Henri de Boulainvilliers

Stuart Elden mentions him in a blog update on his next book. I use Boulainvilliers, in fact, to set up some of my discussion in The State of Sovereignty, though I ended up cutting quite a bit to shorter that part of the MS. Generally, he’s been treated as this somewhat naive aristocrat and, admittedly, his work on Spinoza was strikingly unoriginal. (Though Boulainvilliers is remarkable for the time: he goes from translating Spinoza–providing the first in French—who, needless to say, often stood for all that was wrong with the Jews and/or atheists. Then, not long after, he’s writing eulogies to Mohammed and the progressive spirit of Islam. In short, what ties them together is Boulainvilliers hate of the monarchical sovereignty and the political theology used to prop it up. At least, that’s my claim.) Since no one cares about him, I can safely reproduce two footnotes from The State of Sovereignty on him. The second is a biting quote from Montesquieu (whose “spirit of the laws,” fyi, borrows from Boulainvilliers’s notion of the “spirit of the Franks,” as well as other sources)

9. As with all of Boulainvilliers’ works, the Dissertation sur la noblesse de France was published posthumously. Though Diderot rightly noted that Boulainvilliers was quite famous in his time (cited in Simon, Thèse principale, 1), few editions of his work were published. I am grateful to the Newberry Library in Chicago for its help in tracking down this and other original manuscripts. Ellis’s text is the only extensive work in English on Boulainvilliers in recent memory, though the latter’s work has proved crucial not only to the intellectual debates of his time, but also to the genealogies of nationalism and race-thinking in the work of Hannah Arendt (e.g., Origins of Totalitarianism, 180-2) and Foucault, who devotes two lectures to Boulainvilliers in his 1975-6 lectures at the Collège de France, published in English as “Society Must Be Defended.” Renée Simon offers a helpful introduction to Boulainvilliers in his Thèse principale: Henry de Boulainviller: Historien, politique, philosophe, astrologue, 1658-1722. Simon’s work is strangely marred by some notable errors, including the publication dates of Boulainvilliers’ work. In addition, Simon follows some of Boulainvilliers’ later enemies by changing his name as he does. This would be no matter of small import to Boulainvilliers, whose work, to say the least, is a defense of his patrimony and his genealogy, all attached to a history of his property and lineage, that is to say, his proper name. Simon’s introductions to the two volumes of Boulainviller: Oeuvres Philosophiques, however, provide a helpful overview of Boulainvilliers’ philosophical work. The selections in the Ouevres Philosophiques include “refutations” of Spinoza as well as essays on the body, human fate, the world, and a too short, though ultimately unoriginal, essay (written in letter form to his son as he prepared for the priesthood, though he, like Boulainvilliers’ elder son, would die before his teenage years were out) on the relation between human freedom and God’s “perfect sovereignty.” There, Boulainvilliers distinguishes between human will, which can act on the world (and thus would fall under the prescience of God) and the intellectual liberty of all, which provides for some space of freedom, he believed, under the power of the Sovereign. Like Rousseau later, Boulainvilliers’ argument for human freedom is question begging: without freedom, he argues, there would be no morality, and thus would make any moral laws useless (Volume II, 341). However, the Oeuvres Philosophiques does include important philosophical texts. These include letters and essays in which Boulainvilliers, who published the first French translation of Spinoza’s Ethics, showed a growing sympathy for Spinoza, as well as anything from his last work, written the year before he died, Vie de Mahomed (1730 and 1731; published clandestinely in Amsterdam with London on the title page). In this work, Boulainvilliers presents Islam as a more “rational” religion than Christianity, arguing that it is much more accepting of the progress in science. Boulainvilliers seems to find a kindred spirit in Islam’s founder, saying that Islam not only freed its converts of superstition and strange forms of mysticism, but also took down, through Mohammed’s teachings, the despotism of Eastern monarchs. The comparison with the corrupt Western churches is inescapable (and of course, the centralized quasi-“divine” monarchies of Europe), which Boulainvilliers had long blamed for its help in bringing down the power of the nobles from the 13th century onward. Only the Revelation provides us with the knowledge that Christianity is the true faith, but readers of Boulainvilliers found this assertion half-hearted, accusing Boulainvilliers of having joined, in his last days, the heathens to the East (Israel, Radical Enlightenment, 572). The separate political theology that Boulainvilliers finds in Islam will have to wait for another time.

10. Though he used Boulainvilliers’ histories in his own reconstruction of Salic and Roman laws as guideposts for thinking of an ongoing French constitution, Montesquieu remarks, dryly, “As [Boulainvilliers’] work is penned without art, and as he speaks with the simplicity, frankness, and candor of that ancient nobility whence he descends, every one is capable of judging of the good things he says, and of the errors into which he has fallen. I shall not, therefore, undertake to criticize him; I shall only observe that he had more wit than enlightenment, more enlightenment than learning; though his learning was not contemptible, for he was well acquainted with the most valuable part of our history and laws” (Spirit of the Laws, XXX: 10).


  1. While Montesquieu does say that, he ends spending about three hundred pages (in the current English translation) taking up this obscure debate over the German and Romanic organs of his France. He also, I think, comes up more on Boulaivilliers’ side than he usually given credit for. Montesquieu’s preferred regime is clearly the monarchy, he ties its history to the history of Europe calling it the original political innovation of Europe and he says that the essence of the monarchy is the nobility. For whatever reason, people tend to take his analysis of England as his own position on the best government.

  2. Yeah, that’s why I begin with that introductory phrase. But be careful, since the debate was precisely over the relation between monarchy and the nobility…

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