|Volume and Page:||Vol. 9 (1765), pp. 763–771|
|Author:||Jean-François de Saint-Lambert (biography)|
|Translator:||Claude Blanchi †|
|Original Version (ARTFL):||Link|
This text is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Please see http://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/did/terms.html for information on reproduction.
|Citation (MLA):||Saint-Lambert, Jean-François de. "Luxury." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Claude Blanchi † . Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2003. Web. [fill in today's date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.did2222.0000.048>. Trans. of "Luxe," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 9. Paris, 1765.|
|Citation (Chicago):||Saint-Lambert, Jean-François de. "Luxury." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Claude Blanchi † . Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2003. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.did2222.0000.048 (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Luxe," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 9:763–771 (Paris, 1765).|
Luxury is the use that one makes of wealth and industry to obtain a pleasant way of life.
The primary cause of luxury is our lack of satisfaction with our situation, our yearning to be better off, that is, and must be, in all men. This desire is the cause of men's passions, of their virtues and their vices. This desire must, of necessity, make men love and seek wealth. The desire to increase one's wealth is and must be one of the motivating forces of any government that is not built upon equality and communality of property. As the principal object of this desire has to be luxury there is thus luxury at all social levels, in all societies: the savage has his hammock that he buys with pelts; the European has his sofa, his bed. Our wives put on rouge and diamonds. In Florida women put on blue and wear glass beads.
Luxury has always been the subject of ranting by Moralists, who have censured it with more melancholy than wisdom. Recently a few politicians, who spoke more as merchants or shop assistants than as philosophers and statesmen, have praised it.
They have said that luxury contributed to the growth of the population.
According to Livy, when the Roman Republic was at its highest degree of greatness and luxury , Italy was less than half as populated as when it was divided in small republics almost devoid of any luxury and industry.
They have said that luxury increased the wealth of states.
There are but few states where luxury is greater than in Portugal; and Portugal, with the natural resources it derives from its soil, from its situation and from its colonies, is not as rich as Holland which does not enjoy the same advantages and where frugality and simplicity govern the mores.
They have said that luxury facilitated the circulation of currency.
Today, France is one of the nations where the greatest luxury reigns and yet people complain, with reason, that currency does not circulate well, as money flows from the provinces to the capital, without flowing back from the capital to the provinces.
They have said that luxury softened social habits and spread private virtues.
There is great luxury in Japan, and their social habits are still dreadful. In Rome and Athens, there was more virtue, more benevolence and humanity when they were poor than when they lived in luxury.
They have said that luxury contributed favorably to the development of knowledge and the fine arts.
What development of fine arts and knowledge took place among the Sybarites, the Lydians and the Tonkinese?
They have said that luxury increased both the strength of nations and the happiness of citizens.
Under Cyrus, the Persians had little luxury and yet they conquered the wealthy and industrious Assyrians. After becoming wealthy and the most luxurious of all populations, the Persians were conquered by the Macedonians, a poor nation. Savages toppled or seized the empires of the Romans, of the Indian Caliph and of China. As to whether luxury affords more facilities and pleasures to the citizens, you will observe, if you travel through Europe, that these facilities and pleasures are not available to most of the citizens.
Facts also contradict those who criticize luxury.
They say that there is no luxury without utmost inequality of wealth, without the common man being destitute and a small number of men being opulent. However, this disproportion is not always found in those countries of greatest luxury . It can be found in Poland and in other countries which enjoy less luxury than Bern or Geneva, where people are prosperous.
They say that luxury induces the sacrifice of useful arts for pleasant ones, and that it impoverishes the countryside by making men congregate in cities.
Lombardy and Flanders are full of luxury and of beautiful cities. Nevertheless, farmers there are affluent, and the land is cultivated and populated. There is little luxury in Spain, and agriculture is neglected and most useful arts are still unknown.
They say that luxury contributes to depopulation.
For the last century, the luxury and population of England have increased apace; at the same time she has populated immense colonies.
They say that luxury weakens courage.
Under the command of Luxembourg, de Villars and the Earl of Saxony, the French, who enjoy the greatest luxury ever known, have been at the peak of their courage. Under Sylla, under Caesar, under Lucullus, the prodigious luxury of the Roman armies did not in anyway reduce their courage.
They say that luxury suppresses the sense of honor and the love of fatherland.
As proof to the contrary, I shall call to mind the spirit of honor and the luxury of Frenchmen during the great years of Louis XIV and what they have become since then. I shall call to mind the patriotic zeal, the enthusiasm for righteousness, the love of glory that characterize the English nation at present.
I do not presume to assemble here all the good and bad that is being said about luxury. I limit myself to expressing the main arguments in favor and against it and to demonstrating that history contradicts them all.
The most moderate philosophers who have written against luxury have asserted that only its excess is disastrous for the nations. They have asserted that the increasing number of objects of luxury and of its means, namely the number of trades and their improvement, cause this excess. Industry, at present, is making its greatest progress, and this progress fuels the habit of enjoying a multitude of conveniences and pleasures and renders them indispensable. Finally, the same philosophers only saw the dangers of luxury in the wealthiest and most enlightened nations. However, it has not been difficult for other philosophers who were more logical and sanguine than these temperate men to prove that luxury had been pernicious in poor and almost barbaric nations. From deduction to deduction and to save men from the inconveniences of luxury , some have argued that men should go back to the woods and to a sort of primitive state that never was and cannot be.
