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From the Foundation of Liberal Political Economy to its Critique: Theology and Economics in France in the 18th and 19th Centuries

  • Université Panthéon-Assas, Paris, France


The relationship between economics, religion and morals are by far more complex than usually stated. It is possible to show that, at some crucial steps of the development of economics, religious thought gave it a decisive impetus, lying thus at the heart of this development. But it is also true that religious thought developed a strong critique of these very developments. This is this double movement between religion and political economy that the example of 18th and 19th century France shows unambiguously. The very beginning of the French 18th century allows us to exemplify the first kind of relationship: it shows how, with the Jansenist P. de Boisguilbert, some fundamental propositions of liberal political economy stemmed out of religious questions and controversies. The French 19th century, by contrast, witnessed the second and inverse movement: it shows how some Protestant and Catholic authors (G. de Staël, B. Constant, J.-P. A. de Villeneuve-Bargemont, Ch. de Coux, Ch. Périn, Ch. Gide), dissatisfied with the evolution of the economic situation, strongly criticized the “laissez-faire” economic theories of the time and tried to change them.
From the Foundation of Liberal Political
Economy to its Critique: Theology and
Economics in France in the Eighteenth and
Nineteenth Centuries
Gilbert Faccarello
Abstract.The relationship between economics, religion and morals are
by far more complex than usually stated. It is possible to show that, at
some crucial steps of the development of economics, religious thought
gave it a decisive impetus, lying thus at the heart of this development.
But it is also true that religious thought developed a strong critique of
these very developments. This is this double movement between religion
and political economy that the example of eighteenth and nineteenth
century France shows unambiguously. The very beginning of the French
eighteenth century allows us to exemplify the first kind of relationship : it
shows how, with the Jansenist P. de Boisguilbert, some fundamental pro-
positions of liberal political economy stemmed out of religious questions
and controversies. The French nineteenth century, by contrast, witnes-
sed the second and inverse movement : it shows how some Protestant
and Catholic authors (G. de Staël, B. Constant, J.-P. A. de Villeneuve-
Bargemont, Ch. de Coux, Ch. Périn, Ch. Gide), dissatisfied with the
evolution of the economic situation, strongly criticized the “laissez-faire”
economic theories of the time and tried to change them.
According to an old thesis the birth and evolution of political economy
were simple and straightforward. Growing out of some insights found in the
Panthéon-Assas University, Paris. Email: Homepage: Published as Chapter 5 in Paul Oslington (ed.), The Oxford Hand-
book of Christianity and Economics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 73-93. Some
typos have been corrected.
Theology and economics in France 2
Greek philosophers and in the Scholastic thought, economics is supposed to
have freed itself from the domination of religion and morals that prevented
its development. It is supposed to have become, around the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries, an autonomous scientific discipline. Sweeping aside all
the debates around usury and the just price, the alleged Mercantilists started
— the story goes on — a more serious and scientific way of reasoning “in
terms of number, weight, or measure” and their efforts were completed by the
French and Scottish Enlightenment, culminating in Turgot’s Réflexions sur la
formation et la distribution des richesses and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.
This way of telling the story, however, cannot be accepted today. Take
for example this phrase : “in terms of number, weight, or measure”, which is
supposed to symbolize the new scientific route indicated by Petty. Not only
does it not constitute an original way of thinking — it is widely used in the
scientific writings of the time — but the scientists who used it intended to
refer to the Bible from which it is drawn (Wisdom XI, 20-21). This simple fact
suggests that the relationship between economics, religion and morals are by far
more complex than usually stated. It is possible to show that, at some crucial
steps of the development of economics, religious thought gave it a decisive
impetus, lying thus at the heart of this development. But it is also true that
religious thought developed a strong critique of these very developments.
This is precisely this double movement between religion and political eco-
nomy that the example of eighteenth and nineteenth century France shows
unambiguously. This field of study has been until recently neglected, and re-
search is currently in progress. It is nevertheless possible to give a first picture
of the relationships between theology and economics in this country — a kind
of progress report — focusing only on some significant episodes of these mo-
vements. The very beginning of the French eighteenth century allows us to
powerfully exemplify the first kind of relationship and to show how some fun-
damental propositions in economics stemmed out of religious questions and
controversies. The French nineteenth century, by contrast, witnessed the se-
cond and inverse movement : it shows how religious thought, dissatisfied with
the evolution of the economic situation, strongly criticized the economic theo-
ries of the time and tried to change them. In order however to understand this
to and fro movement it is necessary to give first some brief idea of the historical
and ideological context of the period.
Theology and economics in France 3
2The historical and ideological context : political
turmoil and religious controversy
The hectic French political history during the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries is reminded first because it was not without consequences on the
religious and economic debates of the time. From the end of the sixteenth cen-
tury, France was under the regime of the Absolute Monarchy of the Bourbons
— the so-called “Ancien régime” — the target of the 1789 French Revolution.
The Republic was proclaimed in 1792, but wars and political instability led to
various political regimes stabilising with the Consulate (1799) and the First
Empire (1804). After the fall of Napoleon, the Bourbons came back to power
(first and second Restoration, 1814 and 1815) until the July Revolution of 1830
and the institution of the “bourgeois” July Monarchy of Louis-Philippe. The
1848 Revolution proclaimed the Second Republic, ended three years later by
Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s putsch (Second Empire, 1851). After the fall of
Napoléon III in 1870 and the civil war of the “Commune de Paris” (1871), a
third Republic was eventually proclaimed, which proved to be a stable regime
till World War II.
Catholics and Protestants
The peculiar religious situation of France during the period must be stres-
sed. After the Protestant reforms of the sixteenth century, France witnessed a
long period of tragic instability because of the conflicts between Catholics and
Protestants. The so-called Wars of Religion devastated the country — the most
powerful symbol, still alive in the collective memory, being the Saint Bartholo-
mew’s Day Massacre of the Protestants by the Catholics, which started in the
night of August 24th, 1572. The 1598 Edict of Nantes, a treaty proposed and
signed by King Henri IV — a former huguenot — put an end to the wars and
managed to preserve a space for the Protestants. Nevertheless, Henri’s succes-
sors Louis XIII and Louis XIV always considered the Protestants with great
suspicion. Intolerance logically led Louis XIV to repeal the Edict of Nantes
in 1685, provoking new persecutions against Protestants and the emigration
of many of them out of the kingdom. Protestant worship was again officially
admitted in France during the 1789 Revolution. Religious freedom was subse-
Theology and economics in France 4
quently redefined by Bonaparte in some clauses he added in 1802 (organic law
of Germinal Year X) to the 1801 Concordat signed with the Pope.
Hence, for our period there are two important consequences. On the one
hand, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Protestant Churches
were still very weak, and in the process of being reconstructed. Their action,
moreover, was still hindered by the authorities — especially concerning rights of
association and publication. This lay in a striking contrast with the fact that
many prominent writers of the time were in fact Protestants (Germaine de
Staël, Benjamin Constant, Jean-Baptiste Say, Jean-Charles Léonard Simonde
de Sismondi and François Guizot for example). The situation changed however
with the Second and Third Republic.
On the other hand, during the eighteenth century and until the 1830 July
Revolution the Catholic Church was increasingly contested because of its close
links with the Absolute Monarchy and its opposition to the “Philosophes” and
to reforms. It saw its influence on the population greatly decline with the de-
velopment of atheism, deism and pantheism. It was severely shaken during the
French Revolution, and, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Ca-
tholic Church was just starting to re-conquer public opinion. No doubt that it
did not appreciate the resurgence of the Protestants. A strong anti-Protestant
rhetoric developed again that culminated by the end of the century in a racist
discourse, with arguments that also echoed in anti-Semitic writings.
