Modern history


‘Happiness’, the chilling ideologue of Terror, Saint-Just, was to proclaim in 1794, ‘is a new idea in Europe.’71 Yet the idea of terrestrial happiness as the product of purposive collective action was an Enlightenment, not a Revolutionary invention. Thephilosophesdevoted an enormous amount of energy to imagining a legitimately grounded national community in a disenchanted world, in which public felicity could be found not in the afterlife but on the bedrock of a reordered society constantly on the march towards improvement.

The progressivist norms of the Enlightenment project were, however, intensely questioned from within. From mid-century – at the very moment at which the Enlightenment project seemed to be gaining intellectual hegemony – key terms such as ‘reason’, ‘nature’, ‘civilization’, and, indeed, ‘enlightenment’ (‘lumière’) were vigorously contested. And as the century wore on, there was a growing sense of the fragility of the optimism prevalent at the Encyclopédie moment. Rousseau’s systematic questioning of the value, meaning and direction of progress played a critical role in this, but there were other straws in the wind. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755, in which 30–40,000 died, dramatically confronted Voltaire with the problem of evil in the world, for example, and his taleCandide (1757) was a savagely ironic attack on the facile philosophy of the ‘all for the best in the best of all possible worlds’ variety. Histories of the Roman Empire by Montesquieu (1734), then Gibbon (1776–87) helped foster an awareness that civilizations could decline as well as rise, a perception that was also in play in a wide-ranging dispute, framed particularly around nature and humankind in the Americas, over whether Europe was in fact degenerating. The Mesmer affair also dramatized the persistence of credulity even in Paris, the heart of enlightened reason. This sense of fragility about the Enlightenment project was heightened by the fact that the philosophes found themselves frequently under attack – and, just as frequently, divided amongst themselves.

The shadow of the Bastille loomed over the persons and the productions of the philosophes right down to 1789. Individual ecclesiastics may have been attracted to the doctrine of social utility, but the church’s watchdogs maintained a watching brief for any philosophical work which overstepped theological orthodoxy and public decency. Despite the liberal tenure of Malesherbes as Director of the Book Trade in the 1750s and 1760s, the government always monitored writings, while the Paris Police Lieutenant subjected authors, printers and booksellers to spasmodic repression – an activity in which the Paris Parlement was often only too pleased to join.72 As if this were not enough, fellow writers – and not simply the apologists and defenders of the church – also gave thephilosophes a sharp reminder that they did not monopolize the world of print and that critical reason could be used against its champions. Rousseau’s noisy defection from the philosophe camp caused a durable split, and the year 1757 also saw the forces of a kind of counter-Enlightenment develop substance in the world of letters, as Palissot, Fréron and Moreau launched a variety of attacks on the faction of the philosophes. Moreau’s allegorical Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire des Cacouacs (‘Memoirs which Serve as History of the Cacouacs’) attacked the philosophes for irreligion, vanity, intellectual elitism and inhumanity, tellingly using against them their own arms of humour, light-heartedness, fantasy and irony. The literary periodical L’Année littéraire, which Fréron directed for over twenty years down to 1775, served as a perennial pricker of the pretensions of the movement, and this task was continued by the Annales politiques (1777–92) of the disbarred barrister and maverick journalist, Linguet, harsh critic of ‘the wretchedEncyclopédie’ and its editors.73 Even in the salons, the philosophes were not immune from attack: when d’Alembert deserted Madame du Deffand for Julie Lespinasse, the former sneered at ‘our lords and masters the Encyclopédistes’ and imbued her sessions with a strong anti-philosophe flavour.74