Up to now, the apologists of luxury have not been able to formulate any good answer to those who, by observing the passage of events, the progress and decline of empires, have seen luxury rise by degrees with nations, morals decay, and empires weaken, decline and fall.
There are the examples of the Egyptians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Chinese etc. Their luxury increased as their populations grew, and since the time of their greatest luxury their virtues and their power have been declining relentlessly. These examples offer a stronger demonstration of the dangers of luxury than the reasons given by its apologists do to justify it. Hence, it is now the most generally accepted view that luxury is necessary to pull nations out of their weakness and obscurity and to give them the strength, cohesiveness and wealth that will make them rise above other nations. Luxury must always expand to push the arts, industry, trade and to bring nations to that degree of maturity necessarily followed by their decrepitude and their demise. This is the most generally accepted view, and even Mr. Hume does not depart from it.
How is it that none of the philosophers and politicians who have reflected on luxury have ever said: In the early days of nations, one is, and one must be more strongly attached to the principles of government. In a nascent society that has been established freely, all laws, all regulations are precious to all its members. And if such a society was not freely established, all laws, all regulations are still buttressed by the might of the legislator, whose opinions have not still not changed and whose means have lost nothing in their strength or their number. Moreover, the personal interest of each citizen, that interest which almost always fights the general interest and tends to diverge from it, has had less time and means to fight and win, and still is more convergent with the general interest. Thus there must be more patriotic spirit, better mores and virtue in nascent societies than in ancient ones.
Further, at the inception of nations, reason, aptitudes, industry have made but little progress. There is less wealth, less arts and crafts, less luxury , less ways to achieve a pleasant life through the work of others. Of necessity, there is poverty and simplicity.
As it is in the nature of men and things that governments get corrupted with time, and as it is also in the nature of men and things that states grow rich with time, the arts progress and luxury increases:
What if a relation of cause and effect were drawn between two things that do not influence each another, but occur simultaneously and progress apace?
Even if personal interest were not transformed into love of wealth and pleasures, in a word into those passions that generate luxury , has this personal interest not forced magistrates, or sovereigns, or even populations, to make changes in the constitution of the state that had corrupted it? Also, personal interest, routine, biases, have they not prevented changes that circumstances had rendered necessary? Finally, in the constitution, in the administration, are there not some faults, some defects that, independently from luxury , have brought about the debasement of governments and the decline of empires?
The ancient Persians, virtuous and poor under Cyrus, conquered Asia, adopted its luxury and degenerated. Did they degenerate as a result of their conquest of Asia, or as a result of their adoption of its luxury ? Was it not the scope of their dominion that modified their mores? In an empire of such expanse, was it not impossible that good order, indeed any sort of order, could survive? Was Persia not destined to fall in the abyss of despotism? and wherever we see despotism, why look for any other causes of corruption?
Despotism is the arbitrary power of one over great numbers, with the support of a few. However, the despot cannot reach this arbitrary power without first corrupting these few.
It is said that Athens lost its strength and virtues after the Peloponesian war, at the time of its wealth and luxury. I find a more real cause of Athens' decline in the power of the populace and the debasement of the senate. When I see the executive and legislative powers in the hands of a blind multitude, and when, at the same time, I see the Aereopagus rendered powerless, I conclude that the Athenian republic could not keep its power or its discipline. It was by degrading the Aereopagus, and not by building theaters that Pericles lost Athens. With regard to mores, this republic kept them for a long time, and in the war that destroyed it, it lacked prudence more than virtue and mores less than common sense.
The example of ancient Rome, so confidently quoted by the critics of luxury would not disconcert me much more. I would first see the virtues of Rome and the strength and the simplicity of its social customs springing from its government and from its location. This government, however, must have worried and troubled the Romans: it was making war a necessity for them, and war was strengthening their mores and their patriotic fanaticism. I would see that, when Carneades came to Rome, and when the statues from Corinth and Athens were brought there, two parties existed in Rome: and one was bound to overwhelm the other as soon as the state had nothing to fear from abroad any more. I would see that, in this immense empire, the victorious party would necessarily drive the government to despotism or to anarchy; and that even if Rome had never had the luxury or the wealth of Antioch and Carthage, or the philosophers and the masterpieces of Greece, the Roman republic, having been constituted only to grow ceaselessly, would have fallen at the peak of its grandeur.
It seems to me that, if, to convince me of the dangers of luxury, I were given the example of Asia steeped in luxury , misery and vices, I would ask to be shown in Asia a single country, apart from China, where the government takes care of the mores and happiness of the majority of its subjects.
I would not be much more disconcerted by those who, in an attempt to convince me that luxury corrupts mores and weakens bravery, would point to modern Italy that lives in luxury , and indeed is not bellicose. I would answer that, aside from the fact that a military inclination is not in the character of Italians, their character is worth as much as that of any other nation. In no other place can you find more amiability and benevolence, nowhere else than in Italy does society show more charms, nowhere else are individual virtues more refined. I would say that Italy, who defers partly to the authority of a clergy preaching only peace, and of a republic where the government's only objective is tranquility, certainly couldn't be bellicose. Furthermore, I would say that being bellicose would be of no use to Italy. Men, as well as nations, have only small store of those virtues not useful to them. As she is not unified under a single government, and is surrounded by four major powers, namely the Turk, the House of Austria, France and Spain. Italy, irrespective of her social habits, could not withstand any of these powers. Thus she must only concern herself with civil laws, social order, arts, and all things that make life peaceful and pleasant. I would then conclude that it is not luxury that prevents Italy from having strong social habits and a bellicose attitude, but her geographical situation and the nature of her governments.
