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Prior to the massive wave of emigration to South America during the nineteenth century, inhabitants of rural communities in the western French Pyrenees emigrated in large numbers to Saint-Domingue and other Caribbean islands. This article examines the connections between migratory movements and the organization of these communities into “house societies” (Lévi-Strauss) in which the continuation of the “house” was paramount and no new “houses” could be founded. Adopting a microhistorical approach, it analyzes the complex role of inheritance rights in the decision to emigrate and reconstructs the networks that made emigration possible. Unlike the traditional belief that sons were forced to leave because they were deprived of their share of inheritance, the family unit fully supported the emigration of its younger members. This article also argues that emigration simultaneously resulted from and undermined the “house system.”
Avant l’émigration de masse vers l’Amérique du Sud au XIXe siècle, les communautés rurales des Pyrénées occidentales connurent un mouvement migratoire notable vers Saint-Domingue et les autres îles des Caraïbes. Cette étude porte sur les rapports entre les mouvements migratoires et l’organisation de ces communautés en « sociétés à maisons » (Claude Lévi- Strauss), où la continuité de la « maison » était essentielle et aucune nouvelle « maison » ne pouvait être fondée. Usant d’une méthode microhistorique, on analyse le rôle complexe des coutumes successorales dans la décision d’émigrer, et on reconstruit les réseaux qui permirent l’émigration. Loin de l’image traditionnelle du fils forcé de partir parce que privé de sa part d’héritage, on montre que l’émigration des cadets avait le soutien de l’ensemble du groupe familial. On soutient aussi que vis-à-vis du « système à maisons », l’émigration était tout à la fois une conséquence du système et contraire à l’esprit du système.
This article revisits what has often been called the “naive presentism” of Voltaire's historical work. It looks at the methodological and philosophical reasons for Voltaire's deliberate focus on modern history as opposed to ancient history, his refusal to “make allowances for time” in judging the past, and his extreme selectiveness in determining the relevance of past events to world history. Voltaire's historical practice is put in the context of the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns, and considered in a tradition of universal history going back to Bossuet and leading up to nineteenth-century German historicism. Paradoxically, Voltaire is a major figure in the history of historiography not in spite of his presentism (as Ernst Cassirer and Peter Gay have argued), but because of it.
Self-interest is the only motive of human actions.
P. H. d'Holbach, A Treatise on Man (1773)
In his classic work, The Passions and the Interests, Albert Hirschman describes the rise of the concept of interest in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He shows how this concept, originally linked to statecraft and raison d'État theory, was so successful that it soon became a tool for interpreting not only the behavior of rulers, but also the totality of human conduct. “Once the idea of interest had appeared,” Hirschman remarks, “it became a real fad as well as a paradigm (à la Kuhn) and most of human action was suddenly explained by self-interest, sometimes to the point of tautology.”It is generally assumed that the birth of modern economic science, conventionally marked by the publication of The Wealth of Nations in 1776, was one of the most significant manifestations of the triumph of the “interest paradigm.” According to this view, self-interest provided the axiom upon which Adam Smith constructed his political economy. After the marginalist revolution in the second half of the nineteenth century, when economics became a highly formalized and mathematical discipline, self-interest was enshrined as the first principle that made all theoretical constructions possible. As F.Y. Edgeworth put it in 1881, “the first principle of Economics is that every agent is actuated only by self-interest.”
Much of the ambiguity regarding the first principles of economic science can be traced to the fact that Smith, along with Rousseau, was putting forward a complex response to what Hume called “the selfish hypothesis”: the idea (associated with Mandeville and the Epicurean/Augustinian tradition) that self-interest was a general explanatory principle for human behavior. Smith's response was a refutation of Mandeville that integrated many aspects of Mandeville's doctrine. As a consequence, assessing the exact place of the “selfish hypothesis” in Smith's doctrine has long been a matter of controversy. A crucial historical moment in that respect was the Adam Smith problem: the polemic that occurred from the 1870s to the 1890s regarding the role of the self-interest principle in Smith's doctrine. One could think of the Adam Smith problem as the moment when the relationship between economic science and the “selfish hypothesis” presented itself as an exegetical problem: is it legitimate to read Smith as the first proponent of the idea that self-interest is the first principle of economics?
The Adam Smith problem has many similarities with the Homeric problem, a controversy that was started by the publication of F.A. Wolf's Prolegomena ad Homerum in 1795. By pointing to narrative and stylistic inconsistencies in The Iliad and The Odyssey, Wolf had questioned the existence of a single author called Homer, and hypothesized that “Homer's” works had been written by many different authors. The Homeric problem was thus a clash between a “one Homer theory” and a “many Homers theory.”
