D’Argenson, René Louis de Voyer de Paulmy, Marquis

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d’Argenson, René Louis de Voyer de Paulmy, Marquis, (1694-1757): French Political Theorist.

Born to a French lawyer who served as Chief of Police and Keeper of the Seals to the Regent, d’Argenson saw public office as a destiny and post of prime minister as his goal. His entry to political life came in 1720 when he was appointed the royal “intendant” (agent) in Hainault, a post that afforded him the satisfaction of arresting John Law at Valenciennes. Still, d’Argenson’s intellectual devotion to the public good, coupled with his chronic mismanagement of court intrigue, made for a fairly hapless career in French politics. From 1744 to 1747, he served as France’s Foreign Minister. His tenure in this office, coming at the height of the War of Austrian Succession, was fraught with problems, not least among them being the eccentric figure he cut in the eyes of his corrupt colleagues, along with Louis XV’s own secret agenda. D’Argenson’s attempts to re-establish French hegemony in Europe by diplomatic means ended in failure. He was forced to resign the ministry less than three years after his appointment.

In private, d’Argenson was an intellectual first and foremost, and his years away from court proved to be of far greater moment both for his contemporaries and posterity. He acquired the habit of writing notes and private observations from his father. Consequently, his Journal et mémoires remains one of the most important sources of information about eighteenth-century France. A founding member of the Club de l’Entresol in Paris, he was influenced by the ideas of the *Abbé Saint-Pierre, though d’Argenson’s experience in government eventually allowed him to intellectually outgrow his mentor. In his posthumously published Considérations sur le gouvernement ancien et présent de la France (1764), he expresses dismay at the rotten state of the French body politic, advocates laissez-faire policies as the only way to invigorate the population, and generally attempts to fuse the best that democracy and monarchy have to offer into an idealized political system. Long before Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, who alludes to this work repeatedly in the Social Contract, d’Argenson well understood the importance of managing individual interests in the formation of state policy and the nefarious impact of luxury and inequality on the coherence of the state. He advocated government by a philosopher-king who would listen to the people, discern where the common interest lay and translate that into law, thus creating a monarchy containing democratic institutions. Political perfection inheres in a state where equality is maintained and protected by a capable monarch from the tyranny of petty individual interests, rather like the ones that had impeded d’Argenson’s chances at court.

D’Argenson’s brilliance was one of the few things on which both Rousseau and Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de could agree. Today, he is remembered as one of the most progressive, albeit reticent, political moralists of the Enlightenment.

Further Reading:

Nannerl O. Henry, Democratic Monarchy: The Political Theory of the Marquis d’Argenson, Dissertation, Yale University, 1967.

Ziad Elmarsafy

University of York