The abbé de Saint-Pierre and British pacifism (3641 words)

Literary/ Cultural Context Essay

Giulio Talini (University of Naples Federico II)
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The last thirty years have seen increasing interest in the Norman political and economic thinker Charles-Irénée de Castel, abbé de Saint-Pierre (1658-1743). The main reason for this attention is to be found in his Projet pour rendre la paix perpétuelle en Europe [Project for Bringing about Perpetual Peace in Europe], published in two volumes between 1713 – the year of the Treaty of Utrecht that ended the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) – and 1717. More specifically, Saint-Pierre’s relentless and life-long insistence on the need to surpass the balance of power system through the foundation of a powerful, sovereign European Diet has led historians to wonder where such a visionary proposal might have originated. As shown by scholars like Maria Grazia Bottaro Palumbo and Jean-Pierre Bois, despite Voltaire’s and d’Alembert’s snide accusations of utopianism, Saint-Pierre’s Projet did not arise from a sort of abstract ideal, but was rather the final outcome of an intense, pragmatic, rational analysis regarding the instability of the European inter-state system as well as an original re-elaboration of the former European peace plans put forward by king Henry IV of France (1589-1610) and his minister Sully, and by the French monk Émeric Crucé (c. 1590-1648). However, these undoubtedly brilliant historiographical attempts to deepen and broaden our understanding of Saint-Pierre’s radical ideas about war, peace and states nonetheless leave questions that are by no means negligible or secondary. What exactly was the connection, supposing that there was one, between the European Union, so fervently craved for by the abbé, and previous, surprisingly similar projects advocating perpetual peace, published on the other side of the Channel by the English Quakers William Penn (Essay Towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe, 1693) and John Bellers (Some Reasons for an European State, 1710)? And, from a more general point of view, considering Saint-Pierre’s well-known admiration for Great Britain and its philosophical, scientific, economic and political culture, how far were the abbé’s pacifist programs and theories shaped, influenced or even simply inspired by the British pacifist milieux of the time and vice versa? The research undertaken in the 1980s and 1990s by Peter van den Dungen and Daniel Sabbagh has shown the extent to which these questions are indispensable. In fact, it is no exaggeration to define Saint-Pierre as a passeur (mediator) of pacifist theories between France and Britain (Perrot, 43), implying that, on the one hand, the abbé drew heavily on English Quaker pacifism as espoused by William Penn and John Bellers and that, on the other, his plan for perpetual peace in Europe met with substantial success with British public opinion, at least during the first half of the eighteenth century, as will be explained later.

Saint-Pierre’s Projet pour rendre la paix perpétuelle en Europe was a text indisputably at the cutting edge of enlightened political science. What lay at the core of the Projet from its very first draft (ébauche), conceived in 1707 in the middle of the dramatic, cruel, ruinous War of the Spanish Succession, was a dazzling intuition: the endless recurrence of war in Europe should not be dismissively attributed to Louis XIV’s expansionist policies, as many kept saying on a daily basis, but was to be traced back to the so-called balance of power principle (balance du pouvoir), which was not only incapable of preventing the outbreak of conflicts between nations, but could even be identified as their most threatening source. The solution, then, followed from the premises: according to Saint-Pierre, princes and republics had to come to grips with the fact that, in order to put an end to the tragedy of war, the balance of power system had to be finally abolished: its underlying principle of non-interference in the autonomy and sovereignty of each state implicitly encouraged selfish and warmongering policies and led to armed conflict to solve inter-state disputes. But in the name of what alternative? In the years between 1707 and 1713, the abbé worked night and day to find an adequate answer to this critical question correctly in order to tackle the roots of the underlying geopolitical problem. In doing so, he made every possible effort to be heeded by the French court and, notably, by the king’s astute foreign minister, Colbert de Torcy, and repeatedly called on his friends from the Académie française and the duke of Burgundy’s circle in order to receive as many suggestions from them as possible as to the ways to enhance the practicability of his designs. Nonetheless, Saint-Pierre, who had nothing in common with the utopians of the past such as Thomas More or Francis Bacon, was fully aware of the need to implement the theoretical bases of his peace plan so as to bolster its credibility. With such a goal in mind, he made use of a wide variety of philosophical, scientific, political and economic ideas, which ranged from Hobbesian anthropological conceptions, filtered through the teaching of Pierre Nicole, to an understanding of Crucé, Fénelon, William Petty, John Locke, and many others.

