allowed women to cook standing up.

He analyzes, and even to some extent quantifies, the progressive specialization of living space.

In 1755 twenty terms sufficed to identify different kinds of rooms. By 1782 it took twenty-seven, and by 1800 it was up to fifty. Descriptive precision went along with functional variety. The most notable shift, both quantitatively and qualitatively, involved hygiene: new terms included garde-robe, cabinet de garde-robe, lieux d’aisance, lieux à l’anglaise, cabinet d’aisance, garde-robe à l’anglaise, cabinet de bain, and salle de bain.

On the subject of furniture, he writes that two revolutions, begun in the seventeenth century, were completed in the eighteenth.

To begin with, furniture making became an art with rules of its own, independent of architecture, which had refused to accommodate itself to the body: “Supple and delicate arabesque motifs ceased to be mere ornament and began to shape the contours of objects themselves,” and furniture making became “drawing projected into space.” Out of this conjunction of the formal with the material came the light, dynamic style of the Enlightenment. The neoclassical return to antiquity did not mean that furniture making once again became subordinate to architecture: the neoclassical style of ornament and designs using columns and lintels were thoroughly denatured [i.e., used in a way unrelated to architectural function], and the final result was furniture that seemed to defy the laws of gravity.

As Roche points out, new designs for chairs made it easier to move them and to move in them, which encouraged modes of conversation more private, relaxed, and intimate. “Sitting comfortably,” he writes, “did not mean sitting still.”

It is not on the basis of such informative passages that one would quarrel with Roche’s book. I am, nevertheless, inclined to quarrel with it, and, above all, over its basic propositions about social organization. Admittedly Roche is not alone in them; indeed, they constitute a kind of orthodoxy. Still, and perhaps all the more, one feels a need to challenge them.

I will begin with his title, which—in its English translation anyway 6—revives one’s dislike of that desperately flabby concept “the Enlightenment.” (I can hardly be alone in finding something comical in the question “What place did water occupy in the Enlightenment?”) One of the ills that this concept brings with it (and it does so here) is the flattening out of what eighteenth-century writers actually said, in the cause of a spurious unanimity. The century, writes Roche, “believed in prosperity as the basis of universal enlightenment.” But this was not the belief of Voltaire, who did not favor the universalizing of “enlightenment,” or of Rousseau, who regarded material prosperity as a moral snare.

Then, discussing the “Eldorado” episode in Voltaire’s Candide, he writes: “Candide leaves the tropical paradise—an exemplary, miraculous, transparent, egalitarian society—because it does not offer solutions to the characteristic evils of the old world, does not provide a key to eliminating old woes.” But this is not the case. They must quit Eldorado, Candide tells his servant Cacambo, because, if they stay in this virtuous paradise, they will just be ordinary undistinguished citizens—whereas if they return to Europe, with a dozen sheep laden with the gold that the Eldoradans treat as valueless pebbles, they will be able to cut a magnificent figure.7 It is a more “human,” indeed all-too-human, motive, and an entirely different one. Roche goes on to call Candide “a fragile yet optimistic crystallisation, of questions about the possibility of progress and its ‘sufficient reason.”’ This must be the very first time that Candide has been called optimistic.

Again, let us consider Roche’s language about the “age-old values,” the “ancient, Christian, absolutist concept of power,” based on the sacral body of the sovereign, which was still current as a belief or mental “representation” in eighteenth-century France. The word to question here is “age-old.” For the truth, surely, is that what he is discussing is something not age-old but quite recent, a way of talking encouraged by the rise of absolutism. It is the theory of the “divine right of kings,” which was given its classic formulation—by Bodin, Charles Loyseau, and others—only about the end of the sixteenth century and as a reaction to the Civil Wars.8

When did the French cease to believe that the mysteries of government were impenetrable?” asks Roche. The answer he seems to be expecting is, not before the middle of the eighteenth century, if then—i.e., not at least till Montesquieu and Rousseau got to work. But one might equally ask, when did the French start to believe it, or did they ever? In 1648 the Paris parlement came into head-on collision with the monarchy, contesting its arbitrary pretensions and drawing up a program of political reform; and after a brief civil war, during which the young Louis XIV and his mother had to flee Paris, most of the parlement‘s demands were granted. Not much shyness here about prying into the mysteries of government; though certainly, and perhaps not surprisingly, when Louis XIV came to power he made it his ambition to discourage further such prying. One’s objection, here again, is to representing the ancien régime and its outlook as immemorial and reaching back into the mists of antiquity.

It is in this spirit that Roche refers to the famous medieval anatomy of society according to three functions—praying, fighting, and working—and the three “orders” or “estates”—clergy, nobility, and third estate—appointed by God to perform them. He writes that, in the early eighteenth century in France, “the traditional tripartite scheme remained alive, although doubts had been raised as far back as the seventeenth century about its ability to explain adequately a society that had changed considerably.” What seems strange here is the idea that this pretty scheme, which is also found in the Scandinavian pantheon and among Zoroastrian archangels,9 could ever have been an “adequate” explanation of society. It is not that kind of thing.

