But we must not do him injustice. He was a much more considerable thinker than posterity for a long time was willing to believe. It is easy to ridicule some of his projets, and dismiss him as a crank who was also somewhat of a bore. The truth, however, is that many of his schemes were sound and valuable. His economic ideas, which he thought out for himself, were in advance of his time, and he has even been described by a recent writer as “un contemporain egare au xviii siecle.” Some of his financial proposals were put into practice by Turgot. But his significance in the development of the revolutionary ideas which were to gain control in the second half of the eighteenth century has hardly been appreciated yet, and it was imperfectly appreciated by his contemporaries.
It is easy to see why. His theories are buried in his multitudinous projets. If, instead of working out the details of endless particular reforms, he had built up general theories of government and society, economics and education, they might have had no more intrinsic value, but he would have been recognised as the precursor of the Encyclopaedists.
For his principles are theirs. The omnipotence of government and laws to mould the morals of peoples; the subordination of all knowledge to the goddess of utility; the deification of human reason; and the doctrine of Progress. His crude utilitarianism led him to depreciate the study of mathematical and physical sciences— notwithstanding his veneration for Descartes—as comparatively useless, and he despised the fine arts as waste of time and toil which might be better spent. He had no knowledge of natural science and he had no artistic susceptibility. The philosophers of the Encyclopaedia did not go so far, but they tended in this direction. They were cold and indifferent towards speculative science, and they were inclined to set higher value on artisans than on artists.
In his religious ideas the Abbe differed from Voltaire and the later social philosophers in one important respect, but this very difference was a consequence of his utilitarianism. Like them he was a Deist, as we saw; he had imbibed the spirit of Bayle and the doctrine of the English rationalists, which were penetrating French society during the later part of his life. His God, however, was more than the creator and organiser of the Encyclopaedists, he was also the “Dieu vengeur et remunerateur” in whom Voltaire believed. But here his faith was larger than Voltaire’s. For while Voltaire referred the punishments and rewards to this life, the Abbe believed in the immortality of the soul, in heaven and hell. He acknowledged that immortality could not be demonstrated, that it was only probable, but he clung to it firmly and even intolerantly. It is clear from his writings that his affection for this doctrine was due to its utility, as an auxiliary to the magistrate and the tutor, and also to the consideration that Paradise would add to the total of human happiness.