In this creative process, an even more decisive role was played by contemporary Quaker pacifism, which in truth inspired the abbé far more than usually acknowledged by himself or by historians of our time (Umbdenstock, 143). The large number of concepts, terms and views that he drew from William Penn’s Essay for his Projet is emblematic of these untold but intense intellectual exchanges, showing once again the political and cultural relevance of the circulation of ideas in eighteenth-century Europe, so brilliantly pointed out by Franco Venturi back in 1953. What should be stressed in the first place is that Penn’s universal peace plan had aroused interest in France. Written during a tough phase of the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697) when Louis XIV was launching a terrifying offensive on five separate fronts, it was translated almost immediately into French (Essai d’un Projet pour rendre la Paix de l’Europe solide et durable, 1693-1697). Although it is difficult either to endorse or refute the claim of those scholars who have attributed this French translation to Saint-Pierre himself (Sabbagh, 93-102), we can observe that, notwithstanding the ongoing wars between France and Britain, pacifist thinkers from both countries covertly engaged in dialogue with each other with the aim of replacing, in the near future, the paradigm of the balance of power with that of perpetual peace. If we compare the abbé’s final version of the Projet as printed in 1713-1717 with Penn’s Essay, it becomes eminently clear that Saint-Pierre drew on these hidden Anglo-French pacifist networks: the similarities between the two texts are such that they cannot be merely coincidental. Firstly, the abbé drew inspiration from the anthropological and philosophical premises laid down by Penn to validate the establishment of a federation bringing together all European states to secure perpetual peace. As stated by Penn:

Now if the Soveraign Princes of Europe, who represent that Society, or Independent State of Men that was previous to the Obligations of Society, would, for the same Reason that engaged Men first into Society, viz. Love of Peace and Order, agree to meet by their Stated Deputies in a General Dyet, Estates, or Parliament, and there Establish Rules of Justice for Soveraign Princes to observe one to another; and thus to meet Yearly, or once in Two or Three Years at farthest, or as they shall see Cause, and to be Stiled, The Soveraign or Imperial Dyet, Parliament, or State of Europe (Penn, 406).

Likewise, Saint-Pierre, who assumed that the balance of power principle was the equivalent of the Hobbesian, anarchic, chaotic state of nature in the sphere of international relations, argued that the system of war still dominant among European sovereigns had to be overcome through the imposition of a preeminent supranational body capable of punishing, disciplining, and repressing insubordinate monarchs eager to expand their borders. No other less powerful institution or treaty could have granted the “sûreté suffisante de l’exécution des traités” [sufficient security of the execution of treaties], namely a solid, unalterable peace (Saint-Pierre, I, iv). Another common aspect shared by the two authors can be found in their outspoken practical intent. Both in the Essay and in the Projet, perpetual peace was not advocated as a utopian initiative to be put in place in a vague, imprecise moment of the future, but, on the contrary, as a concrete and desirable reform of the international system which had to be carried out as soon as possible, i.e. at the end, respectively, of the Nine Years’ War and of the War of the Spanish Succession. In other words, Penn and Saint-Pierre viewed themselves as reformers and, for this reason, did not forget to explain why the advantages of establishing a European federation were infinitely more than the drawbacks. However, while the Quaker insisted frequently upon the Christian value of harmony between nations (Penn, 413), Saint-Pierre preferred to focus only on temporal benefits of peace such as the increase in trade, hence showing his willingness to secularize Penn’s proposals as well as to found perpetual peace on a purely rational, non-religious discourse (Saint-Pierre, I, 239). After all, we should not lose sight of his ambition to “exceller en politique comme Descartes avait fait en physique” [to excel in politics as Descartes had done in physics] (Annales de Castel, § 34).

As regards the institutional aspects of the Essay and the Projet, many further similarities stand out, such as the explicit mention of Henry IV’s “République chrétienne” (i. e. a European Union including all Christian states, no matter if Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, or Anglican), the reference to the institutional architecture of the United Provinces of the Netherlands (a federal republic), the role to be reserved for arbitration to resolve disputes between member states, the renunciation of all current dynastic or territorial claims, the prescription of an ordinary three-quarters majority for decisions to be taken by the European federal body, named “Dyet”, “States” or “Parliament” by Penn and “Senat” by Saint-Pierre. Ultimately, it is impossible to deny the decisive influence of Penn’s Essay on the abbé, who drew from it an impressive number of ideas and notions, though of course adapting them to his specific political, cultural and intellectual needs.

In 1710 another illustrious Quaker, the social and economic reformer John Bellers, came out with a brand-new plan for perpetual peace, entitled Some Reasons for an European State, printed in London. Evidently, Bellers’s treatise was conceived and published against the backdrop of the War of the Spanish Succession, that is to say in the same geopolitical context from which Saint-Pierre’s Projet was simultaneously taking shape. Moreover, in 1710 the Whigs lost their majority and a new Tory government guided by Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, took office with the purpose of putting an end to the ongoing conflict on the grounds that it was severely damaging landowners’ interests. When peace turned into a real possibility in Britain, Bellers promptly decided to speak his mind, for reasons he adamantly made clear in the text: “(…) the Power of France is so Formidable, (…) that the other Princes and States CANNOT cover Themselves against her INVASIONS without a Mutual League and UNION” (Bellers, 137).