These strains and tensions gave the philosophes a highly embattled air. Embattled they were – but they also often played this theme for all its worth, highlighting the extent to which they were part of a movement which had political clout yet which had grown up despite rather than because of the purview of the royal court and the world of corporatist privilege. Yet in practice many of their number were more tightly integrated within the political establishment than their standard ‘outsiderist’ rhetoric and subversive squibs gave to understand. A number were, by social origins or employment, already within the socio-political elite, while the salons provided a channel through which men of letters of lowlier origins could come into contact with the social elite, and develop patterns of friendship, clientage and dependence. These were often grafted on to existing factional alignments. Madame de Pompadour served as an important link of friendship for much of the philosophe faction, so that in 1749, when Controller-General Machault was looking for a polemicist to pamphleteer against the Parlement and in favour of his vingtième tax, he was able to draw along the lines of the royal mistress’s client-base to acquire the services of Voltaire.75 There were other faction-leaders who also showed themselves especially able to exploit and to patronize the philosophes in this way. The prince de Conti, for example, Pompadour’s sworn enemy, who passed into Frondeur-style opposition to the king in the late 1750s, also cultivated men of letters. Prior of the largely honorific Order of the Temple, he placed its headquarters in Paris, which were outside the jurisdiction of the ordinary police, at the disposal of subversive printers and writers. After Conti’s death in 1776, the duc d’Orléans followed a similar tack, and his residence, the Palais-Royal leisure complex, became a safe haven for clandestine authors and presses. Other senior political figures with strong philosophe links were Choiseul – effectively main minister from the late 1750s through to 1770 – and Turgot. When the latter, anEncyclopédiste, was appointed Controller-General in 1774, he revoked the licences of Fréron’s and Linguet’s anti-philosophe journals – an action which demonstrated that even philosophes were not immune from old-fashioned political spite and that, as often as not, there was little love lost between lumières.

That the movement of the Enlightenment was more pluralistic and divided than the unitary, progressivist face which the philosophes often presented to the world was particularly apparent as regards the politics they espoused. It did not take much nous to realise that ‘enlightenment’ (whatever that was held to be) could not be expected to spread beatifically over the nation without significant institutional change; nor to appreciate that traditional political arrangements did not offer the best nor even the most appropriate means for the kind of transformation they had in mind. Yet how to formulate a politics of enlightenment would remain perennially problematic. To simplify – but helpfully – it seems possible to delineate three types of political account of what needed to be done within French society to improve it according to the general precepts of the philosophes.76 First, there was a view, associated particularly with Montesquieu and taken up by the parlements, which stressed the importance of the legitimacy of traditional law. Second, there was a view, to which Voltaire in particular subscribed, but which was also highly influential within government itself, which highlighted the capacity of a recharged state to produce happiness through rational and ordered action. Third, there was a Rousseauian diagnosis of society’s ills which linked up with civic republican ideology and stressed the importance of collective political will.

All three scripts for social improvement straddled the space between the bourgeois public sphere and the political and corporative establishment. The latter was less refractory to the political aims of the Enlightenment than the philosophes often gave to understand, and the bourgeois public sphere whose organic intellectuals they aspired to be maintained strong links of deference and allegiance to established authority. To a greater degree than historians have often appreciated, the political projects of thephilosophesoverlapped with the kinds of problems which had long concerned existing political elites: the relationship between state authority and public welfare; the nature of public law; religion in a disenchanted world; the state as a confessional unity or as rationally driven administration; the arguments between Jesuits and Jansenists – and in the European theatre, between Protestantism and Catholicism; the economic agency of the state and the morality of trade and consumption; the place of the nobility in the state and society; and so on. Just after the philosophes collectively joined these long-running political conversations – roughly speaking, the moment of the Encyclopédie – the state, moreover, was thrown into crisis and demoralization by the defeats of the Seven Years War, raising the political stakes and adding colour and drama to political discussion. The philosophes thus discovered rather than invented politics. They were as likely to be the agents of existing political elites as their critics, and the scripts for change with which they were associated as often as not overlapped with pre-existent positions.

The juridical perspective on change was set out most influentially by Montesquieu, magistrate of the Bordeaux Parlement and author of the best-selling De l’Esprit des lois in 1748. Montesquieu, whose contribution to the political debates of the Enlightenment was immense, provided an influential taxonomy for understanding political systems which was both historically and environmentally grounded. His insight that climate influenced forms of government was linked to a wider historical awareness of the way in which the sequential stages of civilization impacted on political forms. He proposed a threefold typology of republics, monarchies and despotisms. Each governmental form, he argued, was characterized by a dominant value, whose perpetuation was essential for a regime’s good health: republics required virtue; monarchies, a cult of honour which united the ruler and his aristocracy; while despotisms were motivated by fear. This relativistic classification had a diachronic aspect, for Montesquieu also proposed laws of internal evolution of all regimes based on the idea that corruption in the core principle of any of the regimes would necessarily trigger overall decline.

