II. Wu-wei in France 1750- 1850
The physician and economist François Quesnay (*1694-†1774) is generally seen as the founder of 18th century Europe’s “new science of Political Economy”53 but his contemporaries knew him as the Confucius of Europe. As Fox-Genovese writes:
“ [Quesnay’s] manuscript for ‘Le despotisme de la Chine’ contains a few pages on the life of Confucius which were deleted from the published version […] Indeed, the title given him by his disciples – ‘The Confucius of Europe’ – originated […] in his own self-image.”54
Both characterizations are essential to appreciate Quesnay’s role in the history of wu-wei in Europe but unfortunately, “what is often omitted in accounts of Quesnay’s place in modern thought is his debt to China”55 in general and to wu-wei in particular.
2.1 A Eurasian Quesnay
Indeed, stressing the impact of Quesnay’s Sinophilism on his economic theories has encountered strong scepticism by various scholars who like to limit Quesnay’s intellectual origins exclusively to Europe. One part of the critics does almost categorically ignore or neglect Chinese influence on Quesnay.56 One of the most distinguished historians on the history of laissez-faire, Jacob Viner, restricted the antecedents of Europe’s laissez-faire doctrine to four indigenous traditions: Greco-Roman, Scholastic, English common law, and mercantilist thought.57 Another group of critics admits the existence of Quesnay’s Sinophilism but continues to overweight indigenous European explanations for the evolvement of a philosophy of free trade after 1776.58 The key writings that do underline Quesnay’s considerable debt to Chinese thought were mainly (and strangely) all published before 1950.59 Nevertheless, Davis60 and Clarke61 have recently tried to revive the reinterpretation of Quesnay’s work as an example of the historical process of intellectual Eurasian synthesis – without understating the traces of indigenous Western philosophy in it.62 Especially, John M. Hobson (like Maverick and other ‘Eurasians’ before him) newly reinforced the historical argument for a truly Eurasian perspective on Quesnay’s economic philosophy.63
Not only did Quesnay approve of China but also, writes Maverick, was directly inspired by her, copying important sections from her classics.64 The foundational theoretical assertion of Physiocracy, namely that a society which is organized on nature’s own way of functioning (i.e. Agri-culture) is the most prosperous, strongest and happiest, matches Confucianism’s claim that it can only be the achievement of agricultural prosperity by which the state and people can obtain “peace and harmony”.65 Quesnay’s preference for Chinese classics over European ones shows most clearly, when he compares the most influential text in East Asian intellectual history, Confucius’s Lun Yü (Analects) with the quality of Greek knowledge:66
“[The articles of Lun Yü] all deal with good government, virtue and good works; this collection is full of principles and moral sentences, which surpass those of the Seven Sages of Greece.”67
It is therefore accurate to describe Quesnay a faithful discipline of Confucius and an understatement to classify his work simply as “quite favourable towards China”68, as McCormick did.69 Quesnay’s vision of a political rule, which is based on the prosperity achieved via primary production i.e., nongben, is deeply embedded in a ‘Confucian vision of good government’.70 However, this nongben-model of Quesnay is adapted using China’s wu-wei framework. As Hudson explains:
“For [Quesnay], enlightenment in a ruler consisted in recognizing the principles of the ‘natural order’ and making legislation conform thereto. When the king has reformed legislation he should then ‘do nothing, but let the laws rule’; this is the wu-wei of the Chinese ideal monarch. [For Quesnay], efforts of government to control trade […] do not create wealth […]; they are violations of the ‘natural order’.”71
Consequently, Quesnay’s model of Physiocracy is primarily based on his implementation of wu-wei erzhi. Quesnay’s Eurasian make-up is crucial for the history of wu-wei in Europe because, as McCormick accentuated, “Quesnay had a direct influence on [Adam] Smith”72. However, what were Quesnay’s sources on the wu-wei Empire? Which part did he play inside Europe’s network of Asian relations?
2.2 inside the Eurasian web
As an 18th century man who lived in the China of Europe73, Quesnay was not only influenced by the old strings of inherited Stoicism and Descartes, like his fellow citizen, the radical anti-Colbertiste Pierre Le Pesant, Sieur de Boisguilbert (*1646-†1714) had been.74 The founder of Physiocracy tried to show that the pieces of economic philosophy he received from the East were in fact more advanced compared to the ones of western Eurasia – the end result was a fusion of the two worlds of thought, the first step towards one grand design of Eurasian political economy. But how did the altering form of Chinese thought reach the mind of Quesnay?