Just like Saint-Pierre, Bellers had carefully read Penn’s Essay (Bellers, 153), a circumstance which might appear obvious considering the friendship between the two and their shared Quaker faith and values. What is more significant is that Saint-Pierre’s Projet includes keywords and concepts that can be found only in Some Reasons. Needless to say, for the intellectual historian this means that the abbé found in Bellers another theoretical point of reference for his political aspirations, showing once again how intensely Quaker pacifist theories centred on perpetual peace had managed to spark his interest. More specifically, a first trace of Bellers’s proposals in the Projet emerges from the constitutions highlighted by both as existing examples that might be followed when determining the institutional structure of the hypothetical European Union. Unlike Penn, Bellers was of the opinion that, to a larger extent than usually thought, there was much to be learned not only from the United Provinces, but also from the Swiss Confederation, the system of small states of the Holy Roman Empire and the Foedus Sacrum (“Sacred Covenant”) signed between the Emperor and Venice against the Ottomans (Bellers, 140). A particular passage in the Projet suggests that Saint-Pierre concurred with these observations, as he stated clearly that the European federation had to be shaped “sur le meme modéle, ou des sept Souverainetés des Suisses, ou des treize Souveraineté de Hollande, ou des Souveraineté d’Allemagne” [on the same model, either of the seven Sovereignties of the Swiss, or of the thirteen Sovereignties of Holland, or of the Sovereignties of Germany] (Saint-Pierre, I, vii-ix).

Actually, one of the cases highlighted by Bellers is missing from this list: what had happened to the holy Foedus Sacrum between the Serenissima and the Empire? As we have seen with Penn, Saint-Pierre selected from Quaker pacifism only those aspects he reckoned consistent with his utilitarian, rational, secular conception of perpetual peace, discarding instead anything which might sound too religiously oriented or typically Catholic, like the anti-Ottoman alliance between Vienna and Venice. Furthermore, the abbé seems to have taken up directly from Bellers also the sweeping, fierce critique of the inadequacies of the balance of power and, no less importantly, some keywords he must have found particularly striking and meaningful. One of the words Saint-Pierre borrowed from Bellers without asking his permission (at the time, copyright did not exist) was the adjective “perpétuelle” (perpetual) combined with “paix” (peace). Now, in a passage of Some Reasons the Quaker pacifist had expressed his desire that “the Expected Peace (…) may be Perpetual if possible” (Bellers, 136). As is well-known, the adjective “perpétuelle” referring to peace constituted an essential feature also of the abbé’s pacifist vocabulary. But this only started in 1711, when he published a first version of his Mémoires pour rendre la paix perpétuelle en Europe. In 1710 Saint-Pierre had in fact entitled one of his manuscripts Projet pour rendre la paix inaltérable pour l’Europe. What could have happened between 1710 and 1711 to make Saint-Pierre prefer the attribute “perpétuelle” to “inaltérable”? The answer is absolutely clear: he had read John Bellers’ Some Reasons, published in 1710.

On the whole, our analysis has shown so far that, despite what most historians have been willing to accept, British Quaker pacifism is indeed a significant source – if not the most significant – and clearly lies behind the origins and the main characteristics of Saint-Pierre’s Projet, which from now on should be conceived more as the outcome of the pacifist intellectual and cultural networks between England and France than as an isolated, bold proposal of a lonely French philosopher. In any case, once published and disseminated throughout European courts and sophisticated literary salons, the audacious theories of the abbé found many admiring and attentive readers, primarily in Britain. Some of them even resolved to present Saint-Pierre’s perpetual peace plans to the national public opinion, editing and printing an English translation of the Projet in 1714, with the title Project for Settling an Everlasting Peace in Europe. The printer appearing in the frontispiece was John Watts, an eminent figure in the vivacious London book trade scene of the period and one well-connected with the most influential Whig circles of the capital. Based on the surviving exchanges of letters occurring in 1714 between Watts and Saint-Pierre as well as between the latter and the doctor and physicist Hans Sloane, there is reason to believe that the abbé himself had been at least one of the orchestrators behind the initiative of publishing an English version of his Projet. Apparently, Saint-Pierre had in mind the establishment of a sort of pacifist club in London (Wallas, 210-211), which, together with the English translation of the Projet, was probably seen as the first phase of a broader cultural and political enterprise meant to spread the cause of perpetual peace in Britain.

Nevertheless, in the British sphere the peace plan proposed by the French abbot turned out to be much less attractive than expected and, as a result, the agreed printing of the second volume of the translation swiftly foundered. Such a fiasco is perhaps to be linked to the triumph of the balance of power principle in the Utrecht international negotiations and treaties that concluded the War of the Spanish Succession, imposed by the British government and strongly opposed by Saint-Pierre.

