Morelly, (Étienne-Gabriel?)

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Morelly, [Étienne-Gabriel?] (?1717-1778): French, Political Economy.

The mysterious “Mr. Morelly” is the author of several pedagogical and political treatises, but is most famous for his two utopian works, the Basiliade (1753) and the Code de la nature (1755). It is plausible that “Mr. Morelly” is “Étienne-Gabriel Morelly,” presumably born in Paris, whose family lived in Vitry-le-François in 1721. By 1743, Morelly seems to have returned to Paris. Despite extensive biographical investigations, his works remain the major source of information about his identity and ideas.

Two pedagogical works, Essai sur l’esprit humain and Essai sur le coeur humain, appear in 1743 and 1745 respectfully. These works, which outline the stages of learning and personality development from sensory perception, through memory or judgment, to practical experience in the world, reveal Morelly’s optimistic view of human nature. Equally, they reveal the influence of sensualist ideas upon Morelly. Another minor work, Le Prince les délices des coeurs (1751), is composed of a dialogue between a fictional prince, his courtiers and his confidant. Although still portraying human nature as essentially positive, the political thought in the dialogue and the depiction of the ideal monarch is heavily influenced by Machiavelli. Morelly’s later work, Lettres de Louis XIV (1755) implies a criticism of Louis XV, using a collection of fictional correspondence to uphold and idealize Louis XIV’s statesmanship.

Morelly’s two utopian works, the Naufrage des îles flottantes, ou Basiliade du célèbre Pilpaï (1753) and the Code de la nature, ou le véritable esprit de ses lois, de tout temps négligé ou méconnu (1755) display the optimism apparent in his previous works. The Basiliade is an “heroic” or epic prose poem influenced by the Enlightenment fascination with the Orient and the New World. It depicts a golden-age, pastoral society founded upon and governed by the love of its inhabitants for each other. Morelly contrasts the natural harmony of the utopian society with an allegorical representation (and condemnation) of the European nations. Morelly’s Code, at first attributed to Diderot, Denis, was written, in part, as a defense of some of the ideas presented in the Basiliade. An analytical treatise with utopian elements, it codifies Morelly’s view of the natural basis of social and communal ties, including the sharing of property. The Code reflects Morelly’s more realistic approach to society; it includes a legislative program to return the State to government according to the natural solidarity and affection of humanity.

Both of Morelly’s major works were published in several editions in the eighteenth-century. The Basiliade was translated into English in 1761, and the two utopian treatises were discussed by German and Swiss Enlightenment thinkers, including Zimmermann, Wieland, Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim, Bodmer, Johann Jakob and Baumgarten, Alexander Gottlieb. Although they enjoyed a moderate popularity in the mid eighteenth-century, the two works were later embraced by communist and socialist theorists. In 1789, a simplified version of Morelly’s ideas was adapted by Babeuf, François Noël “Gracchus”, who used natural law as the basis for the community of goods and work in his revolutionary utopianism. From the mid nineteenth-century onwards, Morelly was classified as one of the canonical writers in the European utopian tradition.

Further reading:

D. Droixhe, “ ‘Voici un livre qu’on dit imprimé à Liège’: Le Code de la nature de Morelly,” Revue d’histoire littéraire de la France 96 (1996): 943-65.

Janet Bertsch