Rifts within the Catholics’ camp
In addition, during our period the French Catholic Church itself was not
without serious internal conflicts. Among the topics that divided the Catho-
lics, a question was the opposition between Gallicans and Ultramontanes. The
controversy was of importance because it involved the question of the relation-
ships between the spiritual and the political powers. Supporters of Gallicanism
were in favour of a relative autonomy of the French Church vis-à-vis the pope,
that is, a certain intervention of the State in religious affairs, for example for
the nomination of bishops. On the contrary, Ultramontanes supported the idea
of a pre-eminence of the power of the Pope — regulatory as well as spiritual —
on the French Church. Not very well accepted at the beginning of our period,
Ultramontanism eventually prevailed during the nineteenth century.
Theology and economics in France 5
Another important aspect of the French religious and ideological context of
the period is the legacy of the strong seventeenth century Jansenist movement
that, with transformations, was still intellectually influential during the eigh-
teenth and nineteenth centuries. The Bourbon Monarchy very much disliked
the Jansenists who, while Catholics, were supposed to be close to Calvinism
on certain points of the dogma — the question of Grace for example — and as
such a danger to the State. This led to Jansenism persecution under the reign
of Louis XIV.
As is well known Jansenism was a very pessimistic version of Augustinian
thought, developed after the posthumous publication of Augustinus (1641) by
Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638), bishop of Ypres (Flanders). While it generated
important controversies — especially with the Jesuits — and was condemned
by the Pope, it had a huge diffusion in France. It deeply influenced most of
the intellectuals of the time and its themes were expressed in a widely spread
literature. This includes the works of Blaise Pascal, La Rochefoucauld and La
Bruyère for example, but also Pierre Nicole (1625-1695). Nicole is less well
known today but his successful Essais de morale had many editions until the
end of the eighteenth century.
3The age of creation : Jansenism and the emergence
of liberal political economy
The first important and significant link that can be found in the French
literature between theology and political economy concerns the birth of liberal
economics : it exemplifies in a striking way how religious thought can generate a
decisive advance in economics — in these precise circumstances, the foundation
of liberal political economy itself. This happened at the very beginning of our
period, at the turn of the eighteenth century, in the writings of Pierre de
Boisguilbert (1646-1714), the most celebrated among them being Détail de la
France (1695) and Factum de la France (1707). Boisguilbert was brought up
in a Jansenist family and, in his youth, spent some time at the “Petites Écoles”
of Port-Royal, a well-known Jansenist institution. A lawyer — an “Ancien
Régime” officer in charge of some police and justice offices in Normandy —
he was struck by the appalling economic situation which prevailed in France
Theology and economics in France 6
during the second half of the reign of Louis XIV and consequently proposed
solutions for the recovery of the kingdom. His thought shared the Jansenist
approach and was clearly influenced by Nicole’s Essais de morale (especially
the first volumes, 1670-1675) and by Traité des lois (1689) by Jean Domat
(1625-1696), who was a celebrated lawyer and friend of Nicole and of Pascal.
Nicole’s approach
Jansenist philosophy put a fundamental stress on the Fall of Man after
Adam’s sin, and on the negative consequences that ensued. Human beings
replaced in their hearts the love of God with love of themselves — self-love, self-
interest — and irremediably adopted in all circumstances egoistic behaviour.
Incapable of any charitable attitude, they are motivated by self-love which is
the driving force and explanation for each of their decisions and actions. This
approach of course raised many important questions concerning religion (with
such a depraved nature, is it simply possible to love God and to be saved?),
morals (is there still a possibility for any virtuous action?) and society : if all
men always and only aim at obtaining all that satisfies their self-interest, how
can a society be maintained ? Would not such a situation inevitably ensure a
state of war of all against all? “The self-love of other men opposes itself to all
our own desires .. . . This is how all men are at battle with one another. . . .
One does not understand how societies, republics and kingdoms came to be
formed from this crowd of people full of passions so contrary to union, and who
tend only to destroy one another” (Nicole, 1675 : 116-17). It is true that, after
the Fall, man is left with some sparks of reason, but this reason is too weak
and depravity too potent to allow anything other than passions to direct his
behaviour. Man nevertheless realizes that he cannot achieve his selfish goals
if he uses violence and coercion. This is why he tries to make the most of his
remaining reason, though only to achieve the goals of his passions : he is willing
to submit to other men’s wishes but only to fulfil his own self-interest.
The old moral tradition thus reversed. It is not reason that constraints and
neutralizes one’s passions, but rather the passions exploit reason to achieve
their goal. This type of conduct, Nicole terms “enlightened self-love”. Thanks
to it, Nicole stresses, a society can endure and develop. And this society, which
in its inwardness is absolutely without love, actually looks full of charity and
Theology and economics in France 7
benevolence. Market activities are the best examples of this enlightened self-
love, with the celebrated image of the innkeeper that was to be found again
in Boisguilbert and the subsequent literature : “For example, when travelling
in the country, we find men ready to serve those who pass by and who have
lodgings ready to receive them almost everywhere. We dispose of their services
as we wish. We command them ; they obey . . . . They never excuse themselves
from rendering us the assistance we ask from them. What could be more admi-
rable than these people if they were acting from charity? It is cupidity which
induces them to act” (Nicole 1670 : 204).
It is to be noted that this revolution in morals — where the passions and the
depraved behaviour of man can have in the end socially positive outcomes —
was restated some years later by a celebrated French Protestant theologian and
philosopher, Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), in Chapter cxxiv of his Continuation des
pensées diverses . . . sur la comète (1704) entitled “En quel sens le Christianisme
est propre ou non à maintenir les sociétés”. There he stressed the fact that a
society in which people would strictly follow the precepts of the Gospel would
be poor, weak and the prey of its neighbours. In order for a country to be rich
and prosperous, he wrote, the maxims of Christianity have to be left to the
preachers : “keep all this for the theory, and bring back the practice to the laws
of Nature . . . which incite us .. . to become richer and of a better condition
than our fathers. Preserve the vivacity of greediness and ambition, and just
forbid them robbery and fraud . . . . Neither the cold nor the heat, nothing
should stop the passion of growing rich” (Bayle 1704, I : 600). As we know this
idea was also to be developed shortly afterwards by Bernard de Mandeville.
It is Nicole’s and Domat’s opinion however that “enlightened self-love”,
while necessary, is not a sufficient condition for a peaceful social life. A stable
social order cannot be achieved without the help of bonds of a different kind,
among which the most important are the rules of propriety and honour, religion
and, above all, the “political order”, that is, a very strong political organization
of society implying highly stratified estates and a marked inequality between
men. Nicole’s conception of society is not market-based and the basic social
link is still political and moral.
Theology and economics in France 8
Boisguilbert and the foundation of liberal political economy
Boisguilbert in contrast obliterates the moral and political order and brings
market relationships to the fore. As a Jansenist, however, his starting point is
the same than Nicole’s : the depravation of men after the Fall, the “terrible
corruption of the heart”. The logic of markets expresses nothing else but the
systematic application of men’s self-love to transactions, generating a maximi-
zing selfish behaviour that lies at the heart of economic theory : “Each man
seeks of fulfilling his self-interest to the greatest degree and with the greatest
ease possible” (Boisguilbert 1691-1714 : 749).
Now, applying here some notions derived from Cartesian physics, Bois-
guilbert defines a state of optimal equilibrium as a situation in which every
economic agent is allowed to realize his natural inclinations freely, that is, to
buy and sell, trying to get the most he can out of the various situations he
encounters. As each agent is only connected with the other ones by means of
markets and of prices, it is not surprising to see Boisguilbert defining the “état
d’opulence” equilibrium — a state of plenty — as a situation in which a specific
price system occurs : the “proportion prices”. They are defined as those prices
that generate a “reciprocal utility” or a “shared profit”. They make every produ-
cer “out of loss”, that is, realize the equality of demand and supply in markets.
