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History of Political Economy Annual Supplement to Volume 35 (2003) 101-128
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Epicurean and Stoic Sources for Boisguilbert's Physiological and Hippocratic Vision of Nature and Economics
Paul P. Christensen
The sould of the new system is of doing only what is in concert with the people and in relation to the true interests of all the public.
—Pierre Le Pesant Boisguilbert (1705)
Pierre Le Pesant Boisguilbert (1646–1714) is known as a great precursor of physiocratic, classical, and Keynesian lines of analysis, one of the first writers to base the "hidden processes" of the economic order on a seventeenth-century theory of natural order (Spengler  1984), and the first to articulate the "liberal vision" of laissez-faire generally credited to François Quesnay and Adam Smith (Hecht 1989).1 These anticipations are embedded in a remarkable theory of economics that treated production and "consumption as the [twin] drivers of economic prosperity," the requirements for equilibrium between asymmetric sectors and markets, and the causes of "economic disequilibrium, crisis, misery, and social disorder" (Carbon 1989; Faccarello  1999). The range and fecundity of a theory encompassing so many thinkers and [End Page 101] schools that are today at each other's throats suggest the existence of a deep and generative connection to a powerful philosophical and scientific system.2
For mainstream historians of economics, Boisguilbert's theoretical vision was a product of the theological and scientific matrix of Jansenism and Cartesian occasionalism (Perrot  1992). Joseph Spengler ( 1984) credits his idea of natural order to his younger cousin, the "Cartesian Fontenelle." A few years in a Jansenist school reinforced by the moral and social theories of Blaise Pascal, Pierre Nicole, and Jean Domat are seen to forge an Augustinian vision of a human nature driven by "self-love, interest, lust and deceit" but masked by a ruse of concern for others (Perrot 1989; Faccarello  1999). With the addition of the political absolutism of Jean Bodin and Cardinal Richelieu "there emerges a Boisguilbert who is a Cartesian, an absolutist and an Augustinian" (Facarello  1999, 11). All this separates him from the English preclassicals and places him securely within the amour propre tradition of the French moralists, which those who consider Boisbuilbert a Cartesian occasionalist consider the main road to economic theory.
Although not without important strengths, this interpretation presents major difficulties. First, the occasionalist denial of nature's active powers and attribution of all motion to God's intervention are inconsistent with the central role Boisguilbert gives to nature's activity in economic and social life. Second, this thinking assumes an automatic connection between Cartesianism and Jansenism.3 Third, Boisguilbert's insistence on evidence and hostility to speculative systems fit uneasily with Cartesian rationalism. Fourth, Bernard de Fontenelle's scientific and philosophical views were not Cartesian but those of a radical Epicurean (Niderst 1972, 1991). Lastly, this interpretation neglects Boisguilbert's links to the physiological production ideas of Thomas Hobbes and Sir William Petty, who have joined the ancient physics to William Harvey's new circulation physiology (Christensen 1989).
Boisguilbert's striking technical knowledge of the culture of grains and the obvious production underpinning of his asymmetric model of [End Page 102] agricultural and artisanal markets suggested an investigation of his possible connections to the emerging sciences of botany and natural history in France. This led to the great research projects of plant and animal anatomy conducted by the new Royal Academy of Sciences and to the publications of its leading scientists that set out an epistemology of experience and conception of an organic world unified and maintained by a continuous flow of active and nutritive materials through the kingdoms of nature.4 The ties of these ideas to the Epicurean respiration chemistry of Harvey's English disciples (Frank 1980), the influence of Pierre Gassendi's epistemological and conceptual vision of science on the new academy and its research program, and Fontenelle's Epicureanism suggested a Gassendian influence on Boisguilbert. A parallel inquiry into Hippocratic ideas of...