After having concluded that luxury might not have been the cause of the demise or the prosperity of empires and of the character of nations, I would examine whether luxury might not be relative to the situation of populations, to the nature of their products, and to the situation and the nature of their neighbors' products.
I would say that the Dutch, distributors and peddlers to all nations, must retain their frugality, without which they could not supply their freight at low prices, and could not transport the goods of the universe.
I would say that if the Swiss drew great quantities of wines, gold and silk fabrics, paintings, statues and precious stones from France and Italy, their sterile soil would not provide them with enough to pay for these imported goods. A great luxury will be affordable to them only when their industry compensates for the dearth of local products.
Supposing that in Spain, Portugal, France, the soil were poorly cultivated, and that the industries of first or second necessity were to be neglected, these nations would still be able to sustain a great luxury .
Portugal, thanks to her mines in Brazil, to her wines and to her African and Asian colonies, will always be able to offer goods to foreign countries, and thus stay among the wealthy nations.
Spain, however limited the work and cultivation taking place within her borders and her colonies, will always have the products of the fertile countries under her dominion in both the new and the old world; and the rich mines of Mexico and of Potosi will sustain the luxury of her court and that of superstition.
Even if France were to neglect her agriculture and her manufactures of first and second necessity, she would still have very rich sources of trade. Pepper from India, sugar and coffee from her colonies, her oils and her wines would procure goods to exchange abroad, from which she would sustain part of her luxury. Furthermore, she would sustain her luxury through her fashions: this nation, for so long admired in Europe, is still imitated today. If ever her luxury were to become excessive by comparison with the production of her soil and of her manufactures of first and second necessity, this luxury would offer a remedy in itself as it would provide sustenance to a multitude of fashion workers and would delay the bankruptcy of the state.
From these observations and thoughts I would conclude that luxury is adverse or beneficial to the wealth of nations, depending on whether it consumes mostly the products of their soil and industry or whether it consumes the products of the soil and industry of foreign countries. Furthermore, the number of objects of luxury must be commensurate with the wealth of the country. In this respect luxury is for populations the same as it is for individuals: the number of pleasures must be commensurate with the ability to enjoy them.
I would see that this desire for gratification in wealthy people, and the desire of becoming rich in those who only have the essentials, must promote the trades and all sorts of industries. Here is the first effect of the instinct and of the passions that lead us to luxury and of luxury itself: these new trades, this development of industry, give new means of sustenance to the population and, consequently, must lead to an increase in population. Without luxury , there is less exchange and trade; without trade, nations must be less populated: a nation made up only of farmworkers must have fewer men than one that employs farmworkers, sailors and textile workers. Sicily, which enjoys little luxury is one of the most fertile countries on earth, she is under a moderate government and yet she is neither wealthy nor populated.
After having seen that the passions that inspire luxury, and that luxury itself, can benefit the population and the wealth of states, I still do not see how this luxury and these passions can run contrary to good mores. However, I cannot overlook the fact that in some parts of the world, there are nations that trade on a large scale and enjoy the greatest luxury and yet everyday they lose some of their population and their mores.
If there existed governments based on perfect equality, on the uniformity of mores, of manners and of rank among all citizens, as was the case, more or less, of the governments of Sparta and of Crete, and of some populations that we call Savages, surely in these the desire to get rich could not be innocent. Whoever wished to raise his wealth above that of his fellow citizens would have ceased to love the laws of his country, and his heart would no longer be virtuous.
However, in our modern governments, where the organization of the state and of the civil laws encourages and supports private property, in our large states where wealth is necessary to maintain their greatness and their power, it seems that anyone who works to get rich is useful to the state, and that any rich man who wishes to enjoy his wealth is a reasonable man. Thus, how can we understand that some citizens, while trying to get rich and enjoy their wealth, sometimes ruin the state and debase its mores?
To resolve this difficulty, one must recall the main goals of governments:
They must guarantee the properties of each citizen. However, as they must also have as their objective the conservation of the whole, the interests of the majority, by maintaining, even inciting, the love of property in the citizens, the desire to increase their own properties and the desire to enjoy them; they must maintain and stimulate a communal, a patriotic spirit; they must pay attention to the means the citizens use to increase their wealth and to enjoy it. These means must contribute towards the wealth of the state, and the way wealth is enjoyed must also be useful to the state. Each property must be useful to the community. No category of citizen must see its welfare sacrificed for the welfare of another category. Finally, luxury, andand the passions that lead to it, must be subordinated to the communal spirit, to the wealth of the community.
The passions that lead to luxury are not the only ones that citizens must have; they must be combined with others such as ambition, love of glory, honor.
These passions must be subordinated to the spirit of community, which alone can keep them under control. Without this subordination they would create frequent injustices and lead to havoc.
