Mably, Gabriel Bonnot de

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Mably, Gabriel Bonnot de (1709-1785): French Philosophe.

Mably, political philosopher and historian, older brother of Condillac, Etienne Bonnot de, born in Grenoble into judicial nobility, educated by Jesuits, was secretary to Cardinal de Tencin in Paris. He devoted his life to studying history and philosophy and writing over thirty books. He remained an abbé despite his free-thinking.

His first successful work, Entretiens de Phocion (“Conversations of Phocion,”1763) consists of imaginary conversations with the Athenian statesman and general. Phocion put the public interest ahead of his own, saved Athens from bad government, but instead of being rewarded met with slander. Parisian readers understood the allusions to their own times and relished the work.

Mably next turned to history : Observations sur l’histoire de France, (“Observations on the history of France,” 1765), not to seek historical truth, but rather to use history as a vehicle for his ideas. He shared with many philosophes the belief that man claims only natural rights, and that freed from superstition and guided by reason, he is capable of improving life on earth. In this volume Mably returned to Charlemagne’s time when - he claimed - Frenchmen lived under a constitution suitable to the genius of their nation. He wanted to show his contemporaries that a return to this spirit was possible and could greatly improve their current social and political situations.

While, believing that a monarchy could be democratic, Mably remained a monarchist and did not credit what he saw as the poor ignorant masses with an ability to govern, he is considered a forerunner of utopian socialism because of his stand against property rights. In De la législation ou principe des lois (“About legislation or the principle of laws,”1776) he stated that equality has to be the foundation of both public and private life, and that private property is the basic cause of inequality, hence the root of all evil.

To illustrate this point without appearing to attack royal authority or the Church, he staged a dialogue between a Swede and an Englishman. The Englishman asserts that because of the freedom guaranteed by the constitution and the wealth ensuing from free trade, England is the greatest country. The Swede replies that in his country contentment and order prevail because of moderate, but equally shared prosperity, and that happiness comes from virtue, not from wealth. In the end, the Englishman is persuaded by the Swede. Mably, the moralist, made his point while also voicing one of his many criticisms of the physiocrats’ tenet that property is of primary importance. He furthermore believed that equality within a State was insufficient, that a world federation was needed. He supported the new American nation and welcomed the American constitution.

A recent interpretation of Mably’s contribution emphasizes his debt to the classical republican tradition and suggests that his ideology influenced revolutionary thinking in the nineteenth-century rising nations in Europe.

Further Reading:

Johnson Kent Wright, A Classical Republican in Eighteenth-Century France, 1997


Natalie Sandomirsky

Southern Connecticut State University

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