Nor, for that matter, is the notion, to which Roche attaches great importance, that France in the ancien régime was an organic and hierarchic “society of orders,” in which everybody knew his place. It is an idea cherished also by historians of medieval and seventeenth-century England, but if you try to apply it, it does not work. It is simply not the case that Chaucer’s Summoner and Pardoner and Manciple and Man of Law had a defined “place” with regard to one another—and for a very good reason. Like most of us, they would have belonged to several different hierarchies simultaneously, occupying a high place in one and a lower in another.

There is a general law involved here: that what historians refer to, in this connection, as “beliefs” or mental “representations” are better described as rhetoric. There is no doubt that in the France of Louis XIV and his successor, as in England in the same period, it would be said from the bench or pulpit that there ought to be a social hierarchy, in which people “knew their place.” The “social hierarchy” has to be understood not as a fact but as an admonition, a threat—sometimes a physical one—or a pious hope.

We need to pursue this theme even a little further, since it looms very large in Roche’s book. He follows the social anthropologist Louis Dumont, in the latter’s Essays on Individualism,10 in contrasting “ancient” society—holistic and dominated by a collective idea of Man—with “modern” society, which is based on individualism. “Over the long run,” he writes, “the emergence of a new conception of man can be seen in the gradual replacement of the concept of universitas, of which living men were merely parts, by societas, which simply referred to an association of individuals.” This is the change, he implies, to be seen taking place in France in the eighteenth century.

How right Max Weber was to observe that “the expression ‘individualism’ includes the most heterogeneous things imaginable.” 11 However, a pair of quotations will make clear how Roche interprets the expression himself. “In the invention of liberties,” he writes, “it is important to look closely at what, apart from principles and ideas, contributed to the advent of the individual.” And then, a few pages later: “That the self was a relatively new category is clear from the evolution of the family, entrepreneurship, and individualism.” But one has only to think of Montaigne’s self-questioning Essays or of Dürer’s self-portraits to be sure that the “self” (the moi) was by no means “a relatively new category.” Roche is evidently using “individualism” in a psychological sense, and this is to misread Dumont, who is using the word merely in a political sense. Dumont held that the citizen of a modern egalitarian society, as opposed to a “hierarchical” one, thinks of a society or nation as a collective individual, with a will and relationships of its own—nations, indeed, being precisely an expression of individualism. Furthermore he was ready to picture “individualism,” having arrived, as giving way again, indeed quite quickly, to “holism” or collectivism—as it did in nineteenth-century socialism, or indeed had done even before with Rousseau’s doctrine of the “general will.” By contrast a psychological discovery—anyway, such a major one as the discovery of the “self”—would, one supposes, be irreversible.

But then, what is also hard to swallow is that, under the ancien régime, “a collective idea of man dominated” and “the ideal social structure was defined in terms of [religious] ends rather than of individual happiness or progress.” This may have been the ideal, but only because the actuality was so much the opposite. Selfishness, frivolity, and irresponsibility are what even the best friends of the French, like Montesquieu and Tocqueville, thought most characteristic of the subjects of the Sun King.

  1. 1

    Originally published as La France des Lumières (Paris: Fayard, 1993).

  2. 2

    Le siècle des Lumières s’inscrit au terme d’une respiration plus ample. Il se situe à une étape de la civilisation propice à la fixation des instables et au contrôle des mouvements.” (Roche, La France des Lumières, p. 64).

  3. 3

    He also writes “previous” for “subsequent,” “1700s” and “1800s” for “1600s” and “1700s,” “Latin” for “Spanish,” “Renaissance” for “Enlightenment,” and “Who was the king?” for “What was the king?” (a question presumably meant to recall Sièyes’s famous “What is the Third Estate?”). He renders “Diderot, listener to Bordeu,” as “Diderot, who audited Bordeu’s lectures.” (“Diderot, auditeur de Bordeu, qui redige l’article ‘Crise’ pour l’Encyclopédie.“)

  4. 4

    See Fernand Braudel, The Identity of France, Vol. 2 (HarperCollins, 1988), p. 557.

  5. 5

    The Review, October 30, 1708.

  6. 6

    The French version of Roche’s title, La France des Lumières, is marginally less tendentious.

  7. 7

    See Voltaire, Candide (1759), Chapter 18.

  8. 8

    See Jeffrey W. Merrick, The Desacralization of the French Monarchy in the Eighteenth Century (Louisiana State University Press, 1990), p. 6.

  9. 9

    See George Dumézil, Mythe et épopée (Paris: Gallimard, 1968).

  10. 10

    Louis Dumont, Essais sur l’individualisme (Paris: Seuil, 1983).

  11. 11

    Quoted in Louis Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus (University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 8.

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