None of these passions should destroy the others, and they should balance each other. If luxury were to eclipse all other passions, it would become vicious and disastrous, and thus would no longer be associated with the spirit of community; however, it normally remains subordinated to that spirit, unless governance makes it independent, unless, in a nation where wealth, industries and luxury exist, governance has destroyed the spirit of community.
Finally, wherever I saw that luxury was vicious, wherever I saw that the lust for and consumption of wealth conflicted with social customs and with the interests of the state, I would conclude that the spirit of community, the foundation on which all the forces of society rest, was ruined by the mistakes of the government. I would conclude that luxury , useful under a good administration, becomes harmful only through the ignorance or ill will of administrators and I would then examine luxury in nations where order reigns, and in those where it has been weakened.
First, I see agriculture neglected in Italy under the first emperors, and all the provinces of that center of the Roman Empire covered with parks, country houses, planted forests, main roads. I then realize that, before freedom was lost and the state's constitution overthrown, the most influential senators were consumed with their love of fatherland and occupied with increasing its strength and its population. They would never have bought the farmers' patrimony to transform it into an object of luxury and would never have converted their useful farms into country houses. Indeed, I am certain that if the Italian rural districts had not been divided several times between the soldiers of Sulla, of Caesar and of Augustus, who neglected to cultivate the land, Italy would have kept its agriculture much longer, even under the emperors.
I turn my attention to kingdoms where the greatest luxury reigns, and where the rural districts are being deserted. Before deciding that this misfortune results from the luxury of the cities, I ask myself how the administrators of these kingdoms behaved: and I see that depopulation attributed to luxury resulting from their conduct; I also see the abuses of luxury resulting from it.
If, in these countries, the country dwellers have been overburdened with taxes and corvées; if they have been worried and degraded by abuses from a legitimate authority; if the movement of their goods has been stopped by monopolies; if the above wrongdoings — as well as others that I do not wish to mention here — have been committed, some of the country dwellers must have moved out of the rural districts to seek their subsistence in the cities. There, these unfortunates found luxury and, by putting themselves at its service, they have been able to continue living in their fatherland. Luxury by giving employment to country dwellers in the cities only delayed the depopulation of the state. I say delay and not prevent, because marriages are rare in the poor rural districts and even rarer among the sort of men who leave them to take refuge in the cities. They come to learn the arts of luxury , and it takes considerable time before their work enables them to support a family. The time passes when nature strongly encourages the union of the flesh, and debauchery further distracts them from any legitimate union. The situation of those who choose to work for a master remains unsettled; they have neither the time nor the will to get married. However, if one of them gets established, he owes it to the luxury and profligacy of an opulent man.
Oppression of the rural districts suffices to create the extreme inequality of wealth that is blamed on luxury , although luxury alone could restore some balance in relative wealth. The oppressed farmer stops owning his land. He sells his ancestors' field to the master he gave himself to, and all the state's properties imperceptibly fall into a smaller number of hands.
In a country where government commits such serious errors, there it no need of luxury to destroy the love of fatherland in the unhappy citizen or to make him hate it. One learns that those who govern the fatherland are unconcerned by it and this is enough that no one loves it with passion anymore.
In some countries, government has used yet other means to increase the inequality of wealth by giving away rents and privileges. Exclusive privileges continue to be granted to entrepreneurs in several manufacturing sectors, to a few citizens to exploit colonies, and to a few companies to engage in profitable trade. In other countries, to these errors was added that of allowing the cost of state borrowing to become excessively lucrative for the lenders.
All these means helped build odious and quick fortunes. If the privileged men who built them had not been living in the capital before becoming wealthy, they would have moved there since, as it is the center of power and pleasures. Their last remaining desire is for influence and pleasures, and it is in the capital that they seek these. One must examine what the congregation of so many opulent men in the same place can generate.
In a society, men constantly compare themselves to each other; they ceaselessly attempt to assert their superiority in their own eyes and in the eyes of the others. This rivalry becomes even more acute among men of similar importance. Now, there is only one government that, like Sparta, has made wealth useless, where men have no urge to take pride in their wealth. As soon as they take pride in it, they must strive to look rich; thus, in all ranks one will see expenditures that are excessive for the wealth of each individual and a luxury that is called decorous. Without an immense surplus each rank will feel destitute.
One must observe that in almost all of Europe the competition to look rich and the consideration for wealth must have started independently from the very natural causes I have just described. During uncivilized times, when trade was ignored and when crude manufactured goods could not enrich their producers, the only wealth was land, and the only opulent men were large landowners and these large landowners were lords of fiefs . The laws of fiefs, the exclusive right to possess certain assets, maintained wealth in the hands of nobles. However, the development of trade, industry and luxury having created, so to speak, a new kind of wealth which accrued to the commoner, the populace, accustomed to show respect for the opulence of their betters, showed the same respect for the opulence of their equals. These people thought they could rival the great by imitating their splendor. The great feared that the precedence that elevated them above the commoners would collapse, and they increased their spending to safeguard their distinctive rank. It is then that decorous luxury became onerous for all stations and deleterious for mores. This state of affairs made the desire to get richer degenerate into greed and in some countries it became the dominant passion and silenced the nobler ones, which should not destroy greed, but control it.