This can be deduced in particular from the recurrent passages in which a “ta-
cit condition of exchanges” is referred. To keep the economy in equilibrium,
Boisguilbert states, one must pay attention to this fact that each producer
only buys someone else’s commodity under the implicit assumption (a “tacit
condition”) that someone else, directly or indirectly, buys the commodity he
But can “proportion prices” prevail? What about the destabilizing action of
self-love? Adopting Nicole’s rhetorical style, Boisguilbert presents the problem
as a paradox. He first states the necessity for each agent to be aware of the
fragility of equilibrium. Each man, he writes, cannot obtain his own wealth
but from the effectiveness of the “état d’opulence”, he must not forget the
necessity of fairness and justice in trade, he has to think of the common good.
But, Boisguilbert adds, under the pressure of self-love he continuously acts
in the opposite way. “Through a terrible corruption of the heart, there is no
individual who does not try from the morning until night and does not employ
Theology and economics in France 9
all his efforts to ruin this harmony, though he has only his happiness to expect
from its maintenance” (Boisguilbert 1691-1714 : 891).
Can an equilibrium be reached with such a negative individual behaviour?
Boisguilbert’s answer is positive. His opinion however is sometimes stated in a
curious way : an equilibrium results, he notes, because “Providence” is keeping
a watchful eye on the working of markets ; because a “superior and general
authority”, a “powerful authority” is continuously seeing to it that the economy
is working properly — and he mentions “the harmony of the Republic, that a
superior power governs invisibly”. As a matter of fact the phrase “superior and
general authority” does not mean the intervention of the State : Boisguilbert
states precisely the opposite. Nor the word “Providence” means “miracle” or
stands for a rationally inexplicable state of affairs : in seventeenth-century
French language — and especially for Nicole — it refers in the first place to
the “secondary causes”, the objective laws God instituted at the creation of the
world, that can be discovered through scientific research.
In Boisguilbert’s writings, “Providence” simply refers to the rules of free
competition. An equilibrium is reached “provided nature is left alone, in other
words, that nature is given its freedom” (ibid. : 891-2). Competition is the
coercive power, the “general authority” that governs markets “invisibly” and
assures the “harmony of the Republic”. It is in the interest of each seller, it
is stated, to face the greatest possible number of buyers, as well as to be
free to sell goods everywhere to anybody he wishes. From the buyer’s point
of view, the symmetrical situation prevails. It is in the buyer’s interest to
encounter a great number of sellers and to be able to buy from all persons, in
all places. Thus, Boisguilbert asserts, free competition must prevail throughout
the economy in order to balance these opposite forces and to eliminate the
succession of buyer and seller’s market that characterizes crises. The conclusion
is then straightforward : laissez faire, and laissez passer. “A person of status
[Colbert] sent for an important merchant to confer about the means of re-
establishing trade, that one would have to be blind not to agree that it was
ruined ; the merchant said that there was a very certain and easy method to put
into practice, which was that if he and his ilk [the ministers] stop interfering
in it [in trade] then everything would go perfectly well because the desire
to earn is so natural that no motive other than personal interest is needed
to induce action” (ibid. : 795) And here reappears Nicole’s example of the
Theology and economics in France 10
innkeeper. Economic activities “are governed by nothing other than the self-
interest of the entrepreneurs, who have never considered rendering service nor
obligating those with whom they contract .. . ; and any innkeeper who sells
wine to passers-by never intended to be useful to them, nor did the passers-by
who stop with him ever travel for fear that his provisions would be wasted”
(ibid. : 748).
This is the greatest innovative feature of Boisguilbert’s work from which the
basic proposition of liberal political economy unambiguously emerges. Most of
the social theory of Nicole and Domat is obsolete. The self-love of the economic
agents does not even have to be enlightened. Self-interest is not destabilizing,
provided it is embedded in an environment of free competition — only the
“rentiers” remain to be enlightened because they are not involved in trade
and their action is at the origin of crises : but this is another story. Society is
conceived as market-based and economic transactions form the basic — indirect
— social link between otherwise independent economic agents. In Boisguilbert’s
words, the realm is just a “general market of all sorts of commodities”. But if
the political order disappears, this is not to say that the State has no part to
play : its role is to make sure that the rules of free competition actually prevail
and, in that respect, it has to “ensure protection and prevent violence from
occurring” (ibid. : 892).
This new approach was to inspire the main developments in political eco-
nomy during the eighteenth century. Quesnay and the physiocracy, Turgot and
sensationist political economy, all developed the basic free trade ideas proposed
by Boisguilbert. There was, however, an important difference : the Jansenist
theological basis of the behaviour of the economic agents in markets have be-
come redundant. They are replaced by another foundations : the sensationist
principles found in John Locke’s 1690 Essay Concerning Human Understan-
ding, and powerfully developed in France by Étienne Bonnot de Condillac
(Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines, 1746 and Traité des sensa-
tions, 1754). This substitution was essentially the work of Turgot — on which
he also based his critique of the Scholastic doctrine of usury. Although the
conclusions remain unchanged, the selfish attitude in markets is now explained
by the natural inclination of human beings to feel pleasure and avoid pains
— to get utility and avoid disutility — and a maximazing attitude sometimes
associated to the “maximis et minimis” calculation in mathematics.
Theology and economics in France 11
Dislocated from its religious foundations, liberal political economy became
more widely accepted forming a both positive and normative discourse and
generating — using here Max Weber’s phrase — a new “conduct of life”. At
the beginning of the nineteenth century, especially with Jean-Baptiste Say
(1767-1832) and his liberal disciples, political economy and its policy proposals
stood unavoidably at the centre of most political and social controversies. Some
important developments of economic theory were still to be boosted by religious
thought. Examples include the work of H. H. Gossen in Germany or the more
confidential but nevertheless pathbreaking contributions by the abbé Maurice
Potron in France. However nineteenth Century France also saw the strong
revival of various types of religious sentiments — as described by Sismondi
(1826 : 21) “the nineteenth century proves to be eminently religious. It is so by
choice, freely and consequently in a deeper and more innermost way than all the
centuries that came before”. This revival in turn nurtured a critical examination
of the newly emerging economic wisdom. The relationships between theology
and economics started to be defined by conflict and an age of critique was now
on the agenda.
4The age of critique (1) : the Protestants and the
first critique of political economy
A new wor(l)d
At the start of the nineteenth century, for such an influential economist as
Jean-Baptiste Say, the sensationist foundations of political economy were com-
plemented by utilitarianism and a strong anti-religious sentiment. He conceded
that religion could be socially and politically useful. However, in his eyes, the
religious sentiment itself originated only out of the limitation of the human
mind, fear and some propensities like the credulous belief in marvellous sto-
ries. Later in the century, many liberal economists — most of them members of
the “Société d’économie politique” and collaborators of the Journal des écono-
mistes — (for example Antoine-Élisée Cherbuliez, Frédéric Bastiat, etc., and
even Michel Chevalier) stressed instead the reality of profound agreement bet-
ween religion and liberal political economy. Liberal political economy unveils
the laws of prosperity and harmony and its results are thus supposed to be in
Theology and economics in France 12
accordance with the Divine justice and morality. This kind of discourse was ho-
wever purely formal and not very convincing. The change of intonation though
— from the time of Say on — is noteworthy and, for political economy, marks
the transition from an offensive to a defensive position. In the meantime, a
fierce critique of liberal economics had been formulated, within which some
Christian economists played an important part.