Eighteenth-century France fitted into Montesquieu’s typology as a monarchy with a powerful aristocracy imbued with a sense of honour. That honour was, however, threatened by internal corruption which risked the monarchy degenerating into a despotism. Degeneration was partly the result of honour being compromised by the competing tug of luxury and greed in a commercial society – for Montesquieu’s celebration of trade’s benefits77 was matched by an awareness of its drawbacks. Partly too he saw degeneration occurring as a result of growth in the power of the ruler at the expense of his nobility. His Persian Letters of 1721 had displayed republican sentiments, but he was too much of a stadial developmentalist to believe that the clock could be put back so as to allow the Roman republic to re-emerge in the modern age of big commercial monarchies. The contemporary polity for which Montesquieu cherished affection was post-Glorious Revolution England. Voltaire’s idealization of England had been grounded in its commercial successes breeding a respect for individual freedom and a spirit of tolerance. Montesquieu too valued individual freedom from constraint as the desirable outcome of governmental forms. Yet, though he did not deny the role of English commerce in loosening the hierarchical bonds of society, he felt that the key to England’s success was its divided system of sovereignty. The English constitution, Montesquieu held (in a view which had as shaky a hold on current English political practice as Voltaire’s), was based on the separation of judicial, legislative and executive powers. Like Newton’s description of the universe, Montesquieu’s idealization of the British constitution stressed the harmony achieved by the balancing of countervailing powers.

Montesquieu’s political position was never made wholly explicit in De l’Esprit des lots, but his criticism of the growth of the power of the monarchy and the state was pretty apparent. The call of this Bordeaux parlementaire for royal power to be balanced by intermediary authorities was close enough to the traditional oppositional discourse of the parlements to be picked up and exploited by the courts almost at once. The crown was charged with systematic disrespect for fundamental laws on which the ancient constitution was based. Successive monarchs had removed representational forms such as provincial and national estates, reduced parlements’ legitimate rights of remonstrance, and built up a secretive and unaccountable ‘bureaucracy’ (the word which was beginning to be used) which attacked customary property rights and removed public affairs from the judicial to the closed, administrative realm. In sum, the absolute monarchy had so tarnished the honour of its aristocracy and launched such an assault on corporative freedoms that ‘despotism’ lay just around the corner. Though parlementaires sometimes metaphorically clothed themselves in the toga of virtuous Roman republicanism, more characteristically they followed the arguments of Montesquieu (as well as of Boulainvilliers) that the legal rights of intermediary bodies like the parlements were grounded in an ancient constitution which had originated in the dark forests of the Frankish invaders of Gaul in the fifth and sixth centuries. Fundamental law pre-dated – and therefore had priority over – the French monarchy.

Many contemporaries might be unkeen to accept the full burden of historical legitimation adopted by the parlements, but still value the check which the magistrates offered to the abuse of sovereign power. Yet many philosophes – in total contrast – were vehemently opposed to the parlements, which they held to be, in Diderot’s words, ‘the irreconcilable enemy of philosophy and reason’.78 A good many of them looked to the undivided sovereignty of an absolute monarchy as the best medium for enlightening French society. Such a view had important antecedents, which again had a historical, or meta-historical, dimension. In his Histoire critique de la monarchie française (1734), for example, abbé Dubos had supplied a vigorous riposte to Boulainvilliers by arguing that the Frankish kings in the fifth century had inherited the full extent of prior Roman imperium. Consequently, according to this ‘Romanist thesis’, to which royal propagandist and arch-anti-philosophe Moreau also subscribed, Clovis was as absolute as Louis XV. Voltaire, for his part, had argued in Le Siècle de Louis XIV that the reign of Louis XIV had represented the acme of civilization thus far, and that rulers should seek to imitate and surpass the Sun King’s efforts at centralization if they were to augment human happiness. Also particularly significant in this respect was the natural law tradition refurbished in the seventeenth century by Hobbes, Grotius and Pufendorf, who had argued that, as a result of the horrors of primitive life, early societies had handed over sovereignty to their rulers as the best guarantee of communal welfare. This anodine variant of contract theory highlighted the duty of the monarch to sustain the welfare of his charges. Voltaire, who had more than his fair share of entanglements with parlements,79was unconvinced that wealthy venal magistrates would be more disinterested and non-sectional than a monarchy well accustomed to standing above the fray of human interests and developing policies in the interest of all. Like many of his fellows, he largely disregarded the sacral aura in which the acolytes of Louis XIV had sought to envelop the ruler: in a disenchanted world, Voltaire held, the royal mission should be directed by the guiding light of reason.

