Kingdom of Cupidity
April 3, 2019

Writing in the 1670s, Pierre Nicole turned the pessimistic anthropology of Jansenism into an apology for liberal order.

"Men," he wrote, "being devoid of charity out of the derailment of sin, remain none the less filled with needs and are dependent on one another in countless ways." How can these needs be met without charity? Cupidity moves in to save the day: "Cupidity has . . . taken the place of charity for meeting these needs, and it does so in a manner that cannot be sufficiently admired" (quoted in Michea, Realm of Lesser Evil, 72).

When true religion is driven out, and charity with it, it's possible "to live in as much as peace, security and convenience as if in a republic of saints. . . . However corrupt this entire society might be internally and in the eyes of God, outwardly there was none better regulated, more civil, more just, more peaceful, more honest and more generous; and what is all the more admirable is that, while being inspired and moved simply by self-love, and entirely devoid of charity, yet the form and characteristics of charity are visible on all sides" (72).

If we want to reform the world, "in other words to banish all vices and crude disorders, and to render men happy in this life, all that is needed, in the absence of charity, would be to give all of them an enlightened self-love that was able to discern their true interests" (72).

One might note that a better ideal - the kingdom of charity - hovers just outside of Nicole's discussion. His point seems to be that cupidity and self-interest is the best we can do. It's the "realm of lesser evil" (in Michea's phrase). Still, it is remarkable that a Christian thinker like Nicole could conclude that a society can be peaceful, just, and fairly charitably while being "corrupt" in the "eyes of God." Civil order and peace are here completely detached from the blessing of God.

And the rest of the story is: Nicole taught Pierre Le Pesant, sieur de Boisguilbert and the latter was read by Adam Smith.

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