Add to bookbag
Title: Character of societies and particular groups
Original Title: Caractère des sociétés ou corps particuliers
Volume and Page: Vol. 2 (1752), p. 666
Author: Jean-Baptiste le Rond d'Alembert (biography)
Translator: Nelly S. Hoyt; Thomas Cassirer
Original Version (ARTFL): Link
Source: Nelly S. Hoyt and Thomas Cassirer, trans., The Encyclopedia: Selections: Diderot, d'Alembert and a Society of Men of Letters (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965).

This text is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Please see for information on reproduction.

Citation (MLA):
Citation (Chicago): d'Alembert, Jean-Baptiste le Rond. "Character of societies and particular groups." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Nelly S. Hoyt and Thomas Cassirer. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2003. (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Caractère des sociétés ou corps particuliers," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 2:666 (Paris, 1752).

In this article d'Alembert deals with a problem that was a matter of much concern to eighteenth-century thinkers. Many of them, Montesquieu and Voltaire among them, speculated upon the character of individuals, groups, and nations. [Translator note]

Character of societies and particular groups. Societies or particular groups within a people are to a certain extent little nations surrounded by a bigger one. They are like a graft, good or bad, implanted on the main trunk. Thus, these societies usually have a special quality, sometimes referred to as esprit de corps . In certain associations, for instance, the general character consists in the spirit of subordination; in others, and they are not the worst, the spirit of equality dominates. Some societies are attached to their customs, others believe they exist for the sake of change. What may be a fault in an individual can sometimes be a virtue in a group. According to the remark made by a wit, literary societies, for instance, would perforce have to be pedantic.

Often the character of a society is very different from the character of the nation in which it exists, like an alien shoot, so to speak.

Groups that have sworn an oath of fealty to a prince other than their legitimate sovereign would perforce have less attachment for this sovereign than the rest of the nation. This is why the monks did so much harm to France at the time of the Ligue . [1] Still, one should not believe that this spirit does not change; manners change with times. "The monks whose chiefs reside in Rome," writes the famous M. de Voltaire in his admirable Age of Louis XIV , "are as many subjects of the pope scattered throughout various countries. Custom, which is everything and which is responsible for the fact that the world is ruled by abuses as well as by laws, has not always made it possible for the princes to forestall a danger which can arise from useful and sacred things. To swear an oath of allegiance to someone other than one's prince is a crime of high treason in a layman; in a cloister it is a religious act. The difficulty is to know how far to carry the obedience to another sovereign; the ease with which one can be persuaded, the pleasure that one feels in throwing off a natural yoke in order to assume a self-imposed one, the spirit of unnrest and times of distress have too often led whole orders to serve Rome rather than their fatherland.

"The spirit of enlightenment, which has existed in France since the last century and which has permeated all ranks, has been the best remedy to such abuses. Good books written on this topic have been of real service to the kings and the subjects. One of the great changes in our manners, which occurred in this way under Louis XIV, is the fact that members of religious orders begin to believe that they are subjects of the king before being servants of the pope." [2] Thus, for the salvation of the state, philosophy has at last broken through locked doors.


1. [League or Holy League, an association of important nobles; founded in 1576, revived in 1584, led by the Guise family. It played an important political role during the Religious Wars and consistently opposed the monarchy under Henri III and came to an end only after Henri IV renounced Protestantism.]

2. [This statement appears in the second chapter of The Age of Louis XIV , under the title "The States of Europe before Louis XIV, in The Section on Rome."]