In the eyes of many authors, the huge development of commerce marked the
emergence of a new world. This new world constituted one of industry, the first
industrial crises and above all the incredible spread of poverty. In particular, it
was no longer possible to speak of “the poor” like in the past. This word seemed
too narrow to express a massive and permanent phenomenon : many people
who were physically able to work were periodically jobless and a great number
of those who had a job could not earn a wage sufficient to maintain their
family in a decent way. Previously, poverty was diffuse : with industrialization,
it became heavily concentrated in some categories of the population and in
some places. It was massive, obvious and visible and its very existence seemed
tightly linked to the huge and parallel development of wealth. A new word
was needed for this new world : “paupérisme” started to be widely used in
the French language from the 1820s on. With pauperism, what would be called
later the “social question” was posed. The emergence of various movements for a
more or less radical reform of the society, the July Revolution of 1830, the 1848
Revolution, the uprisings during the Second Republic, all these dramatic events
went hand in hand with a strong indictment of political economy. Wherever
was the Eden promised by Quesnay, Turgot, Smith and Say ? Most authors
argued that, free trade and the establishment of a “commercial society” did
not better the condition of the majority of the population, rather seeming to
produce the opposite. Something was flawed in the economic system itself, and
the discourse of its supporters had to be re-examined. This reconsideration was
carried out by various authors writing from different perspectives.
Many critics were fighting for their Christian ideals. Some were Protestants,
such as early nineteenth Century political liberalism theoreticians Germaine
de Staël (1766-1817) and Benjamin Constant (1867-1830), or later the eco-
nomist Charles Gide (1847-1932). Others were Catholics including Jean-Paul
Alban de Villeneuve-Bargemont (1784-1850), Charles de Coux (1787-1864) and
Charles Périn (1815-1905). Some, took a direct inspiration from the Bible and
Theology and economics in France 13
the Gospel to promote socialists ideas, including Pierre Leroux (1797-1871),
and particularly Constantin Pecqueur (1801-1887). Pecqueur, among other im-
portant contributions, used the old scholastic doctrine of usury to justify his
condemnation of profits and his proposal for a planned economy based on the
public property of the means of production.
What constitutes the most striking fact in this story — differentiating the
French situation from what happened in all other countries — is unquestiona-
bly that the dissatisfaction with liberal political economy led to the creation of
new religions. Think for example of Henri Claude de Saint-Simon (1760-1825)
and his manifesto for a New Christianity; the subsequent Saint-Simonian reli-
gion developed by “Fathers” Saint-Amand Bazard (1791-1832) and Barthélémy
Prosper Enfantin (1796-1864) ; or Auguste Comte (1798-1857) and his Religion
of Humankind — all proposed during the 1820s and early 1830s.
Because of the limited space devoted to this chapter, the following pages
only focus on some developments pertaining to the two main and traditional
lines of religious thought in France.
The Protestant critique : from the opposition to sensationism
and utilitarianism to solidarism and cooperation
The Protestant critique preceded the Catholic one and is expressed in a si-
milar way in the writings of Germaine de Staël and Benjamin Constant. Staël
and Constant were not economists. Staël, the daughter of Jacques Necker, the
celebrated Swiss protestant banker and minister of Louis XVI, was primarily
novelist and philosopher, trying to preserve the best part of the legacy of the
eighteenth century “philosophes”. Together with Constant she was at the centre
of a major intellectual group known as the “groupe de Coppet” — named after
one of her estates, Coppet in Switzerland. This group included Jean-Charles-
Léonard Simonde de Sismondi (1773-1842). Constant was one of the main
French liberal political thinkers, working toward the optimal political order in
a post-Revolutionary and industrialist society based on laissez-faire principles.
Staël and Constant shared with Say both some fundamental concepts of li-
berty — and a strong opposition to Napoleon’s regime. They are sometimes
assimilated to the liberal economists, especially on the basis on such decla-
rations as Constant’s : “I have defended the same principle for forty years :
Theology and economics in France 14
complete liberty, in philosophy, in literature, in industry, in politics. And I
mean by liberty the triumph of individuality” (Constant 1829b : 520). Unlike
Say however they both acknowledged the consequences of modern liberty in
a “commercial society” can be extremely negative. From this they developed
a strong critique of the behaviour of the modern economic agent based on
self-interest and justified by sensationist philosophy and utilitarianism.
Following Constant’s arguments, the progress generated by industrialism
and the efficient role of self-interest are not without problems. Nature, it is
true, endowed human beings with love of themselves for their personal preser-
vation. But it also gave them sympathy, generosity, pity, so that they do not
sacrifice their fellow citizens, and egoism becomes destructive whenever these
counterweights are destroyed. Competition between self-interests in markets is
thus insufficient for the attainment of an economic and social harmony. In a
modern society the equilibrium between self-interest and virtue is quite fragile
and the powerful urges of the former can easily destroy the latter.
Constant analysis of this negative aspect of modernity is best developed in
his 1826 review of Charles Dunoyer’s L’industrie et la morale (Constant 1826).
He argues firstly, that the success of modern society based on industrialism
and on the enjoyment of civil liberty and privacy unavoidably leads to moral
lethargy and decay. In a state of material wealth, citizens tend to accept any
compromise in order to preserve their well-being, endangering thus domestic
political liberty. This process of compromise also naturally entails deterioration
in the moral position of human beings, who now appear to be no more than
Secondly, Constant champions the notion of natural rights against the de-
sire of Bentham to replace it with the concept of utility. It is true, he admits,
that a natural right is sometimes imprecise. But the concept of utility is worse
in this respect : it too can be interpreted in many contradictory ways and in-
volves an important subjective and arbitrary element. “The principle of utility
has a greater danger than that of law, since it arouses in the mind of man hope
of profit, and not the sentiment of duty. But the appraisal of profit is arbi-
trary ; it is the imagination that decides ; but neither its error nor its caprice
are capable of altering the notion of duty” (Constant 1829a : 552). Natural
rights, the sentiment of duty, are independent of any calculation. The principle
Theology and economics in France 15
of utility, inducing everybody to calculate in terms of pleasures and pains, is
destructive of morality.
The same is true with respect to morals based upon interest and the notion
of interest well-understood. If many authors, Constant remarks, maintain that
actions based on self-interest coincides with sound morality and justice, this is
because the notion of self-interest is used in a much broader and philosophical
way than usual. Say, for example, emphasises the fact that this self-interest
must be enlightened. But people simply do not understand this way of thinking
and, as far as they are concerned, self-interest only entails an immediate and
restrictive meaning : “when you tell them that they must govern according to
their self-interest, they understand that they have to sacrifice to their interest
all opposing or rival interests” (Constant 1829a : 548).
In sum, the liberty of the Moderns, the morality based on self-interest and
the principle of utility, strictly separate “the logical and rational part of man”
from his “noble and elevated part” — the realm of sentiments — retaining only
the first. How to react against this state of affairs? It is necessary to arise
and maintain “the most that is possible, nobles and disinterested sentiments”
(ibid. : 421). But how? The practice of political liberty can help, and this
is a reason why Constant warns against its neglect. However, this practice
alone cannot be conclusive. Moral sentiments depend in fact on religion. Moral
and religious sentiments have the same origin, God. Everything comes from
a kind of universal and intimate revelation that everybody can freely feel :
“it has its source in the human heart. Man need only listen to himself, he
needs only listen to a nature which speaks to him with a thousand voices
to be carried invincibly into religion” (ibid. : 43-4). This religious sentiment
is independent of any institutionalized cult. In Staël’s eyes, for example, one
of the best expressions of genuine faith is Rousseau’s celebrated “Profession
de foi du vicaire savoyard” inserted in his philosophical novel, Émile ou De
l’éducation (1762). If however an institutionalised church had to be selected,
this would be some modernised version of the Protestant cult.
The diffusion of morals and religion is thus necessary to the preservation of
society, but — contrary to an old view — this does not make it economically
counterproductive. Constant stresses the fact that the countries in which the
religious sentiment is the most widespread are also the most successful in eco-
Theology and economics in France 16
nomic development. “Look at England, this crowd of sects which make it the
object of their most lively ardour and of their assiduous meditations. England
is however first among European countries for work, production, industry. Look
at America . . . . America covers the seas with its flag; it devotes itself, more
than any people, to the exploitation of physical nature; yet such is the degree
of religious feeling in this region, that often just one family is divided into se-
veral sects, without this divergence disturbing the peace or domestic affection”
(Constant 1825 : 672-3). England and the United States are of course two Pro-
testant countries. It is not unlikely that Constant refers here implicitly to the
old controversy about the comparative merits or demerits of the Catholic and
Protestant countries in economic development — a controversy that developed
again sporadically during the nineteenth century.
