Bonald, Louis de

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BONALD, LOUIS DE (1754–1840), French counterrevolutionary theorist.

Most of the major European political ideologies of the nineteenth century can be traced to the French Revolution, whose apparent overthrow of the old order, or alleged failure to achieve that end, could each give warrant to conservatives' and socialists' shared ambition of reestablishing communal bonds such as they imagined the Enlightenment and the Revolution together had undermined. An appreciation of the socially consolidating role of religion often characterized both reactionary and radical commentaries of the early nineteenth century, and particularly in France it inclined some pre-Marxist socialists to judge Christianity's merits in terms similar to those of counterrevolutionary monarchists like the vicomte Louis-Gabriel-Ambroise de Bonald, scion of a long-established family of the provincial aristocracy.

Born in 1754 in Le Monna near Millau in the south of France and educated mainly at the Oratorian Collège de Juilly near Paris, Bonald soon acquired a taste for mathematics and the physical sciences, which he never found incompatible with his Christian pietism and which would come to distinguish his own theological conservatism from the doctrines of other counterrevolutionary figures of his day. Briefly enlisted with the king's musketeers, he returned to his estate until the late 1780s and from there campaigned to liberate French municipal and provincial government from central control, in 1790 becoming Millau's mayor. After the outbreak of the Revolution, and especially in the light of France's abolition of the vestiges of feudalism in August 1789, he began to shift the focus of his critique of despotism from the monarchy to the National Assembly itself, whose compulsory enforcement of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy prompted his flight to Germany, where he joined other émigré opponents of the Revolution. From Heidelberg in 1796 he supervised the publication of his Théorie du pouvoir politique et religieux, whose first volume sets out his principles of an integrative science of society that expressed a divine presence as well as a collective power, which he deemed necessary to combat the fractious tendencies of human egoism.

Returning to France under the Directory in 1797, Bonald at first campaigned in newspapers for the royalist cause in that summer's elections, but its success in gaining popular support provoked the Directory's wrath. In isolation in Paris he now drafted his second major contribution to political thought, the Essai analytique sur les lois naturelles de l'ordre social (1800), resurfacing in public life after Napoleon Bonaparte's (1769–1821) coup d'état of the Eighteenth Brumaire in November 1799. Publication of the Essai, followed in 1802 by the appearance of his Législation primitive, his longest work and the most illustrative of his conception of language as a system of signs of ultimately divine origin, established Bonald's credentials as one of France's most authoritative secular advocates of religious traditionalism. Around 1804 he drafted a study of the life of Jesus, unpublished until 1843, in which he portrayed Christ's self-sacrifice as designed to promote mankind's spiritual regeneration along lines that appeared to culminate in Napoleonic Europe. But soon disheartened by what he took to be Napoleon's purely personal ambitions, he once again abandoned political journalism and only resumed that career in 1815, following the monarchy's restoration, when he came to champion not just the ultraroyalist cause and ideals of a Gallican church independent of papal control but also the interests of the old aristocracy. Adopting those features of the physiocratic science of society that suited him, he depicted the agricultural system that had prevailed in France for centuries before the Revolution as more organically durable than the commercial system generated by the growth of towns, and, now more than ever before, he decried the institutions of popular government when compared to the rule of theologically sanctioned natural law. Already hostile to the parliamentary monarchies of Louis XVIII (r. 1814–1815, 1815–1824) and Charles X (r. 1824–1830), he was even more contemptuous of the bourgeois character of Louis Philippe's (r. 1830–1848) July Monarchy launched by the Revolution of 1830, and thereafter retired to Millau, where he died at his château ten years later at the age of eighty-six.

Together with Joseph-Marie de Maistre (1753–1821) and François-René Chateaubriand, Bonald was one of counterrevolutionary France's principal luminaries of the early nineteenth century, whose religious, linguistic, and evolutionary conceptions of societal development were to have some influence on Hughes-Félicité-Robert de Lamennais (1782–1854), a profoundly conservative theologian of the next generation who was at the same time politically liberal. For much of his life, however, Bonald took issue with both de Maistre and Chateaubriand and was in turn challenged by them, above all because he was in many respects an admirer of eighteenth-century scientific doctrines they despised and was never drawn to their conceptions of either religious irrationalism or religious aestheticism as an antidote to the Enlightenment's alleged abuse of reason. Although not the inventor of the term, he was perhaps the chief interpreter of bureaucracy—which he defined as a form of government distinct from both aristocracy and democracy—among political commentators before Max Weber (1864–1920).

See alsoBurke, Edmund; Chateaubriand, François-René; Conservatism; France; Maistre, Joseph de.


Primary Sources

Oeuvres complètes de M. de Bonald.3 vols. Paris, 1864.

Secondary Sources

Klinck, David. The French Counterrevolutionary Theorist Louis de Bonald (1754–1840). New York, 1996.

McMahon, Darrin. Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity. Oxford, U.K., and New York, 2001.

Robert Wokler

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Bonald, Louis de

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