There were of course several ‘European reasons’ why Quesnay ended up with his specific type of economic system based on ‘Natural Order i.e. Law’ (Deism and the aftershock of the religious War of the 17th century were two important factors). Nevertheless, Quesnay’s new and challenging physiocratic mosaic is best to be seen as the zenith of the century old European movement of deep admiration for China. 75 The French physician’s economic undertaking was at its heart truly Chinese. As his disciple, Marquis Victor de Mirabeau (*1717-†1789) described his teacher after his death:
“[He was dedicated to] the whole teaching of Confucius […] aimed at restoring to human nature that first radiance, that first beauty, which it had received from Heaven, and which had become obscured by ignorance and passion. [Quesnay], therefore, exhorted his countrymen to obey the Lord of Heaven, to honour and fear him […]”76
Thus, the Lord of Heaven, for Quesnay, was most apparent in the harmonious order of the Chinese Empire, the wu-wei Empire.
Quesnay’s writings were part of an anti-mercantilist movement inside 18th century France. The French Jesuits’s publications on China provided this widespread protest movement with a completely new intellectual outlook. The texts by the Jesuits demonstrated to Quesnay the contemporary relevance of wu-wei – a significance, he thought, that the European classics were unable to offer. The Chinese example produced eventually an altered forward motion of the French mind77 – away from the interventionist mercantilism of Europe and towards a Chinese ordre naturel.
There were two publications, which did much to deepen Quesnay’s physiocratic Sinophilsm in his later life, Jacques Philibert Rousselot de Surgy’s “Mélanges intéressans et curieux…”78 (1764- 66)79 and a work by Pierre Poivre. Quesnay directly copied large parts of the “Mélanges intéressans…” into his “Le despotisme…” (1767), composing the most lucid work of the Physiocratic school (which was at the same time its most Sinophile).80 Like the 17th-century faïence-workshops of Delft (see above) adapted the prosperous images of Chinese minben as their own, 18th-century Quesnay adapted China’s nongben. However, how did de Surgy’s text change Quesnay’s intellectual outlook?
The background to why Quesnay and de Surgy proved so receptive to the information coming from the Eurasian maritime web was the urgent need of economic and political reform in France. To attack the Republican views of Montesquieuian Liberals (who praised parliamentarianism and despised the French Monarchy), neo-monarchist like de Surgy (who praised the reformist potential of enlightened despotism) relied heavily on China as a model.81 De Surgy tried to show objectively that commercial success was achievable and even enhanced, by modelling one’s government on the contemporary achievements of China’s “enlightened monarchy”. At the heart of this enlightened approach, was the abolishment of all mercantilism’s restrictions on commerce, and further the implementation of wu-wei i.e. The institutionalization of the ‘Natural Order’. Describing the “richesses immenses”82 of Asia, de Surgy linked economic success to this form of natural government i.e. Wu-wei.
Quesnay copied the first seven chapters of “Le despotisme…” nearly entirely from de Surgy’s text.83 Moreover, in accordance with de Surgy, Quesnay identified his crucial economic concept of ordre naturel as underlying every civilized state. It is then here where Quesnay’s position shifts towards the original economic notion of Han China and drifts away from old European conceptions of ‘Natural Order’ as a force undermining the foundations of civilisation.84 Surgy’s text enables Quesnay to go beyond the Stoic and parts of medieval thinking, arriving at a very Chinese arrangement of ‘good government’, embracing the lessons of the Lun Yü.85
The other major influence on Quesnay’s work was the retired French ambassador to China and president of the Royal Society of Agriculture at Lyons, Pierre Poivre. In 1763 and 1764, Poivre gave two lectures on agriculture to the French Academy of Lyons; they were later to be repeated in Paris and published in Switzerland in 1768.86 In Lyon, Poivre lectured on what the world might become, namely an image of flourishing China, if only the laws of China would become the laws of the world. Poivre called upon all Frenchmen to go to Beijing, to gaze at the perfect image of Heaven.87 Quesnay became aware of these axioms through copies of the lectures and his acquaintance to another Sinophile, Anne Robert-Jacques Turgot (*1727- †1781).88 Poivre’s reflections on agriculture were in essence a tribute to the Chinese superior form of virtuous economic management and government:
“This great nation unites under the shade of agriculture, founded on liberty and reason, all the advantages possessed by whatever nation, civilized or savage.”89
Poivre’s interpretation convinced Quesnay once more of China’s supreme model of ‘natural government’ – once again the wu-wei erzhi of ‘enlightened despotism’ offered itself to be the magic but subversive (i.e. Anti-mercantilist) key to open France’s door to economic, agricultural progress. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Quesnay decided to publish his Physiocratie (1767) in made up ‘Peking’, to avoid French censorship.90 In 1767, Quesnay’s mind was already more at home in the capital of the wu-wei Empire than in Louis XV’s Paris.
In 1774, the year of Quesnay’s death, the governmental concept of wu-wei had reached a new level of prominence throughout the informed circles of Europe – in form of the physiocratic doctrine. Wu-wei had finally left the small scholarly chambers of the Jesuit- philosophes circles and started to infiltrate Europe ever more, while the images of prosperous minben continued to spread all over Europe.
