Turgot, Anne Robert Jacques, Baron de L'Aulne (1727–1781)

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The French statesman, economist, and philosopher of history Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Baron de l'Aulne, was born in Paris. He began formal theological training in 1743, anticipating a career in the church. As a young scholar at the Sorbonne (17491751) he showed brilliant promise in several writings on the philosophy of history. In 1752 he left the service of religion to become a magistrate, and from 1753 to 1761 he fulfilled the legal and administrative duties of a master of requests. His writings in this period included contributions to the Encyclopédie in metaphysics, linguistics, science, economics, and political theory, as well as short writings over a similarly broad range of fields, but his contemplated major work on the history of human progress never materialized. From 1761 to 1774 he served as the enlightened intendant (royal administrator) of Limoges; in this period and later, economic subjects predominated in his writings. Appointed minister of marine by Louis XVI in 1774, he was very shortly afterward transferred to the crucial position of comptroller general of finance. In this post Turgot instituted economies, corrected abuses in the taxation system, established free grain trade within France, and suppressed the guilds and the labor services. Opposition at court and in the Parlement of Paris, and the withdrawal of royal support, led to his resignation after twenty months (1776), thus ending the last attempt at thoroughgoing reform of the ancien régime in France before the Revolution.

Economic and Social Theories

Turgot's economic theories are expressed most fully in his Réflexions sur la formation et la distribution des richesses (1766, published serially 17691770; translated as Reflections on the Formation and the Distribution of Riches, New York, 1898). In this and other works his basic principles are essentially physiocratic: The sole ultimate source of wealth is land, and only the growth and the unhindered flow of capital can create prosperity. Assuming that the French economy would continue to be largely agrarian, Turgot advocated a gradual simplification and moderation of taxation, looking toward the day when only landowners would be taxed, on the basis of a careful assessment of their profits, and when restrictions and impositions upon commerce and industry might be altogether abolished.

Turgot's general political thought, based on a belief in paternalistic, enlightened monarchy, is of less interest than his two Lettres à un grand vicaire sur la tolérance (Letters to a grand vicar on toleration, 1753, 1754; in Oeuvres, Vol. I) concerning governmental toleration of religion. In these letters he defended a broad toleration of different faiths but maintained that the state may offer special protection to the "dominant" or most numerous religion, as a useful guide to men in their uncertainties. He nevertheless held that some sectsthose too rigid, irrational, morally or socially burdensome, or politically subversiveare not worthy of such protection, but should simply be tolerated; Roman Catholicism, he noted, might be considered by some to be such a sect. The dogma of infallibility is dangerous if it is false, and "it is certainly false or inapplicable when the exercise of infallibility is confided to those who are not infallible, that is to princes and governments" (Oeuvres, Vol. I, p. 425). Intolerance, unworthy of a gentle and charitable Christianity, must in any case be eradicated, for the rights of society are not greater than those of individuals, and individual conscience is no proper concern of government.

Philosophy of History

To the philosopher, Turgot's importance may well derive from his early writings on the theory of history, notably his Tableau philosophique des progrès successifs de l'esprit humain (Philosophic panorama of the progress of the human mind, 1750; in Oeuvres, Vol. I), and his "Plan de deux discours sur l'histoire universelle" (Plan of two discourses on universal history; c. 1750, in Oeuvres, Vol. I). Upon the basis of contemporary psychological sensationalism, and with a nod to Providence, Turgot constructed a broad theory of human progress reflecting past theories and foreshadowing later ones.

In contrast to the phenomena of the world of nature, trapped in unprogressive cycles of birth and death, Turgot postulated the infinite variability and indeed the perfectibility of humankind. In the past and in the future, as knowledge and experience accumulate, man's reason, passions, and freedom permit him to escape from the repetitive cycles of external nature. Movement and change give rise to new relationships, and thus all experience is instructive; even passion and error, calamity and evil providentially contribute to humankind's advance. Indeed, the ambitions and the vices of men and the barbarities of warfare, however morally reprehensible, may often rescue humankind from stagnation or mediocrity.

The vital medium of progress, wrote Turgot, is the process of human communication. Ideas deriving from sensations are developed through the use of signs, pictures, and especially language, by which knowledge and experience are transmitted and augmented from generation to generation. Since above all it is the man of genius who can grasp the implications and make articulate the lessons of experience, it is society's duty to encourage natural genius and to heed its advice. "Moral" circumstances, such as the cultivation of genius, are more important in determining the extent and nature of progress than are such physical circumstances as climate.

Progress is uneven throughout man's history. Moreover, it varies necessarily in the different areas and aspects of human activity, such as science, technology, morality, and the arts. Progress in the arts, for example, is always radically limited by the nature of man himself, since the goal of the arts is pleasure alone, whereas speculative scientific knowledge can be as infinite as the natural universe. And each area of activity has its own rules of progress. In his discussion of scientific progress, Turgot suggested three historical stages of development (anticipating Auguste Comte's system): the anthropomorphic or supernatural, the abstract or speculative, and the empirical-mathematical.

For Turgot the broad tempo of progress was increasing in the mid-eighteenth century; indeed, despite instances of momentary or partial decadence, any wholesale retrogression of humankind was now impossible. Surely, he wrote, the general momentum of science, buttressed by mathematics, was irreversible. Yet Turgot, especially in his later years, had frequent doubts, and he was well aware of the forces of error and evil in the world, both in the past and in the happier future. The historical continuity so much stressed in his writings in fact ruled out any immediate, thorough renovation of humankind. Certainly the future would not bring the radical break with a deplorable past that was intimated in the thought of many another writer of the Enlightenment. Because the element of empiricism was seldom wholly absent in Turgot, his historical thought, although undoubtedly optimistic, was never unreservedly utopian.

See also Encyclopédie; Enlightenment; Philosophy of History; Progress, The Idea of.


Turgot's works were published as Oeuvres de Turgot et documents le concernant, edited by Gustave Schelle, 5 vols. (Paris: Alcan, 19131923). See also: Turgot on Progress, Sociology, and Economics: A Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind, translated and edited by Ronald L. Meek (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1973).

For literature on Turgot, see Douglas Dakin, Turgot and the Ancien Régime in France (London: Methuen, 1939), which has an extensive bibliography; Edgar Faure, La disgrâce de Turgot (Paris: Gallimard, 1961), which also has an extensive bibliography; Philippe Fontaine, "Turgot's 'Institutional Individualism,'" History of Political Economy 29 (1) (1997): 120; Malcolm Hill, Statesman of the Enlightenment: The Life of Anne-Robert Turgot (London: Othila Press, 1999); Frank E. Manuel, The Prophets of Paris (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962), Ch. I, pp. 1151; and Robert Nisbet, "Turgot and the Contexts of Progress," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 119 (3) (1975): 214222.

Henry Vyverberg (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)