After the Flood: Boulanger’s creation myth restored

  • Themes: History

An Enlightenment work of extraordinary intellectual ambition receives, at last, a ‘serviceable’ edition.

Noah's Ark by Edward Hicks, 1846.
Noah's Ark by Edward Hicks, 1846. Credit: IanDagnall Computing / Alamy Stock Photo

Nicolas-Antoine Boullanger, Oeuvres complètes tome III: Recherches sur l’Origine du despotisme oriental, ‘Lettre de l’auteur as M. ***’, et ‘Œconomie politique’, Pierre Boutin (Ed.), Honoré Champion, €64.45.

Nicolas-Antoine Boulanger (he called himself Boullanger, but library catalogues always give his name as Boulanger) is not well-known to modern readers, but he is an important figure in the French Enlightenment. By profession he was an engineer, but he was also an indefatigable scholar who died in 1759 at the age of 37 leaving a number of significant books, all of which appeared posthumously (D’Holbach’s first important work, Christianity Unveiled, published in 1766 with the false date of 1756, also appeared under his name.)

The most important of Boulanger’s works, and the first to appear in print, is the Researches on the Origins of Oriental Despotism (1761), which went through sixteen editions by 1777. A summary of Researches also appeared posthumously as the article on ‘Political Economy’ in the great Encyclopaedia of Diderot and d’Alembert. Researches is one of a number of important Enlightenment attacks on despotism, the most important of which is Montesquieu’s Persian Letters (1721). One of the central characteristics of pre-Revolutionary attacks on despotism is that it is clear that when they attack oriental despotism they also have in mind French absolutism. Yet it is never quite clear how they imagine French absolutism might be reformed or, if unreformable, be abolished.

Boulanger saw himself as making two important contributions to the critique of despotism and absolutism. First, he believed he had discovered the secret to undertaking the study of politics in a properly historical fashion. Second, he believed that a proper historical approach would demonstrate the importance of what he called ‘theocracy’. The term was not entirely new, but Boulanger was the first to insist on its fundamental importance, and, as with his discussion of despotism, it was clear that he believed an understanding of theocracy must form part of a critique of contemporary absolutism.

The key to history, Boulanger believed, was to recognise that all cultures had a memory of a catastrophic event, comparable to Noah’s flood. One could see the evidence for that catastrophe wherever one looked in the geological record. Boulanger was thus an early catastrophist, but where later catastrophists, such as Cuvier, thought there had been a whole series of catastrophes, Boulanger thought there had been one great, universal catastrophe. That catastrophe represented the horizon from beyond which no knowledge could reach us, though one could imagine that before it human beings lived happy, prosperous, and rational lives. After the catastrophe, the few survivors found themselves in a hostile landscape, struggling to feed themselves. They were torn between two conflicting emotions: gratitude to the great God who had made their survival possible, and a conviction that it was the same God who had destroyed everything. The whole of human history since the catastrophe is to be understood as the attempt to manage these conflicting emotions of hope and fear.

Boulanger believed that no matter where one looked on the face of the globe (whether to Europe, the Americas, Africa, even Australia) one found evidence of an initial post-catastrophe period when humans had been free and equal (as they still were in North America when the Europeans arrived). As their numbers increased, they had recognised the need for government, and had appointed God as their ruler (which soon meant, in practice, their priests). As theocratic states became corrupt and oppressive, they were replaced by despotisms in which secular rulers now claimed to be gods on earth.

China represented the model of despotism at its best. In Europe, exceptionally, oppressive, despotic rulers had been replaced by republics and monarchs. Republics demanded impossible standards of their citizens, and degenerated into endless warfare. Only monarchies offered the hope of benevolent, stable rule, but actual monarchies (as opposed to the perfect monarchies, which would come into existence with the progress of enlightenment) were tainted by the legacy of theocracy and despotism. Central to this story was an insistence that the history of the Jews, far from being distinct from that of all other peoples, fits neatly into the general pattern. As for Christianity, it was just another religion of hope and fear; its stories of sacrificial kings and magical resurrection were no different from those of numerous other religions.

Boulanger’s book (which was officially banned in France) caused a storm because it was directly opposed to all forms of idolatry and superstition, and made absolutely clear that Christianity was to be regarded as idolatrous (on Boulanger’s definition of the concept) and superstitious through and through. Moreover, its attack on theocracy implied that an essential aspect of what was wrong with actually existing monarchy was its symbiotic relationship with Christianity, and that only a profound secularisation of society could open up the route to perfect, non-despotic  monarchy (which, one must guess, would have been based on a Montesquian separation of powers).