(TO BE CONTINUED)
Department of Economic History
London School of Economics
53 Philippe Steiner, La "science nouvelle" de l'économie politique (Paris 1998).
54 E. Fox-Genovese, The Origins of Physiocracy (Ithaca 1976), p.74.
55 Clarke, Oriental enlightenment, p.49.
56 Recent examples include: H. Spencer Banzhaf, Productive Nature and the Net Product: Quesnay's Economies Animal and Political, in: History of Political Economy, Vol. 32, No. 3, Fall 2000, pp. 517-551; Irwin, Against the Tide, pp. 64- 74; Eric Roll, A History of Economic Thought (London 19925) pp. 111-120; Walter Eltis, How Quesnay's Tableau Économique Offered a Deeper Analysis of the Predicament of France, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, March 2002, Vol. 24 Issue 1, pp. 39-53.
57 Jacob Viner, Essays on the Intellectual History of Economics, [compiled and edited by Douglas A. Irwin], (Princeton/ Oxford 1991), pp. 24- 25.
58 Ken McCormick, Sima Qian and Adam Smith, in: Pacific Economic Review, 4: 1, 1999, pp. 85-87.
59 Reichwein, China and Europe, pp. 101-109; G.F. Hudson, Europe and China: A Survey of Their Relations from the Earliest Times to 1800 (London 1931) pp. 322- 25; Virgile Pinot, La Chine et la formation de l’esprit philosophique en France, 1640-1740 (Paris 1932); Maverick, China; Rowbotham, Missionary and Mandarin, pp. 285-286.
60 Walter W. Davis, China, the Confucian Ideal, and the European Age of Enlightenment, pp. 539-540 in: Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 44, No. 4 (Oct.-Dec., 1983) pp. 523-548; Walter W. Davis, Eastern and Western History, Thought, and Culture, 1600-1815 (Lanham 1993).
61 John James Clarke, Oriental enlightenment: the encounter between Asian and Western thought (New York/ London 1997).
62 Although one can see influences in the work of the Australian historian Robertson: Robbie Robertson, The Tree Waves of globalisation. A history of a Developing global Consciousness (London/ New York 2003), p. 96.
63 Hobson, Eastern Origins, pp.196-198.
64 Maverick, China, p. 22
71 Hudson, Europe and China, p. 322
72 McCormick, Sima Qian and Adam Smith, p. 85.
73 After 1750, people started to call France frequently the China of Europe. (Charles A. Fisher, Containing China? I. The Antecedents of Containment, p. 549 in: The Geographical Journal, Vol. 136, No. 4., Dec., 1970, pp. 534-556)
74 Paul P. Christensen, Epicurean and Stoic Sources for Boisguilbert's Physiological and Hippocratic Vision of Nature and Economics, in: History of Political Economy, Vol. 35, Annual Supplement, 2003, pp. 101-128; Douglas A. Irwin, Against the Tide (Princeton 1996) p. 65.
75 Maverick, China, p.111.
76 As quoted in: Reichwein, China and Europe, p. 104.
77 Maverick, China, pp.130-131.
78 Jacques Philibert Rousselot de Surgy, Mélanges intéressans et curieux ou, abrégé d'histoire naturelle, morale, civile et politique de l'Asie, l'Afrique, l'Amérique et des terres polaires (Paris 1744- 66) 10 vols.
79 The twelve volumes by Rousselot de Surgy’s were already partly replicas of a very influential text on China, the “Description de l’empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie chinoise” (1735) by the Jesuit Jean Baptiste duHalde.
80 Maverick, China, p. 315.
81 Ibid., p. 34.
82 Jacques Philibert Rousselot de Surgy, Mélanges intéressans et curieux, ou abrégé d'histoire naturelle, morale, civile et politique de l'Asie, l'Afrique, l'Amérique et des terres polaires (Yverdon 1764- 66), 6. Vol. of 12, p. 236.
83 Maverick, China, p. 127.
84 Maverick, China, p. 131.
85 Davis, China, the Confucian Ideal, p. 540.
86 Pierre Poivre, Voyages d'un philosophe ou, observations sur les moeurs & les arts des peuples de l'Afrique, de l'Asie et de l'Amérique (Yverdon 1768).
87 Raymond Dawson, The Chinese Chameleon – An analysis of European conceptions of Chinese civilization (New York/ Toronto 1967), p. 55.
88 Lewis A. Maverick, Chinese Influences upon Quesnay and Turgot – Read before the Society for Oriental Studies, at Claremont, in April 1942 (Claremont 1942).
89 As quoted in: Rowbotham, Missionary and Mandarin, p. 285.
90 Emma Rothschild, Economic Sentiments. Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment (Cambridge, Massachusetts/ London 2002), p. 67
Labels: economic philosophy