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Bonald’s Theory of the Nobility

1,018 words

[1]Polish translation here [2]

Unlike Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald devoted little space to analyzing the French Revolution itself. His focus instead was on understanding the traditional society which had been swept away. His review of Mme. de Staël’s Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution [3], e.g., ends up turning into a theory of the nobility and its function. Bonald scholar Christopher Olaf Blum calls this “his most original contribution to the theory of the counter-revolution.”

Any advanced society requires men who devote themselves to the public good in preference to the private good of their families. This is particularly so in the professions of law and war: Bonald calls judges and warriors “merely the internal and external means of society’s conservation,” and hence the two fundamentally political or public professions.

To entice men into public service, two things are required. First, such men must be economically independent. They cannot rely on the changeable will of an employer who pays them a salary, however generous. Nor would their public duties allow them leisure to busy themselves with commerce. Therefore they must be landholders.

Second, men must be socialized to see public service as an honor and a distinction:

The [pre-revolutionary] constitution said to every private family: “when you have fulfilled your destination in domestic society, which is to acquire an independent property through work, order and thrift—when, that is, you have acquired enough that you have no need of others and are able to serve the state at your own expense, from your own income and, if necessary, with your capital—the greatest honor to which you can aspire will be to pass into the order particularly devoted to the service of the state.

In reality, this is a kind of noble fiction: the service nobility’s “distinction, by a strange reversal of conceptions, has seemed, even to them, to be a prerogative, while it is in fact nothing but servitude.” Their own interest would dictate their continued devotion to their families and the concerns of private life.

Pre-revolutionary France had a remarkable way of filling public offices: they were sold. Known as the “venality of offices,” the system is most often cited as an example of the irrationality of the ancien régime’s finances. Liberal historians especially have criticized the system for delaying the onset of large-scale capitalism in France: instead of expanding their commercial operations indefinitely, successful merchants would convert their fortunes into land in order to purchase more ‘honorable’ offices for themselves or their sons. Bonald warmly defends the custom:

There could be no more moral institution than one which, by the most honorable motive, gave an example of disinterestedness to men devoured by a thirst for money in a society in which the passion was a fertile source of injustice and crime. There could be no better policy than to stop, by a powerful yet voluntary means, and by the motive of honor, the immoderate accumulation of wealth in the same hands.

A large payment for occupying offices of public trust, he says, functioned as proof of a candidate’s independence and disinterestedness. The ‘opening of careers  to talents’ (which the Revolution made such a fuss over) merely encouraged bribery and endless strife over who was talented. Open venality was, strange to say, the more objective procedure.

Bonald contrasts the service nobility of France favorably with what he calls the political nobility of England: the English peers were “no body of nobles destined to serve political power but a senate destined to exercise it.” Nor were they wholly devoted to public duties: “The peer who makes laws for three months of the year sells linens for the other nine.”

The liberal might respond that “private” linen merchants are serving the public just as much as judges or military men: they provide merchandise to the “general public.” Contemporary libertarians have effectively satirized the notion of “public servants” who consume half our incomes, while “selfish businessmen” labor so that we may feed, clothe, and house ourselves more cheaply than any people in history.

Bonald mentions someone’s suggestion that actors be considered “public servants” since they perform for the public: this notion was universally and deservedly ridiculed, even by many who could not explain why actors were not “public men.”

The case with merchants is similar: “the merchant who arranges for a whole fleet of sugar and coffee serves individuals no less than the shopkeeper who sells them to me.” But the soldier who sacrifices his life for his country does not act merely for the benefit of the particular persons who make up the country at a particular moment. Justice has a similar irreducibly impersonal or universal intention: it is ideally “blind” or without regard for persons. Economic thinking cannot account for these types of human action.

(The philosophically inclined may wish to consult my discussion of the essential difference between universalist vs. particularist action in Alexandre Kojeve and the Outcome of Modern Thought [4], p. 92ff. Bonald’s views on this matter are quite similar to Hegel’s.)

It should be acknowledged that Bonald’s theory of the nobility is an idealizing interpretation. Since the time of Louis XIV, the grande noblesse at Versailles had not performed much of any function, and well before the Revolution, many noblemen bore a closer resemblance to the dissolute characters in Les liaisons dangereuses [5]than to the ideal type described by Bonald. As Blum says, “in making [his] argument, [Bonald] was a reformer, for the French nobility had shown itself willing to jettison its duties in favor of the kind of freedom that would enable them, the wealthy, to dominate more effectively and without the hindrance of traditional strictures.”

Recommended reading:

Louis de Bonald
The True & Only Wealth of Nations: Essays on Family, Economy, & Society [6]
Translated by Christopher Olaf Blum
Naples, Fla.: Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University, 2006

Critics of the Enlightenment: Readings in the French Counter-Revolutionary Tradition [7]
Edited and translated by Christopher Olaf Blum
Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2004

Louis de Bonald
On Divorce [8]
Translated and edited by Nicholas Davidson
New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1992

TOQ Online, Dec. 4, 2009