On the Protestant side, the critique raised by Staël and Constant was de-
veloped and considerably amplified by Sismondi especially in his Nouveaux
principes d’économie politique (1819, 1827). This contains no explicit reference
to theology. Some of his sentences, however, echo Constant’s assertions and
the evolution of his own religious attitude is similar to Constant’s. In France
proper, probably because the Protestants were busy with the reorganization of
their cults, the links between theology and economics was no major concern.
This was to change, however, especially during the first decades of the Third
Republic. Some movements — inspired by economists as well as theologians
and philosophers — revived the critique of political economy, questioning again
the alleged benefits, for a community, of a regime based on selfish and maxi-
mizing agents freely competing in markets, and stressing again instead the
importance of the principles of a Christian ethics based on solidarity and co-
operation. One major author in this respect is certainly the economist Charles
Gide, who first taught political economy at the University of Montpellier and
ended his career at the prestigious Collège de France in Paris. He was very
active in the Protestant “École de Nîmes” and, through his tireless action and
many writings from the years 1880s to his death in 1932, developed the eco-
nomic aspects of solidarity. Examples include the various editions of his La
Coopération : conférences de propagande and Économie sociale : les institu-
tions de progrès social. Gide argued against the idea of competition as a selfish
struggle for life, replacing at the centre of his theoretical discourse the concept
of “individualism” with those of “individuality” and cooperation. He developed
Theology and economics in France 17
a theory of markets and exchanges based on efficient co-operative societies of
consumption : a field, he thought, that, as a prime mover for a deep and pea-
ceful social and economic change, was more effective than the more traditional
co-operatives of production. He was also eager to demonstrate to the liberal
economists, that this economic re-organization of society was not only possible
but more efficient than a purely selfish-based competitive regime while sho-
wing the socialists, that violent anti-democratic and liberticidal changes were
useless. Gide is now almost exclusively remembered as an historian of econo-
mic thought because of the successful textbook he wrote with Charles Rist,
Histoire des doctrines économiques depuis les Physiocrates jusqu’à nos jours.
His true significance though is seen in his rediscovery as the main theoretician
of the co-operative movement and “mutuellisme”.
5The age of critique (2) : the Catholic critique and
the two births of Christian political economy
A tale of two traditions
The first critique by Staël and Constant was formulated for the main part
before the triggering of the first modern economic crises and the spread of
pauperism. The second stage of the Christian critique of political economy took
place at the end of the Restoration, during the July Revolution and the ensuing
July Monarchy. It was Catholic led, and first known as “charitable economics”
or “Christian political economy”. This movement contains two entwined, but
distinct elements reflecting dual intellectual traditions and developments.
The first strand of Christian political economy is the most celebrated :
out of this came the phrases “charitable economics” and “Christian political
economy” resonating within the public at large. Its origins are found in the
three volume work by Villeneuve-Bargemont Économie politique chrétienne ou
Recherche sur la nature et les causes du paupérisme en France et en Europe
et sur les moyens de le soulager et de le prévenir (1834). While following Sis-
mondi’s Nouveaux principes d’économie politique and published in the context
of an existing literature on poverty — for example Le visiteur du Pauvre by
Joseph-Marie de Gérando (1820), and Tanneguy Duchâtel’s De la charité dans
Theology and economics in France 18
ses rapports avec l’état moral et le bien-être des classes inférieures de la so-
ciété (1829) — the book nevertheless created sensation because of its powerful
denunciation of the evil of pauperism and its supposed causes : the policies
suggested by political economy. Villeneuve-Bargemont observations had a real
world context : he had been a prefect, in the département of Nord in particular
where the textile industry was developing. He had the opportunity to observe
the plague of pauperism, and had made an attempt to gather the greatest pos-
sible number of data. Documented research on pauperism was in its infancy
in early nineteenth-century France, and the celebrated books by Louis-René
Villermé, Tableau de l’état physique et moral des ouvriers employés dans les
manufactures de coton, de laine et de soie, and Eugène Buret, De la misère des
classes laborieuses en Angleterre et en France, were only published in 1840.
Villeneuve-Bargemont’s own background is conservative. As the child of an
aristocratic family, he was five years old at the outburst of a Revolution, during
which the possessions of his family were confiscated. Under the Empire, he star-
ted an administrative career that he continued during the Restoration. At the
time of the July Revolution of 1830, he was prefect and Conseiller d’État. As a
legitimist, that is, a supporter of the elder branch of the Bourbons — dethro-
ned in 1830 — he refused to swear allegiance to the new king Louis-Philippe
and was forcibly retired. He was briefly (1830-31) deputy at the National As-
sembly, took part to a legitimist plot against the July Monarchy, and then
devoted himself to writing his 1834 book. In 1840, he was re-elected to the
National Assembly where he was a member of the legitimist group and stayed
until the 1848 February Revolution. He made a noticed speech in December
1840 in favour of a law restricting the work of children in the manufactures —
significant as the first great social law of the century. Together with another
conservative legitimist, Armand de Melun, he took part to the foundation of
the Annales de la charité (1845) — “A monthly review devoted to the discus-
sion of questions . . . concerning the lower classes” — that became in 1860 the
Revue d’économie charitable. Again with Melun, he took part to the founda-
tion of the “Société d’économie charitable” (1847). As a Conservative notable
Villeneuve-Bargemont did not however neglect the academic institutions. He
was elected to the “Académie des sciences morales et politiques” (1845), publi-
shed in the Journal des Économistes and his book on the history of political
Theology and economics in France 19
economy, Histoire de l’économie politique (1841) was published with the liberal
publisher Guillaumin.
In contrast to this movement, the second strand of Christian political eco-
nomy was neither administrative nor academic. Its identity is with neither the
conservative forces nor the legitimist milieu scandalized by the new economic
and social order. It can be found in a group of Catholic activists who, at the
turn of 1830, gathered around the abbé Félicité Robert de Lamennais (1782-
1854). Lamennais was well known amongst contemporaries, especially after
the publication of a series of writings — Essai sur l’indifférence en matière de
religion (1817-23) and De la religion considérée dans ses rapports avec l’ordre
politique et civil (1825) — giving him the reputation of a formidable theolo-
gian and polemist. He was an activist of the Ultramontane cause and a fierce
critique of Gallicanism. In addition he was also ultra-royalist though during
the 1820s, like Chateaubriand, he became disappointed by the Restoration.
He proposed an alliance between the Church and the liberals and called for
the introduction of some fundamental rights — liberty of conscience, liberty
of the press, liberty of teaching — and for the separation of the Church and
the State. He had with him some disciples with whom he was publishing Le
Mémorial catholique. At the time of the July Revolution, they were joined
by a Dominican monk, Henri-Dominique Lacordaire (1802-1861) and by some
laymen — Charles de Coux (1787-1864) and Charles Forbes de Montalembert
(1810-1870). They founded a daily newspaper, L’Avenir — whose motto was
“God and Liberty” — and the “Agence générale pour la défense de la liberté
religieuse”, with the joint purpose of fighting for the freedom of teaching and
to serve as a publishing house.
L’Avenir was short-lived : its progressive ideas were condemned by Pope
Gregory XVI (Mirari Vos, 15 August 1832). The Lamennais group accepted
the judgment but Lamennais himself progressively broke with the Church and
evolved towards socialism. The other members of the group went on fighting
in favour of Catholicism and they progressively formed a powerful network of
influence, with some journals like the Revue Européenne,Le Correspondant,
the daily L’Univers and the intellectually ambitious periodical, L’Université
catholique. Recueil religieux, philosophique, scientifique et littéraire. The group
exerted a lasting influence on the French intellectual life. The positions were
not so clear-cut among its members, and an evolution happened with time
Theology and economics in France 20
in favour of either a liberal political or a conservative but social Catholicism.