The Church fathers claimed to have much scorn for the virtues of the ancient Pagans which – according to them – had no other principle than vainglory. Nevertheless, I believe they might have been extremely perplexed to prove such a reckless assertion solidly.
Rousseau, Political Fragments
TRAHIT SUA QUEMQUE VOLUPTAS
Mandeville, the polemical target of Smith and Rousseau, defends a doctrine that is highly ambiguous. Because Mandeville sees the quest for pleasure as the source of human actions, he may be called an Epicurean. E.J. Hundert reminds us that Mandeville was defending “an ancient insight into the fundamentally egoistic sources of human behavior – a thesis still associated in the early eighteenth century with Lucretius (ca.94–ca.50 bc), whose epic De rerum natura contained the most detailed classical exposition of the atomist, hedonist and purportedly atheist doctrines of Epicurus (341–271 bc).” Others insist on the similarities between Mandeville's critique of human virtues and La Rochefoucauld's Maxims. As the editor of The Fable of the Bees puts it, “much of Mandeville's philosophy might be summarized as an elaboration of La Rochefoucauld's maxim, ‘Nos vertus ne sont le plus souvent que des vices déguisés’, with le plus souvent changed to toujours.” This would categorize Mandeville as a representative of the Augustinian tradition. At first sight, these two interpretations are strictly incompatible. On the one hand, a doctrine that was famously hostile to religion. On the other hand, a tradition that went back to a pre-eminent Father of the Church.
Self-Interest before Adam Smith inquires into the foundations of economic theory. It is generally assumed that the birth of modern economic science, marked by the publication of The Wealth of Nations in 1776, was the triumph of the 'selfish hypothesis' (the idea that self-interest is the motive of human action). Yet, as a neo-Epicurean idea, this hypothesis had been a matter of controversy for over a century and Smith opposed it from a neo-Stoic point of view. But how can the Epicurean principles of orthodox economic theory be reconciled with the Stoic principles of Adam Smith's philosophy? Pierre Force shows how Smith's theory refutes the 'selfish hypothesis' and integrates it at the same time. He also explains how Smith appropriated Rousseau's 'republican' critique of modern commercial society, and makes the case that the autonomy of economic science is an unintended consequence of Smith's 'republican' principles.
Man is an indifferent egoist: even the cleverest regards his habits as more important than his advantage.
Nietzsche, Fragments of 1887–1888
THE RATIONAL PURSUIT OF SELF-INTEREST
According to Amartya Sen, standard economic theory defines rational behavior in two different ways: “One is to see rationality as internal consistency of choice, and the other is to identify rationality with maximization of self-interest.” Sen adds that, “in terms of historical lineage, the self-interest interpretation of rationality goes back a long way, and it has been one of the central features of mainline economic theorizing for several centuries.” Having discussed the status of self-interest as a first principle, we still need to explain what economists mean by “the rational pursuit of self-interest.” In order to do this, we must understand the genealogy of the association between reason and self-interest.
The leading advocate of the “economic approach” claims that a comprehensive account of human behavior can be grounded in a set of related assumptions: (a) maximizing behavior; (b) market equilibrium; (c) stable preferences. In Becker's view, these assumptions, “used relentlessly and unflinchingly, form the heart of the economic approach.” The assumption of “maximizing behavior” means that we do not behave inconsistently. As Elster puts it, once a set of beliefs is assumed, our behavior is considered “maximizing behavior” when it is “the best action with respect to the full set of weighed desires.
The power and sagacity as well as labor and care of the politician in civilizing the society has been nowhere more conspicuous than in the happy contrivance of playing our passions against one another.
Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees (1732)
A peculiar feature of Adam Smith's thought is the absence of the political argument in support of capitalism that Montesquieu in France and Sir James Steuart in England had expressed most forcefully: the idea that the development of commerce was the most effective safeguard against arbitrary and despotic government. The “Montesquieu–Steuart doctrine,” as Hisrchman calls it, consisted essentially in saying that motives of self-interest would restrain the behavior of rulers who would otherwise succumb to their passions (lust for power, vanity, greed, etc.) and seek to govern tyrannically. Adam Smith, instead of arguing that interests can usefully be pitted against passions, seems to erase the distinction between passions and interests.Understanding the reasons why Smith chose not to adopt the Montesquieu–Steuart doctrine is an essential aspect of understanding the genealogy of economic science.
INTERESTS AND PASSIONS IN REASON OF STATE THEORY
The Montesquieu–Steuart doctrine combines two intellectual traditions: reason of State theory and the Augustinian principle of countervailing passions. Reason of State theory provides the notion that self-interest is a reliable rule of conduct. The countervailing passions principle states that passions can be checked by other passions or even check themselves.