It would be a mistake, though, to overestimate the proportions of this ostensible failure. In fact, after the death of the abbé in 1743, the essential features of his Projet and his unshakable faith in the beneficial effects of a European federation were resumed by an anonymous author signing himself under the pseudonym “Politicus”. In two consecutive articles published in two 1748 issues of John Hinton’s Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure, “Politicus” outlined a “Scheme” presented “as the only means for settling an Everlasting Peace in Europe” (Universal, II, January 1748, 1). Although Saint-Pierre was never mentioned in the texts, the author appears to be thoroughly familiar with the abbé’s Projet and openly called for the institution of a “permanent force sufficiently superior, and capable of putting out all of hopes of succeeding by the way of arms” (ibid., 1-4). Here one finds so many echoes of Saint-Pierre’s ideas, terms, and conceptions that these two articles written by “Politicus” could indeed be described merely as a concise summary of the Projet. Conversely, this second instance of a British reception of the abbé’s perpetual peace plans demonstrates that, against all the odds, in the previous three decades the Projet had not completely ceased to circulate in Britain nor to be studied analytically. And this is so because Saint-Pierre had not been forgotten by English politicians and intellectuals. Thus, it was possible for “Politicus” to put forward the radical alternative of perpetual peace just before the signing of the Peace of Aachen which ended the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). The conclusion to draw, then, is that after benefiting to a large degree from the plans for a European federation developed between the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth by English Quakers, the designs contained in the Projet were in turn imported and actively disseminated throughout Great Britain in the first half of the eighteenth century. This, in essence, is what makes Saint-Pierre a passeur of pacifist ideas between the French and the British contexts.

Works Cited

John Bellers, Some Reasons for an European State (1710), in George Clarke (ed.), John Bellers (1654 to 1725). His Life, Times and Writings, York: Session Book Trust, 1987, 134-153.
Maximilien de Béthune, Duke of Sully, Mémoires du Duc de Sully (1638-1662), Paris: Ledoux, 1827, VI, XXX, 97–155.
Bois, Jean-Pierre, L’abbé de Saint-Pierre. Entre classicisme et Lumières, Ceyzérieu: Champ Vallon, 2017.
Bottaro Palumbo, Maria Grazia, La Genesi dei “Mémoires pour rendre la paix perpétuelle en Europe” dell’abate di SaintPierre, in Silvia Rota Ghibaudi e Franco Barcia (eds.), Studi politici in onore di Luigi Firpo, Milan: FrancoAngeli, 1990.
Charles-Irénée Castel de Saint-Pierre, Projet pour rendre la paix perpétuelle en Europe, Utrecht: Schouten, 1713-1717.
---, Project for Settling an Everlasting Peace in Europe, London: Watts, 1714.
---, Annales de Castel. Avertissement sur ce qui regarde la famille, la vie et les ouvrages de l’auteur, (ed. Carole Dornier), Caen: Presses Universitaires de Caen, 2018, online:
Émeric Crucé, Le Nouveau Cynée, Paris: Villery, 1623.
William Penn, Essay Towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe by the Establishment of an European Dyet, Parliament or Estates (1693), in Id., The political writings of William Penn (ed. Andrew R. Murphy), Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002, 401-419.
---, Essai d’un Projet pour rendre la Paix de l’Europe solide et durable (1693-1697), York: The Ebor Press, 1986.
Perrot, Jean-Claude, Une histoire intellectuelle de l’économie politique (XVIIe-XVIIIe siècle), Paris: Éditions de l’École des Hautes Études en Science Sociales, 1992.
Sabbagh, Daniel, William Penn et l’Abbé de Saint-Pierre: le chaînon manquant, in Revue de synthèse, 1 (1997), 83–105.
Umbdenstock, Raymond, William Penn et le Précurseurs de Genève de 1500 à 1815, Saint-Dizier: Brulliard, 1932.
Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure, II (January and February 1748).
Van den Dungen, Peter, The Abbé de Saint-Pierre and the English ‘Irenists’ of the 18th Century (Penn, Bellers, and Bentham), in International Journal on World Peace, XVII (2000), 2, 5–31.
Venturi, Franco, La circolazione delle idee, in Rassegna storica del Risorgimento, 2-3 (1954), 203-222.
Wallas, May, Sur la fortune de l’abbé de Saint-Pierre en Angleterre au XVIIIe siècle, in Revue de Littérature Comparée, XX (1940), 209–216.

Citation: Talini, Giulio. "The abbé de Saint-Pierre and British pacifism". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 08 April 2021 [, accessed 02 December 2021.]

19632 The abbé de Saint-Pierre and British pacifism 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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