While the Catholic hierarchy progressively adopted the principles of the latter,
the former was always condemned. It is in this ferment of ideas that we can
find the other origin of Christian political economy.
The economist of the group was Charles de Coux. At the beginning of the
French Revolution, he was 3 years old when his family emigrated, and was
raised in Great Britain. He returned to France in 1803, but resumed travelling
abroad. He settled in Paris in 1823 and, in 1830, in a long letter to Lamennais,
he proposed him some critical reflections on political economy from a Christian
perspective, for a possible publication in Le Mémorial catholique. The same
year, he took part in the foundation of L’Avenir in which he published political
papers and a series of two articles entitled “Économie politique” (1830-31),
probably those he intended first to give to the Mémorial. The “Agence pour
la défense de la liberté religieuse” published in 1832 his Essais d’économie
politique — a thin book composed of two lectures he gave at the request of
Frédéric Ozanam (1813-1853).
Lamennais encouraged Coux to develop his ideas. An opportunity presented
itself when the Belgian episcopate decided in 1834 the foundation of a Catholic
university, first located in Malines and then in Louvain. The chair of political
economy was offered to Coux who held it until 1845 when he came back to Paris
as the director of L’Univers. After the February Revolution he left L’Univers
and, together with Lacordaire, Ozanam and Maret, he became a member of
the editorial staff of the newly founded liberal L’Ère nouvelle, the organ of the
first “Démocratie chrétienne”. Like Lacordaire, he left some months later.
In Malines and Louvain, Coux developed his ideas and had some disciples.
However part of his lectures also had diffusion beyond his own circle. L’Uni-
versité catholique published lectures from a Catholic perspective on all fields.
From the first issue in 1836 until 1840, part of the Coux lectures — “Cours
d’économie sociale” — was published in this journal. L’Université catholique
also asked the collaboration of Villeneuve-Bargemont who, from 1836 till 1838,
gave to the journal a “Cours sur l’histoire de l’économie politique” — the basis
of his 1841 book. Coux also collaborated to the Dublin Review.
Theology and economics in France 21
The (D)evil : the English system
As an example of the developments proposed by Christian political eco-
nomy, let’s examine briefly Villeneuve-Bargemeont’s approach. He noted that
the sad reality of pauperism developed first in England, a country to be consi-
dered at the origin of all the sufferings of Europe under the industrial system.
Under the phrase “English system”, Villeneuve refers both to the kind of social
and economic development that the United Kingdom witnessed since the end
of the eighteenth Century, and to the fact that this development was favoured
and encouraged by the “English school” of political economy : “Smith’s school”.
The theme is not new. Whereas Say and the Liberal economists were inclined
to praise England and English political economy in spite of some theoretical
divergences, Sismondi already powerfully presented England as an example of
how a highly civilized country could go astray and make important mistakes
in economic policy because of the existence of wrong doctrines. He also stated
that “while focusing the attention of my readers on England, I wanted to show,
in the crisis that she endures, both the cause of our present sufferings . . . and
the story of our own future if we go on on the basis of the principles that
she followed” (Sismondi 1827 : xvi). Villeneuve-Bargemont radicalized the cri-
tique : “The writings of Malthus and of Messrs de Sismondi, Droz and Rubichon
showed that, while the manufacturing system in England could enrich the na-
tion, that is, the industrial entrepreneurs, it was at the expense of the wealth,
health, morality and happiness of the working classes” (Villeneuve-Bargemont
1834, I : 15).
What are then the flaws of the English system? Two kinds of critiques
are formulated. The first insists on the instability of an economy based on the
development of “artificial” needs and manufactures. The second questions and
challenges the basic hypothesis of Liberal political economy. However the two
are intertwined : the very behavioural assumptions of political economy, and
the theory based on them, induce in fact the continuous increase of artificial
needs, material wealth and industry.
In a nutshell, Villeneuve-Bargemont takes up Staël’s charge against poli-
tical economy and the modern free market society : that of being based on
a narrow sensationist philosophy which ignores all sentiments and ethics, and
which dictates a morals based on interest. “It is certain that Smith almost
Theology and economics in France 22
always disregards moral and religious considerations : with the consequence
that, basing the principle of work and civilisation on a continuous excitement
of the needs, he founded the theory of the production of wealth on indus-
trial monopoly, sensationist philosophy, and on the selfish morals of personal
interest” (Villeneuve-Bargemont 1836, 87). The phrase “industrial monopoly”
means here that all the forces of society were directed towards the extension of
manufactures, industry and commerce, to the detriment of agriculture. “The
principle of the progressive excitement of industry through the continuous ex-
citement of the needs appears now as a fatal doctrine that must inevitably lead
to the last consequences of selfishness and immorality.” (ibid. : 89)
Hence an unavoidable instability of the system, the excess of supply and
the crises, with their negative consequences, that is, an incredible inequality in
the distribution of income, pauperism and the emergence of a new feudalism,
more oppressive than the former one : the feudalism of money and industry.
Hence also the fact that, for the most part, “the appalling destitution, the
existence of which in England was indicated by Malthus, could more ratio-
nally be attributed to the industrial system than to an excess of population”
(Villeneuve-Bargemont 1834, I : 9). The resulting state of things was unbea-
rable, and some violent social reaction was to be expected in England. As for
the other countries, “it is still time to take another route and to cure .. . the
English disease which threatens to infect us” (ibid. : 15). But which route ?
Two main complementary axes are proposed to remedy the situation.
The first direction is strictly economic and consists in re-directing the deve-
lopment of the country in a more “natural” way, with agriculture as the pivotal
sector — all other activities being subordinate to it — together with a change
in the final demand, a limitation of the needs and a fair distribution of income
with decent wages.
The second way out is a necessary moral reform based on the Christian reli-
gion. This will allow the structural change in economic behaviours to take place,
based on the conviction that happiness and welfare neither require continuous
material accumulation nor always changing needs — an important aspect of
welfare being the spiritual development of humanity — and that they will be
favoured by the practice of the first of all Christian virtues : charity. “Uniting
Theology and economics in France 23
firmly the science of the material wealth with the science of the moral wealth”
(ibid. : 83) is thus the French solution.
Disregarding Villeneuve-Bargemont’s more specific developments, in parti-
cular his ideas on the various types of associations, the program in favour of a
“French system” is summed up in the following way.
How to make labour, industry, the production of wealth . . . be in
harmony with the welfare of the most numerous classes of society?
The way exists .. . but it requires .. . a complete change in the social
doctrines. Instead . . . of being only guided by cupidity and the
morals of material interests, one should consider all human beings
. . . as brothers . . . ; one should demonstrate in all undertakings
moderation, justice, charity; one should love and seek progress in
everything, but with wisdom, .. . without selfishness ; one should
not neglect the acquisition of the commodities of life, but not get
them at the expense of the happiness of others ; one should regulate
needs, desires, profits, so that labour, wages and the moral and
physical betterment of the lower classes could go with the increase
in wealth .. . . One should thus protect agriculture because it leads
more certainly to this goal, encourage the machines which are useful
to all but proscribe . . . those . . . harmful to the working class : such
is the solution to our problem. The industrial selfishness will, no
doubt, answer : Master, your words are harsh ! For you, maybe.