When extreme greed commands all hearts, virtuous enthusiasms disappear. This extreme greed does not come without the most excessive craving for ownership; then the soul dies, for it dies when it is excessively focussed.
The distressed government needs huge sums to reward those whom it used to reward with slight marks of honor.
The multiple taxes multiply even more; they weigh down on landed wealth and on necessary industry which is easier to tax than luxury, either because as it evolves constantly it escapes government, or because the richest men have enough influence to escape taxation. They will always muster more influence than they should have: the more their fortunes are based on abuses and have been excessive and quick, the more they need influence and the means to gain it. They try and succeed in corrupting those whose duty it is to repress them.
In a republic, they tempt the magistrates and the administrators. In a monarchy they procure pleasures and wealth to the nobility, which is the custodian of the patriotic spirit and of mores, as the corps of magistrates are the custodian of laws.
One of the results of the influence of wealthy men when wealth is inequitably shared, a result of their sumptuous use of wealth, a result of our need for wealthy men, for the power they arrogate to themselves, for the charm of their company, is the confusion of ranks I already mentioned. Then are lost tone, decency, the distinctive characteristics of each station that help safeguard their spirit more than is generally acknowledged. When we no longer care for the marks of our rank, we no longer care for general order. It is when we refuse to fulfill the duties of our station that we neglect the appearance, the tone, and the manners that would remind others and ourselves of the spirit of these duties. Moreover, the populace is not governed by reasoning or by definitions. Its senses must be impressed and it must recognize the distinctive marks of its sovereign, of the great, the magistrates, the religious ministers whose countenance must herald power, goodness, seriousness, sanctity, all that a man of a certain class is and must be: a citizen endowed with dignity. Thus, any use of wealth that would give the magistrate the equipage of the young lord, the soldier the paraphernalia of indolence and ostentatious adornments, the priest a dissolute look and the ordinary citizen the trappings of grandeur, would necessarily weaken the impression that the presence of those men destined to govern them should make on the populace. We would see disappear, together with the decorum of each station, all traces of public order, nothing could remind the wealthy of their duties, and everything would encourage them to enjoy their wealth.
It is a moral necessity that the use of wealth be contrary to public order and good mores. When wealth is acquired without work or through abuses, the newly wealthy promptly enjoy their quick fortune and right away they get used to idleness and to frivolous pursuits. They become odious to the majority of their fellow citizens to whom they have been preferred unjustly and whose enrichment they have prevented; they do not attempt to obtain from them what they could expect, namely respect and benevolence. Above all, the fortunes of monopolists, administrators and collectors of public funds are the most odious, and thus are the most prone to be abused. After sacrificing to greed their virtue and their reputation for honesty, they are unlikely to be tempted to use their wealth virtuously. They will try to hide, under the splendor and decorum of luxury, the origins of their family and of their wealth, they will try to lose in pleasures the memory of what they did and of what they were.
Under the first emperors, men of another class than the one I just spoke of were gathered in Rome, to which they were bringing the spoils from the subjugated provinces. Patricians followed one another in the governments of these provinces. Many did not even reside there and just visited them from time to time. The quaestor was plundering for himself and for the proconsul, whom the emperors preferred to keep in Rome, particularly if his family was powerful. Then, as the patrician could not expect to have any influence, or to participate in a government that was in the hands of emancipated slaves, he indulged in indolence and pleasures. None of the strength and pride of ancient Rome could be found in these senators who were buying security with their debasement. It was not luxury that had debased them, it was tyranny. Indeed, their infatuation for theater would not have driven senators and emperors to climb on the stage if utter neglect for order, decency and dignity had not preceded and ushered in this infatuation.
If there were governments where the legislator had too firmly settled the nobles in the capital; if they were given duties, commands etc. which did not require any work; if they were not obliged to render great services to deserve their rank and honors; if nothing were to excite them to compete among themselves through work and virtue; finally, if they were allowed to forget what they owed to the fatherland, they would be so pleased with the advantages of wealth and rank that they would abuse them in idleness.
In several European countries, there is a kind of asset that does not require any economic care or maintenance from its owner; I am referring to the public debt and, in large cities, this kind of asset is most likely to increase the disorders that derive necessarily from extreme opulence coupled with idleness.
In light of these abuses, these mistakes, these conditions in various nations, let us examine what characteristics are desirable for luxury, and what should be the characteristics of the different ranks and orders in a nation.
People living in the rural districts do not have elevated thoughts; they have little of this courage that comes from self-esteem, from the feeling of their strength. Their bodies are not sturdy; they have no love for their fatherland which, for them, is but the theater of their debasement and of their tears. Urban artisans show the same lowliness of the soul; being too close to those who despise them, they do not have self-esteem. Their bodies, debilitated by sedentary work, are not capable of enduring exertion. Laws that, in a well ordered government, ensure the security of all, are, under a government that oppresses the masses, but a hurdle which deprives them of any hope for a better situation: they are bound to prefer greater liberty to the restoration of order; that's the people; now to the other classes.
Those in the middling state, between the people and the nobility, comprised of the luxury craftsmen, of the financiers and traders and of almost all those who occupy the second place in society, work ceaselessly to rise from a mediocre situation to a better one. Scheming and roguery are, more often than not, their means of action: when the habit of honest thought no longer keeps greediness and the frantic passion for what are called pleasures within fair bounds, when sound order and example no longer impose respect and love for honesty, the second order of the state ordinarily combines the vices of the first with those of the last.
