Gabriel Bonnot de Mably

Statut : clergy/academic

Notes : Gabriel Bonnot de Mably (1709-1785), brother of Condillac, studied first at the Collège des Jésuites at Lyon, then at the seminary of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, but abandoned holy orders before reaching the stage of deacon. He won notice in the salon of Mme de Tencin, and entered the cabinet of Cardinal de Tencin when the latter became minister. He was then employed in diplomatic missions (in particular during the negotiations for the treaty of Breda in 1746). Mably broke with his protector when the cardinal as archbishop of Lyons pronounced invalid the marriage of a Catholic with a Protestant girl. For the last forty years of his life he kept himself apart from public affairs and society, devoting himself entirely to the study and elaboration of a critical stance towards his times. In his Observations sur l’histoire de France (1765), he transfers to the whole history of the monarchy the aversion inspired in him by the reign of Louis XV, while in the Doutes proposés aux philosophes économistes sur l’ordre naturel et essentiel des sociétés politiques (1768) he presents himself as an adversary of the physiocrats whose « legal despotism » he denounces. Regarding private property as the cause of injustice and idleness, and self-interest as the foundation of economic activity, he insists on the need for reform (especially in agrarian laws) and the re-establishment of social justice and equality. In fact Greco-Roman antiquity becomes as a consequence a model of liberty, equality and frugality, which Mably constantly contrasts with the values of the modern world. Within this Greece, Mably has a marked preference for the Spartan model (opposed to an Athens « always carried away by events and passions », and Solon who « in attempting to remedy the ills of the Republic merely palliated them, or rather gave a new force to the ancient vices of the government »). If in following this line Mably merely joins the long line of pro-Spartan historical tradition which runs from antiquity to Rollin, it is still true that such a position was not self-evident in a period when Sparta was strongly criticised, both by the philosophers (with the notable exception of Rousseau) and by the historians. This doubtless explains a radicalised vision of the Spartan model : « Is one required to treat Lycurgus as a bungler and a traitor because, without having a commission to make laws, he reformed the government of Sparta, and made of his compatriots the most virtuous and the most happy people in Greece ?». Hence still the perseverance of the model of historia magistra vitae (or « monumental history » as Nietzsche would describe it in the 19th century) offered in the preface to the Observations sur les Grecs. Mably was also the author of Des droits et des devoirs du citoyen (1758), Droit public de l’Europe fondé sur les traités, depuis la paix de Westphalie jusqu’à nos jours (1764), Traité de législation (1776), De l’étude de l’histoire (composed in 1775) and of De la manière d’écrire l’histoire (1783), where he strongly attacks his contemporaries, in particular Voltaire, Hume and Gibbon). The Observations sur les Grecs was translated three times into English : Translations from the French, by D.Y.: Observations on the Greeks from the French of the Abbé de Mably – The History of the City of Paris; or Anecdotes concerning the origin and improvements of that celebrated capital. Translated from Monsieur de St. Foix (Printed for the Author, Lynn 1770); Observations on the Greeks (W.Whittingham, Lynn; R.Baldwin, London, 1776); Observations on the Manners, Government, and Policy of the Greeks. Translated from the French of the Learned Abbé Mably. With Notes and Illustrations. By Mr. Chamberland. Oxford. Printed by W. Jackson, 1784. The German translation of Mably’s text was entitled Anmerkungen über die Geschichte Griechenlands. Oder von den Ursachen des Wohlstands und des Verfalls der Griechen and was published by Fueßlin und Companie in Zürich in 1767. It was rendered into German by Johann Conrad Vögelin, who did not contribute his own introduction.

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