But they are clear and soft to the hearts which are not closed to
justice and truth. (ibid. : 385-6)
From a theoretical point of view, Villeneuve-Bargemont did not have a
significant following — except perhaps Ramon de la Sagra in Spain — and
the group of which he was a member, around the Annales de la charité and
the “Société d’économie charitable”, had only limited practical ambitions. He
envisaged a new theoretical development founded on Christian principles, but
the project as well as the delimitation of a possible school of thought always
remained vague. “It is enough for our ambition to have shown in advance the
extent of their mission to the writers who would like to enter a noble and new
career : we would be happy if our works . . . could contribute to the coming
. . . of new and Catholic Adam Smiths who would realize what we just foresaw
and indicated” (Villeneuve-Bargemont 1838, 17)
Theology and economics in France 24
Coux’s social economics
Charles de Coux’s ideas started developing prior to Villeneuve-Bargemont’s
and he subsequently criticized Villeneuve’s project of a reorganization of society
on the basis of agriculture. This policy, in Coux’s eyes, would not have solved
anything. He rejected Malthus’s principle of population, the “wrong concept of
wealth” proposed by the economists and criticized their neglect of the distri-
bution of income forming a harsh critique of political economy. Coux’s system
was based on two fundamental ideas. Firstly, and somewhat paradoxically, he
accepted the basic concepts of political economy, the free markets framework.
Central to his approach is the requirement to provide a sufficiently high and
decent level of wages. Disappointingly, he fails to demonstrate how this is to
be implemented.
Secondly, and more fundamentally Coux introduced the concept of “social
economics”. Coux’s idea was to include political economy in a larger set of
theoretical propositions that was supposed to confer it its real meaning —
a meaning without which it remains partial and therefore dangerous as in
the English approach. The production of wealth supposes the existence of a
society, and society supposes sociability. “Social economics” aims at studying
the conditions of this sociability. Its object is to determine which form of society
is the most capable of securing it, therefore favouring the creation of wealth in
a stable and durable environment. “Its main object is the knowledge of the laws
of society ; it is . . . the necessary prelude to political economy” (1836, I : 95). It
is of a higher order than political economy because it has something to do with
the law of God. “It is difficult to believe that . . . no voice ever arose to prove
the economists that all their most central theories .. . are implicitly contained
in Catholicism. Even a superficial study of their doctrines could have been
sufficient to realize that they are just but a collection .. . of the consequences
that naturally ensue from the application of the revealed truths.” (1830-31,
Like in the Jansenist approach, the basic selfish and maximizing behaviour
of agents in markets is explained by theology. As it is impossible to change
it, Coux aimed at neutralizing its effects. This neutralization is at the basis of
social economics — or Christian political economy — and is based on the un-
covering of the sole stable social link susceptible to generate a real prosperity.
Theology and economics in France 25
This link is indicated by religion. It is based on a fundamental ethical value :
sacrifice. It is this point “that distinguishes fundamentally Christian political
economy from the anti-Christian political economy. The former considers sa-
crifice as the principle which generates wealth, but for the latter it is cupidity.”
(1836, II : 161)
How should we understand this sacrifice? It is the Christian virtue, that
is, the attitude which puts the love of one’s neighbour, charity, at the centre
of action, and which makes men have a virtuous conduct even at their own
loss. In such a way a lasting social link is created. Coux stresses the fact that
this virtuous behaviour is not only compatible with the material prosperity of
a nation but is in fact the only way to achieve it. Any sacrifice to the benefit
of others certainly impoverishes the person who does it. But this person in
turn receives the benefits of the sacrifices made by others, and in this way
the general welfare is increased. “If the sacrifices of the Catholic were lost for
society, if the hardships he endures, his unselfishness, his charity, his good faith,
the purity of his mores, would not turn to the benefit of anybody, we would
not have anything to answer to the anti-Catholic economists. But is it really
so ? . . . The Christian sacrifice, while finding its principle in the love for God,
always .. . turns to the benefit of others, and if it impoverishes those who make
it, it enriches others. But we all are the others of others, and, consequently,
each member of a Catholic society finds in the sacrifices of the other members
a great compensation of his own ones. Nay, he is a hundredfold rewarded since,
on the one hand, there is no lasting society without a reciprocal devotion of its
members and, on the other hand, the more the spirit of sacrifice is vigorous,
the greater are the social advantages that are divided between all.” (1836, I :
But what obliges the members of a community to adopt such a behaviour so
opposed to the nature of the man after the Fall? It is, Coux states, not only the
belief in a God, but in a “remunerative and vengeful God” who inevitably and
infallibly rewards and punishes men during their eternal life. Human beings are
led by the balance they make between their immediate and temporal interest,
which is always uncertain, and their eternal interest, which instead is certain.
They are still led by cupidity, but by “the cupidity for the goods of another life,
the craving for an imperishable wealth” (1836, I : 96). Self-interest is always
the prime mover, but “an enlarged, inflated self-interest, extended beyond the
Theology and economics in France 26
grave” (1836, I : 280). Sociability is based on this fact. There is no state of
nature, no social compact. Only religion matters, and moreover a religion based
on a Revelation because what is just or unjust, good or bad, must be clearly
stated from the outset and independent of the actions and opinions of men.
The lectures published by Coux in L’Université catholique develop extensi-
vely this point of view and propose a typology of societies based on the possible
combinations of two elements : what he calls the legitimate order (based on
religious beliefs) and the legal order (based on political structures). Suffice it
here to note that, of course, the aim of these developments is to show that
Catholicism is the only religion susceptible to generate a genuine and lasting
prosperity. Coux’s lectures are a work of apologetics, and Christian political
economy is also conceived as a weapon against the Protestants.
While Villeneuve-Bargemont had no disciples, the posterity of the Lamen-
nais group was substantial and influential. The dissemination of the Catholic
ideas on political economy benefited from Coux’s teaching and publications.
His action was continued by one of his students, the Belgian Charles Périn,
who succeeded him in 1845 to the chair of political economy in Louvain. Périn
started publishing a bit later, especially in reaction to the 1848 Revolution
Les économistes, les socialistes et le christianisme (1849). He was certainly
the most “economist” of the Catholic tradition and his importance can hardly
be overestimated. Through his many writings — among which his celebrated
treatise De la richesse dans les sociétés chrétiennes (1861) and Le patron : sa
fonction, ses devoirs, ses responsabilités (1886) — he systematically develo-
ped Christian political economy and laid the foundations of what was to be
called “social Catholicism” — the social doctrine of the Church being officially
expressed for the first time in Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum.
While Montalembert — and in part also Coux — was clearly defining the
main features of “liberal Catholicism”, Périn represents the outcome of another
line of thought that, in a sense, was also in gestation within the Lamennais
group in the early 1830s. Defining himself as a follower of Joseph de Maistre’s
(1753-1821) counter-Revolutionary ideas, he developed systematically Chris-
tian political economy in a conservative way — “social Catholicism” — actively
arguing and militating in favour of paternalism, patronage and an organisa-
tion of firms and economic activities based on a new form of guilds or corpo-
Theology and economics in France 27
rate bodies. These proposals were all very close to those of Frédéric Le Play
(1806-1882). The contrast is striking with the “social economy” and the “social
Christianity” based on solidarism and cooperation, that the Protestants were
trying to theorize and practically organize at the same period.
This chapter aimed at analysing some decisive moments in the hectic re-
lationships between theology and economics in France during the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries. Any survey of such is of course incomplete, given
the wealth of primary literature, authors and debates over such a long period.
Some traditional and important topics — like the controversies about usury,
the arguments over the comparative influence of the Catholic or Protestant
cults on the economic development of nations, or the various proposals of new
religions — have necessarily been left aside. The analysis focused on some core
propositions of economic theory, dealing with the basic behaviour of agents in
The reader must also remember that the links between economics and theo-
logy in France have not been seriously studied in the past and that researches
in this field resumed only recently after a long period of disinterest — espe-
cially from the economists’ corner. It is nevertheless hoped that this chapter
does provide a general but precise view of the subject and depict this strong to
and fro movement — first of creation and then of critique — that characterized
the French context.
References of the quotations
Bayle, Pierre (1704). Continuation des pensées diverses, écrites à un Docteur de Sor-
bonne, à l’occasion de la Comète qui parut au mois de décembre 1680, ou Réponse
à plusieurs difficultés que Monsieur*** a proposées à l’Auteur. Rotterdam : Reinier
Leers, 1705.