As for the nobles, rich without any functions, decorated without any occupations, their only motive is to escape a boredom that, without even creating inclinations, moves the heart from one object to another, and entertains it without filling or satisfying it. Under such a condition there is no enthusiasm, but merely playfulness for anything that may give some pleasure. In this torrent of fashions, of fancies, of entertainment, none being durable and each destroying the other, the heart loses even the capacity to enjoy, and becomes as unable to feel the great and the good as to create it. Then there is no point in finding out who, from Corbulon and Traseas, is the most estimable, but rather in deciding whether to give preference to Pilade or to Batulle. Then Ovid's Medea, Varus' Thiest and Terence’s plays are abandoned in favor of Laberius’ slapstick comedies. Political and military talents progressively erode, as well as philosophy, eloquence, and all the fine arts: frivolous men who search only gratification have exhausted beauty and they look for the extraordinary. Then uncertainty, mannerism, childishness pervade the pursuit of perfection. Superficial minds, surprised and humbled by what is great and strong, prefer pettiness, foolery, ridicule, affectation. Most encouraged are the talents that pander to vice and poor taste, and they perpetuate this general disorder that luxury did not bring, but which has corrupted luxury and mores.
Disorderly luxury destroys itself, it exhausts its sources, and it obstructs the very channels in which it flows.
Idle men who jump incessantly from one object of luxury to another look for products and industry all over the world. At home, the products of their own nation fall out of fashion, and domestic craftsmen are discouraged. Egypt, the African coasts, Greece, Syria, Spain, were catering for the luxury of the Romans under the first emperors, and could not satisfy them.
When the taste for excessive spending spreads over all the social classes, it incites craftsmen to demand excessive prices for their products. Independently of this taste for spending, they are forced to increase the cost of manpower because they live in large, opulent cities, where supplies are never cheap. Soon poorer countries where mores are simpler produce the same goods and as they sell them at lower prices, they sell them more easily. The nation's very industry, the luxury industry, contracts, her strength weakens, her cities lose their populations, her wealth is transferred abroad, and what usually remains is only indolence, languor and the habit of slavery.
Having now seen the character of a nation where government commits certain abuses; having seen that the vices of that nation are less the effect of luxury than of these abuses, let us now consider what ought to be the spirit of a people that gathers up all the possible objects of the greatest luxury, but knows how to maintain in good order a government that is wise and robust, equally attentive to the conservation of the true wealth of the state and of mores.
This wealth and these mores are the result of the affluence of the majority of the people and, above all, of the government's utmost care to ensure that all its operations are managed for the greater good of all, with no special consideration given to any class or individual, and also to ensure that the public sees these virtuous intentions.
Everywhere, the vast majority of people is or must be composed of people dwelling in the rural districts, the farmers. In order to be affluent, they must be industrious; to be industrious, they must reasonably expect that their work will afford them a comfortable way of life; they must also desire such a status. People who have become despondent are easily satisfied with the bare necessities, such as the inhabitants of those fertile lands where nature provides everything, and where everything languishes unless the legislator knows how to introduce first vanity and then a bit of luxury . In each village, in each small hamlet, there should be workshops making tools, textiles, etc. necessary for the maintenance and even for the basic adornment of the inhabitants. These workshops will contribute to an increase in affluence and in the population. This was the plan of the great Colbert, who has been unduly accused of wanting to make the French a nation of mere traders.
When the people living in the rural districts are treated fairly, the number of landowners increases progressively; the difference between poor and rich, the abject dependence of the poor on the rich decreases. As a result, the people's state of mind improves as does their courage, their moral strength, the robustness of their bodies and their attachment to their country; they feel a greater respect and attachment for the magistrates, for a prince, for order and for the laws to which they owe their well-being and peace; they have less fear of their lord, but are afraid of the voice of their conscience, of losing their wealth, their honor and their peace. They will sell dearly their labor to the rich, and the son of the esteemed farmer will not easily abandon the noble art of his forebears to sully himself with the livery and the contempt of the opulent man.
If the exclusive privileges I have described have not been granted, if the financial system does not concentrate wealth, if government does not encourage corruption of the elite, there will be fewer opulent men in the capital city, and those who dwell there will not be idle; there will be few large fortunes and none will be quickly acquired: the means to get rich, being shared by a larger number of citizens, will automatically spread the wealth; extreme poverty and extreme wealth will be equally rare.
When men accustomed to working have reached great wealth slowly and gradually, they keep a taste for work; a few amusements entertain them, for they enjoy working and they have developed over a long time, through assiduous labor and moderate use of their wealth, a love for order and moderation in their pleasures.
When men have reached wealth through honest means, they maintain their honesty; they maintain that self-respect that keeps them from indulging in a thousand aimless fantasies. When, through the acquisition of wealth, a man, has served his fellow countrymen, by giving new funds to the state, or by developing a type of useful industry, he knows that his fortune is less coveted than it is respected; as he relies on the esteem and goodwill of his fellow citizens, he wishes to keep them both.
City dwellers and also some country folks will look for some comfort, and even some luxury of decorum, but always with regard to its usefulness; the taste for this luxury will never degenerate into reckless competition.
