Abbé de Saint-Pierre

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Abbé de Saint-Pierre

The French political and economic theorist Charles Irénée Castel, Abbé de Saint-Pierre (1658-1743), was an early philosophe of the Enlightenment. His pamphleteering expressed the intellectual upheaval and fascination with affairs of state which marked this era.

Of noble lineage, in 1680 Charles Irénée Castel, who is known as the Abbé Saint-Pierre, left his native Normandy and boyhood dreams of a monastic vocation for the ebullient intellectual atmosphere of Parisian university studies. For 5 years he followed every course available in the physical sciences, drifting further and further away from preoccupations with his ecclesiastical state as well as from what remained of his faith. After 1685 he experienced a brief return to the concerns of ethics and moral theology before abandoning the divine again for what would be the area of his real intellectual vocation— political theory. Henceforth his religion and his "consecration" to Holy Orders provided him with a comfortable living in sinecures which left him free to speculate on the art of government.

In 1712 Saint-Pierre composed his first important treatise, the Project for an Everlasting Peace in Europe, a text he would refine for years to come. He envisioned a confederation of European sovereigns who would renounce the use of arms and submit their differences to a council of arbitration. He was in fact simply modernizing a 1624 treatise of Henry IV's minister the Duc de Sully.

The basic political principle of Saint-Pierre's work was his refusal to accept as either inevitable or rational the divine right of kings. His treatise La Polysynodie (1718) represented, at the height of the regent's liberalization policies, an outright attack on individual sovereignty, suggesting rule by multiple councils and offering many unfavorable comparisons drawn from the recently ended rule of Louis XIV. The French Academy, to which he had been elected in 1694, was scandalized, and when Saint-Pierre refused to recant, he was summarily dismissed. His political influence was growing, however; the previous year he had issued Mémoire sur la taille tarifiée, suggesting tax reforms which amounted to the first version of proportional, declared revenue taxation. Historians consider this his most important contribution to governmental affairs, since some of its provisions actually found limited application after 1832.

In the ensuing years Saint-Pierre became a habituéof the salon of Madame de Tencin and a regular contributor to meetings of the Club de l'Entresol; it was here that the Baron de Montesquieu, who called Saint-Pierre his master, met him. The Abbé was very likely responsible for this progressive group's dissolution, however, when in 1731 A. H. de Fleury suggested that he and others like him should refrain from discussing politics. In the last years of his life Saint-Pierre continued to write assiduously on governmental practice and management while pursuing his Annales politiques, a comprehensive, chronological treatment of the affairs of France eventually covering the years from 1658 to 1739; critics have compared this last work favorably to the Sie‧cle de Louis XIV of Voltaire.

Curiously, Voltaire and most of the later philosophes, including Jean Jacques Rousseau, disdained the Abbé, readily placing him with cranks and inventors and remembering his chimerical Trémoussoir (a therapeutic chair which jolted its user like a carriage) better than his insightful projects for public assistance to orphans and the aged and infirm, the maintenance of highways in winter (complete with statistical evidence of its economic advantage), and Parisian postal reform. But Saint-Pierre lacked the doctrinaire assurance of the next generation; avoiding grandiose plans for human betterment, he continued to the end refining his practical suggestions, a modest reformer who died in 1743, before the age of prerevolutionary visions.

Further Reading

In English, a recent treatment of Saint-Pierre is Merle L. Perkins, The Moral and Political Philosophy of the Abbé de Saint-Pierre (1959), which contains an extensive bibliography. Partial studies of him appear in E. V. Souleyman, The Vision of World Peace in Seventeenth and Eighteenth-century France (1941); Carl Joachim Friedrich, Inevitable Peace (1948); and Francis Harry Hinsley, Power and the Pursuit of Peace: Theory and Practice in the History of Relations between States (1963). □