Many philosophes were encouraged in their belief in absolute monarchy’s capacity for improving communal welfare through the implementation of reason by the successes of an increasingly professional state bureaucracy. Contemporary rulers looked enviously at the latter’s administrative competence, which allowed a very personalized monarchy to govern, in a rational, disembodied and objective manner, a political system of baroque complexity. The notion of ‘police’ – that is, rational administration – was seen as a historical force which could bring civilized improvement to societies. The idea that a transformed monarchy committed to the rule of reason was more likely than a restoration of the ancient constitution to bring about human happiness was, moreover, underpinned by a set of established practices and procedures. The royal Intendants, for example, were playing a growing role in the social and economic development of the provinces under their administration. So too the civil engineers of the corps of Ponts et Chaussées were providing a highway system which made viable the Enlightenment ideal of ease of communication and exchange. Although parlementary discourse excoriated such figures as clandestine despots of public life, the service ethic and the professional expertise which they embodied seemed to many to be a highly attractive paternalistic model.

This kind of welfare agenda for the crown was mapped out in the 1690s, but it was especially from the 1750s that it began to make real headway. Though most state servants were less willing than the philosophes for the crown to renounce traditionalist positions and sacral claims, government from the 1750s proved increasingly responsive to a secular concern with society’s material wellbeing. Conversely, many philosophes were drawn into the circuit of a government which many of their peers attacked.

A strikingly good example of the potential for symbiosis was the grouping who became known as the Physiocrats (or ‘Economists’), and who included the marquis de Mirabeau (father of the Revolutionary), the colonial administrator and publicist Mercier de la Rivière, the royal surgeon and physician Quesnay, the administrator and journalist Dupont de Nemours and the magistrate and then royal intendant (and eventually Controller-General) Turgot. The Physiocrats espoused a professional service ethic and, in the interests of societal welfare, sought to establish laws of political economy and social relations. This new science of government, like all science, should be open and public, rather than secretive and confined as in the past. And it should reach out to develop the country’s material wealth which the Physiocrats viewed as a sine qua non of happiness. Their slogan on all that related to trade, industry and exchange was laisser faire, laisser passer. They criticized the mercantilist economic policies espoused by government since the time of Colbert. Government should step back and allow market forces free rein in everything regarding production and distribution – an approach which was instantiated in the call for free trade and the removal of internal tolls and tariffs. Though they fought to remove the corporatist carapace of trade and industry, they regarded both sectors as less important to France’s economic fortunes than the land, which they made the focal point of their analyses. Their emphasis on agriculture was far distant from the egalitarian frugality preached by Fénelon (and, as we shall see, by Rousseau). Like Montesquieu, who had written in favour of ‘solid luxury founded not on the refinement of vanity but on that of real needs’, they criticized excessive luxury (luxe de décoration), but regarded considerable inequality in wealth and a certain luxe de subsistance as prerequisites for spurring a spirit of enterprise and innovation within the economy.80 They reckoned that the class of comfortable and wealthy property-owners – and in their eyes, this meant landowners – was the group whose wellbeing would do most to re-energize the economy. They thus welcomed the boom in production of agricultural manuals which spread the gospel of English-style agrarian improvement; urged complete freedom in the grain trade as the best means of enrichment; developed distinctive politics for education and state finance; and played with new forms of political representation which would be dominated by the landed interest, irrespective of which of the three estates landowners belonged to.

The influence which the Physiocrats were able to wield owed much to the cogent range of strategies they deployed: substantial correspondence with opinion-leaders in the provinces and abroad; extensive publication; the establishment of a house journal in 1765 (the Ephémérides du citoyen); and the currying of royal favour at court through Madame de Pompadour, to whose health surgeon-physician-economist Quesnay attended. Yet that influence also derived from the assistance they seemed to offer political elites rethinking state power during and in the aftermath of two sobering wars – the Austrian Succession War of 1740–48 and the Seven Years War of 1756–63 – which had highlighted the need for change, and the dangers of over-reliance on international trade at the expense of a strong rural economy. The Physiocrats were as much instruments of power as critics of it.

They did not, consequently, carry all the philosophes with them. Indeed, the Physiocrats’ influence on the liberalization of the government’s grain-trade policy in the 1760s led to a bitter polemic amongst men of letters. The wittily urbane abbé Galiani led the charge against Physiocracy, accusing its exponents of a quasi-religious belief in the veracity of their own faulty theorems, and an inhumane and disastrous experimentation with what was literally a life-and-death issue for much of the population. Yet though the Physiocrats were accused of placing a specious mask of reason over the face of root-and-branch despotism, many of their accusers were as committed as they to the idea of monarchy as generator of utilitarian reform, and this remained a political option long after the Physiocrats’ fall from grace.