A taste for order, and that ability to discuss that comes naturally to men who take care of their own industry will be prevalent in the second class of citizens; this class will ask for soundness in its very entertainment; proud, because it has not been degraded by bad mores, jealous of the nobles who have not corrupted them, this class will watch over their behavior, and will be flattered to enlighten them, and it will be they who become the source of enlightenment that will reach down to the populace and up to the nobles.
The nobles will have duties: those who choose to become soldiers, as befits their station, will learn the art of war in the armies and on the borders. Those who wish to serve in some parts of government will learn that task assiduously and studiously. If monetary rewards are never lavished even on those who have rendered the greatest services, if the powerful positions, the commands, are never granted at birth without any service being rendered, if they are never devoid of real activity, then the nobles will not lose their feelings or their ability to enlighten themselves in idle and frivolous luxury ; less bothered by boredom, they will not exhaust their imagination nor that of their flatterer in a search for childish pleasures and extravagant fashions. They will not display excessive splendor, as they will have real prerogatives and a true worth that will be publicly acknowledged. Less concentrated, and seeing among themselves fewer opulent men, they will not bring their luxury of decorum to excessive levels. As they witness the concern of the government to maintain order and further the interests of the state, they will be attached to both. They will inspire love of the fatherland and the state of mind of a virtuous and rigorous honor. They will be attached to the decency of mores; they will display the deportment and the manners of their station.
Now, neither poverty nor the need for excessive spending discourages people from marrying, and the population increases; people are able to sustain their needs as well as luxury and the wealth of the nation; this luxury is for decorum, convenience and extravagance: it encompasses in these different categories all the useful arts and all the fine arts. However, because it is confined within reasonable limits by a communal spirit, by the observance of duties, and by activities which leave no one in the continuous search for pleasures, luxury , as well as wealth, is divided; and all manners of enjoyment, all its various objects are not concentrated within a single citizen. Now, the different categories of luxury , its different objects, will find their place according to the needs of the various stations: the soldier will have fine weapons and prize horses; he will meticulously equip the troops under his command. The magistrate will sustain the solemnity of his position by his luxury : it will be dignified, restrained. The merchant, the financier, will seek refined conveniences. All the social positions will appreciate the worth of fine arts, and will enjoy them. However, these same fine arts will remind the citizens of their patriotic zeal and of the true virtues: to them, they are not mere objects of intemperance, but lessons and examples. Rich and noble-minded men raise the spirit of artists; they do not ask from them an affected Galatea, a puny Daphnis, a Madeleine, a Jerôme; rather, they ask them to depict Saint-Hilaire, seriously wounded, pointing out to his son the great Turenne, lost for the fatherland.
Such was the use of fine arts in Greece, before the governments got corrupted; it is still often so in Europe, in the enlightened nations that did not stray too much from the principles of their constitution. France commissions Pigalle to erect a tomb for the general who has covered her with glory. Her temples are full of monuments celebrating the citizens who honored her, and her painters have often hallowed their brushes with the portraits of virtuous men. England built Blenheim Palace to glorify the Earl of Marlborough. Her poets and orators continuously celebrate their illustrious fellow citizens, already rewarded by the nation's acclamation and by the honors their government bestows on them. What strength, what patriotic feelings, what fortitude, what love of honesty, of order and of humanity have not been inspired by the poems of the likes of Corneille, Addison, Pope and Voltaire! If a poet sometimes celebrates softness and voluptuousness, his verses become, for a happy nation, the expression of a temporary rapture that does not take anything away from its occupations and its duties.
Eloquence springs from the feelings of a well-governed people; its strength and appeal would rekindle patriotic feelings when they would be in danger of fading away. Philosophy, that studies the nature of man, of politics and of mores, hastens to shed new light on all the range of administration, to enlighten on the main duties, to show societies their solid foundations which only error could weaken. Let us revive in ourselves the love of fatherland, of order, of the laws, and the fine arts will no longer debase themselves by serving superstition and debauchery. They will choose subjects useful to mores, and will serve them with strength and nobility.
The use of wealth under the direction of a patriotic mind is not limited to serving sordid personal interest and misguided and childish enjoyments: luxury then is not in contradiction with one's duties as a father, a husband, a friend and a man. To a rich man, the sight of two poor young people he has just joined in marriage gives him a greater, purer and more durable pleasure when he sees them at the door of their cottage, than the sight of the sculpture of Salmacis and Hermaphrodite displayed in his gardens. I do not believe that in a well-administered state where, consequently, love of fatherland dominates, the most beautiful Chinese magots make their owners as happy as would be the citizen who had voluntarily used his own funds for the repair of a public road.
Excess in luxury does not come from the multitude of its objects and of its means; luxury is rarely excessive in England, although that nation has all the variety of pleasures that industry can add to nature, and many rich individuals who procure for themselves such pleasures. Luxury has become excessive in France since the calamities caused by the war of 1700 have brought disorder in our finances and have been at the root of some abuses. There was more luxury in the best years of the century of Louis XIV than in 1720, and in 1720 luxury was more excessive.
