As a footnote to last week’s posts on the Enlightenment, here’s a footnote from Istvan Hont’s Jealousy of Trade, which I bought yesterday (see below) and have been reading this morning:

198. [Adam] Smith expressed a violent dislike for the vicious combination of political and intellectual authority which today is often described as a characteristic of “the Enlightenment project.” “Project” is a genuine eighteenth-century key-word, but Smith deployed it for negative purposes. Jeremy Bentham, who regretted Smith’s aversion to “dangerous and expensive experiments” in business and technology, noted Smith’s hostility to projectors and his derogatory use of the term “project.” (Jeremy Bentham, “Letter XIII, ‘To Dr. Smith, on Projects in Arts, & C'” in Defence of Usury [1787], reprinted in Smith, Correspondence, “Appendix C,” pp.388-404) Samuel Johnson, like Bentham noted, defended projectors in science but made it clear that in politics “project” was a pejorative term. Projectors were persons of “rapidity of imagination and vastness of design,” such as Catiline and Caesar at the end of the Roman Republic whose projects were “to raise themselves to power by subverting the commonwealth.” Xerxes and Alexander the Great were projectors, and more recently there were the “royal projectors” such as Charles XII of Sweden and Peter I of Russia, all of whom Johnson, like Smith, detested (The Adventurer, [No. 99, October 16, 1753], subsequently retitled as “Projectors, Successful and Unsuccessful,” reprinted in Samuel Johnson: A Critical Edition of the Major Works, ed. Donald Greene [Oxford: OUP, 1984], pp.273-277). The Encyclopédie defined “Projet” as a kind of large-scale reform that had considerable beauty or imaginative order, like Lycurgus’ laws for Sparts, or Rome’s empire over Europe. While such large-scale meliorative efforts were of considerable beauty and imaginative order, the Encyclopédie asserted, the experience of centuries had shown such projects to be chimerical (Encylopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par unes société de gens de lettres, ed. d’Alembert and Diderot, vol. 13 POM-REGG, [Neuchatel: S. Faulche, 1765], p.44b). The greatest enemy of projects in France was Montesquieu, with whom Smith was completely in tune on this issue; see Montesquieu’s “Preface” to the Spirit of the Laws: “In a time of ignorance, one has no doubts even while doing the greatest evils; in an enlightened age, one trembles even while doing the greatest goods. One feels the old abuses and sees their correction, but one also sees the abuses of the correction itself. One lets an ill remain if one fears something worse; one lets a good remain if one is in doubt about a better. One looks at the parts only in order to judge the whole; one examines all the causes in order to see the results” (p.xliv). By “projects” Montesquieu meant policies of “increase,” either as designs of conquest and territorial expansion, or grand economic schemes, mainly in revenue raising and taxation.

– Istvan Hont, Jealousy of Trade: International Competition and the Nation-State in Historical Perspective, Harvard University Press, 2005, pp.108-9.

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