The attack on Physiocracy also signalled the entry into the political domain of the third strand of political criticism emergent from mid-century, namely, the republican tradition, as renovated by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It would be fair to say that no one – not even Rousseau himself – thought a republic worth having was within the compass of viability for a state like eighteenth-century France. Montesquieu had consigned republican virtue to a distant past, and indeed republican states in contemporary Europe, such as Venice and the Netherlands, were generally adjudged corrupt and unworthy of imitation. Whereas both the juridical and the rationalistic critiques of monarchy were grounded in the conviction that the modern state could be improved as it stood, the republican critique was entirely negative in this respect: as Rousseau’s First Discourse had shown, corruption seemed to be an adhesive component of modernity from which even republican institutions could not escape.

If the republican discourse thus offered no political blueprint, it still developed enormous influence as an idiom of criticism antagonistic to modern monarchies based on bureaucracies, standing armies, high finance and commercial engagement. Even before Rousseau, Fénelon’s rural arcadia had been framed in such terms, while Boulainvilliers and the Paris parlementaires also drew fitfully on the classical republican repertory. It was Rousseau, however, who added new and explosive components to this approach. Civic virtue, he argued, was necessary to restrain the passions and appetites of humankind and to fireproof the polity against a drift towards despotism. Civic virtue was, moreover, inalienable: Rousseau took over and gave a democratic twist to the natural law tradition which had previously had an absolutist cast, and argued that attempts – whether by a king, a parlement, or any other political entity – to represent the interests of the citizen constituted an unwarranted infraction of a natural individual right inherent in citizenship. For Rousseau, civic rights were essentially anterior to rights grounded in legal entitlement. Whatever the legal precedents, political decision-making was only legitimate if it emanated from the collectivity of citizens and was expressed as an act of the general will of the whole community.

The general will as a disembodied state was more easily imaginable in small direct democracies such as ancient Sparta or the early days of the Roman Republic, when political decision-making could be made in a face-to-face context. Even here Rousseau made a distinction between the (rather inferior) majority of wills on one hand and on the other a ‘general will’ which represented the objective and moral best interest of the community as a whole, as judged by individuals making decisions purely according to their conscience. Rousseau’s intense political pessimism saw ‘no acceptable middle ground’, he stated regretfully, between ‘the most austere democracy’ and (in a reference to Thomas Hobbes’s apologia for a powerful centralized state) ‘the most perfect hobbism … the most arbitrary of despotisms imaginable’.81 His fatalistic political outlook about the present was, however, conjoined with an intense self-belief which was, as we have suggested, infectious amongst his readers.82 The impact of his writing was to strengthen the existing classical republican strand of political thought, and to moralize, melo-dramatize and individualize it. In that it was impossible to imagine Rousseau’s general will as an operational construct in a sprawling state like France (though Jean-Jacques himself did reflect on the rather different situations in Poland and Corsica, as well as keeping a torch lit for his native Geneva), conventional politics could only be blackened as the quest for civic virtue became an individual rather than a collective quest.

Rousseau’s rejuvenation of the republican tradition stimulated other authors to imagine the transplantation of civic virtue into current political forms – in critical as well as constructive dialogue with his work. Mably and Morelly, for example, called for state regulation of wealth and the reimposition of sumptuary legislation as a means of levelling wealth. Other radicals looked for inspiration to England again – though, interestingly, neither to Voltaire’s commercial nor Montesquieu’s constitutional paragon, but rather to the seventeenth-century Common-wealthmen. Yet the resultant political writings remained intellectual curios rather than influential texts. Republican ideology had no obvious institutional focus and ideological carrier as was the case with the discourse of reason (the monarchy) and the discourse of law (the parlements). In some senses, however, that weakness was its strength, for it meant that it could insinuate itself into a wide range of situations and contexts.

Rousseau’s strengthening of republicanism was achieved less through suggesting concrete means of political actualization (about which he remained consistently pessimistic) than through his providing a lodestar of individual civic virtue which made people feel differently about themselves and their political context. The individuals in question, moreover, were not – as in both the parlementary and Physiocratic versions of political change – property-owners. Any sentient being – any member, that is, of the bourgeois public sphere – could feel interpellated by Rousseau’s stirring invocation of civic virtue.