Pierre Boutin provides us with the first serious, scholarly edition of the Researches. He has studied five of the seven known manuscripts (the sixth, in Russia, was unavailable to him and a seventh has recently been on sale). He has demonstrated that the book was written between 1750 to 1753, with only minor revisions in the remaining years before Boulanger’s death. He has shown that the text published by d’Holbach was essentially a faithful transcription of Boulanger’s final version. And, he argues, remarkably, that as early as 1750 Boulanger was forming his ideas in opposition to those of Rousseau, whom he knew – remarkably, because Rousseau did not publish his key texts until 1754 and 1755. Boulanger offered a very different account of the origins of inequality from that offered by Rousseau; where Rousseau blamed property, Boulanger blamed religion. For Rousseau, money explained what La Boëtie had defined as the problem of ‘voluntary servitude’; for Boulanger it was priestcraft.

It is not surprising that Pierre Boutin isn’t familiar with the English Short Title Catalogue, which would have told him that one of the two London, 1763 editions of the Researches (in French) was published on his private presses by John Wilkes, who was at the time being tried for seditious libel. Wilkes escaped to the Continent, where he published an English translation the following year. If the book was of interest to a radical like Wilkes, it was surely for its treatment of religion, not for its advocacy of a perfect monarchy: Wilkes had plenty of experience of the imperfection of even limited monarchy.

What is surprising – so surprising that I can’t quite make sense of it – is that Boutin fails to even acknowledge the most important influence on Boulanger’s thinking, which is Montesquieu’s Esprit des lois (‘Spirit of the Laws’, 1748). The published text of Researches, and the article on ‘Political Economy’, end with encomia of Montesquieu. Boulanger seeks to go beyond Montesquieu in two respects: he wants to replace Montesquieu’s typological approach by an historical one; and he wants to insist that the three forms of government Montesquieu regards as fundamental (republics, monarchies, and despotisms), need to be understood as responses to, and continuations of theocracy. It is important to note here that the category of despotism was a relatively new one, and the Montesquieu was innovating in placing at the centre of political analysis. The great attraction of despotism was that it stood as a substitute for tyranny. Everyone knew that tyranny was wrong and self-destructive; despotism on the other hand was presented as a stable and indeed legitimate (in the sense of securely established) form of government.

It’s evident that reading Montesquieu is what inspired Boulanger to rethink the study of politics in historical, comparative terms, and in the process to invent the comparative study of religion. Another influence is also probably important. 1750 saw a great crisis in France when the government sought to tax the clergy without their consent. A flood of books and pamphlets appeared on both sides of the question. The government, having commissioned attacks on the Church, abjectly retreated and banned the works of its own supporters (including Voltaire). Boulanger’s preoccupation with the symbiosis between Church and State surely owes something to this crisis.

Pierre Boutin has nothing to say about the conflict of 1750, but in that respect he’s not alone. What’s extraordinary is that he has nothing substantial to say about Montesquieu as the inspiration of the Researches. What he says is this (my translation):

‘Thus when the Spirit of the Laws and the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Amongst Men appeared, in 1754 and 1755 respectively, he didn’t hesitate to refute the ‘manners’ in which Montesquieu and Rousseau wrote the political history of mankind. And after the death of Montesquieu in 1755, his Spirit of the Laws continued to feed the controversies around the history of modes of government, and Boulanger certainly intended to show the relevance in this context of his discoveries concerning the theocratic model.’

Something has gone badly wrong here. The book which appeared in 1754 was Rousseau’s first discourse, the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences. The Spirit of the Laws came out in 1748, as Boutin knows perfectly well – he has the date right in his bibliography. He has managed, however, to distort the timeline, and thinks of the Spirit of the Laws as a work to which Boulanger reacted after he had written his own work, not the work which inspited his own work, which claims (far from being a refutation of Montesquieu, who is called a ‘sublime author’) to end up where Montesquieu began, in other words to provide the historical foundation for Montesquieu’s great book (and, one might add, the discussion of religion missing from that work). One can perhaps see that the last paragraph of the Researches, which refers to Montesquieu as dead, might have made Boutin think that the whole discussion of Montesquieu was added late, and tells one nothing about the genesis of the work, were it not for the fact that a sketch of it appears already in the only manuscript available online, which Boutin says is an earlier version of the published text. Moreover, the final text, too, presents a problem: Boutin dates it to September 1753, but evidently this last paragraph (and perhaps only this last paragraph) must have been added after Montesquieu’s death in 1755.

Still, we are enormously in Boutin’s debt. We have at last a serviceable edition of an important Enlightenment text. Boulanger’s arguments may now seem odd and eccentric, but the intellectual ambition was extraordinary: he set out to marry geology and history; to treat all religions in the same way and comparatively; to encompass the whole of human history on every continent; and to give a comparative account of political systems that properly acknowledged the importance of religion. And, as it were by the way, he set out to destroy belief in Christianity. He did so with astonishing learning, and (unfortunately) with the solemn conviction that he, and he alone (with, as we have seen, a generous acknowledgment of Montesquieu tacked on at the end as an afterthought) had all the right answers.


David Wootton