Wednesday, March 15, 2006

"Lumières! Un héritage pour demain" - "The Enlightened! A legacy for tomorrow."

From today’s International Herald Tribune, some paragraphs:

Entr’acte: guidance for our time from the age of light” by Alan Riding

“With the idea of giving these values a boost, then, the French National Library is offering a refresher course through May 29 in the form of a "look-backward-to-think-forward" exhibition called "Lumières! Un héritage pour demain," or "The Enlightened! A legacy for tomorrow."

In other words, Lumières to the rescue!

With borders porous to ideas, then, this could not be an all-French show. It proposes Isaac Newton, who died in 1727, as the undisputed founding light, with John Locke, David Hume and Adam Smith among other Britons; with Immanuel Kant, Moses Mendelssohn, Goethe and the dramatist Gotthold Lessing from Germany; Giambattista Vico from Italy; and Benjamin Franklin from the United States. Even Mozart gets a nod - the original score of "Don Giovanni" is on display, for his 250th birthday

Now, however, with things definitely not working well in practice here [France], there seems to be an urgent need for some fresh theories to help the French confront the uncertainties posed by globalization, religious fundamentalism, multiculturalism, European integration and their own dysfunctional political system

Theory, after all, is at the core of every ideology, even capitalism, a point Adam Smith illustrated with typical pragmatism: "It is not on the generosity of the butcher, brewer or baker that we depend for our dinner, but on their self-interest

That France, well at least its National Library, is looking outside its borders for inspiration is interesting, and welcome, news. That Adam Smith is included is doubly interesting – his political economy was influenced (how much is controversial) by his correspondence and meetings with the French économistes (the ‘Physiocrats’) and he was not very sympathetic of French policies, even then, of political intervention (Colbert) in markets.

He would find today’s France infinitely more Mercantile regulated than it was in the 18th century. But then Britain, whilst less heavily regulated than France (only by comparison), is pretty much over-regulated in a Smithian sense.

France is a land stuffed with politicians who are ‘men [and women] of system’, chic to a fault, and uncompromising when it suits political advantage.

However, the theme is to "look-backward-to-think-forward" and that is as close as you can get to Smith’s philosophy. So is gradualism and respect for what exists and where it came from, with a strong aversion to sudden changes. These Smithian virtues play well in France, which made him a great favourite, with David Hume, in the Salons of Paris in 1764-6.

What the young will think of them today is at odds with those occasional outbursts of revolutionary fervour (a bout of which appears to be upon us on the campuses once again), that break-out to test the stoic temper of the State.

France does not take to being browbeaten by foreigners (it doesn’t like it from within, either) and reacts with stubbornness, not compliance, when foreigners try it (Memo to US State Department: try being less pushy).

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