Monday, October 6, 2014


AM | @HDI1780

"... conserver l'harmonie dans un état." — Élie Luzac

Élie Lucac (1723-1796) was a tremendously prolific writer and editor. As a young editor, he courted controversy by publishing La Mettrie's L'homme machine in 1748. The scandal was such that the author was forced to flee Holland. According to Ann Thomson, Luzac later claimed that he saved the Frenchman's life by escorting him safely out of the country: "Sans moi il eut monté sur l'Echafaut comme un miserable bandit" [see]. But that wasn't the end of Luzac's travails. Jonathan Israel explains:

Luzac opposed La Mettrie's materialist views but believed that is was right to publish and refute them. The Walloon Church Consistory at Leiden disagreed and instigated vigorous moves against him. Luzac published his L'Homme plus que machine (1748), to defend himself against charges that he was propagating materialism, and also quarreled with La Mettrie over a money matter ... he found it prudent to move to Germany for two years until the affair blew over [1].

As the century progressed, Luzac became increasingly wary of philosophes and their calls for broad-based political reform and even revolution. He was a staunch Orangist; not surprisingly, he rejected Raynal's many-folded criticism of the Stadhouder. In his Lettres sur les dangers de changer la constitution primitive d'un gouvernement public (1792), Luzac warns against the self-serving tempation, common to all revolutionaries, to denigrate the previous regime as the epitome of barbarism: "Il n'y a que peu d'années, que votre abbé Raynal parla de votre République [les Provinces Unies] à peu près comme M. MILLOT parle d'Athènes. A l'en croire, on diroit, que du tems de PHILIPPE II Roi d'Espagne, vos Ancêtres étoient à peu près sauvages" [see]. There is continuity in history!

* * *

In his excellent essay on Luzac, E. H. Kossmann describes the Dutchman's favorable view of the mixed constitution: "Natuurlijk heeft Luzac als goede conservatief grote waardering voor de zogenaamde gemengde staatsvorm waarin monarchie, aristocratie en democratie elk een plaatsje vinden" [2]. But what looks strikingly modern in Luzac's thought, says Mr. Kossmann, is his description of the mixed consitution as the only regime that creates ... harmony. A mixed constitution may be needed as a checks-and-balances mechanism that minimizes the damage created by diverging passions and interests, but it should be more than that: "Nous devons regarder comme le premier de nos devoirs de conserver l'harmonie dans un état".

Perhaps Luzac feared the increasing popularity, especially among young people, of rousseauist thought and its wildly seductive views about bonté naturelle de l'homme—which seemingly destroyed the case for political checks and balances. (Jovellanos would face the same problem in Spain in 1808-1811, and John Adams was about to go through a similar ordeal in the United States). This is why he yearned for an optimistic explanation of mixed government. Appropiately enough, E. H. Kossmann closes his essay by praising Élie Luzac's "verlichte conservatisme" and his "optimistische visie op de wereld".

[1] Jonathan Israel. The Dutch Republic. Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806. Oxford University Press, 195, p. 1063.

[2] E. H. Kossmann: "Verlicht conservatisme: over Elie Luzac", in Geschiedenis is als een olifant. Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 2005, pp. 191-205.

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