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  • Conjectural History and Satire:Narrative as Historical Argument from Mandeville to Malthus (and Foucault)
  • Frank Palmeri (bio)

I. Conjectural History and Satire

In Book Three of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith attempts to explain the mechanism by which feudal economic and social relations in Europe came to be transformed into relations typical of and dependent on capital markets. The feudal forms were characterized by the power of large landowners, who supported hundreds of retainers. However, Smith argues, with the gradual appearance of luxury goods, the great proprietors chose to adorn themselves rather than to support their retainers: "For a pair of diamond buckles perhaps, or for something as frivolous and useless, they exchanged . . . the price of the maintenance of a thousand men for a year, and with it the whole weight and authority which it could give them" (418–19). With their retainers dismissed, and their tenants becoming more independent, the large landholders bargained away their power, "not like Esau in time of hunger and necessity, but in wantonness of plenty, for trinkets and baubles fitter to be the play-things of children than the serious pursuits of men" (421). Smith does not cite documentary or other sources to support his argument here, nor does he offer quantitative evidence or calculations. Instead, he provides a plausible hypothetical narrative to bridge the gap between earlier and later stages of society. His account is consistent with known or accepted facts and with an understanding of psychology ("all for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind" [418]). But the narrative is also sharply [End Page 64] satiric, implying that the loss of unquestioned political and social dominance by the great landowners was due only to themselves—to their childish and shortsighted pursuit of "baubles." Far from being unique or unusual, the combination of speculative history and satire in this passage is exemplary of a frequent convergence of these genres of narrative in the eighteenth century.

In this passage and in others, Smith constructs a speculative narrative in order to explain the passage from one stage of society to another, as did the other eighteenth-century historians whose works will be considered here. The literary form most closely related to their narrative plots—satire—is often associated with the local and political and not with large-scale historical explanations. Part of the significance of the story of conjectural history in the eighteenth century, then, arises from its distinctive interweaving of fictional and historical modes. But perhaps most importantly, in both the fictional and the non-fictional modes, conjectural history demonstrates the indispensable role of narrative in providing answers to questions about the nature of human society and the identity of human beings. The narrative explanations provided by conjectural history constitute the bridge between sacred texts such as the book of Genesis and the modern discipline of cultural anthropology.

When Enlightenment thinkers sought to work out a naturalistic narrative of the course of human societies, they had to develop a form of a universal history that would avoid having recourse to providence for its explanations. Outside the bible and religious traditions, however, the available evidence was limited, uncertain, and fragmentary, consisting primarily of the writings of travelers, merchants, and missionaries over the preceding two centuries of European exploration and expansion.1 To give an account of the earliest stages of human social life, and to fill in gaps or transitions between eras already represented in the historical record, they fashioned the genre of conjectural history, attempting to construct psychologically plausible narratives of what could or must have happened in order for human beings to have developed the use of articulate language, or to have brought into existence the institutions of religion and government. Dugald Stewart called these works "Theoretical or Conjectural" (34) histories because they offered hypotheses that would be in accord with and help explain the historical record, just as a history of physics or mathematics offers hypotheses that seek to be in accord with and help explain observable phenomena in the natural world. Such narratives were sometimes carried forward so that they overlapped with classical...


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