Just as, around 1750, the Encyclopédie seemed to be marking a new crystallization of ways of understanding and acting upon society in the interests of all based on the use of human reason, the field of reason, we are suggesting, began to fragment and fissure along a number of divergent tracks. Politics felt different after mid-century because of the growing influence of men of letters and writers who subscribed to the light of reason. But that influence was thrown behind a wide range of scenarios and strategies and pointed in no single direction. There was certainly no incrementally rising tide of reason in the years leading from 1750 through to 1789: different fractions within the philosophical movement faded into and out of the complex and evolving landscape of the Bourbon polity; certain ministries responded to parts of the movement, while others ignored them altogether. The philosophes offered recipes for change, but those recipes drew on pre-existing political problems and dilemmas – even if governments felt under no constraint to cook by them.

What did, however, have a real impact on the political map after 1750 was the way this complex ensemble of debates and arguments was projected on to the screen of a burgeoning public sphere. Louis XIV and Cardinal Fleury had been past masters of political manipulation of the public, as we have suggested, while the invocation of the public in political argument was a rhetorical strategy which had pre-dated Demosthenes and had been given a fresh lease of life under the Regency. Yet, as we shall see, after around 1750 – starting with disputes over Jansenism and then over the difficult issue of popularizing an unsuccessful war – there was a growing tendency for government to take its cause more systematically out on to the public sphere on which the philosophes and men of letters had established their pitch. This made the old government strategies of regarding all politics as essentially ‘the king’s secret’ or else commanding silence through religious injunction seem hopelessly archaic. In addition, the quest for public justification transmuted almost insensibly into a stress on ‘public opinion’ – what, tangibly, ordinary citizens thought, said and (most important of all) printed – as the impeccable and objective source of political legitimacy.

It would be in prison, facing certain death at the height of the Terror in 1794, that the latterday philosophe the marquis de Condorcet would pen his Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain (‘Sketch of a Historical Account of the Progress of the Human Mind’), which revealed an irrefragable confidence in the onward and upward march of humanity, guided by reason. With fond hindsight, he spied the gradual emergence during the Enlightenment of public opinion as ‘a tribunal, independent of all human coercion, which favours reason and justice, a tribunal whose scrutiny it is difficult to elude, and whose verdict it is impossible to evade’.83 This phenomenon had started to occur well before it was fully theorized: as late as 1766, the Encyclopédie’s entry on ‘opinion’ reflected earlier usage, defining opinion as ‘belief based on probable motive or a doubtful or uncertain mental judgement’, and then again as ‘a feeble and imperfect light which reveals things only by conjecture, leaving them always in uncertainty and doubt’.84 Yet by then, as we shall see, the appeal to a public opinion viewed as a kind of moral highest common denominator cancelling out the partiality of individual views was well on the way to becoming a staple of political argumentation not only by men of letters but also by parlementaires, ministers and government propagandists.

The change in the feel of politics from mid-century onwards was not just about the entry of a new, ‘virtual’ reality, namely, public opinion, into the field of political argument. What also counted was the growth in the sociological referent behind that linguistic marker. The public – ignored by the Burgundy circle, but apostrophized by the legitimized princes in the 1710s and by the Figurist Jansenists – now had an immeasurably broader social outreach.85 Symptomatically, moreover, political forms and genres also evolved so as to bring within the aegis of public opinion the middling and elite membership of the bourgeois public sphere. Under the rules of the political game that was evolving, the arguments which played best in the court of public opinion were those which this kind of audience already took pleasure in digesting as a leisure pursuit. Thus, the love of travel literature, nature writing and fictional depictions of faraway places encouraged men of letters to use the Utopia as means of getting their message across – especially, in Montesquieu’s Persian Letters or Mercier’s runaway best-seller 2440 (1771), where the ‘exotic’ location visited by aliens was in essence a rational version of eighteenth-century Paris. The allegorical reading which these texts encouraged marked their authors’ wish to protect themselves against the censor, but also showed a confidence in the capacity of that audience to understand the character of political coding. The same was true of another enormously influential kind of political text, the legal brief, ormémoire judiciaire, which from mid-century onwards utilized the sentimental repertoire of Rousseau’s lachrymose fictions, the theatre’s ‘bourgeois dramas’ and Greuze’s melodramatic domestic paintings to fashion powerful rhetorical arguments about abuses of power. Writers also exploited the niche market for pornography to develop a highly dangerous but also very remunerative genre of political pornography, satirizing the royal family’s sexual high jinks (or, as was to be the case for Louis XVI, his lack of them).86

Politics from mid-century onwards were increasingly modified so as to cater for tastes developed out in the public sphere. And it was on that public sphere that the Enlightenment showed itself to be more pluralistic, more divided, more anxiously troubled and more reflective of existing political divisions and dilemmas than the brash unitary confidence of the moment of the Encyclopédie had suggested.

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