Luxury is excessive each time individuals sacrifice their duties or the nation's interests in favor of their own splendor, their own convenience, their own extravagance; and individuals are only driven to this excess by some defects in the state's constitution, or by some mistakes in its administration. In this respect, it does not matter whether the nations are rich or poor, enlightened or barbarous: when they fail to maintain in their midst love of fatherland and useful passions, mores will be debased and luxury will take after the mores; the populace will be weak, lazy, languid, discouraged. The Moroccan Empire is neither civilized, nor enlightened, nor wealthy, and a few zealots paid by the emperor, by oppressing the populace in his name, have turned them into a vile herd of slaves. Under the weak and abusive rule of Philip III, Philip IV and Charles II, the Spaniards were ignorant and poor, morally weak and without any industry. They had kept only those virtues that religion ensures and yet their armies showed a tasteless luxury and extreme destitution. In the countries where a coarse luxury without art and enlightenment predominates, the injustices and hardship that everywhere the weak suffer from the strong are even more heinous. The horrors of feudal government are well known, as is the luxury of the lords in those times. On the banks of the Orinoco, mothers are joyful when they can secretly drown or poison their young daughters, to spare them the hard labor that would be their fate because of the fierce laziness and savage luxury of their husbands.
A puny emir, a nabob and their high officers crush the populace to maintain large seraglios; a small ruler in Germany ruins agriculture with the large number of game animals he keeps on his estate; a savage woman sells her children to buy some adornments and hard liquor. In civilized countries, a mother maintains a high standard of living and leaves her children without an estate; in Europe, a young lord forgets the duties of his station and surrenders himself to our sophisticated tastes and to our arts. In Africa, a young Negro prince spends his days planting reeds and dancing. Such is luxury in countries where mores deteriorate. However luxury takes after the character of nations, it does not shape it: like them, it is sometimes effeminate and sometimes cruel and barbarous. I believe that people are better off when they obey frivolous Epicureans rather than savage warriors, and when they feed the luxury of voluptuous and enlightened knaves rather than that of heroic and ignorant robbers.
As the desire to become wealthy and that of enjoying one's wealth are part of human nature as soon as it is organized into a society; as these desires maintain, enrich and invigorate all great societies; as luxury is a good thing and as it does not do any harm by itself, one should not, as a philosopher or as a sovereign, disparage the very idea of luxury.
The sovereign will correct the abuses of luxury , and the excesses it may reach, when he reforms the defects and mistakes in the administration and the constitution that have led to these excesses or abuses.
In a country where the wealth would be massively concentrated in the capital city, and would be shared only by a small number of citizens, amongst whom the greatest luxury would certainly be rife, it would be a major absurdity to force these opulent men suddenly to reduce their luxury . This would dry up the channels by which wealth can move from the rich to the poor, and you would drive to desperation a countless multitude of citizens who earn their livelihood from luxury. Or, being craftsmen, less attached to the land than farmers are, these citizens would flee to other countries in droves.
Which such a large trade, with such universal industry, with a multitude of sophisticated arts, do not hope today to bring Europe back to the rusticity of yore: that would be to bring it back to a state of weakness and barbarity. I will show elsewhere that luxury adds to the happiness of humanity. I profess that this article demonstrates that luxury contributes to the greatness and strength of states and that it must be encouraged, illuminated and guided.
There is only one kind of sumptuary law that is not absurd, namely a law that would tax a sector of luxury imported entirely from abroad, or a sector of luxury that would favor excessively one type of industry to the detriment of several others; and there are times when even such a law could be detrimental.
Any other sumptuary law would be of no use. With wealth too unequally distributed, with idleness among the wealthy and the disappearance of the patriotic spirit, luxury would always move from one abuse to another: if you block one of its avenues, it will find another, equally detrimental to the general interest.
Some princes, who could not see the real causes of changes in mores, have attacked either one or another object of luxury : conveniences, extravagance, fine arts, philosophy, each was proscribed in turn by Roman and Greek emperors. None of them was willing to see that luxury does not shape mores, but that it follows their character and that of the government.
The first thing to do to bring order in luxury and to bring back balance in riches is to give relief to the rural districts. In our days, a prince made, in my view, a major mistake by forbidding the farmers of his country to move to the cities; it is only by making their condition pleasant that it is possible to make it necessary, and then taxes can be levied with no consequence on the surplus created by the luxury craftsmen who will stay in the rural districts.
It is only progressively, and only by forcing men in a position of responsibility to really discharge those duties which call them to the provinces, that you will reduce the population in the capital.
If it is necessary to disperse the wealthy, wealth must be divided. However, I am not proposing an agrarian law, a new division of estates, or violent means. Make sure that no exclusive privileges are given to certain manufactures and certain trade sectors; that finance is less lucrative; that charges and benefits are less concentrated on the same hands; that idleness is punished by shame or by the withdrawal of charges. Then, without attacking luxury itself, without even inconveniencing the rich too much, you will slowly see wealth divide and increase, luxury increase and divide in the same way, and everything will return to good order. I am aware that most of the truths contained in this article deserve more detailed elaboration; however I have compressed my arguments because I am writing an article and not a book. I beg my readers to shed equally the prejudices of Sparta and those of Sybaris, and if they were to apply some of the ideas exposed in this work to their age or to their nation, I beg them to see, as I do, their nation and their age without preconceptions, either favorable or unfavorable, and without either enthusiasm or bad temper.