Here then is the mutual commerce of good offices in a manner lost among mankind, and every one reduced to his own skill and industry for his well-being and subsistence.
Hume, A Treatise of Human nature (1739)
THE ETHICS/ECONOMICS DICHOTOMY
In his volume entitled On Ethics and Economics, Amartya Sen criticizes the “anti-ethicalism” that characterizes modern economic theory. Sen does not mean that economists have a bias against moral judgments per se (even though he suggests that some of them actually do). The claim is that, to its detriment, economic theory has historically asserted itself by excluding any form of moral consideration from its reasoning. This turn of events is rather paradoxical, if one recalls that economics was originally a branch of ethics. Aristotle discussed money and exchange in Book V of the Nicomachean Ethics. Adam Smith's position at the University of Glasgow was professor of moral philosophy. According to Sen, the methodological distinction between ethics and economics was expressed most sharply by F.Y. Edgeworth in his Mathematical Psychics. In this work, Edgeworth distinguishes between the “Economical Calculus,” which “investigates the equilibrium of a system of hedonic forces each tending to maximum individual utility,” and the “Utilitarian Calculus,” which studies “the equilibrium of a system in which each and all tend to maximum universal utility.” In economical calculus, the motives of the agent are characterized as “Egoistic Hedonism” (a reference to Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics. In utilitarian calculus, the motives of the agents pertain to “Universalistic Hedonism.”
In an eloquent formula manifesting the reverence economists have for the founder of their discipline, George Stigler characterizes Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations as “a stupendous palace erected upon the granite of self-interest.” The meaning of the metaphor is clear. Self-interest provides a rock-solid foundation for the theory developed in The Wealth of Nations. Furthermore, since Adam Smith's work is itself the foundation of modern economic science, self-interest is the first principle of economics. Because self-interest is a concept of such fundamental importance, one would expect Adam Smith to mention it quite often. Yet the term “self-interest” is remarkably rare in The Wealth of Nations. It appears only once, in the context of a discussion of religion. Smith explains that in the Catholic Church, “the industry and zeal of the inferior clergy are kept more alive by the powerful motive of self-interest than perhaps in any established Protestant church.” Catholic priests work harder than the established Protestant clergy because, instead of being salaried, they depend upon voluntary gifts from their parishioners. In the famous passage analyzing the motives “the butcher, the brewer, or the baker” may have for providing our dinner, Smith does not refer to self-interest but rather to self-love: “We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” One may be tempted to brush the difference aside, and argue that self-love and self-interest are synonyms.
How can maxims so clear, so agreeable to plain common sense, and to facts attested by all who have made commerce their study, have yet been rejected in practice by all the ruling powers of Europe? … To speak the truth, it is because the first principles of political economy are as yet but little known; because ingenious systems and reasonings have been built upon hollow foundations and taken advantage of, on the one hand, by interested rulers, who employ prohibition as a weapon of offense, or an instrument of revenue; and, on the other, by the personal avarice of merchants and manufacturers, who have a private interest in exclusive measures.
Jean-Baptiste Say, A Treatise on Political Economy (1803)
For economists today, the relationship between economics and politics is a problematic one. Some see the origin of this uneasy relationship in The Wealth of Nations. According to Smith, the “folly of human laws” stands as an obstacle to the rational pursuit of self-interest, and yet “the natural effort of every individual to better his condition, when suffered to exert itself with freedom and security, is so powerful a principle” that it is capable of “surmounting a hundred impertinent obstructions” caused by ill-conceived laws. Hence the paradox formulated by George J. Stigler: “If self-interest dominates the majority of men in all commercial undertakings, why not also in all their political undertakings? Why should legislators erect “a hundred impertinent obstructions” to the economic behavior which creates the wealth of nations?
The idea of a philosophical method is more commonly associated with Descartes than it is with Pascal. In his Discourse on the Method for Conducting One's Reason Well and for Seeking Truth in the Sciences, first published in 1637, Descartes asserts that, in order to be successful, the search for philosophical and scientific truths has to obey a fixed set of guidelines. In contrast, Pascal generally uses the term method ironically and pejoratively. In the Provincial Letters the various techniques used by the Jesuits to twist the precepts of conventional morality are often referred to as a method. In the Pensées, the word method is almost entirely absent. There exists one work, however, where Pascal uses the term in a non-pejorative way: a small, unfinished treatise written around 1655 and entitled Mathematical Mind (De l'esprit géométrique). In a bold claim reminiscent of Descartes' Discourse on Method, Pascal presents the treatise as 'the method for mathematical [i.e., methodical and perfect] demonstrations' (OC i i , 155). More generally, he presents mathematical reasoning as the model that one should emulate in every intellectual activity. A study of Pascal's philosophical method must thus begin with an analysis of Mathematical Mind.