Boisguilbert, Pierre Le Pesant de (1691-1714). Pierre de Boisguilbert ou la naissance
de l’économie politique. Jacqueline Hecht (ed), Paris : INED, 1966.
Constant, Benjamin (1825). ‘Coup d’œil sur la tendance générale des esprits dans le
dix-neuvième siècle’. Revue Encyclopédique,28, December : 661-74.
Theology and economics in France 28
—– (1826). Review of Ch. Dunoyer’s L’industrie et la morale considérés dans leur
rapport avec la liberté.Revue Encyclopédique,29, February : 416-35.
—– (1829a). ‘De M. Dunoyer, et de quelques-uns de ses ouvrages’. In Constant, De
la liberté chez les modernes. Écrits politiques, Paris : Pluriel, 1980 : 543-62.
—– (1829b), Mélanges de littérature et de politique. In Constant, De la liberté chez
les modernes. Écrits politiques, Paris : Pluriel, 1980 : 517-612.
Coux, Charles de (1830-31). ‘Économie politique’. L’Avenir, 29 December 1830 and 10
January 1831, as in Mélanges catholiques extraits de l’Avenir. Paris : Agence générale
pour la défense de la liberté religieuse, 1831, I : 96-102 ; 103-110.
—– (1836). ‘Cours d’économie sociale’. L’Université catholique,1: 90-97 (first lesson) ;
274-281 (second lesson) ; and 2: 161-168 (fourth lesson).
Nicole, Pierre (1670). De l’éducation d’un prince. Divisée en trois parties, dont la
dernière contient divers Traités utiles à tout le monde (republished in 1671 as vol. 2
of Essais de Morale). Paris : Veuve Charles Savreux.
—– (1675). Essais de Morale, vol. 3. La Haye : Adrian Moetjens. Revised edition,
Sismondi, Jean-Charles-Léonard Simonde de (1826). ‘Revue des progrès des opinions
religieuses’ (first instalment). Revue Encyclopédique,29, January : 21-37.
—– (1827). Nouveaux principes d’économie politique. Second edition, Paris : Delaunay.
Villeneuve-Bargemont, Jean-Paul-Alban (1834). Économie politique chrétienne ou Re-
cherche sur la nature et les causes du paupérisme en France et en Europe et sur les
moyens de le soulager et de le prévenir. Paris : Paulin.
—– (1836). ‘Cours sur l’histoire de l’économie politique’ (first lesson). L’Université
catholique,1: 83-90.
—– (1838). ‘Cours sur l’histoire de l’économie politique’ (last lesson). L’Université
catholique,6: 7-17.
Full-text available
Introduction to the special issue of EJHET on 'Religion and political economy'.
This article shows that there is a strong connection between the religious component of French sociology and the critique of political economy. In the first section, I consider how selfish behaviour, or egoism, became treated as a major threat endangering the creation of industrial society by those concerned about the diffusion of political economy. I then summarise the methodological critique set forth in the Cours, before connecting this critique to the economic content of the Système and the concept of altruism. In the following section, Spencer's view of altruism is contrasted to that held by Comte, and then I consider the reaction of French political economists, defending the moral value bought about by their science. In the final section, I explain how the Comtean approach was re-enacted by Durkheim and then by Mauss, at the head of the “sociology of religion” section of L'Année sociologique, the Durkheimian journal, to give birth to the theory of gift-giving behaviour that Mauss used to critique political economy in the 1920s.
This essay introduces and frames a collection of essays speaking into a particularly burning and troubling period in South African history. The slow economic decline over a period of roughly ten years have now accelerated into a two year-long running student protest over high costs of university education. The protesters themselves, and commentary on the protest movement, link the protests to the failure of the promises of the 1994 compromise that saw the inauguration of the new South Africa. At the same time, the protests also pick up on another exclusion, i.e., the vestiges of colonial knowledge regimes and cultural alienation. In the essays here, issues are address that speak into this situation from various perspectives, namely, the agency of African in defining their own history, the authority and sovereignty to interpret the context, and the role of religion in education to construct social identity.
Full-text available
Poursuivant la série des rééditions de grands classiques, l'I.N.E.D. vient de publier un ouvrage en deux volumes sur Boisguilbert, économiste plus ancien encore mais aussi important que Cantillon et Quesnay. Mme Jacqueline Hecht, spécialiste des doctrines économiques, qui a dirigé les recherches sur tous les points, et rassemblé une importante documentation inédite, présente ici le nouveau cahier et l'auteur qui l'a inspiré. /// Continuing a series of reprints of classical works, I.N.E.D. have now published two volumes on Boisguilbert, an economist who antedated Cantillon and Quesnay. Mme Jacqueline Hecht, a specialist in economic doctrines, who has conducted detailed research and compiled a considerable and as yet unpublished documentation on the subject, presents the new book and the author who inspired it. /// Continuando la serie de reediciones de grandes clásicos el I.N.E.D. acaba de publicar una obra en dos volúmenes sobre Boisguilbert, economista más antiguo que Cantillon y Quesnay. La señora Jacqueline Hecht especialista en doctrinas económicas que ha dirigido las investigaciones sobre todos los puntos y reunido una gran información inédita, presenta esta nueva publicación y al autor que la inspiró.
Coup d'oeil sur la tendance générale des esprits dans le dix-neuvième siècle
  • Benjamin Constant
Constant, Benjamin (1825). Coup d'oeil sur la tendance générale des esprits dans le dix-neuvième siècle. Revue Encyclopédique, December: 661-74.
Économie politique'. L'Avenir
  • Charles Coux
  • De
Coux, Charles de (1830-31). 'Économie politique'. L'Avenir, 29 December 1830 and 10
De l'éducation d'un prince. Divisée en trois parties, dont la dernière contient divers Traités utiles à tout le monde (republished in 1671 as
  • Pierre Nicole
Nicole, Pierre (1670). De l'éducation d'un prince. Divisée en trois parties, dont la dernière contient divers Traités utiles à tout le monde (republished in 1671 as vol. 2 of Essais de Morale). Paris: Veuve Charles Savreux.
Revue des progrès des opinions religieuses' (first instalment)
  • Jean-Charles-Léonard Simonde Sismondi
  • De
Sismondi, Jean-Charles-Léonard Simonde de (1826). 'Revue des progrès des opinions religieuses' (first instalment). Revue Encyclopédique, 29, January : 21-37.
Économie politique chrétienne ou Recherche sur la nature et les causes du paupérisme en France et en Europe et sur les moyens de le soulager et de le prévenir
  • Jean-Paul-Alban Villeneuve-Bargemont
Villeneuve-Bargemont, Jean-Paul-Alban (1834). Économie politique chrétienne ou Recherche sur la nature et les causes du paupérisme en France et en Europe et sur les moyens de le soulager et de le prévenir. Paris : Paulin.
Cours sur l'histoire de l'économie politique (last lesson). L'Université catholique
—— (1838). Cours sur l'histoire de l'économie politique (last lesson). L'Université catholique, VI: 7-17.
Continuation des pensées diverses, écrites à un Docteur de Sorbonne, à l'occasion de la Comète qui parut au mois de décembre 1680, ou Réponse à plusieurs difficultés que Monsieur*** a proposées à l'Auteur
  • Pierre Bayle
Bayle, Pierre (1704). Continuation des pensées diverses, écrites à un Docteur de Sorbonne, à l'occasion de la Comète qui parut au mois de décembre 1680, ou Réponse à plusieurs difficultés que Monsieur*** a proposées à l'Auteur. Rotterdam : Reinier Leers, 1705.
Review of Ch. Dunoyer's L'industrie et la morale considérés dans leur rapport avec la liberté
--(1826). Review of Ch. Dunoyer's L'industrie et la morale considérés dans leur rapport avec la liberté. Revue Encyclopédique, 29, February : 416-35.